How many machines does one actually need for the purpose of retro-computing or retro-gaming? Well, I can give you three answers - The pragmatic answer, the reasonable but still fun one, and then the biased one from a hardware freak like me...
  • Pragmatic - NONE! Because you have DOSbox, SCUMMVM, Exult, Tand'em, Oracle VirtualBox, and you can basically emulate maachines well enough on a modern machine this way. And then you can get the latest and greatest releases with updated graphics, speech, and so on from Steam or GOG (Good Old Games), sometimes even at a major discount or for free because they're "ooooooooold".
  • Reasonable - TWO! One 8088 or 286 with a Turbo Button, and one 486DX4 or Pentium machine. Bonus if the 8088 is a Tandy 1000.
  • Fun - At least four: one 8088 or XT class machine, a 286 or 386 SX, and one of those two needs to be a Tandy 1000 unit for the full sound/audio environment, and then a 486 for all the later DOS and early Windows stuff, and then a Super Socket 7 Pentium for everything else.

And guess what, ALL THREE are good and valid solutions with their different pros and cons. Some people don't mind having a lot of beige and taupe in their house that looks like it's been soaking in Apple Juice and UV rays for 2 decades. Some people prefer actual hardware but don't want an army of old PC's around, and some people just don't see the point when they can put it all on their modern laptop and never even have to see a single aging piece of crap they will "inevitably" have to repair and cajole back to life periodically.

The Pros and Cons of the Pragmatic Emulation Approach
In the last 10 years, Marie Kondo, Minimalism, and de-cluttering has become a very popular subject, and owning vintage PC hardware is the very antethisis of that. So I totally understand why someone does not want to cart home some 30 year old computer and then try to get everything working. Let's face it, it's a learning curve, it's not for everyone, and those old systems are a bit trickier, less as hand-holdy, and harder to use than a modern system is.

Plus, one benefit of the pragmatic approach, and I speak with personal experience here, is that vintage hardware is a slippery slope. Once you get into it, you'll want to buy/grab everything you see, sometimes you end up with a problem (happens to all of us) where now you want to grab every bloody beige box or old gray laptop you can find laying around and take it home with you like it's some kind of altruistic rescue mission. You got crazy old cat lady's and crazy old computer guys. That slope is even more slippery if you DO have some actual talent in this area.

I'm not saying this to scare you, I just feel there's been a stigma AGAINST emulation in recent years, sort of similar to the "let's use a Marshall Stack and a Les Paul on this postage stamp sized stage - with a shoegazer pedal board! because "thaht's the only TRUE way to do it maaaan!", but the truth is, all ways are valid. At the end of the day, the goal is to run some ancient piece of software somehow, and enjoy a rose-tinted view of the past. And some of these guys are not as well kept up as my collection is. I'm talking HOARDERS level craziness - ie, you walk into a house and it's a literal hedge maze of decades of computer hardware - like Computer Reset, but less organized.

The pros of emulation only, in a nutshell...are...

  • You won't need to find the space to store the machine(s), especially if it's a desktop
  • You won't need/want to spend time fixing/upgrading/modifying the machine to suit your tastes
  • You won't have to spend any actual money - opendirectories, abandonware, and emulators are free
  • You won't need to spend a chunk of your weekend fixing the machine just to run software when it breaks from age
  • You won't need to learn a circa 1994-level CompTIA A+ Certifcation to figure out how to install a sound card
  • You will have far more space in your house for other stuff, like exercise equipment
  • You won't have to deal with the nightmare of disposing of a dead Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) or old Laptop Batteries
  • You won't need to learn auto-body techniques to repair the dents from the recycle bin on the computer case(s)
  • You won't need to lament the crappy prices for this crap on e-bay

But there are some serious cons to it....

  • It's very easy to suck up gigabytes of hard drive space in abandonware that you'll never play
  • You will spend hours fixing and tweaking plaintext config files, sometimes for software that won't work but on real hardware
  • You get to learn the frustration of a Software Association suddenly making that re-download you want of a certain game illegal
  • Abandonware and some of the other downloading is a legal gray area, so are some parts of emulation
  • The annoyance of upgrading your emulator to find out a feature or setting has to be altered to get it back how it was
  • Lofty developers ruining your favorite emulator, causing you to spend hours looking for one you like again
  • Rubber Dome Keyboards, Jaggy lines on a modern LCD monitor, junky wireless mice, Windows 10 ~ blech!
  • You won't benefit financially from having a system that appreciates in value due to it's age or a celebirty using it in a TV show
  • Tinkerer-types like myself will get easily bored because there's no way to push the envelope of an emulator in a fun way
However, you might not have problems with some of these pros and cons, there are some I don't, these were collected from myself and other people I've read online about the situation. That said, emulation is a good, practical solution if you are low on space, low on money, and low on time, or just plain want to run one or two games on your old computer and don't want to explore the waters more or delve into the world of hardware.
Reasonable Hardware
Now let's move to a reasonable hardware setup. There are many ways to go with this. For Dave, the 8-bit Guy, he prefers old Compaq LTE Laptops with active matrix screens and a Pentium Processor with SoundBlaster audio for retro-computing on PC stuff. They're compact, take up little space, use little electricity, and check all the boxes for what he wants/needs in an old PC. And for a time they were inexpensive. Originally that was my idea with the Tandy 1000 and 486 desktop, was just to have two of them - the Tandy 1000A would handle all the XT class, AGI, and SCI compatible stuff, and the 486 would take care of the rest. Complication was thrown in when the idea was to have me not live in the same room all the time.

A reasonable hardware setup is kind of like being the guy with one guitar - like Joe Strummer of The Clash and his Telecaster guitar - where it's just what he needs, it does the job, he's happy with it, and it does not cause a lot of trouble vs. say Rick Nielsen who is a nutter like me with 12 guitars on stage and has to swap between every song - I'm the same way with PC's - we'll get to that sickness later. Anyway, what's nice here is you're using space, but not too much, you have a nice computer that looks like it did back in the day, and with only one, you can FOCUS on upgrading and hot-rodding that one PC to perfection.

So in a nutshell, the pros are....

  • You end up wiith a very nice, vintage system that can appreciate in value and possibly be a financial asset at some point
  • You get a truly accurate to how it was experience but you're not upkeeping your old PC's all the time because you have a lot
  • The old PC you do have has been focused on so much it's guaranteed rock solid stable and ready for the long haul
  • Software will run (mostly) as intended because you're running it on actual hardware and not an emulator
  • Less machines = less time maintaining them
  • Less machines = lower power bill
  • Less machines = more time running properly functioning software
  • You are helping the environment by keeping another old but functional computer and it's parts out of a landfill/e-waste

But there are also cons....

  • You still have to find the space for the machine to be comfortably used
  • You will have to accumulate spare parts in case something breaks you lack the skills to fix
  • Finding parts means enduring some nasty people and some real idiots periodically (recycle place owners, tech illiterates, etc.)
  • It can be a slippery slope to "hardware addiction" (I'll address this later)
  • You will have to learn a lot of new technical things if you don't already know them (IRC, NMI, Memory Addr, DMA, DOS mem mgmt, etc..)
  • You will still encounter software that won't run on your machine for xx reason (weird memory stuff, strange CPU model, etc.)
  • It can be expensive if you don't know where to look, but if it's cheap, that increases the risk of accumulating more

The Fun Way
Some of us, like myself, are hardcore dyed in the wool hardware tinkerers. I don't just do this for the sole purpose of running some DOS games from 1991 in my free time, I do this because I enjoy the thrill and challenges that I can find in old hardware. It's a natural curiosity that can bring a lot of pros if you are willing to look for them, but could be a real nightmare if you are not willing to learn.

For exmaple, right now I have 7 laptops and 4 desktops. I rotate the desktops next to my modern machine on my desk with the seasons: Spring (286), Summer (Tandy), Fall (Compaq), Winter (486) - unless I have a specific need for a specific machine at the moment (ie, lots of hard drives being pre-written so I need my 486 to do that). The laptops are just grabbed randomly dpeneding on if I need/want sound or not, or if I'm wanting to feel a particular "vibe" of using a specific style of machine at the moment. This seems excessive, and it kind of is, but it's the kind of excess that is affordable because I possess some skills.

A large collection can be rewarding if you do it right. Some guys I'd say who sit in this or near this realm would be DaveJustDaveRetro or LGR. LGR has a big house with shelves upon shelves of big box games, old PCs, projects he's working on, and DaveJustDaveRetro is similar to me in that he displays his machines nicely in a dedicated space. Me and LGR have been at this for the same amount of time almost. Me, Dave, and LGR are fine examples of how to handle large amounts of stuff well and correctly.

It's a problem if you don't have your management under control. IE, your house is an endless maze of stacks of desktops, printers, laptops, and you made a Squatty Potty out of Packard Bells because the only free space is in front of the toilet, then I think you have a real problem. But if you have a shelf in your closet with everything oraganized to be swapped within 10 minutes, and shelves of laptops hot-n-rerady to go like me I think you're doing just fine as per my storage section.

However, once you get astute at finding good deals it's really easy to slip into "hardware addiction". Hardware Addiction is when you start picking up an old piece of computer or computer-related stuff en-masse. That's when the problems sart, when you start taking in more computers than you know what to do with. My philosophy is each PC that takes up more space than a photo album needs to leave me really liking it, and needs to be something I feel excited to switch to.

Anyway, per usual here's the pros....

  • With such a myriad of hardware, you can pretty much run anything you want, all you need to do is swap to what will run it
  • You get a taste of the gamut of computing all the way from 1981 to the present day, represented as accuratley as possible
  • These things do, surprisingly, build value and you can often use systems in trade/sale for parts or other systems with others easily
  • If you like tinkering with hardware there's always something to do, especially if your life is really boring at the time
  • There's a nice benefit of never losing your software because you installed it on three different systems making recovery a breeze
  • If you don't like a system, you most likely don't need to go out and trade/deal for another one

However, there are cons always....

  • You will need a lot of space. The more systems, more space needed, especially if you want all of them out on display
  • It's very easy for a collection to get out of control, while at one point you might have 4-5 well kept machines, eventually you could end up with 32 machines and only 12 of those actually are up and running, the rest are sitting idle in a stack somwhere
  • In some extreme cases there's an extra cost for a Storage Unit
  • Sometimes you will have a system that just won't sell at all, but you don't want it, so you LOSE money on it
  • Your attention will be a little thin on each system so you might be running things that need a little *help* from time to time
  • Moving is utter hell, plus more socially conscious people tend to judge people for having a lot of old hardware for some dumb reason