Buying a second hand MSX
This page was last modified 22:31, 16 April 2018 by Rderooy. Based on work by FiXato and Meits and others.

This article is primarily meant to provide guidance for people looking to buy a second hand MSX. It is not meant for the collector, but more for the casual buyer.

As you probably already know there have been four MSX generations (MSX1, MSX2, MSX2+ and MSX Turbo R), with different abilities. But even in those generations there have typically been a lot of different models from different manufacturers to choose from.

Also unless you're willing to gamble or are capable of fixing problems yourself, ensure the seller has successfully tested the system and that you can return the system if it does not function as expected.

Contents

Which MSX generation?

Obviously this will primarily depend on your needs, and the type of software you intend to run. For instance, in some markets an MSX1 may be perfectly fine as later generations were not, or only sparingly, available and as such software for later generations was not locally produced.

However, generally speaking you should probably aim for an MSX2 as it will allow you to run the majority of software out there. Just be aware that any MSX1 software you run on it will have a MSX2 color palette which is brighter than the MSX1 originally had.

You can obviously also consider an MSX2+ or the MSX Turbo R, but be aware that those were only manufactured for the Japanese market and as such may be more of a hassle to live with, outside Japan.

Age

Most of these systems and options are over 30 years old, so it is quite typical to have some scratches and chips. But be aware that some electrical components may have deteriorated and replacing them can be difficult. Examples of components that are known to fail over time;

  • Batteries. These are sometimes easy to replace, but on some models they are soldered to the system board. Also they can leak and cause damage that way.
  • Capacitors. Especially the Electrolytic variety. Replacing these requires soldering skills.
  • Floppy drive belts. These may have become too brittle, too loose, have melted, or have snapped. When replacing a drive belt, be sure to get the right size.

Compatibility issues

Not all MSX systems are created equal, and sometimes this can be a cause of incompatibility. An issue that you may encounter is RAM located in a sub-slot, or split between slots. While this is allowed according to the MSX specification, quite a few buggy (typically European MSX1) programs have issues which such a setup.

Likewise, MSX1 systems with early revisions of the Toshiba T6950 VDP (video display processor) can present compatibility issues with programs using undocumented features of the video processor.

Generally speaking, have a look here on the wiki for any potential issues for the MSX model you're looking to buy. Also try to first emulate the system you're looking to buy in an emulator such openMSX and run the program(s) you're interested in to ensure it works.

Floppy disk drives

Floppy disk drives are known to go bad. Unless the seller ensures you the drive has been successfully tested, assume that the drive may need some work such as replacing the drive belt.

RAM

The amount of RAM you have can greatly influence what software you can run.

Generation Official Minimum Variations produced Recommended Minimum
MSX1 8kB 8, 16, 32, 64, 128kB 64kB
MSX2 64kB 64, 128, 256, 512kB 128kB
MSX2+ 64kB 64kB 128kB
Turbo R 256kB 256, 512kB 256kB

For MSX1 computers, the official specification states an MSX1 must have at least 8kB of RAM, but generally speaking you will want a system with 64kB in a single slot for maximum compatibility. Early MSX1 models, especially Japanese models, often had less than 64kB. Luckily there are some solutions to this issue, such as upgrading the internal memory on some models (assuming the base memory is not in Slot 0, as that limits you to just 32kB), or if you lack the soldering skills, you can add a RAM expansion cartridge.

For MSX2 computers, the official specification states an MSX2 must have at least 64kB of RAM, but generally speaking you want a system with a least 128kB as that will allow you to run most commercially released software. But more is always better. Almost every European MSX2 has at least 128kB RAM (apart from the rare Philips VG-8230), but most Japanese MSX2 computers only have 64kB of RAM. You may be able to upgrade the internal memory (see the wiki page for the model for more information), or otherwise you can add a RAM expansion cartridge.

For MSX2+ computers the RAM situation is identical to that of the MSX2 computers. The specification states that every MSX2+ must have at least 64kB RAM. And since MSX2+ computers were only ever officially released in Japan, every officially released MSX2+ happens to have exactly 64kB. Once again you will want to upgrade it either internally or via a RAM expansion cartridge.

For MSX Turbo R computers you get either 256kB or 512kB of RAM, which is generally sufficient to run pretty much anything.

VRAM

Generation Official Minimum Variations produced Recommended Minimum
MSX1 16kB 16kB 16kB
MSX2 64kB 64, 128kB 128kB
MSX2+ 128kB 128kB 128kB
Turbo R 128kB 128kB 128kB

The amount of VRAM (Video RAM) is only an issue for some Japanese MSX2 computers. The specification states that an MSX2 must have at least 64kB of VRAM. But to use some screen modes you must have 128kB VRAM, as such having a system with just 64kB VRAM will greatly influence what software you can run on it. Unfortunately the VRAM cannot be upgraded with a cartridge, the only way is to add additional RAM chips to the PCB which will typically require soldering skills.

This issue does not affect European MSX2 computers as every model has 128kB VRAM, nor does it affect MSX2+ or TurboR computers as they also all have 128kB of VRAM.

Internal hardware upgrades

You may encounter systems that have had internal upgrades. Examples of such upgrades:

  • MSX2+ upgrade
  • MSX-MUSIC (FM) add-on
  • 7MHz CPU upgrade
  • RAM upgrade
  • Audio fixes

In addition, some Japanese models that were imported to Europe may have had components modified such as the power supply or video output to function better on the European market.

Be aware that those upgrades may have their own issues. You will not know if these upgrades have been done properly, nor the quality of the upgrades or used components.

How about a Japanese MSX?

Generally speaking if you're not in Japan, a Japanese MSX will present a multitude of hurdles and as such you should consider carefully if it is worth your while.

Issues with Japanese models in general:

  • Keyboard. Obviously a Japanese MSX will have a Japanese keyboard.
  • Bundled software and manuals. Once again, these will all be in Japanese.
  • MSX Character set. The built-in character set for a Japanese MSX will be... Japanese. This means some European software using certain ASCII characters will instead display Japanese characters.
  • RAM. Most Japanese MSX2 or MSX2+ machines have just 64kB of RAM, which may not be sufficient for European software which expects at least 128kB. As such it is advised to either modify the system by adding more internal RAM (typically 512kB), or to use a RAM expansion cartridge.
  • VRAM. A few Japanese MSX2 systems were launched with just 64kB of VRAM. This means a lot of MSX2 software will not run on it, and you will have to get the system modified by upgrading the VRAM to 128kB.

Issues with Japanese models in Europe:

  • 100Volt. Which means you will need a step-down converter, which can be fairly expensive. Or you need to modify the original power supply to support 230V. Note that most step-down converters are meant for American devices at 120V, and are not well suited to Japanese equipment that expects 100V, finding a suitable converter can be difficult.
  • 60Hz. European models run at 50Hz, while Japanese machines run at 60Hz. This means any European software that does not take this into account, will run slightly too fast. This may effect playability of games and sound will also be played back a bit too fast.
  • NTSC. Most modern (European) TVs can handle both PAL and NTSC, but if you're looking to use a retro display be aware it will probably not support NTSC at 60Hz and you may either not get a picture, or your display will 'scroll'. This can be fixed by either modifying the hardware to support PAL (which may or may not be possible), or to use an external converter.

Issues with Japanese models in USA:

  • 100Volt. Which means you might want a step-down converter, as the difference from USA's 120V might be larger than the safe deviation that manufacturers have accounted for. Or you need to modify the original power supply to support 120V.

Should I buy a MSX2+ or Turbo R?

Be aware that these models were only officially produced for the Japanese market, although some after-market upgrade kits existed to upgrade European and Brazilian MSX systems to MSX2+. Generally you should be wary of systems having been upgraded as you do not know to what extend they have been upgraded, nor of the quality of these upgrades. For instance, in some cases the VDP (video chip) was upgraded to the MSX2+ version, but the BIOS was not, which means lots of MSX2+ software will either not run, or run in MSX2 mode instead.

Very few MSX2+ and Turbo R specific software was produced, and most software that is able to take advantage of such systems will also run on an MSX2, although in a reduced mode. Most games made in the early 90s that can take advantage of such systems were Japanese. European software that is capable of taking advantage is even more rare, and is mostly limited to demos, music players and disk magazines.

Make sure you read the section "How about a Japanese MSX?" for the general issues. In addition you should be aware that a Turbo R has an additional compatibility issue in that it does not support a tape drive.

How about audio upgrades?

Various sound upgrades exist for the MSX, see Music Expansions for an overview. The most important ones, if your main interest is gaming, are the Konami SCC which is a sound chip found in select Konami game cartridges, and MSX-MUSIC. MSX-MUSIC support is standard in most MSX2+ and all TurboR systems, but is also available as a cartridge. A list of cartridges and MSX computers with integrated MSX-MUSIC can be found on the MSX-MUSIC page.