Monday, March 19, 2007

A Personal History of Computers

A chronological list of the computers I've worked with:

IBM 370/135 (1975)

A huge great thing taking up a large air-conditioned room, protected by an air-lock and copious tac-mats. Made a hell of a racket, but had flashing lights and everything. A proper computer, not the mamby-pamby stuff we have now.

Main memory was 240k. Yes. The huge disk drives with removable multi-disk platters that weighed a ton held about 30Mb each. The console was not a screen, it was a teletype thing, producing reams of paper with gibberish on it. Programs were loaded from Hollerith punch cards, see here.

more info on the IBM 370 here.
NCR 8500 Criterion (1981)

I can't recall any of the spec of this thing, neither was there a lady in white included with the one I worked on. At the time I was totally into the thing, I was a systems programmer, tuning the beast and writing apps too. It had less flashing lights than the IBM, but it did at least have a screen for a console.

The disk drives were large heavy things that spun very fast. To change a volume you pressed a button and waited for it to slow down and stop, then open the lid, screw on a big plastic lid thing and wrench it off. Once, I opened it up and put on the lid, only to find it was still spinning at full speed... I was lucky not to break an arm or worse. The engineer told me this was impossible, due to an 'interlock' that stopped the lid opening while the drive was spinning. I've never trusted 'impossibilities' since!
Commodore Vic 20 (1981)

My then boss bought one of these for games, but asked me to write an accounting system for him, so he could claim it as a business expense. It survived a serious car accident and eventually I did program a simple accounts app for him, which I seriously doubt he ever really used.
Sinclair ZX81 (1983)

I bought mine from a mate for 15 quid, with the 16k ram pack as seen here... which was a total pain... any movement and the thing would crash the machine. I did once type in a huge program only to be unable to save it to cassette. The flickering caused by typing (it couldn't take input and do output at the same time!) was horrible.

Eventually I swapped it for a flash gun for my camera, a good deal!
NCR Decision Mate V (1985)

A lovely bit of kit, I wish I had one now. Built like a tank. I wrote a game of Breakout on it in Basic.

See my other blog entry on this here.
Apricot Xi (1986)

I used this as portable machine, the keyboard clipped to the back of the main unit, which had an extendable carry handle. The screen was quite light and easy to lug around too. It had a small hard disk, and a neat feature, the keyboard had a little LCD display above some keys, so you could program your own functions for them.

Small, but perfectly formed, I used it to telework, writing Accounting software in UCSD Pascal.

Amiga 1500 (1991)

I won one of these in a competition in the magazine "Air Forces Monthly". It was worth around a grand at that time. It was just an ordinary Amiga 500 in a PC sized case, its only advantage being that it was expandable, not that I ever did add to it.

I amassed a huge amount of software for this thing, games and serious stuff. It was fun to program, using a Basic like language called, um, Amos I think.

Hard disks and their controllers were pricey back then, so I never did go beyond running everything on two floppies. The drives were maddening, slow and they used to click annoyingly when empty, trying to detect if a disk had been inserted, bonkers.

I still have it, it just about works, though it's packed away in the loft these days. Not that I'm a huge gamer, but the Amiga did run my favourite game of all time, F/A-18 Interceptor. Looks awful now, but at the time this was the most fun I'd had in clothing.
Compaq Deskpro 4/33i (1993)

At the time I got my hands on this, it seemed like the dog's whatsits. It had an 'overdrive' chip fitted to it eventually, making it go a tad faster. A simple, compact and sturdy design, it lasted for years, and still works to this day, the last time I tried it anyway.
Compaq Contura 3/20 (1994)

I got my hands on about four broken models of this, and from them built one working machine. They had variously been dropped, run over (!), and caught fire. But there were just enough components to make one fully working laptop.

Though the battery has long since dies, this mongrel still works. It runs DOS and Windows 3.1 quite happily, and it's tiny hard disk has 'Stacker' running on it to double (maybe) the space. Now hard disks are so cheap and so huge it's funny to think such software was once de rigeur.
Various dull PCs, Reseda, Pionex, Premier. Bring on the clones. Many anonymous (for which read 'cheap') IBM PC clones followed, with ever increasing speed and memory as various Windows versions attempted to eat the hardware advances.

It's all a con, isn't it? The better the kit gets, the more resources the O/S requires, just in case you thought you could sit back and enjoy a PC for a few years. Not a hope - read 'The Subliminal Man' by JG Ballard.
Compaq Presario SR1539UK (2005)

And here we are with my current PC. As of now, March 2007, (update - now replaced, see below) it's just over a year old and as usual that initial rapture of a new super fast machine with acres of disk space has faded... I guess I need to weed out the rubbish and re-install XP to get back the performance, but what a performance to do so, can I be bothered?

Bought for 800 quid from PC World, I see now that better spec'd versions these days are a lot less, but it has been ever thus. It has an AMD Athlon 64 processor, but such is my addled state and to be honest boredom with the hardware side of IT, this means little to me.

It works, it's quiet, it does the job. If you'd shown it to me when I was working on and IBM 370/135, I would never have believed such a device was possible, let alone that I'd own one.

(awwooooga, awooooga, 'old man' alert... enough already.
Fujitsu Siemens Pi2515 (2008)

I treated myself to a laptop. Well... I'd finally got wireless internet sorted out, and I thought, why not... they're cheap now.

And it was... just 400 quid from Dabs. It's got a whopping 250gig hard disk, 2gig of RAM, and the nicest screen you could ask for.

Naturally Vista renders it as slow as can be, though not unacceptably so. I suppose.

I'm trying hard not to load it up with all the usual rubbish that eventually causes Windows to grind to a halt, so far so good.

Hate the touchpad thing, but then hate them on every laptop. Battery life is 2 hours, which seems par for the course, but never, of course, quite long enough.
Packard Bell iXtreme X5620uk (2010)

So, the old Presario (see above) started to feel a bit slow, and my little boy needed a PC for homework, so I looked around for a new desktop. Did hours of research on t'internet and came up with a couple of options from Dell and somewhere else I can't recall.

Just happened to be passing a PC World, so dropped in and said to the salesman, "you won't be able to, but can you match this spec and price?", and handed him my wish list. Off he went. Came back with this thing, and he beat the price by 20 quid.

Hmmm... Packard Bell... didn't know if I liked the sound of that... But what the heck, so I bought it and it's been perfectly fine ever since. Quad core, 4 gig memory, 500gig drive, it's quiet, so far reliable - does everything I want. Has Windows 7 64-bit on it, which is a slight pain as quite a few programs don't now work, and I can't get drivers for a few of my older peripherals, notably from HP, see article moaning here.
Acer Aspire One D255E (2011)

All this talk of tablets, Kindles, iPads etc etc got me thinking that I needed something to sit next  to me on the settee of an evening, waiting for the inevitable everyday questions to come up that you can look up the answers to on Wikipedia. I.e. cheating during Eggheads.

But my fingers just don't seem to work touch screens. My son has a touch phone, I can't get the bloomin' thing to do anything.

So I looked at unfashionable Netbooks, and, having consulted recommendations in PC Pro magazine, plumped for this one. And, showing commendable patience I decided to wait until I could get it for £200, which eventually I did, from Okobe.

It's the dual-core version, and is cute as a button. It's not fast, but the battery life is fantastic, screen vibrant and I love it. And it's red. Somewhere else in this blog you'll find a full review - see here.
Advent DT2410 Desktop
with an AOC e2343F LCD Monitor (2012)

Not strictly mine, as I bought this for my son's Christmas present, and actually I've hardly used it, as he is on it the whole time! Cost 700 quid from PC World (now 650!), worked well out of the box, and has been trouble free now for many months. Came with Windows 8, was not overly burdened with crapware, and has come up to all my expectations performance wise. Runs all his games faultlessly. I am quite jealous of it. Maybe one day he will hand it down to me...
  • Intel® Core™ i5-3330 processor
  • Windows 8
  • Memory: 8 GB
  • Hard drive: 2 TB
Lenovo G580 Laptop (2013)

Purchased from PC World for a not unreasonable £400 early in 2013 after many weeks of on-line and in-shop research. With two small exceptions it has been a successful purchase, and I'm using it now to author this piece.

It's quiet, it runs cool, the display is excellent, performance (i3) is acceptable, all in all, so far, it's looking like a good buy.

The two exceptions are, one of the pieces of crapware that it came with caused Windows update to fail, and fixing that was quite hard. And it also (out of the box) loses it's WiFi connection for a couple of minutes after Sleeping. Took me ages to figure out how to cure that, and I'm not alone... see the many forum questions about this!

During my research I read many, many laptop reviews, and in a huge number of cases folk say, For: Great Screen (or something), Against: Windows 8 - over and over again. Having used this device for a few weeks, if asked, I would say exactly the same.. Windows 8 really is an annoying thing... Microsoft should be ashamed. And fix it. Quickly.

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