Tag Archives: computers

My Personal Personal Computer History

Geek!This is Mike Wilson’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

1975: First time I see an IBM 129 Keypunch in operation. The geometric, modern design, the small LED readout of the card columns, the automatic dup functions… amazing. The card reader with its high rate of speed. Sleek, modern form of the 370/138, I’ll call it “HAL 9000’s grandpa.” So, I do.

1977: New job, first time I see the console of a IBM 370/168. All badass black, sparse buttonry, just what is needed, a meter to display system utilization, a few tiny lamps. All the magic happens in the attached screen, around 21″, green cursive characters. To type on it is magical, satisfying clicks, an enter button next to the keyboard to slap at the end of your commands. This is real hardware, to grab a hold of and wrestle like some gigantic daemon. Channel and communications boxes sprawl everywhere behind it. Underfloor cables spider to printers, tape drives, disk banks. A high-speed card reader zips through decks fast, card punch goes slower. System internals all based on that venerable (Hollerith) 80-column card image. In the corner, the ka-chunk ka-chunk of the old 557 Interpreter, reading cards and printing a single line atop each card. You can yank open the front and replace a control panel when you need to – but we rarely did, they were all prewired, thank god. Printers and tape drives all had that 1960s modern look, square lit buttons, white rectangular shapes, blue boxes and black boxes around.

Wondrously it had 16 megabytes of main storage, and ample disk (3330 removable and 3350 fixed-head), around a couple of gigabytes worth!

1982: Wow, I can go get my own computer at Radio Shack! It has a tiny memory, and a cassette recorder for storage, but it is all mine! No boss to look over my shoulder, I can “run the console” from the comfort of my own home. An entire system, all mine. Games, word processing, and possibly even remote communications someday. I have to learn BASIC, but what the hell. It’s simple, right? And my model is a color computer, wowser. 16k RAM, upgradeable to 32k with a ROM pack. I am 25 and impressed by it all.

1988: I open up the boxes of my new Laser XT computer I just got at Sears. Two front-loading 5 1/4 inch floppy drives. No hard disk, they are too expensive. But, wow, 512K RAM! An awesome amount, as much as those 360 model 40s at that place where I used to run the check sorter, back in 1976. Awesome again, how the improvements are marching forth through the years. I begin to learn the rudiments of DOS 3.3 , find out that these things still don’t read my mind: I have to tell it everything, and then run it. But a pal lends me MS flight simulator 1.0, and on my color (yes, color) VGA monitor, it looks awesome. We joke about “whatever happened to punchcards.”

1994: This Ambra PC I just got almost makes me wet my pants. 8 Megs RAM, a 14.4 modem, SVGA monitor, and Windows 3.1 this thing is loaded. I refamiliarize myself with basic computing – the early 1990s have not been an easy time economically. Soon, I get onto AOL. Remote computing, talking to thousands of people from all around the country. Amazing. Downloading files, pictures. Have been reading this magazine called Boardwatch, so I am thirsty for online experiences. I get on some BBSes with the help of Procomm Plus. I chat with people in New Jersey and San Francisco. This is so cool, I miss family gatherings and sit in the basement of my rented house, typing away on the Ambra, or on a second, older PC with a 2,400 bps modem. Eventually, I get on INS through an 800 number. And then, it is on to the world of the Internet.

More long nights, learning VMS and UNIX commands, gopher and lynx commands. How to send an email. How to decode an attachment on an email. I am drunk on it. Can attach to universities around the world, walk the globe on a wire. I brag to family about it. They wonder about me. I don’t care, I am intoxicated with it all. Heck, I even read a book on assembly language programming.

1997: The Ambra got sold, have bought and sold a couple since then. A timely inheritance gets spent on a new Apex/ITT system, with a 166 MHz processor (forget the other vitals on it). This baby is really loaded. It can do the Web, Internet. No problem, and comes with Win95 pre-loaded. This is the first system I learn HTML on, learning one or two markup tags a day. Now I control the volume, I control the horizontal and vertical… Oh the feeling of power and control. To control a piece of the Web itself. The hit counter tells the story, even if most of the hits are me, refreshing the page to check my code.

1999: I’ve got three boxes in a spare room in my house, and they are all networked together. One is the Server, the other two are clients. They each have a role to play in my little godlike Network. One is connected to 56K dialup Internet, and a multitude of media files are passed to the other two over UTP Ethernet cables via a small hub. I am feeling powerful and satiated. Punchcards are not even a memory anymore.

2001: Personal bankruptcy. Most of the cause is spending too much money I do not have on computer hardware. I vow to learn from my mistakes, and only have one computer at a time from now on. All my machines get sold, and I am left with a Yahoo email to use at the library, and nothing else. It will be a whole six months before I can get another. Suffering. I learn to write a budget.

2008: I have a supercomputer in my place now. 3 gigahertz processor, 250 gig HDD. More disk storage than was had at those early operator jobs, by far. DSL data communications zaps pictures and videos back and forth. 20-inch flat-panel screen. DVD and CD drives. 7-in-one media reader station. Vast amount of programs satisfies most every computing desire I have. 80-column punchcard? Those are museum pieces. Now I think in megabytes and gigabytes, not in 80-byte unit records. Even filenames need a lot more than 80 bytes these days.

But I just had to get a laptop, for mobile adventures. The Acer Netbook was purchased from Wal-Mart, but it was only 340.oo so that is not bad. I can do wireless internet, and even webcamming with it. It runs Linux, but the GUI works well enough that I don’t need to use the command line – whew. Cool. Problem is, It sits on the desk gathering dust most of the week. I can still only run one computer at a time. That did not stop me from buying a Kingston 16 GB memory stick for it. In 1975 this would have been science fiction, of course. Jeez – I love this hardware – so much, I must be a real GEEK or something.

Hey, there’s Chris Pirillo’s new site. Think I’ll join up. This is me, for real.

The Most Notable Obsolete Computer Platforms

Geek!This is Brian Patrie’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

Before 64-bit. Before 32-bit. Before even those old archaic 16-bit machines of the mid to late ’80s. We used 8-bit microcomputers. Okay, before that there was 4-bit; but I’m not that old. By 8-bit, I mean fully 8-bit. The 8088 CPU had an 8-bit external data bus; but internally it was the 16-bit 8086.

Here is a hastily compiled list of a few noteworthy machines from the heyday of 8-bit computing in the mid 1970s through mid 1980s.

I’ll start with the Apple II—mainly because it was the first micro that I ever knew. I was immediately enthralled with the idea of being able to make it into anything that I could programme it to be. Electronic Lego-blocks, I called it. Eventually I got my hands on the Apple ][ / ][ Plus Technical Reference Manual, and read of an electronic logic ecosystem that didn’t waste a single gate. Its wide open architecture made it a hit with hardware hackers (and, no doubt, made hardware hackers of many of its initiates). Its handling of addresse decoding on the motherboard made it a simple matter of checking one of two lines for a card to detect that its memory or i/o space was being addressed. It did have some limitations compared to some of its later contemporaries, such as monochrome text, and some bizarre graphics idiosyncracies (things that Apple were slow to improve, due to being distracted by other major projects, like the Apple III, Lisa, and Macintosh). But it was a great machine, nonetheless.

It’s fairly predictable that the Commodore 64 would turn up in the list. It’s most obvious strength was its price—which made it one of the most popular personal computers of its time. For a few-hundred bucks, you could have a working system. Its design didn’t match the austere elegance of the Apple II; but it had some attractive features beyond it, including chroma/luma video output (which is what s-video is), multicolourable text (limited to one background colour for the whole screen), and sprites. It made for an attractive game platform. (I gather that Commodore did attempt to market a C-64 based game console; but it failed miserably.) The worst criticism that I have of the C-64 is the disk-unfriendly initial user interface. Starting a programme from disk required a rather cumbersome LOAD “*”,8 followed by RUN (versus the short and sweet 6 ctrl-p of the Apple II, or nothing for the auto-starting II Plus). And when developing a BASIC programme, one had to specify the device number for every stinking SAVE. (I was spoiled by the Apple II’s feature of remembering the last drive you used.) It was also impossible (without 3rd party software) to list a disk directory without stepping on the BASIC programme in memory. (I confess, though, that the directory-as-a-BASIC-programme was a cute trick.) These things may seem trivial; but they were enough of an annoyance to turn me off to an otherwise reasonably attractive platform.

Most people never heard of the Panasonic JR-200U. A friend of mine found one at a yard sale, and it ended up in my hands. Apparently it had a bit of a following in Japan and Europe (where it was usually sold under the National brand). It sported many of the features of the C-64, plus the ability to colour the background on a per character basis. Unfortunately its display was only 32×24 characters (versus the 40×24 of the C-64 and early Apple II,II+ and 80×24 of the later Commodore models and Apple IIs). It also had an 8 colour 2×2 per character block graphics mode that allowed any text character cell to display 4 independently coloured blocks, along with some higher resolution modes that acted like colour custom character sets. One of the little things that made me smile was the ability to use hexadecimal numbers simply by prefixing them with a $ (the old Berkley convention). This could also be used with the val function to convert a string to decimal within a programme; and there was a hex$ function that worked like str$ to convert the other way.

The Kyocera Kyotronic (best known in the guise of the TRS-80 Model 100) was one of the first notebook computers. The Epson HC-20 has the honour of being THE first; but its calculator-sized display was a bane to its popularity). The Kyotronic sported a 40×8 character display which made it practical for basic word processing. It’s ability to run for several hours on a handful of AA cells made it particularly popular with field journalists. it came in 16 and 32kB RAM configurations—the rest of its 64kB addresse space being reserved for firmware modules that contained application software. (It is also noteworthy as the last project to which Bill Gates personally contributed the majority of code.)

I should probably put the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (ZX-82) here; but I know almost nothing about it. Instead I’ll mention its predecessor, the Sinclair ZX-81. This was an extremely frugal machine that came with a whopping 1kB of RAM (expandable to 16 or 64k with one of two rather cantankerous modules, that you’d better not bump whilst in use). It was available assembled or in kit form. It had a 32 column monochrome text display with the curious feature of being firmware generated—which allowed software to take it over and produce highish resolution graphics. It’s not a machine that I would be terribly interested in using for anything anymore; but it warrants mention by virtue of being interesting and weird. (Maybe I should have included the TRS-80 or Atari 800 instead. But I’m not very up on those, either.)

How to Buy a Computer for Christmas

Geek!This is JB’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

As the tech guy of my family, family business, and my friends, I had the opportunity to put together and maintain several computers, some of which have been bought as presents. The difficulty is in creating a PC (or Mac) that is fit for the purpose it will be used for – all the while, sticking to a budget.

First of all, you need to know what the machine will be used for. The two typical cases are office and gaming, but it might be graphics work, on-demand television, or whatever. Let’s make some generalizations:

  • If the computer will only be used to run Word, it is safe to say that the cheapest option is the best option. Performance doesn’t really matter.
  • For everything else, there is MasterCard! Buying a top quality gaming rig is going to cost you… a lot. But some of us are on a tighter budget, and so your motto should be: spend as much as you can afford. But I have to warn you: computers are the WORST INVESTMENT EVER. Yes, even worse than Nigerian Treasury Bonds. Try not to overspend yourself.
  • If the present is for a child (by child, I mean under the age of 11), do not spend a fortune buying him/her a supercomputer that will never be used to its full potential. By the way, that will also help you keep your 8 year-old from playing violent games, as they tend to require better hardware.
  • If it will ONLY be used for gaming, consider a gaming console. Popular ones are: Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii.
  • If you are giving it to someone who already owns a computer, try to check what kind of computer he/she has. This also avoids the blunder of buying a brand new computer that actually underperforms the previous one. Never buy a Mac user a PC and vice versa – unless you know he/she has been thinking about switching. Always check if he/she already has a monitor, a printer, etc. so you can avoid buying those devices and/or accessories.
  • Laptop or Desktop? Desktops are ideal for people who work at home, for children, for the elderly, and when high performance is needed. Laptops are better if he/she travels a lot or needs to work at more than one place. Laptops are also great gifts for students.

If you have done your research, you will face 3 options:

  • Build a PC yourself / Have it custom made by a professional. This is something I wouldn’t recommend – unless you count yourself among at least those so called “Power Users”. If you decide to pick the parts yourself, there are some tips below.
  • Buy a PC in your local store / on the Internet. Most people don’t bother, and buy a computer the same way they buy… toilet paper, for example. By looking at it. “This one looks good, it’s shiny, I will buy it”. And here comes the No. 1. Rule of buying computers: DO NOT PICK ONE ONLY BY ITS APPEARANCE. Yes, looks are important, but there are literally thousands of more important things in case of computers. Some tips when buying in a local store:
    • Ask a salesman. Don’t just tell him: “I am looking for a computer”. Tell him: “I am looking for a computer for my 98 year-old grandma, with…”
    • Don’t let them blackmail you. If they say it is the last one they have, tell them you can always buy one in another store. They will tell you: “No sir, not this one.” Trust me, the shop next door will be more than happy to find you a computer just like that. Set a budget, and don’t let them exceed it. If they insist on spending just $50 more, you will end up spending $500 more if you accept. Don’t buy it at first sight. Go to other stores, you may even find it helpful to ask: “What do you think about that computer they recommended me at the other store?” But don’t believe everything they say. Ask if they have a better deal.
    • Don’t let them persuade you to buy tons of accessories that no one really needs. If you don’t want another monitor, don’t buy one. Avoid expensive cables. No cable costs more than a couple of dollars to make, so if they say it’s a hundred, tell them to find you one for $3.
    • If you must take a loan, be informed. They might have a better deal than your credit card company.
  • Buying the computer online is also an option. Deals might be better, but you will need more confidence in the vendor as you only have raw specs to rely on.

Now, the debate of Mac vs. PC has been going on for years, but people fail to realize, Macs are (in fact) PCs. There is nothing you can’t do with a Mac that you can do with a PC. There is a joke hanging around the Internet about this: “Name one thing you can do with your PC that I can’t do with my Mac!” And the answer is: “Right-click” That’s not true (yes, Virginia, you really can right-click in OS X, the Mac’s operating system). Macs are compatible with almost all PC accessories, including mice. Actually, several Mac applications need the second mouse button to function better. So, when is it time to go Mac?

  • It is a first computer. Easier to learn and maintain, Macs are ideal first computers. Most first time users fall in love with that, not the user interface.
  • He/she already has a Mac.
  • You want something… aesthetically pleasing. Like something for a living room. Or for a storefront. iMacs are elegant all-in-one computing solutions, and you can’t beat the look.
  • You are buying a laptop / notebook computetr. This might start a civil war, but Macbooks are probably the best laptops on the market today. They are not cheap, maybe they don’t have the best performance, but they have great battery life, size, and weight. They are also sturdy.

Yes, yes – but how do you actually CHOOSE what to buy? Here are some tips regarding the choice of hardware:

  • Trust bigger brands, but not blindly. There are some companies whose names became synonymous with quality. They deliver excellent products, albeit sometimes not cheaply.
  • Graphics. If it’s office-type work, it’s fine to go with integrated an graphics card. It’s cheaper that way. For games, you’d want a dedicated video card. There are two brands worth mentioning on the market: nVidia and AMD/ATI. They only produce the chips however, and if you custom-build your PC, you will need to choose the card’s manufacturer as well. Bigger brands tend to work better here, too. Price and performance are in close relation. You can also buy more than one card into one PC (called CrossFire and SLI by ATI and nVidia, respectively). The prime factor to take into consideration is the size of the screen (to be specific, its resolution). The bigger the screen, the more power you will need to achieve the same speed and quality in games. Also consider the games that will be played on the computer. Action and RPG games tend to require more from the graphics card. Also, the bigger the screen, the more video memory you will need. 256 megabytes is fine for 17 inch displays and smaller, but you will need more for a 19, 20, 24 inch screen. You will likely need more than one card to card a 30 inch screen.
  • CPU. As much as Intel hates it, CPUs have reached a level of performance where more speed doesn’t really have any effect for everyday use. However, if the computer will be used for video or audio editing, hardcore gaming, 3D modeling, or any other demanding task, you are better off with a faster model. There are two manufacturers: Intel and AMD. AMD has traditionally offered a more affordable solution, while Intel has traditionally offered the fastest processors. To be honest, it doesn’t matter which one you have anymore.
  • Storage. The Bigger, the better. Don’t ever buy a computer with less than 200 gigabytes of storage capacity. Laptops are the exception, especially with SSD (a next-generation solid state storage device – faster, yet significantly more expensive). SSD lacks the volume capacity of its mechanical big brother, the traditional hard drive. SSD is, however, more quiet and energy efficient (no moving parts). SSD options are usually found only for laptop configurations these days.
  • Screen. First of all: go with LCD. If CRT still exists, it is an “ancient” technology that nobody wants today. Also, the bigger the screen, the better (and, the more expensive). Most people do not need to go bigger than 20 inches. Remember, you need a better video card if you have a bigger screen! Keep in mind, text does not appear larger on bigger screens. Don’t just buy a bigger screen to cope with sight problems. Get glasses. 😉

Bottom line? For standard office work, you can get a PC without a screen for less than $300. With everything included, it could be as low as $500 – $600. For gaming, a basic rig will cost you around $900 without a screen. But that’s pretty basic, so you might want to spend around $1600 – $2200 (at least) to get a decent system. With a 20 inch screen, that might be $2000 – $2500 total. Decent laptops start relatively low, so you might be able to get one for $500 – but you have to spend at least $1000 – $1200 to get one that is capable of gaming. Netbooks (lightweight laptops) start as low as $300, but their usability is sometimes seriously impaired. Of course, I don’t claim that these prices are 100% accurate, but they might give you a pretty good picture of how much you are likely to spend on a new computer this holiday season.

Can Kids and Computers Combine?

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Do you remember what it was like when you were a kid? Unless of course, you still are one. I know we have a large audience of teenagers, and that’s wonderful! I have an Email here from Amy, with her top five reasons you should encourage your kids to make use of all Technology.

  • Letting your child use technology early in life will allow you to instill respect… instead of fear… into them. The difference between respect and fear is that fear prevents you from doing something. Respect allows you to use a gadget, knowing the full power and consequences of using it for good or bad.
  • It will help them advance in school at an advanced rate. Kids are made to do testing on the computer. By learning technology early on, it will allow them to be more confident… and competent… when the testing time comes.
  • Learning to use a computer is like learning to walk… it’s easier to learn when you’re little than when you’re older. I know that if I were a kid today, I’d be all over technology.
  • It’s a fact of life that your kid will be using technology for the rest of his or her life. The ability to adapt to a new technology will be much easier if they are taught to use these things at a young age. Kids just tend to pick things up a lot faster than most adults.
  • Letting your child use the computer gives you an opportunity to spend quality time with them… as well as allowing you to know what they know. By sitting with your child when he or she is learning, it allows you to show them what different methods and tools there are, and how to use them.


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How Many Computers do you Have in your House?

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http://live.pirillo.com/ – Which is preferable? One machine that runs a lot of virtual machines for separate tasks? Or would you rather have more than one machine, each maybe dedicated to specific purposes?

SC_Thor feels that it is better to run one good system, and use Virtual Machines to run separate tasks. Datalore, however, feels it is better to use multiple machines for resource-intensive work, and dedicate each machine to a specific task.

Personally, I can see both sides of it. My Mac mini is only used for the live stream. Running CamTwist for the stream is very intensive on resources, so the mini is never used for anything else. No way I’d ever try to run the stream through my regular work machine.

What do you think? Is it better to run one machine… or several? Let me hear from you!

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