Saturday, March 06, 2010

Old Friends

Today I kicked an old computer to the curb. Actually, I boxed it up and left it on my front step as a donation to a charity that collects old computers for schools. I started thinking that it would be cool to have all my old computers in a collection. I know there are virtual museums of obsolete computers, so I hereby create my virtual collection of my old computers.

Ohio Scientific Challenger 1P

I bought this computer sometime in 1978 for around $350, which gave me a total of 4K of RAM. The whole compute was on a single motherboard enclosed in a metal case. Video output was via an RF converter that beamed a monochrome signal to a Sears black and white TV. The RF output was always flukey. Data storage was via a Radio Shack cassette tape deck. I distinctly recall playing a submarine game in which I was able to control a sub icon moving left and right while releasing torpedoes straight up at surface ships. The graphics quality was worse than an original Space Invaders game but it entertained me for hours. The computer had a BASIC compiler and I had a book of basic games that I keyed in by hand. Here is a review.

My C1P ended up meeting a horrible death. As I said, the video output was flukey. The antenna on the RF converter connected via a basic RCA-style jack. So, I figured I might be able to physically connect the TV. First, keep in mind that I had no idea how this might work. Second, I was an idiot. Third, the chassis for this computer was metal. With the back of the TV off and the TV plugged into the wall, I pulled the TV toward the computer. I guess "toward" is the wrong word. I actually pushed the TV against the computer. The large spark and puff of smoke that resulted was shocking, and yet given an rudimentary knowledge of physics should have been completely expected. The power surge through the chassis wiped the computer. It never powered up again.

Zenith Z89

The C1P was reasonably quickly replaced by a second-hand Zenith Z89. This was a giant brick of a computer that included a really exceptionally smooth keyboard, green monochrome monitor, and two 5 1/4-inch floppy drives. No hard drive to be found. This is the computer that introduced me to the concept of word processing, via WordStar. Brilliant! Anyone remember "dot commands" for formatting? The machine ran CP/M, not DOS. There was no what you see is what you get document formatting. So, to format you included a period followed by a text command in the right margin. Match this with an incredibly slow and loud daisy-wheel printer, and you are ready for college (circa 1981). This computer served me well for most of my college career. I minored in computer science. Most students at that time did not have their own computers. I had a computer and a 300 baud modem. That meant that I was able to dial in to the university computer system and do my homework form my room. That was very sweet and also made my roommates, who had the same homework to do, very happy. The computer died a slow and painful death when the transformer that powered the screen failed.

Kaypro 2000

Kaypro is best known as the maker of early portable computers. These were luggable boxes that had the form factor of sewing machines in their cases and weighed in the neighborhood of 30 pounds. But, Kaypro eventually dropped its dedication to CP/M and started producing DOS based IBM PC clones. And that is exactly what this machine was--an entirely uninteresting workhorse of a computer that was a clone of an IBM XT. Kaypro tweaked the specs a bit by using a faster clock rate on the CPU and providing a bigger hard drive. Yes, this was my first hard drive. It was 20 MB. The monitor was amber and could be switch between text and graphics modes for play some rudimentary games. I played a lot of "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego" on that machine. It got me through law school and my time as as a clerk in New York.

Send in the Clones

At this point things get murky. That is primarily because the computers were all sort of the same. I know the next computer I had was a Gateway, which at that pre-millennial time was still known as Gateway2000. I think it has a 386SX processor. That was followed by an equally nondescript Dell. At work, we've had all sorts of basic PC from our firts IBM PC Jrs. running DOS 4.0 to Dells and HPs. Today, the office is mostly full of Toshiba and Lenovo notebooks. I have also owned HP and Gateway laptops at home.

Gateway Profile

Which brings me to the computer that departed today. It was a Gateway Profile 4, the first all-in-one form factor computer I owned. This computer turned me into a fan of the all-in-one design. It was Gateway's attempt to cash in on the first Apple iMac. Remember the original, translucent bubble design, which now makes a great aquarium? The Profile sat nicely on my desk, taking up very little room. I am not a big gamer and have never been particularly worried about maximizing graphics capabilities or swapping out screens. As a workhorse computer, this was just fine. And, Gateway was clever enough with the design to let me add RAM and a swap the original CD-ROM for a DVD-ROM, when that became available. In other words, I always liked this computer.

Eventually, though, it simply was not up to snuff. I wiped it clean of everything except the kid's games and put it in the basement for him minus an internet connection. As it happens, for three years, the computer was almost never used. As a result, last night, I turned it on just long enough to make sure it works and delete any lingering information. After that, I boxed it up and this morning it went to the front step and to a better cause.

Today, I am typing an a Dell XPS One. Also an all-in-one design. It has a bright, wide screen and a cool side mounted DVD slot. What it is missing is a multi-touch screen like the new HP Touchsmart line. I bought this a few years too early for that feature. My other computer, an aging HP laptop with a well-designed dock that includes a drive bay is coming up on five years old. So, that may be the next one out on the street.

Ooh, maybe it is time to start thinking about the possibility of considering computer shopping.

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