Anyone out there who has ever read the stuff on my original website (note: Do not take this as a suggestion to actually go read that stuff, I’m not sure why I even bother linking it here in the first place) would know that back when I was writing that, quite a few of the articles I wrote dealt with the trials and tribulations that came with trying to keep our family’s three desktop PCs running at the same time. Growing up in a family of seven meant that oftentimes the best solution to make sure people didn’t fight over whose turn it was to use the computer was to have more than one.
From the detritus of my old website comes this photo of the Den at my parents’ house, circa 1997 during one of the rare times that the place was clean and all of the computers were actually assembled. This was back in the days when digital cameras were still prohibitively expensive for the average consumer, and not of much use to them anyway (I don’t think we had one until about 2-3 years after this was taken,) so this image comes from a scanned photograph. If I recall, this was before we had a scanner in the house, so I had to take the thing down to Kinko’s, scan it there, and the black and white was the only way I could get the file to fit on a floppy to bring home, so that’s what I had to do. Although there are diehard vintage computer collectors and enthusiasts out there on the Internet, I note that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot in the way of nostalgia for the computers of the mid to late Nineties. I can’t say that I blame them. The early personal and home computers such as the Apple II, Commodore 64 and the early Macintoshes and IBM PCs have their fans, but beyond about the 286 era or so, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of enthusiasm out there. Sure, there were some great games that came out for the PC in the late DOS era (such as Epic’s pre-Unreal stuff and quite a few of Microprose’s games,) but when was the last time you heard someone longing for a return to the days of Windows95, IRQ conflicts and 14.4 modems?
At the time the most powerful system we had in the den was a Pentium 75 (that one may have been upgraded to a Pentium 133 by then, I can’t be sure) that was rather expensively equipped with a full 32MB of RAM and one of the original 3DFX Voodoo cards that I somehow managed to sneak into the system without my Dad noticing until it needed a driver on a system rebuild some time later. Although this was still a bit removed from the high end for its time, the system was still blazing fast, and when it was first built it could boot to Program Manager in Windows for Workgroups 3.11 (Win95 was still a few months off at the time) in ten seconds flat. The other computers in the den were a DECpc 486SX/20 (my Dad spent about twelve years working as a DEC field service engineer, and worked on VAXen as late as 2002 when the last one at his current workplace was retired) and the 386SX/20 that was our family’s first PC. All of these were equipped with 14″ VGA monitors, which were pretty much the standard at that point, but that didn’t exactly make them cheap. The laser printer that you see in the foreground was an old (as in mid Eighties) DECLaser that my Dad managed to save from the dumpster and somehow keep running (sort of) for a number of years. For color printing and the all-too-frequent times when the laser wouldn’t cooperate, there was a marginally more reliable Citizen dot matrix, which is found under the desk. All of this stuff was networked using 10Base2 Ethernet over coax cables (there’s a networking standard that didn’t exactly stand the test of time,) which mostly served to enable playing games over IPX LAN. Internet connectivity came by way of an external 28.8k modem and Netscape 2.0, although not long after this we would spring for the blazing fast 56K modem, which would remain until 2000, when we made the leap into the broadband era with a 768k/128k (again, blazing fast for the time) DSL connection.
While on one hand it was nice to have three computers (plus whatever other detritus had found its way into the den on occasion,) keeping them up required constant work, and upgrades and replacements were frequent. As noted above, there were times when all three computers were disassembled or otherwise missing portions of their case, much to my mother’s chagrin. As time has continued to inevitably march on and technologies have come and gone, I have found that I haven’t been bothering to keep up quite as much as I used to. The computer that I am writing this post on is fast approaching four years old. Granted, this machine might just be the most stable and reliable one that I have ever built, but it’s definitely reached the point where it’s having some trouble keeping up with the latest apps. I hardly ever bother trying to play games on it these days, and I suspect the machine would probably choke on anything less than two years old by now. As stable as this system has been, it’s definitely time for a replacement, which should be happening shortly.
As of right now, I have about 1/3 of a new computer sitting here in my office, waiting for the rest of the parts to arrive. As you see above, I currently have a motherboard (an Asus P5Q Pro), RAM (8 GB of Corsair DDR2 800), a power supply and a DVD burner that got thrown in when I bought the PSU from someone at work. I plan to reuse the case and 500GB secondary drive from my current system, and I still need to come up with a CPU (which will most likely be an Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600,) video card (not sure what I’ll get, but it’ll probably be nVidia based,) and a new system drive (probably a 150GB Western Digital Raptor 10,000 RPM drive, which is supposed to be just about the fastest SATA drive around right now.) Assuming that Moore’s Law is still holding out these days, I should be looking at roughly a quadrupling of performance over my current box, but with as long as I’ve held off on upgrading, for some reason it just seems a lot more drastic than that. Needless to say, this represents a pretty significant upgrade over my current system, which is a single-core AMD Athlon64 3200+ with 1GB of RAM and an AGP GeForce 6600GT video card. Back when I built this machine, I picked just about the wrong time to build that system, as I got it up and running just a couple of months before the first dual-core processors were announced, and went with an AGP video card just before PCI Express really started to establish itself as the standard. Theoretically, I could have upgraded the board to support an Athlon64 X2 processor with a BIOS upgrade, but at the time I figured I’d just build a new system a year later anyway. That year ended up turning into two, then three, until I finally got around to upgrading nearly four years later.
To be honest, this computer performs just fine for 95% of the stuff I throw at it still, but I figure that I should at least attempt to keep up with the latest technology. My rule used to be that I would upgrade my computer if I started having better computers at work than I have at home. If I was following that standard I would have upgraded two years ago, although I think with the computers they’ve got me on right now at work, it’s just about a wash. I expect it’ll be a couple of weeks still until I actually have all the stuff to build the new machine, but I’m definitely looking forward to it (except for the “putting it all together and trying to get the blasted thing to work” part, but that’s another post that you’ll probably be seeing later…