Category Archives: Computing

On Hardware 5: Printers

To round off this series, printers. Given that my business produces software which churns out pages of calculations, printing has always been important.

My first ever printer was a dot-matrix printer coupled to my Commodore PET – it was an Epson TX80 dot-matrix printer customised to work with the PET – very slow, very noisy. You can see an example of the output on this Greentram museum page. When I moved to a BBC computer, it was replaced by a Star NL10 which became my first PC printer, then being replaced by a Star NB24-10 which gave much better resolution.

Along side these, my correspondence (my plan drawing business lasted until 1992) was printed on daisy-wheel printers. Initially I had a Silver-Reed EX-44 electronic typewriter with added computer interface. A Triumph Adler TRD7020 (1986: £148) followed; it was built like a Rolls-Royce and was bought from Boots when they gave up their unsuccessful home computing venture. It sounded like a machine gun when printing at speed! The third, a Silver-Reed EXP800 wide carriage printer was bought from Morgan (1988: £250) – I was amazed to find that ribbons for all these printers are still available. Wikipedia reminds me that “Most daisy-wheel printers could print a line and then, using built-in memory, print the following line backwards, from right to left.” This was always memorising!

The first SuperBeam manuals were originated on the NB24-10 printer, then photocopied, but it was obvious that something better was needed, so 1989 saw me finding £1426 for a Brother HL8E laser printer. This gave good service until it was replaced in 1995 by a Lexmark Optra S with duplexing, £1,643. This was a lovely piece of work but in the end the duplexer wore out (too many church newsletters!). It was cheap to run too, courtesy of a Wembley supplier of remanufactured cartridges.

Needing a new printer and doing a lot of printing and copying at the time (1999, well before everyone was using the internet), I took a very deep breath and shelled out £4,610 for a Canon GP215 copy-printer – initially I’d thought machines like this to be far too expensive, then was tipped off that for copiers the going cash price was around 50% of list, the latter being set so as to make lease deals look cheap.

Time proved the Canon to be one of my best purchases ever: it was still going strong when I emigrated, having printed several hundred thousand pages at less than 1p per side. The six bins each held a different colour paper – long standing users of SDA’s software will remember the product leaflets on different colours (SuperBeam: gold; SuperHeat: green; ProSteel: purple) and the personalised blue order forms. The printer selected the required colour without manual intervention.

Meanwhile two other printers were at work. A 1994 Epson LQ570+ (£199) did sterling work printing continuous feed floppy disk and address labels by the thousand. Then when we switched to CDs a HP DeskJet 950 printed CD labels.

Here in Australia? I now do very little printing compared with times past. My current printer is a top of the range Brother mono laser with duplexing, current cost about A$500 (say £250). It does much the same as the Optra, 15% of the cost. Nice, but as with monitors, nothing to stun a 1990 time traveller!

On Hardware 4: Monitors

This part is a bit different: no astronomical drops in price, just more year on year for the same money.

Pre-PC, my Commodore PET came with its built-in mono screen, 9”, 40×25 characters. Then my BBCs were coupled to the default Microvitec Cub 14” 1431 colour monitor.

On to PCs. My Dell came with the optional VGA monitor, resolution 640×480 pixels, when many users were still using EGA (640×350) or CGA (640×200). My next three monitors were all 15” VGA, costing around £200-250. The next step up was my 1995 Christmas present to myself, a lovely Idek 17”, offering a superb 1280×1024 resolution. It stayed on the books until 2001 and was a joy to look at.

Then the seismic change. November 1999 saw my first purchase of a TFT (flat screen) monitor, a 15” Panasonic LC50S, 1024x768px. As it was an ex-display model I got it for ‘just’ £637. Two more 15” screens followed, Nov 2001 (£385) and Aug 2003 (£205), then a 19” Benq FP91V in Oct 2005 for £257. Then in April 2007, a year before emigrating, these were replaced by a pair of HP W20 screens for £144 each.

On coming to Australia I started with a couple of Samsung monitors 22”/24” each costing around A$300 (say £150). Surprisingly one failed after a couple of years and was judged beyond economic repair. I’m writing this looking at a 2015 27” LG monitor which I plan to keep for a good few years yet, supplemented by a Hisense 43” 4K TV which serves as a second screen and is used for 4K testing.

So unlike some of the other posts in this series, perhaps not much to see here? A 1990 time-traveller would be dumfounded by 2TB drives for little more than pocket money; as for today’s monitors, polite appreciation at best?

On Hardware 3: Storage

This post covers memory and disk storage. Both have shown a fall in price that would have been unimaginable 30+ years ago. And with the advent of SSDs and memory sticks, the two are now closely intertwined.

Memory

In 1979 I started with a top of the line 32K Commodore PET – £100 more than the 16K version – so that’s £6,400 per MB. 1983 saw a BBC B with 32K, then 1986 a BBC Master with 128K. Then in 1989 I joined the PC world, my first Dell having 1MB.

By 1992 4MB was the new norm; late in the year 4MB cost me just £72 – £18/MB. During this time memory prices fluctuated significantly, 16MB costing me £429 in 1994.
By mid 1996 a 16MB SIMM cost just £85 – just over £5/MB. Then it was 32MB sticks: £100 in August 1997 and £68 six months later – £2/MB, then June 1998 I added a 128MB stick for £99, breaching the £1 barrier. June 2001 saw 256MB for £96, 27p/MB and that was the last memory I bought – since then I’ve bought ready built systems with more than enough memory.
But today? On Googling UK component suppliers and picking the first, I can buy an 8GB stick for £37 – that’s less than 0.5p per MB – or to look at it another way, at 1979 prices 8GB would cost just over £52 million!

Disks

Pre-hard disk, my PET and first BBC used cassette tapes for storage. Adding a floppy disk drive to my second BBC cost around £400. Then for my first PC, I paid extra for a 40MB hard disk instead of the standard 20MB. For the next 20 years I was buying ever bigger hard disks – now I’m nowhere filling the one in front of me.
Some purchases along the way – price per MB in brackets: Mar 92: 130MB/£264 (£2.03); Aug 93: 340MB/£249 (73p); Jun 95: 540MB/£139 (26p); Aug 96: 1GB/£119 (11p); Jun 98: 6.4GB/£129 (2p) and my last separate HD purchase, Sep 01: 40GB/£133 (0.3p).
And now? You can buy a 2TB drive for £54 – that’s next nothing per MB, though SSDs, given their falling price, are now almost universal. 2TB at 1992 prices: about £4.25million!

USB sticks

Disk or memory? You decide. 64GB for £6 – unbelievable to those of us who remember what memory used to cost.

On Hardware 2: Playing cards

One of the massive changes during the PC era has been that motherboards now include all the functionality that once required a handful of plug-in cards. Apart from a video card or two I’ve not bought a card since 2001. But before then:
1989: An early purchase was an I/O card allowing me to run two printers from the same PC. Like all cards from the era, installation was preceded by careful reading of an instruction leaflet and setting numerous jumpers to give the required functionality. Hooray for Plug and Play.
1991: A Compaticard, £182, allowing the same PC to have a 5¼” 360K floppy drive in addition to the default 5¼” 1.2MB and 3½” 1.44MB drives. 1.2MB drives would read 360K disks, but to write a disk that could be read on a 360K drive you needed to use a virgin disk. Adding a 360K drive got over this. There was a time when we bought 360K floppy disks by the thousand. Now we send out a few CDs each week; everyone else downloads. A Promise hard disk cache controller followed in 1993, claimed to make things work a lot faster, followed by several more HD controller cards as technology changed: EIDE in 1995, then PCI
1992: My first network: two PCs linked with 10Base-2 coax cable. Two network cards cost £202, and the networking software, Netware Lite, then Lantastic, another £50 or so per PC. Now you can link multiple home PCs for next to nothing – Windows provides the software, the motherboard the hardware.
1992 also saw my first modem, £41 – dial-up of course – to connect to CompuServe. Speed not recorded but it was replaced by an Intel 14.4 faxmodem in 1994 and a 33.6 faxmodem in 1996 – that’s 33,600 bits per second; now I am on fibre, nominal download speed 100,000,000 bits per second, nearly 3,000 times as fast. And thanks to bloat some websites still work at dial-up speed!
Video cards: 1991 saw my first recorded separate video card purchase (of course my ready-built systems came with HD, video and basic I/O cards), a Trident VGA for £60. For my sort of programming, there’s no need for a high performance video card, save the one I bought for 4K testing last year. Of the video cards bought over the years the outliers were a pair of Diamond Viper Weitek cards bought in 1996 when I was an OS/2 user – as I recall these cards had issues with Windows so were sold off cheaply (£107) but worked brilliantly with OS/2. When I moved to Windows, a Matrox Millennium, then Matrox Productiva AGP and ATI All-in-Wonder cards took over
And somewhere during this decade was a sound card, bought as a personal purchase, another function now handled by even the cheapest motherboard.

On Hardware 1: Desktops and CPUs

I started in computing with a Commodore PET and a couple of BBC computers, then joined the PC world in 1988, spending £2,414 on a Dell 286 system; this price included the optional 3½” floppy drive, 40MB hard drive and VGA graphics. This system was the one on which the first versions of SuperBeam were written and produced.

With my software business (initially a sideline to plan drawing) growing, 1990 saw the addition of a second system, which was designated for admin and disk production, the Dell then becoming the development machine. The new machine came from Morgan Computers, still trading today – I used to love their full page magazine ads. It was an NTS 386SX (£1,419) – when NTS was liquidated, Morgan bought the stock.

The 1990s saw repeated replacement and upgrading of systems with lots of self-building and parts swapping – looking back, much of it was probably unnecessary. The records show a 286-20 (1991); 486SX and 386-40 (1992); 486SX (1994); 486DX-100 and 486DX-75 (1995) and AMD586-133 (1996). Then a ready built MMX200 Pentium system from Mesh (1997: £1,589) and a little more DIY: AMD K6-200 (1997), Pentium II 266 (1998) and Celeron 400 (1999) and Athlon 1GB (2001).

That was the end of self-building and the pace of replacement slowed down. An XP system (2001: £570) and Carrera A64-3200 (2004: £1,033) followed. The last two bought in UK were a HP M7410UK (2005: £373) and Compaq 6400 (2007: £566), both of which came with me to Australia and are still used occasionally as XP and Vista test boxes respectively.

And in my near-12 years in Australia? An I5 box (2009) was my development machine for five years now serves as my Windows 7 and 4K test box. In its place a HP Z230 I7 desktop has served me well for five years and I have no plans to change it. Yes I could buy a newer faster box, but these days the constraint is how fast my brain works!