Category Archives: Computing

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 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 on 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.
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!
1993: A Promise hard disk cache controller: claimed to make things work a lot faster. Followed by several more HD controller cards as technology changed.
1991: 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.
And somewhere along the line 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!