A thought the other day got me thinking about all the computers I’ve owned in my life – and in particular just how many of them there have been. I thought it might be fun to look over them, and see just how much things have changed. Of course, that’s if I can remember them all.
And just to clarify, I’m only including things with a querty keyboard here. I know that smartphone’s now are basically computers, but given that a modern microwave oven probably has more computing power than Apollo 11’s LEM, if I listed everything with a CPU I’d be including my last few phones, my car, and half the white goods in my kitchen.
Type: All-in-one unit connected to TV
OS: Not applicable
This was it, the first computer I owned, if not the first that I used. (That honour going to a ZX81 that an after school technology club had purchased the year before). I seem to recall getting it pretty soon after it came out in the UK. This was before the ZX Spectrum and I think possibly before the BBC Micro. (The computer magazines were still full of adverts for the Acorn Atom, the BBC’s predecessor).
It had a simple version of Basic built in, but it was rather crude. (To change the colour of the screen you had to “POKE 36879”, and no I didn’t have to look that up, and yes, I am rather geekily proud of myself for remembering – assuming I remembered it right of course, which is not necessarily the case, given that I genuinely haven’t looked it up).
Depending on your age, you may or my not be able to believe that the VIC came with 3.5 Kbyte of RAM. (To put that into context, it’s less than 0.0002% of the memory on the laptop I’m typing this on, which itself is not that impressive by modern standards).
I had a lot of fun on the VIC, and made a (small) start in programming. I wouldn’t say it’s been the favourite of all the computers I’ve owned, but I suppose it would be up there. But unfortunately, newer better computers quickly arrived (Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro) and it soon went from being an object of pride to an object of slight embarrassment.
(Yes, kids are both fickle and ungrateful and I was a kid).
When: Christmas 1984
Type: All-in-one unit connected to TV
OS: Not applicable
When I look back through my “exes”, I’m afraid this is one of the ones that tends to be overlooked. In some way, it was the wrong computer bought for the wrong reasons. It’s perhaps interesting to note that while I bought an Acorn Electron (well my parents did, it was a Christmas present), not many other people did – the Electron was a debacle that drove Acorn into bankruptcy.
The problem was that I wanted a BBC Micro, as three of my friends (Stuart, Ric and Rich) already had – but at £399 that was way above my “present buying budget”. So when Acorn came out with a cut-down version of the BBC I asked for that. At £199, it was still more than my parents would normally have been able to afford, but I argued that I could use it to do coursework for my O’Level Computer Studies (one of the few O’Levels that did have coursework).
The problem was that it wasn’t the BBC. Although I really enjoyed playing Elite on it (one of the few computer games I’ve ever got really into), that joy was slightly tempered by my BBC owning friends pointing out all the features that Acornsoft had needed to cut from the Electron version of the game in order to make it run on the lower-powered machine.
I did use it to do my O’Level project on, which was handy, as those who were using the computers at school all failed after someone formatted the single disk that was being use to hold everyone’s code. But I have a horrible feeling that once I’d got Elite out of my system (and no, I didn’t get up to “Elite” – I think “Dangerous” was as far as I got) the Electron was largely discarded.
(And yes, I know I am sounding very ungrateful at this point).
Type: Combined computer/monitor
OS: CPM, I think?
In some ways this is interesting, because it was bought at a time when my interest in computers was probably at an all-time low. I had no interest in either “playing” with a computer, not making a career out of them. The interest that drove the purchase of this (which I think might have been a birthday present, perhaps combined with something else) was writing.
The PCW (which at the time was a huge seller) was marketed very much as a typewriter replacement. It was a “word processor”, not a computer, coming as a complete package with word processing software (Locoscript) and a printer. Like modern Apple products, it just “worked”, allowing computer novices to be quickly up and running.
I know I did at least some college work on it, and I can recall using it to write at least one short story (“Living Stones”, set on a future terraformed moon). But I think it too gradually fell out of use as I lost confidence in writing, entering a period of apathetic writer’s block that would last some years.
#4 Reeves 286/20 (later 386/25)
OS: MS DOS 3.x (later Windows 3.0)
A couple of firsts here: the first PC, and the first computer I’d paid for myself.
After college, I’d got myself a job working as a digital cartographer (map-making using computers), working on a pair of what, for the time, were monster Compaqs. They had top-of-the line 386/25 processors, something like 4 Mbytes of RAM, and 300 Mbyte hard drives – when I used to tell friends of this they would accuse me of being a monstrous bullshitter.
(At the time, MS DOS couldn’t handler a drive of more than 30-something megabytes, so to avoid having to partition the hard-drives up into C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K and L, Compaq had produced a modified version of MS DOS, 3.31, that could handle these giant sized drives).
My new PC wasn’t as powerful as these, of course. It was based on the older 286 chip and had 2 Mbyte of RAM and a 40 Mbyte hard drive (partitioned into two 20 Mbyte drives). The 2 Mbyte of RAM was a bit pointless, as DOS could only access the first 640k (you could use the next 384k with a bit of faffing around), so I set it up to use a 1 Mbyte RAM disk (where a bit of memory appears to the system as a very fast hard drive called E, which you can set applications to use for temporary files).
One of things I find interesting when looking through my computer history is that while owning a computer has been a constant in my life since 1982, the reason for owning a computer has changed several times over this point. (By contrast, I have owned a total of four televisions since around that time, and every single one has been purchased for the exact same, single reason: to watch television on).
My previous PCs had been bought for reasons of first general fun and games, and then word processing. Later PCs would be bought to access the Internet. But I bought this PC for two quite specific, and different, purposes. The first was to teach myself to program. The second was to serve as a desktop publishing platform.
I was quite an activist with the Liberal Democrats in those days (I’m am still sort of a Lib Dem supporter, but now much more of the, “Well now, look, yes, I mean obviously I’m not happy with an awful lot of things, and I’m not saying I’d actually call myself a supporter now, I seem to recall my membership’s lapsed, and I actually tactically voted Green at the last parliamentary and council elections, but obviously, it’s difficult, things are difficult, you have to work with what you’ve got, even if they are Tories, and well, hey, Greece, eh! Wooh! So, do you think it will snow?” type), and a big part of the Lib Dems in those days was producing leaflets, both for internal party communications and for external political purposes. At the time, we were producing leaflets by printing out the stories on separate sheets, cutting them out, and prit-sticking them onto one master sheet, which the printers who printed the leaflets could photograph. (i.e. We were literally doing “cut and paste”).
I’d seen adverts in the Lib Dem party newspaper for a company who were supplying complete DTP packages: a PC, a high-end dot-matrix printer, and some software called TimeWorks Publisher. TimeWorks was a really nice package, both simple and effective. It ran on the GEM GUI platform, although later versions (renamed to PressWorks) ran on Windows. This company also sold packs of Lib Dem themed clip-art. Put together, the whole package was capable of producing some really nice leaflets.
I’d like to think that the people whose letter boxes had our leaflets stuffed through them appreciated the jump in quality. (I’m sure they didn’t, but I’d like to think they did).
To teach myself programming, I bought a couple of compilers, ending up with the final, pre-Visual C++ version of the Microsoft C/C++ compiler. This was still a basic DOS product, but it did have the first version of MFC. I know a lot of people hated MFC, but I really liked it, and together with a copy of Charles Petzold’s classic “Programming Windows”, I was able to make my first (baby) steps into Windows programming.
I can’t say I ever produced anything of any great complexity, but I did learn enough that when I got made redundant from my digital cartography job at the start of 1994, I was able to talk my way into a job as a C++ programmer.
I kept this PC for a quite a few years, upgrading it a couple of times, including getting a one-man PC repair outfit to replace the entire motherboard and CPU. But eventually, even with extra RAM and two extra hard-disks, it was starting to show its age.
#5 Reeves 486/33
OS: Windows 3.1
And now we come to number five, and the most expensive computer I have ever owned, costing something over £2,800 (£3,988 in today’s money, or $6,361). At the time, it was a monster. It had almost the faster processor you could then buy (a 33 MHz 486 DX, something like 8 or 16 Mbytes of RAM, and I think something like a 200 Mbyte hard drive. But the bit that I was most proud of was its hard drive controller card, which had its own 286 chip with 2 Mbytes of cache RAM.
It meant that I could say that not only was my PC more powerful than all the PCs in my workplace – my hard-drive controller card was more powerful than most of them. (They were 286s with 1 Mbyte of RAM).
I can’t remember much of what I did with this machine. Programming initially, although I think that tailed off once I was programming for a living. I played some games (Doom and Quake come to mind), but I was never hugely into games.
This PC might have been my first Internet connected machine, or it might not. I know I was using the Internet at work from early 1995 onwards, but I think it was about a year before I made the jump to getting a home account. (It seems incredible now that we once had PCs without an Internet connection, when being able to use the Internet is often the reason why we might have a PC. A PC without an Internet connection now seems like a car without an engine.)
#6 Reeves Pentium 100
OS: Windows 95
I can’t remember very much about this machine. Whilst its predecessor had been an expensive boy’s toy, this was a much cheaper and utilitarian affair, better that the machine it was replacing, but not by as much as the three year gap might imply.
Type: Combined computer/monitor
OS: Mac OS 8.5
There was no real reason for me to switch to Macs at this point. Whilst it’s UI was still pretty cool (despite not having been significantly enhanced in more than ten years), the underlying OS wasn’t terribly good. While Windows 95 now had proper, pre-emptive multi-tasking with memory protection, the Mac OS still had only co-operative multi-tasking of the sort that Windows 3.1 had enjoyed.
(In layman’s terms, if one application locked up for several seconds, then all applications locked up. And if one application crashed, the entire machine – all other applications plus the OS – crashed).
I bought it simply because I fancied a change, and the machine looked gorgeous. Today, in an era of sleek flat-screen monitors, the original iMac looks bulky and old-fashioned. But at the time, it was a revelation – perhaps the first PC that actually looked good, designed to sit proudly in your living room not hide in your spare-room-cum-office.
This was the machine I wrote the early issues of Critical Miss on.
It was my first Mac, although not my first Apple product (believe it or not, but I had a Newton). But it didn’t convert me into an Apple fan. It was fun, but not really more than that.
#8 Dell PC
OS: Linux (with KDE desktop)
By this time, we’d started using Linux on some of the work machines. I liked the idea of an operating system that wasn’t from Microsoft, and I was interesting in getting into Linux more. So I got this Dell PC, and put a copy of Red Hat on it, adopting the KDE front-end (instead of Gnome) purely because at the time, it had anti-aliased fonts.
I suspect that if I hadn’t got into Macs, I’d still be using Linux now.
One interesting point: this was the last desktop machine I ever owned. (And quite possibly, the last desktop machine I ever will own).
#9 Hewlett Packard? Laptop
When: 2003 or 2004
Type: Laptop with built-in base-station
OS: Linux (with KDE desktop)
By this point, I was writing a monthly column for Mongoose Publishing’s Signs & Portents magazine, and to be honest, I was finding it a bit of a grind. I’d spend an entire weekend procrastinating over doing it, and then four weeks later, I have to do another one.
Then it occurred to me that I spent eighty minutes every day sitting on a tube (train), and that if I had a laptop, I might be able to use that time to write. Now you have to remember that I had no idea whether or not this would be feasible. I might have sat down and found that I was completely unable to concentrate on writing. I might have found that after five minutes, the movement of the train and the bouncing of the screen was making me feel sick. So I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something that might well have turned out to be a complete waste.
So I went to Morgan, and spent something like £300 on a reconditioned Hewlett Packard laptop, which I immediately, as per my ideological principles, nuked, and reinstalled with Linux.
This laptop is never going to go down on my list of favourite computers. I was never particularly fond of it. I never really managed to get the Linux power-saving / sleep functionality fully working on it, with the result that I had to shut down at the end of each writing session and then restart it at the start of the next – which wasted around five minutes of writing time (reboot plus starting Open Office). And getting the data off the laptop onto my desktop Dell, which was still my primary machine, was a bit of a hassle.
But I guess I owe this computer a lot, because in getting me started writing on trains, it revolutionised the way I write. (Of every single thing I’ve written since then, around 90% – including this very blog post – has been written on a laptop, on a train).
When: Early 2005
OS: Mac OS X (came with Panther, later upgraded to Tiger)
I’d had no plans to move back to Apple. I was vaguely aware that the Apple OS had moved on, with the Unix based OS X replacing the earlier OS. But I was happy in my Linux world. Then, a few months after I bought the HP laptop, I flew to Edinburgh for Conpulsion with my best mate LucidDestiny/Bubba, and he bought his new Powerbook with him.
It was brilliant. Smooth. Good looking. Not Microsoft. And a seriously impressive battery life, resulting in a laptop that was genuinely mobile. But the thing that sealed the deal for me was the way it handled sleep. Finished working? Just close the lid. Want to start working again? Open the lid, and there it is, as you left it. Instant. No selecting options, or pressing buttons, just close lid, open lid.
I knew by now that working on a train worked for me, and so I was ready to make the jump completely to a laptop as my primary machine.
So I bought myself an iBook (the PowerBook’s cheaper cousin, intended for home and student use). I loved it. The new Mac OS (OS X) was a hell of a lot more stable than the predecessor I’d run on my old iMac of several years before.
The iBook was great, and I was more then happy with it. I got quite a bit of writing done on it, including my last set of Signs & Portents columns, and the first chapter of Game Night. I was forced to upgrade it after a relatively short period of time for one reason only – something went wrong in the hinge area, causing the screen to only occasionally work when it opened up. I suspect one too many bouncing runs (on the train) through the fast Hammersmith section of the Piccadilly Line was to blame.
#11 Apple MacBook (Intel processor)
When: End 2006
OS: Mac OS X (Tiger, later upgraded to Snow Leopard)
In appearance, the MacBook was identical to its iBook predecessor – although I think it was a little wider, 13” rather than 12”. Since I’d bought the iBook, Apple had switched to Intel processors and renamed their product range, from iBook and PowerBook to MacBook and MacBook Pro.
This was the book I wrote the bulk of Game Night on (all but Chapter One). And it’s still a machine I use.
When: Early 2008
OS: Mac OS X (Leopard)
And now we come to number twelve, the last, but most definitely not the least. This was something of an extravagant purchase. I’d no need for a new laptop of any sort. But I’d fallen in love with Air from the moment I’d seen the advert video of it being taken out of an envelope, had just received a bonus, and my darling wife told me I should treat myself.
Extravagance aside, it has proved a perfect match for me needs. I do nearly all my writing on the train (I’m writing this now on a First Capital Connect train to Bedford, currently just passing through the Southern suburbs of Croydon) and the Air is exactly what I need. A full sized querty keyboard and screen squeezed into the smallest, thinnest, lightest form factor possible.
I’ve had twelve computers in my life, and for me now, the best of them all is this, the twelfth. They’ve all been different, and I’ve liked them to varying extents in different ways, but none has felt quite so much an extension of my thoughts as this one.
* * * * *
So that’s my number. What’s yours?