In the Hardware Doldrums

When Wilhelm saw the breadth of his rig, he wept for there were no more peripherals to covet.

-A parody or a rewrite of a made up mis-quote

Much of the last 30 years or so of my experience with computers can be summed up with the phrase “hardware envy.”

Hardware envy predates my getting my first computer.  The envy then was to have any computer hardware at all.

Eventually I did secure my own computer, an Apple ][+.

Apple II+ on Day One

And then, like any good addiction, it became about getting more, even though I was ahead of the game, really.  I had the coveted DUAL FLOPPY DRIVE configuration.  And look at that digital watch on one of the floppy drives.  We used to think those were pretty neat too!

But really, paddle controllers?  And so the upgrades began.

Apple ][+ The Upgrades Begin

I had to get a CH Products joystick.

(And why is there no Wikipedia article detailing the whole CH Products line from the beginning of time through today?  Clearly somebody is slacking.)

Then there was the cooling fan/power bar on the side to make sure the upgraded power supply held on.

Eventually I wanted crazy things, like a 80 columns of text and lower case letters, so I had to upgrade to an Apple //e.

And so it went.  There was always some piece of hardware to obtain.  Modems.  Sound cards.  High density floppy drives.  Color monitors.  Bigger monitors.  Hard drives.  Processor upgrades.

I went from Apple ][ to Macintosh to Windows PCs over that time.  At various stages I could discuss, with an annoying amount of detail, the relative merits of modems, hard drives, hard drive interfaces, digital optical drives, 24-bit color accelerated video cards, 3D accelerated video cards, Motorola processors, Intel processors, ISDN terminal adapters, and the many flavors of monitors available at any given period of time.

But over time all of what we used to discuss over lunch, or would rage about in the aisles of Fry's, or laugh about while sorting through the piles of junk over at Weird Stuff sort of just faded away.

Modems became a commodity and then pretty much disappeared for most people.  The broadband and phone company incompetence killed ISDN.  USB and cheap CD/DVD RW drives killed floppy drives.

Hard drives have gotten so cheap and so fast and capacity has grown so much that barely notice them any more.  I have 4.5 terabytes of fixed disk storage hooked up to my computer at home.  I remember practically wetting myself seeing a 1GB hard drive back in 1990.  It was the size of a cinder block, made as much noise as a hair dryer on the low setting, and created enough gyroscopic force to give you a better workout than any DynaBee.

Video cards went from huge performance gains with every other generation to the point that all my needs are pretty much satisfied by a 3 generation old mid-range card. (An nVidia GTS 450, if you care.)

And CPUs pretty much went the same route.  It is a long way from that 8-bit 1MHz 6502 in my Apple ][+ to the eight core, 64-bit 3.06 GHz Intel i7-950 processor that is in my current machine.  And somewhere along that path, the CPU stopped being the bottleneck.  It used to be that two years down the road buying a new computer would give you a noticeable performance boost.  Now I have more processing power than the whole space shuttle fleet combined, but most of the software I own cannot take advantage of it.  I am always surprised to find software that doesn’t just latch on to core 0, and heaven forbid I run into something that is actually 64-bit.

And then there are monitors.  The quest for more desktop space used to be an epic one… often epic in terms of budget.  I remember when not only did a 20″ Trinitron monitor have a suggested retail price of $2,499, but the 24-bit accelerated video card to drive it cost about the same. (And that wasn’t 3D acceleration, that was just acceleration to make 24-bit color usable.)

But monitors, like everything else, got better and cheaper.  I remember the generations of my monitors by resolutions.  512×384. 640×480. 800×600.  1024×768.  1280×1024. And, finally 1600×1200.

That last one, which came with a reasonable 20″ Dell Monitor, is where I have sat for some time now.

The table is unusually clear in this picture

That is a picture I took for a post on the site more than five years ago, and the monitor was probably a year old even then.  It still sits right there in that very same spot… with the same keyboard and trackball and speakers and, frankly, a lot more paper.  The iPod dock has moved on though.

I actually had hope for monitors.  Those seemed to be growing at a steady rate, while always coming down in price.

And then HDTV came along and screwed everything up.  Then, suddenly, 1920×1080 seemed to be the biggest screen that anybody wanted to make.  Unfortunately, that ends up being a few more pixels than 1600×1200, but in a 16:9 configuration rather than the 4:3 aspect ratio I prefer.  I prefer 4:3 because a surprising number of things I do requires scrolling vertically.  So wider often makes no difference at all to me, but shorter annoys me almost right away.

But when I look at monitors in my price range, they are all 16:9, 1920×1080 models.  They can be up to 27″ in size, but that just means bigger pixels when, frankly, I want more pixels.

Sure, if we stray out of my price range, we can start talking about 30″ monitors that actually have more pixels.  But for those of us without the discretionary income of single, childless people, they remain maddeningly out of reach.  And they don’t seem to be falling in price, which I gather is because every body thinks 1920×1080 is as neat as digital watches.  The demand is low, so the prices stay high.

But the real catch is, I am not even sure I want a bigger monitor.  And I could always add a second monitor if I really needed more space, though I would want another one like the one I have, which is no longer available.

And so I seem to be sitting at the end of personal computer history.  Or at least the hardware end of it.

Will I, like Alexander, find that in a short 30 years, have come to the end of things?

Are computers… the classic desktop and even the laptop… finally moving towards a more appliance-like existence.  Are they waning in the market due to the newer devices that offer computer power… phones, tablets and… um… refrigerators?

Or am I just getting old and set in my ways?

Maybe I could find a nice new set of USB headphones…

22 responses to “In the Hardware Doldrums

  1. This is another one of those nostalgia posts isn’t it?

    I cut my coding teeth on the Apple ][e in my first real IT job 28 years ago. We used Z80 plug-in cards because the department wanted to run CP/M. Our largest disk storage was a 5 (Five) MB (Megabyte) unit that was multi-plexed to the four computers in the office. My washing machine’s spin cycle is quieter. I really don’t remember the first drive to break 1GB, that was just another milestone that ticked quietly away.

    With all the technology that has come and gone, I have to admit that sometimes I feel a distinct empathy for Roy Batty. I still have all of the following stashed at work or home:

    An external modem, Jaz Drive, PS/2 Keyboard, Windows 3.1 API referrence, coax ethernet cable, half-inch mainframe tape, dot-matrix printer and a cell-phone from 1994 that could probably classify as a offensive weapon. Our data-center is gone – virtualized to who-knows-where. The phones are next to go, apparently. The only thing that shows on my (sole-remaining) TV nowadays is output from the PS/3, if my daughter can tear herself away from playing or watching something online.

    At one time or another I was so amazingly primitive that I used to think all those were pretty neat ideas.

    Mike.
    Who no longer has a digital watch, or indeed any sort of watch.

  2. I had that joystick on my IIc. I think it cost $180 around 1986. You could loosen screws on the underside to disengage the springs and use it as a control stick for Flight Simulator 2.0, I believe.

  3. Markets… interesting stories about how progress forward tends to relate to going back in time, taking the road that wasn’t ‘buzzworthy’ at the time.

    Airlines today suffer huge losses from icing on wings. Over 3 decades ago, the proposed airfoil to combat icing was ignored and the ‘most efficient’ airfoil designs were selected and became commonplace in the industry. Minus many details (the ‘annoying’ ones, to borrow a term), the industry has learned that quick bucks now set precedents that lead to severe losses in hardware, maintenance and… lawsuits (hello Death, shall we introduce you to the family of the deceased?) that far exceed what the compounded interest on the initial short-term buck gain would have been.

    Watches today witness a rebound in dial interfaces compared to digital. With dial, someone can tell- at a glance- the semblance of the hour and minute count… impossible with digital. A waking eye, drenched in slumber, reads 3:35 on the clockface… or is that 5:53 and I need to wake up?
    Like the airfoil example, fidelity finds itself in tried, true and time-tested methods. Not in the ‘latest trend’.

    Nostalgia? … or is it foresight? The things we long for in our games, our hardware… are those rose-colored glasses, or a magic crystal lens, through which we view the market landscape?

  4. What about a reasonably cheap second monitor?
    22/”24″ that can be tilted 90°

    You have to be careful as they often don’t play well with looking from an angle (and remember, this will be left and right now, not up and down where you usually don’t move so much) – but especially for a putting a browser on it, the 1080/1200 width is usually enough.

  5. @Bhagpuss – I have an iPad 2. It purports to play MMOs in some way, shape, or form. But I do not play PC-ish games on it because, they don’t play as well and I have a perfectly good PC. After nearly a year with it, I use it primarily for board games and as a reference tool. But there will be a post about that at some future date.

    @NoAstro – Aren’t they all nostalgia posts eventually?

    I have a box in the closet full of modems (including some amusing pre-production prototypes) and related cables and power supplies. I am not sure I will ever need a modem for a PowerBook Duo, but if I do, I have a few handy.

    @Ahtchu – Digital clocks lead to an obsession with needless detail. My daughter is forever correcting me when I say it is 8 o’clock when, according to the microwave, it is only 7:58, and is often momentarily confused by my insistence on declaring 7:15 as “a quarter after seven.” I try to explain that time is an illusion… except for bed time, which is a hard fact and exists exactly when I say it does… but she has that determination of youth that makes people argue over whose watch or phone is “correct.”

    I think automotive displays are a good example of the superiority of analog readouts in certain applications. A digital tachometer is fine for working on a car, but when driving nobody (nobody sane, anyway) stares at their tach long enough to digest a digital readout that will constantly fluctuate. A needle in the approximate right range that can be read at a glace is all you need. The only exception I can think of is the tach in Potshot’s old MG, which I recall bouncing around with callous disregard for actual engine revolutions. And even then, you could get used to just averaging its mood swings.

    Likewise, digital speedometers give the illusion of precision. But knowing the margin for error you can find (my own car is off by nearly +5 MPH at freeway speeds… so it only seems like I am speeding!) it isn’t actually any more helpful that just having a needle in the right range. Though, I admit big speed readouts on other people’s cars can be amusing to read at night when you are driving next to them. But I wouldn’t want one in my car.

    I am not exactly how this all relates to my post, but it is certainly a subject I can warm to.

  6. Finally got rid of my original Apple ][ a few years ago, bought before floppy drives were widely available. (It used what we referred to as a “non-thermal-stabilized” cassette tape player for storage, meaning the system wouldn’t be able to read data back off the tape until the player had warmed up to the same temperature it had been when the data was recorded.)

    I’m not terribly nostalgic for the days of 48k system memory upgrades and coding my own floating point routines in 6502 Assembly. (The floating point routines in Bill Gates’ original never-to-be-sufficiently-damned Applesoft Basic introduced rounding errors that screwed up the statistical batch processing code I was inexplicably required to write in that godforsaken language.)

  7. I have had two upgrades over the last year that really impressed me. I grabbed two well priced DELL 27″ monitors with a resolution of 2560×1440 each which are excellent. I was also blown away by the speed improvement of upgrading from HDD to SSD. So there can still be wow factor upgrades for the humble computer.

  8. @Aufero – I actually traded in… TRADED IN, FOR MONEY… my Apple ][+ when I bought the Apple //e. Used computers had actual value back in the day. There used to be a used computer store... not a junk, or surplus store, but one that sold used but working models... called Interstate Computer Bank in Mountain View.

    And I sold my Apple //e with all its sundry peripherals for enough to buy my developer priced dual floppy Mac SE in 1987. I put an ad in the paper and a guy who ran his business accounting system on Apple ][s bought it.

    I stopped being able to sell used computer equipment somewhere in the mid-to-late 1990s.

    @evehermit – Yeah, I was eyeballing an SSD for my system when I built it, but they were a bit pricey back then. And, yeah, a more pixel monitor would be good, but I cannot bring myself to spend that much money.

  9. SSD is indeed great, and prices are dropping.

    A Dell 24″ monitor at 1900×1200 is a nice upgrade as well. Not sure why you would get one at 1080 (unless the price difference is huge? My last monitor was $800 a year or so ago).

    The internet needs to get faster, so instead of 100 ping to the west coast, I get the 30ish I get to Chicago (DF servers). Such a huge difference.

  10. Was I the only one cursed with a TRS-80 instead of the superior Apple II ? Dad asked his buddy what to buy and came home with that, and I was in heaven for six months coding horrid little games in Basic, saved onto cassette tapes that usually worked but not always. This of course, required me to *write out* programs on notebook paper to be sure they’d be saved, since we couldn’t afford a printer.

    My neighbor had his Apple II and tons of games. I spent many hours visiting watching him play Ultima, or Choplifter, or similar items. I’d then go home and mess with my basically graphic-less substitute.

    I got bored with it sometime during high school, then discovered girls. Remember War Games ? Somehow, I pulled that off – I got the women to check out my computer or ask for help, which lead to other things including my first marriage.

    I entered the PC era with a Tandy 1000. Now that, had sound blaster quality hardware for the very few games that took advantage of it. Imagine playing battle chess without beeps and boops, and it sounded like TV/Radio audio. Only that plus Sentinel Worlds had good sound if memory serves.

    Computer equipment is very much becoming a commodity. I see parallels with the auto industry. The first guys making cars were big time geeks, and as time progressed, mass manufacturing brought them all across America. And for this generation, it was intense. Everybody knew how to mess with their cars. Today, some (mostly men) know how and most of us just expect them to work. I expect by the time I’m in a retirement home those damn kids will look at me with amusement and talk about the generation of “computer guys”, not really getting why it was so awesome. I know I never got the “auto generation”. And those kids will have whatever they have instead.

  11. I am very conscious that we are nearing the end of the PC era and I am trying to figure out my own personal coping strategy. I am half tempted to invest in a very good machine early next year (while you can still get Windows 7 on it) and archive it for posterity with my collection of PC games. Perhaps the most impressive legacy of the PC is its unmatched backwards compatibility and the immense back catalogue a dedicated PC user has access to.

    Yet another herald of the age of user serviceable computing is the scoop from Semi-Accurate today that Intel’s next processor will not be socketable. So much for enthusiasts building their own machines in the future.

    I will miss messing around with computers though. I have spent many happy hours building and upgrading PCs and many more somewhat frustrating ones trying to fix them when things didn’t work as they should.

  12. @mrrx – Ah yes, the Trash-80. I had friends that had those. You could fill up a 4K model typing in your own code without a lot of effort. I ended up with an Apple ][ because I was spending my own money.

    And yes, as part of this post, I had planned to go the car/computer guy comparison route, though it ended up way off in the weeds, so I took it out. I don’t think we really consider how much more reliable and appliance like cars have gotten in my lifetime. My first car, a 74 Plymouth, required a lot of maintenance, which I did myself. And I am going to point at Potshot’s MG again here.

    Since buying a new (Japanese) car in the late 80s, my car issues have been one leaking head gasket (which I ignored… just add more oil!), two flat tires, about a half a dozen dead batteries (I now replace those five year batteries before year seven), and a kamakazi Honda Civic that destroyed the car with the leaking head gasket, so that worked out in the end.

  13. Get a widescreen monitor. Set it up next to your old monitor. Plug them both in and configure. You will *never* go back to just one! Imagine having EFT (or YouTube) open on the side without having to alt-tab out to use it, or looking at your comms to see who’s talking. So great. You’ll never say “hmm, wish I only had one monitor” :)

  14. I know how you feel. I have fond happy memories of every hardware upgrade. Getting that first color computer monitor was amazing.

    Now, I’ve had the same rig for 3yrs. And i have no need or interest in upgrading. It runs everything fine. Might need to replace the graphics card but only because its blue screening.

  15. I am a big proponent of dual screen. I have two Samsung BX2450 setup and couldn’t imagine going back to a single screen.

  16. Uphill, both ways, in the snow? Really, grandpa? ;)

    I poke fun because I remember most of this myself. :P Although I never owned an Apple II, always used the ones in school or in the computer lab when my mother was going to community college.

  17. What, are we brothers from different mothers? I too was a “hardware envy” guy. I started out with a Vic 20, filling up the 8k with my programs and, after getting frustrated, rapidly progressed to the Atari line since many of my friends had them.

    I was also a modem guy, starting out on a 300 baud Pocket modem that plugged into the same slot on the Atari that the joystick did, if I recall correctly. I ran a BBS for years on various hardware, installing a second phone line I had to pay for myself. As for ISDN, I still have a USB ISDN Currior that I won at one of the computer shows back then (Canadian Computer Show, maybe).

    My first PC didn’t come until 1990 (I had access to PCs at school and didn’t have the cash to get one before), when I build my “Dream system” a 486 DX50, not the DX2 with clock doubling but a REAL DX50, 4 Meg of RAM and I bough one of the 1Gig drives you saw. For video, I had an ATi VGA Wonder+… gawd… the money I spent on that thing!

  18. @Psychochild – I grew up in California. Our version is:

    I had to walk… BOTH ways.

    And that is apparently enough to terrorize a child these days.

    @tms – I didn’t even delve into the early 90s when a roommate and I setup a 10Base5 coax Ethernet network in the house we were renting. I was also running a BBS at the time and it supported network connections, so I was able to administer it and upload files very fast. This was at a time where the site I worked at still used AppleTalk/PhoneNet networking at a blazing 230Kbps.

  19. The first computer I owned was a DigiComp I, purchased through the Edmund Scientific Catalog. It was made of plastic, had three bits, and was powered by metal springs and elbow grease. I learned a lot about boolean logic from that thing. I still have it, too. I played Nim on it.

    The second computer I ever owned was an Amiga. I knew someone who worked for them (before being bought by Commodore, no less). It had a fantastically advanced (for the time) OS, and could kinda sorta do 3D graphics. I played Marble Madness, Bards Tale, and a version of Rogue on it, among others.

    I got rid of it. It was gathering dust and taking space. I think I gave it to an enthusiast. I hope it’s well.

  20. @Wilhelm – Your above response to Psychochild caused me to use the phrase “kids these days” in a non-ironic manner in a subsequent conversation. I have become a crotchety old fart, and it’s your fault.

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