Daily Archives: November 26, 2012

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…