Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Passion(less) PC Hardware Evolution

Where, oh where to begin.

August, 1994

It's the middle of the summer and I'm about a month away from my first year of high school. Super Nintendo was all the rage providing mind numbing hours of entertainment. As I walked out the front door of my house with my cousin, he says, "Wow, you got a computer!" I said, "I did? Huh, what?" To the right of me on the floor were several boxes - one containing a Packard Bell 486DX2 at 50Mhz with 4MB of stock ram and a 420MB hard drive! Don't forget about the killer apps - Packard Bell Explorer running on Windows 3.11 on top of Dos 6.22 - now that's hardcore, two hardcore for one hand even.

Pay attention kids, this is where I got my "chops"

Even back in the day running Doom on a 486 w/4MB of RAM was taxing on the machine. I couldn't play it if Windows loaded, I'd have to exit out or use an old school shft+F2. Aside from my desire to play the best video game of all time - The PacBell (like they tended to do) kept crapping out, problems here and there. It really threw me in to the fire. Anyway, my quest to play Doom without booting again led me to wanting to understand memory, how does the PC control this ram? And what the hell, why is 640K so important! Conventional memory is right, this is a computer we're talking about here, with a word like "conventional" seemingly putting a hammer down on everything. So I read, I read everything that came with the PC, including the MS-DOS book. With a fundamental understanding I went to work.. c:\edit config.sys! My first step in to a new world. One where I could identify with a seldom few in the real world, I felt more of a connection with Dade from Hackers than most of my classmates. The first year was intense, experimenting with Windows3.11 shell manangers, a ton of "memory tweakers", finally having the nerve to take a screw driver to the PacBell (had to wait til no one was home, if my Dad saw me fondling the warranty sticker on a $2,500.00 PC I'd be in deep shit) and it lended a bigger, brighter, better understanding as to what this software was manipulating.

Beautiful, sexy, sleek, Made in Taiwan HARDWARE!

So this was cool - I was a kid, around 7 or 8 years old, who would rip apart old VCRs and TVs, trying to figure out how things work. Most memorable: An unshielded power supply can zap you! The PC hardware was something new and exciting! Besides that, it was really quite limiting. All this fun stuff to do on a PC, and this, this hardware was what I came to admire and despise simultaneously. But, it was fun! Setting up memory hacks, staying up in to the wee hours of the morning just trying everything and anything I can think of - remember, there was no google codebase, no fancey internet forums to ask for help. It was a list of files and DOS commands and goold old fashion tinkering.

And it was great! I loved it, every minute of it. I was so stoked every day coming home from school to get back on the PC, to a) play Doom and b) see what else I could do with it! It was about the hardware, it was about exploiting every drop of performance out of it that I could. It was a competition, starting with myself and then moving to random DALnet IRC channels, it was passion and fun. More than a pastime but struggling to be a life style (remember this is before geeks were cool!) The good ole' PacBell saw it's share of hardware failures, one in the IDE controller on the soundblaster (remember when that was the norm!?!). I actually had a tech show up to my house, he couldn't fix it, had to call some PacBell support center, while he was on hold I fixed it. (Just used a different IDE controller card the guy had - I don't know why he was a tech, then again this is PacBell) The guy on the phone wanted to talk to me, so in my enthusiam I said sure - he offered me a job! Talk about an ego boost, unfortunately, or fortunately rather I think there was some labor laws preventing a 14 year old relocating for work.

Around one summer later I spent about a week downloading floppy images of Slackware 95, you can fill in the blanks from there.

I know as a productivity tools, PCs should just work, forget all the M$ this or Apple that for a minute, when you rely on tools to work to make money - they should work. I'm kind of glad they do, but I'll tell you, I miss it.

I miss the binge sessions, I miss ripping through DOS prompts, I miss win.ini (honorable mention: creditmaster4!, Shhhh). For the adventure you have to get a little bigger and better now, it's not built in to the box, you can go chase whatever dreams you want on the web, whether it's making a million bucks or hacking the sh!t out of some poor financial institution's lousy network with last century infrastructre. That's all good, but call me old fashioned - I almost miss that 486...

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