Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fun With Old Computers #1

That I collect old computers is obvious. They generally serve no purpose, really, except to perhaps access some old file, run some old software or to simply tinker with. Admittedly, my Macintosh collection is used quite a bit, and in fact are generally my main machines (I see no need for anything newer than a G3 processor and OS X 10.4). But while they may be just artifacts to amuse me, they are junk to most people.

The common mindset is that computers grow old and have to be replaced, and it goes without saying that the two biggest drivers for their design are the internet and multimedia. I won't get on a soap box and shout that there are people out there who have done some amazing things with older computers such as web access; a quick Google search will give you more responses than you can imagine. I'm not even going to say that you need to recycle and dispose of these old machines in an environmentally conscientious manner.

No, I have another thought.
Play with them.
But first; how many of you out there have taken an old computer and simply opened it up and looked at it? I tell you, just the evolution of them is fascinating (something coming soon to these pages, I promise). The old Apple II series (one of which I just acquired) and the first IBM PC's are amazing in their complete lack of sophistication. Many times the chips are simply socketed. Especially the RAM. Both the Apple II and the IBM PC had their RAM socketed so that increasing it was simply a matter of pulling out the existing chips and socketing a new set. Not as easy as sliding in SIMM or DIMM RAM, but still easy. The original Apple II and IBM PC were designed to be serviceable by the very people who would buy them. Not so the first Macintoshes, which were meant to be "digital appliances". Trust me, taking apart a Mac Plus was a real job.

Back to the notion of playing with the machine. What can you do with one? I guess a good way to start, if you have want to take a trip down the memory highway, is to download an old operating system. This can be fun, especially with PC's. The lineal ancestry of Windows takes you back to CP/M, the first operating system designed for a myriad of computers and where you can find the ever popular command line and prompt...


Ah, yes, what memories.

So, you can download a few operating systems from yesterday and relive the frustration. Great.  But there are a lot of applications and, dare I say it, games, that only operate on these older systems. Yes, you can probably play many of the later DOS games on a Windows XP machine, but there are some that are dependent on chip speed. There was a version of "Frogger", for instance, that was designed to run on an original IBM 8088 equipped PC, moving along at a blinding 4.77 MHz. I once tried it on an 486DX2 moving at 60 MHz. Was it playable? Like dropping frogs in a blender.

More than likely, though, the old computer you have moldering away in the garage/attic/closet/garden shed/that-hidden-room-with-the-neat-lighting-and-hydroponics is newer than an old IBM/clone 8088 PC or original Mac. It's probably even newer than something from the mid-1990's. It's probably even newer than your car, but you had to have the latest OS and bells and whistles. It's okay, it's what keeps the economy going (OBSOLESCENCE-GOOD, OLD MACHINES-BAD). Chances are, there are probably better computers in a landfill than in your local high school. Okay, I wasn't going to bring up recycling, but how about donating the old machine to a school? If it's too new to not be completely interesting but old enough to be, well, old, maybe that's a thought?

Better still... wire it so that it can get some modicum of internet access, wipe the hard drive (especially those... ahem... special files), install a good OS (I recommend Ubuntu for PC's) and turn it into a net PC. Even better... if you have one of those wall-sized televisions (you know, the type that glow brighter than the mothership in "Close Encounters" and use enough power to light up Mayberry), get a VGA to TV converter and turn your websurfing into a truly immersive environment.

You'll thank me for that when your eight year old discovers the wonders of the web. And your hidden stash of porn.

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