For some of us, the loves of our life include the computers that much of the rest of our life revolves around. They provided us entertainment and helped satisfy our urges for knowledge and power. We may speak of our old computers as others may speak of past lovers.
These are mine.
My grandfather’s 8086
The first computer that had an impact on my life was my grandfather’s 8086 (could have been an 8088). It had a monochrome monitor and a large tablet connected to it from his job. The tablet had a pen connected to it and a laminated paper taped onto it that presumably was a guide for how to interact with the CAD software (an early version of Autocad maybe?).
He had it setup in the spare bedroom of his house where he and I could play basic games on it until my grandmother called us to dinner. The games, and all of the programs, came on 5 1/4″ floppies that you carefully removed from sleeves and slid them into the drive–needing to close the lever to let the drive know there was a disc in it for it to read. Originally everything required disks but I remember when he got a 20MB hard drive which filled up far quicker than he had imagined.
I enjoyed trying to draw with his tablet as much as I enjoyed any of the games he had. But the real magic was learning the commands that would launch the programs. I could make a computer do things if I typed in a specific set of characters in a particular sequence. Those things were (very small) digital worlds to explore and tools for creation. That was powerful stuff for a seven-year-old and is still magical to this day.
The key piece of this was my grandfather. He was a great teacher and partner-in-crime. His love of technology rubbed off on me and helped me become who I am today.
It was a happy day when my parents decided we needed a computer at home. My mom used a computer at work (a law firm where she was a Novell administrator and DOS Word Perfect ninja) and probably wanted to continue to encourage the interest I was showing in computing. So, one day a computer arrived at the house. It was a 286 with a mouse, 3.5″ disk drive, no hard drive, and a CGA monitor. It was perfect.
I spent hours on this thing. At first my time was spent playing games (these became go to birthday and Christmas gifts) such as Epic Pinball, Red Baron, Carmen Sandiego, and
Hero’s Quest. Wolfenstein was maybe the last game played on this and was “borrowed” from someone at my mom’s office. Eventually I moved on from playing games and discovered BASIC. For years, my forays into programming were creating Choose Your Own Adventure-style games.
(I asked and both my mother and I are positive we had a 286 but I am not finding a reference online to that model.)
Packard Bell 486SX
The 286 was a good computer but quickly became outdated. (We complain about technology becoming obsolete now but now has nothing on the 80s and early 90s. Monochrome became color. Disk drives gave way to hard drives. Colors exploded. DOS became Windows became Windows 95–what a launch! Local networks were followed by modems, bulletin board systems, and finally the Internet!)
Our 286 had a single density disk drive and could not read the high-density disks that programs were now coming on. We had to upgrade which we did when my mother bought us a 486 from a local electronics store that no longer exists.
The Packard Bell 486SX was a 25MHz computer with a 200MB hard drive. It came with Windows 3.1, a VGA monitor, and–watch out–a single-speed CD-ROM drive. Under the tree we also got Microsoft Encarta which was an encyclopedia I could click and search through and which had sounds and a handful of videos. Other notable games and software on this system was Flight Simulator 5, Microsoft Baseball Reference, Battle Chess, Myst, and DOOM.
This is the system where I really learned how computers worked. The computer only had 4MB of RAM originally so, to play a lot of games, I had to create boot floppies with custom config.sys and autoexec.bat files that loaded the bare minimum in order for the games to have enough memory to run from DOS. I was constantly breaking things and it seemed like I was reinstalling Windows on a monthly basis.
Eventually I got my friend’s 2400bps modem after his family upgraded to a 14.4k bps modem. We signed up for Compuserve but I soon tired of its walled garden. That is when I entered the world of the BBS and started to play text-based games online. We got a 28.8k bps modem when those came out and, coupled with Trumpet Winsock, the Internet. Thanks be to Marc Andreessen for Mosaic.
Another thing that happened with this is learning about alternate operating systems (besides the Apple IIs the school had). I bought BeOS in a store and downloaded Slackware from a BBS. BeOS didn’t have any programs and I didn’t know enough to
startx in Slackware but Linux became my primary operating system a few years, and two computers, later with Red Hat 5 (also purchased at Egbhead Software).
One year for my birthday I got Borland Turbo C++ Visual Edition for Windows which seemed cool but was terribly underused. The manuals that came with it were not enough of a tutorial for me. I was able to use it a bit more like HyperCard and create small graphical programs that had all of the special moves to Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Killer Instinct.
Eventually this system got a larger hard drive, a network card, and an upgrade to 16MB of RAM so we could play DOOM II against each other with the next of the systems.
Acer Pentium 150Mhz
I believe it was my freshman year of high school when we upgraded systems again. This was a Pentium 150MHz with 16MB of RAM and a solid black case. It ran Windows 95 and ran it well (at least much better than the 486 when I installed it on there.)
This was the PC for the boys in our family where computers went from fun to an obsession and what ultimately led to our careers. It is what I learned HTML and Perl on but it was actually gaming that fueled that. My love of DOOM led me to explore the online modding community (I still have my Doom2 levels) while iD Software was working on a revolutionary 3D game called Quake. Websites (Redwood, Scary, and Blue) were springing up to cover it before it was ever released. I learned about IRC and was in EFnet
#quake late one night patiently waiting for the beta release to drop. It got delayed and I had to go to bed.
My money from bagging groceries was spent on a Matrix Millennium II and eventually a 3DFX Voodoo card to play GL Quake. There is no doubting the impact that piece of hardware had on gaming. And that game my life. My first real website (ran with my younger brother) was an online polling site that each week posed a series of questions about the game and then tabulated the results.
At this time I got a job working for a local computer company that provided I.T. services for local firms. I spent my days after school delivering heavy monitors and printers (some were so big I would have to take them out of the box in order to get them in my car) and snaking 10Base2 network cables around offices.
Custom Built Pentium II 300Mhz
I created my first custom build before I went to college. This was a Pentium II 300Mhz with 128 MB of RAM and a 3DFX Voodoo 2 graphics card. I spared no expense including a 3Com networking card for $100 (only to find that the incoming student office apparently didn’t understand my question about Internet and that my freshman dorm wouldn’t have Ethernet installed until my sophomore year).
I still played games on this system (Quake 2, Unreal (what an amazing opening level!), Quake Tournament, and Blood II being ones of note) but it is also with this system where I dual-booted out of the box and made Linux my primary OS. I had been using it for a couple of years by this point (I setup a Red Hat web server for the telecommunications class at my high school my senior year and got a call a few years later about it being hacked as nobody had been running the updates) but moving to it full-time really leveled up my skill set and provided me the foundation (the LAMP stack) for a lot of what I have built since. Red Hat 5, Linux Mandrake, and eventually Ubuntu were the distributions I used.
This is the first system that didn’t have a distinct end. It was upgraded from time-to-time with new CPUs (there was an AMD Athlon at one point), motherboards, video cards, and cases over the course of the next fifteen years. It was also the first system I ran dual-monitors on. So, while no parts matched the original, my oldest son played Stardew Valley on the final evolution of this.
Late 2012 Mac Mini
The thing about using Linux is that you have to be willing to put up with some level of annoyance or be knowledgeable enough and willing to roll your sleeves up and fix things yourself. Linux on the desktop doesn’t “just work”. Rather it mostly works. Sometimes things that were working previously stop doing so. (This is still an issue to this day when Ubuntu 22.04 stopped booting a couple of months ago due to an issue with DRM on the graphics driver in the kernel.) At the time, I had been working remotely for a few years by using Remote Desktop on Ubuntu to log into a Remote Desktop Server in the office. That experience seemed to get worse with each Ubuntu release and, coupled with my printer no longer working unless I rebooted my system and power-cycled my printer immediately prior to printing, pushed me to Mac.
I did my research and the fully-loaded Mac Mini (4 cores–8 hyper-threaded) had better benchmark performance than the iMac at the time and allowed me to upgrade to 16GB RAM myself which saved me some money. I had a PS3 and had my first child so gaming was less of a concern for me at this time. I needed something that just worked and I found it in the Mac.
This system served me very well for over seven years. My development setup was initially a virtual machine using VirtualBox that ran Linux but eventually I moved to developing on a virtual server in the cloud which provided me an easy way to develop on this system as well as a Chromebook that I acquired.
Back to Linux
Eventually, the Mac reached its last legs and loading a website could result in the machine locking up for twenty seconds. COVID hit and we stopped going places so I figured it was time for a new machine. I had been missing some of the customizability of Linux and after much soul searching (and with an Apple ARM processor on the horizon) I settled on building a new desktop.
I had been out of the PC game for quite a while and turned to Reddit to help me configure the new machine. I settled on an AMD Ryzen 3900XT 12-core CPU with 64GB of RAM and an AMD RX 5700 XT graphics card (I briefly bought an RX-580 which was under-powered).
This machine has been mostly a pleasure to use. I have not felt lacking for power other than when trying to fly over Manhattan in Flight Simulator 2020 (amazing game). I have three 27″ 4K monitors hooked up and recently transitioned (and am still getting used to) to a Kinsis Advantage 360 Pro keyboard. Overall, I have few complaints and no regrets about my decision here. The only real complaint is that the graphics card seems to be a bit unstable with Elite Dangerous consistently crashing. Driver updates haven’t helped.
In addition to my desktop systems, there was a Dell Windows Vista laptop that was a complete mess of hardware and software. I had better luck with a couple of cheap Chromebooks (an 11″ Acer C720 and a 14″ Acer CB3-431) which were honestly a pleasure to use for web-browsing, Google Docs, and as an SSH client to my VPS dev environment.
Some other hardware that I have had over my life were my Casio watch that you could type and store information in, personal organizers that the partners at my mom’s law firm would buy and quickly not use, an HP LaserJet 5L (loved that printer), a Linksys WRT54G that I flashed DD-WRT on, the Google Nexus 7, Unifi networking gear, a Synology Diskstation, and the iPad that I typed this post on while on a flight.
I bought a keyboard for the iPad which is providing a better writing experience than I had anticipated but the iPad does not cut it for my dev work. While Windows + WSL2 provides a good development environment, I have not found that Windows laptops measure up to MacBooks. Thus, my next piece of hardware will likely be a MacBook (maybe a 14″ Pro M2 maybe once those are released).
My children all have their own Chromebooks that they spend too much time on. Eventually, they may want beefier computers for gaming, development, or creative work at which point we may build some PCs together.