Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Computer History

1594 words

Welcome to a wrongly titled post… Ever since Apple started selling the MacBooks (still a silly name) recently I was seriously tempted to get one. Not because I’m an Intel freak – Intel actually scares me because it can’t run Classic – but because it has a larger screen and looks thinner than the iBook. And what I read around the web was quite positive. Everybody seems to be getting MacBooks and everybody seems to like them. There’s the thing with the shiny screen that I’m quite sceptical about but the people who’ve actually used the machines seem to agree that, yes the screen is shiny, but that the reflections in the screen are only a problem at light levels where you wouldn’t have seen anything on existing iBook screens either.

While the iBook isn’t a bad computer – I’ve always liked its simple design – its small screen kept upsetting me. Particularly when doing CSS or TeX work, where you vastly benefit from being able to see both the ‘source’ and the compiled result at the same time. So I’ve been looking for an excuse to trade my newish iBook for a MacBook. Thanks to Apple’s education discounts I paid around €1100 for the iBook and the immediate RAM and hard drive upgrades I wanted in August, and I’ll need to pay about the same again now to get the smallest MacBook with 2 gigabytes of memory. Unfortunately it looks like my well equipped iBook can only be expected to fetch around €700 at eBay, leaving a gap of around €400 to fill.

Let’s try to find a way to justify that – rather than just going with my dad’s I told you to get a computer with a bigger screen last year or some friends’ uh, great idea, I’d get one right away. And to do that let’s go gown memory lane:

Atari 1040STFM

Christmas 1989, my first computer! An Atari 1040STFM with the high resolution black and white monitor. Good for my eyes, but bad for games, that is. On that machine I started liking things like using a GUI (even though retrospectively it wasn’t all that great), playing Ballerburg or learning TeX. It was a great machine and I used it for years. I never bought much extra equipment beyond a few QuickShot joysticks for the machine but I got my dad’s old hard drive when I started to use TeX which wouldn’t fit on a 720K disk.

LC III

On my birthday in 1993 I got my first Mac. For sure everybody had been nerve-wrecked in the months before that after I had first tried out a Mac at Apple’s CeBIT stall, started reading some Mac magazines after that and bought a copy of the fantastic Macintosh Bible during a visit to the US. Uh and I got an LC III which was just soo much better than the LC IIs we had at school (not that I actually knew why at the time).

During its lifetime I gave the machine a number of upgrades from a 500MB hard drive to an 8MB memory chip to the 68882 mathematical coprocessor (so my dad could use his Centris for work while we were playing the Tristan pinball game…) While it never mattered on the Atari, I started learning that you can never have enough memory in those days.

And I absolutely loved the machine. It works so well, it looks so good, it’s so well-engineered, it’s just brilliant. And looking at the numbers below suggests I didn’t use it quite as long as I thought I did.

PowerMac 8200/120

When finishing school, I felt like I should get a new computer. The PowerPC had been around for two years, the complaints about occasionally slow speed in emulation had died down, PCI slots had been introduced and the critics were really happy with that generation of machines. I was also starting to be interested in graphical work, so I wanted a fast machine with a big screen. And the PowerMac 8200/120 was quite a good choice at the time. Still with the 601 processor but quite powerful but not as expensive as the 604 based machines.

And eek, it was fast! Actually for quite some time. And right after getting it I could use it to do the yearbook for my class. A lot of fun. As time went on I added upgrades once more. Ranging from a 4 gigabyte drive to the full 4 megabytes to video RAM to 64 megabytes of memory. And all that worked very well.

What didn’t work well was the AppleVision 1710 monitor I got with it. A very pretty monitor that has been seen in many films since and a very useful one with ADB ports built into the screen. But a series that despite being Trinitron had a somewhat dodgy geometry and a tendency to break. I exchanged mine twice which didn’t necessarily improve things. And the screen died in 2001.

PowerBook G4/400

I was in Cape Town for the new year 2000/2001 and on the web I saw Steve Jobs present the Titanium Powerbook at the MacWorld Expo in January. Now this was a pretty computer. And I immediately wanted one! It just looked so good. Sooooooo good. It still does. I doubt its elegance has been beaten.

But it was hideously expensive as well. So I rejoiced when later in the year there was a special promotional offer where you could send in an old machine and get a massive discount on the PowerBook for that. And with some generous help from my parents I ended up getting PowerBook. Pretty pretty pretty!

A number of extras were bought for the machine, ranging from the Airport card to larger hard drives (40 and 80 gigabytes) to half a gigabyte of extra memory. But in the end it was a bit disappointing because the wonderful machine wasn’t as well engineered as it looked. And it literally started falling apart until it completely stopped working last year.

I doubt that I’ll ever get over that. No computer could match the PowerBook in looks since. And with the quality of the machine and even more the quality of their service Apple lost a lot of credibility. Back in 2001 I really wanted a new Powerbook. Since it has been more like just trying to get the cheapest acceptable machine.

iBook G4/1330

Once the PowerBook was broken I needed a replacement. As I don’t like the aluminium PowerBook design (bland, average) and didn’t want to spend big money on another machine that might break just as easily, I decided to go for the cheapest iBook with a large hard drive and immediately upgrading it to its maximum memory capacity.

So here we are… I’m selling the iBook. The normal selling price for these machines has been a bit over €700 in the past week. And if I manage to get that kind of money the magic cost per day will have been around €1,50. So with a bit of computation, this loss of money can be turned into what looks like the ‘average’ cost of computing. There’s my excuse to get a MacBook!

More seriously, it’s interesting to see how the world of computers changed. How machines went from the cheap Atari to the rather expensive Macs. How the buying prices of Macs decreased over time. But how the total costs per day didn’t change too much over the past decade. For me, that is. But It’s all that counted in this exercise in futility.

We learn that owning a computer comes at the (monetary) cost of a moderate nicotine addiction…

May 31, 2006, 0:01

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