Category Archives: Computing

A history of home computing

Another chapter in the history of my computing kit opened this weekend with the purchase of an eMachines eM355 netbook. This is to replace my Acer Aspire One netbook which has finally given up the ghost. It’s had a short but colourful history.

Before netbooks became the boom industry they are today, they went through a couple of phases. The first incarnation eschewed the need for both a hard drive and Windows, being supplied with flash memory and some variety of Linux operating system, and to be fair these machines probably performed their job very well, whatever that job was meant to be. The buying public clearly didn’t want to be bothered with Linux, though, so Windows XP was soon offered as an option. This was the model which I bought in April 2009.

The problem is that Windows just does not fly on machines with flash memory, which is why those variants soon disappeared in favour of small hard drives. I found this to my cost, as I went through endless frustrations trying to use the netbook in the face of its preferred desire to freeze up and do nothing for minutes at a time. I honestly felt like throwing it against a wall numerous times, and mostly avoided using it.

I tried several suggestions to improve the netbook’s performance before I found the one that really worked – installing a utility called Flashfire. It was unbelievable – with Flashfire installed the thing ran like a dream! In this state, the Acer finally found its way into general use. It’s ideal for quick use anywhere around the house or garden, and with a mobile broadband dongle it’s usable on day trips and visits to my mother. It’s even been to New York and Berlin with me, being easy to stow in my hand luggage.

Trouble is, the boost in performance comes at a cost of Flashfire corrupting the flash storage. Before long the “disk checking” screen comes up on every boot. The machine remains usable – just – although browsing history and cookies may not be maintained correctly and irritating alerts pollute the screen.

In the end, though, the corruptions cause a major malfunction, at which point a recovery CHKDSK must be performed to repair the damage. This usually provides a few days grace from disk issues, but it’s a battle that is never won. After another malfunction on Saturday, the machine refused to boot at all – just flashing a momentary “blue screen of death” on entry to Windows before going back to the start of the boot process. Another recovery CHKDSK seemed to get it going again temporarily, but it resumed the cycle of death next day. I think it’s now safe to assume that this machine’s useful life is over.

It’s the latest in a long line of spent silicon. This list goes back thirty years to the Sinclair ZX-81,which plunged me into the world of programming. Having mastered ZX BASIC, I taught myself Z80 machine code, and even had three of my programs published in Your Computer magazine. My next computer was the Memotech MTX-500, one of many “home computers” of the 80s that never gained a significant user base and sank without trace. I never had much affection for this one.

Socca Stats - I started writing this system in 1989 and still use it!

My first “proper” computer was the Sinclair PC-200, bought in 1988. It was a PC with 512K RAM, a single floppy drive but no hard drive. It didn’t need a monitor, you simply plugged it into your TV. This model was much-maligned at the time, but it was far in advance of anything I’d ever used before. It was the first machine I ever connected a printer to. Using Turbo Basic I wrote a football statistics system that I still use to this day. I still have the PC-200, and it has returned to occasional use more recently than you might imagine.

 

The Amstrad PC2086 - image borrowed from popcorn.cx

My desire for more disk drives led to the purchase of an Amstrad PC2086, which had twin floppy drives, but still no hard drive. I upgraded it with a 20Mb hard card – which was more than sufficient at the time. I used every expansion port and card slot that the machine offered, adding a sound card and speakers, external 5 1/4” inch floppy drive, and even a serial modem, supplied by my employers, to connect to the mainframe to perform out-of-hours database support.

In 1994 I went mobile with my first laptop – a Zenith Data System model that was quite compact for the time. Still only a monochrome screen, but it was my introduction to Microsoft Windows 3.1 – the first properly usable version of Windows.  I got a lot of use out of this laptop, although its performance deteriorated – I think some of the memory failed – and eventually the hinges on the lid broke, which brought its active service to an end.

By then I had already bought another new desktop machine, an Atlantic PC, late in 1996. This came with Windows 95 and an enormous 2Gb hard drive. A lot of firsts here – my first colour screen, Pentium processor and CD drive. I connected to the internet for the first time on this one. This was a very good machine which served me well for many years.

By contrast, my next one was a disappointment. An Advent PC bought from PC World at the wrong time. It was supplied with Windows ME, acknowledged now as one of the worst ever versions. I had problems from the start with blue screening and freeze-ups. I persevered, however, and got years of use out of it. I connected to broadband for the first time. I ripped most of my CD and vinyl music collection to MP3 on this machine. I downloaded and edited holiday photos from my first ever digital camera. It lived on until 2008, by which time it wouldn’t even boot into Windows properly.

My trusty and long-lived Acer laptop

Meanwhile, late in 2005 I found the need for a laptop again, and purchased an Acer Aspire 3614WLMi. This was, and still is, a fabulous machine. It had Windows XP. It worked – it did everything I asked of it and very rarely let me down. I connected a USB TV tuner and recorded TV programmes. I learned all about video processing on this laptop. It went with me on holiday, including a trip to Los Angeles in 2008, and even to Whitby a few weeks ago, although it largely stayed put once the aforementioned Acer netbook had become a better option for mobility. It was my primary laptop for over five years, and it was with some reluctance that it was supplanted this year.

Before that, I needed a new desktop machine, a Packard Bell PC which I bought from PC World in April 2008. Bad timing again – this one came with Windows Vista, which must rival Windows ME for the title of worst-ever Windows. So despite its quad-core processor and 4Gb RAM, it has always given me headaches. If left in standby, it wakes itself up at 6AM for no apparent reason. It endlessly and noisily thrashes the hard drive when I’m not even using it. It drops the internet connection on a regular basis. I’ve tried all sorts of suggestions to fix these issues but to no avail. This machine now handles TV recording duties, heavy-duty video processing and my home studio recording, but for all other tasks I’ve always preferred to stick to my trusty laptop, despite its massively inferior spec.

The performance of the Acer laptop was becoming a concern to me early this year, and I finally decided to fork out on a shiny white Sony Vaio laptop. No skimping on the spec with this one – 17” screen, 6GB RAM, 500GB hard drive. It’s too big for my existing laptop bag, and frankly it’s unlikely that it will ever be moved from my desk. But it’s a worthy successor to the Acer laptop. Windows 7 is a massive improvement on Vista, and this is another machine that simply works, without me having to fight it. I hope that this one will give me at least five years’ service, if not a lot more. It’s hard to believe that its performance will ever be inadequate.

And so to the new eMachines netbook. I haven’t even opened it yet – setting up a new computer is hardly one of the great delights of life. I’m often told that I should go for a Mac, but I feel I’m too hooked into Windows to make the switch. Maybe when the desktop machine needs replacing I’ll consider it.

For now, though, I’m content with what I’ve got. The money I’ve paid out on all the above kit doesn’t bear thinking about – and I haven’t even mentioned the five printers and two scanners which have passed through my hands. I hope I never have to write a “Part 2” of this far-too-long blog post…