Category Archives: Consumerism
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.
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.
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.
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…
I did something this evening that I probably shouldn’t have. I looked at the pop charts. It might as well have been in a foreign language for all it meant to me. These are three of the acts currently in the top ten: Nicki Minaj, Rizzle Kicks, Loick Essien. Anyone? It made me wonder whether chart positions are now being based on Scrabble scores rather than record sales.
Perhaps these are good songs. I don’t really have the urge to go onto iTunes, or whatever it is the kids use these days, to find out. I’ve heard of the current number one Cher Lloyd, because I had the misfortune to catch a bit of last year’s X-Factor. Her song (which I haven’t heard) has gone straight in at number one. I assume that’s not as a big a deal as it was when The Jam went straight in at number one with “Going Underground”.
The sad thing is that thirty or so years ago I would have known everything in the charts. In those days the new chart was released at Tuesday lunchtime, and I would write it all down so that when the Top 40 was broadcast on Sunday afternoon I would know when to press Record on my little tape recorder. Amazingly I still have the radio and the cassette recorder I used back then, and I even still have some of the tapes. I guess that illegal downloading has replaced that activity nowadays, but I wonder if anyone follows the charts as religiously as I used to?
I think I grew out of following the charts so closely in the mid-80s, not least due to the fact that most of my favourite bands rarely troubled the charts anyway. However, I would still have watched Top Of The Pops for many years, and still had a general idea of what was going on. A shelf full of “Britpop”-era CD singles shows that I had a revival of interest in chart music in the mid-90s. These days I rarely listen to the radio, and I haven’t read the NME for years, so I’m generally clueless as to the state of both mainstream and alternative tastes.
However, this shouldn’t be read as a “things aren’t what they used to be” diatribe by a grumpy old man. I do have an active interest in current music. I’ve been to 14 gigs so far this year, and only three of them have involved acts that date back to the 80s.
A debut album released this year – “And So The Morning Comes” by Evi Vine – is as good as anything I have heard in the last 30 years. A truly stunning and beautiful album. A band called Strangers are producing a series of perfect pop songs that are catchy, memorable and deceptively dark. I’m eagerly awaiting an album of compelling, hypnotic sounds from Hook and the Twin. Whilst following these bands around London’s live circuit I’ve come across other delights on the bill, including The Title Sequence, and a new band from East London called Paradise. Just a couple of weeks ago I watched the first ever gig of a new band from Southend called Lanterns.
I’ve no idea whether any of these bands will make the Top 40, or even how near they are to any kind of national recognition or radio play. All I know is that there is good new music out there to be heard, and with the wonders of social networking, these days there are more ways than ever to discover it. All in all, I’m quite happy for the charts to remain an irrelevance to me!
The Asda Prawn Layered Salad. I don’t know how healthy or not it is, and I don’t know whether it is the best of the Prawn Layered Salads offered by the various supermarkets. All I know is that the Asda variety got my vote as it is the only one which doesn’t contain bits of carrot.
It’s a small tub containing pasta shells, prawns, bits of cucumber and lettuce and a tomato which is usually softer than it should be, but provides one of the few occasions when I eat a tomato. The whole thing is topped by a savoury dressing, and a small plastic bag containing a folding spoon, which picks up far too much of the dressing when you have to fish it out and throw it away.
The great thing about this salad is that it goes with anything. Put it on a plate with a warmed-up sausage roll, quiche, or Quorn escalope, as I have been doing recently, and you have an easy-to-prepare and very satisfying meal.
At least that was the case. As of a few weeks ago, the words “improved recipe” appeared on the lid. An inspection of the contents shows that the pasta shells have been superseded by small pasta tubes. Having tried a couple of these since the change, I can also confirm that the tomato has gone missing. The new pasta is stickier and generally tasteless, the lettuce gets more and more disappointing, and as a whole it looks like a shadow of its former self. So much for “improved recipe” – there goes one of my staple weekly meals.
I suppose this means more visits to Morrisons to use their salad bar, but it’s a lottery whether they will have any of the bits that I like. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose seem obsessed with putting strings of spinach into most of their salad bar items, which puts me off.
Luckily for Asda, I am still too fond of their microwaveable packs of salmon or haddock to stop going there, and the fact that it is the nearest supermarket to me also works in its favour. But I feel like firing off an angry letter to their customer services to demand the return of the “classic” Prawn Layered Salad.