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Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Ode to Computers

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website November 7th, 2005. The original essay can be found here. This is the last entry of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback.

7 November 2005

I spend enough time complaining on my soapbox, so I figured it was about time that I write something positive. I was originally just going to write about my new laptop, but figured I'd extend it to computers in general.

I was born in 1978. That puts me at the age where I got to witness personal computers becoming common place, initially being little more than souped up Ataris, blossoming into what we have today. My family's first computer was a Commodore 64. Originally, we used a T.V. set for the display, and it wasn't until we'd had it for several years that we finally got a dedicated monitor. I was pretty young when we had it. I remember being completely mystified by how it worked, but having fun playing games on it. We did have a few useful programs, like the word processor, Easy Script, which I hardly ever used, and the graphics program, Print Shop, which I used a bit, but for me that computer was mainly a game machine.

After several years, we finally bought our first IBM compatible computer. Now this was a fancy computer, a 286 with GeosWorks. It had a WYSIWYG word processor, a good drawing program, and a modem to let us get online on Prodigy. Yeah, I still played games on it, but this was a computer that I used for practical purposes, like writing my homework essays. I was still mystified by how it all worked, but I was learning.

After a few more years, we got another computer, this time a 386. I was getting older, so I did a lot more playing around with that one. I learned the ins and outs of DOS; I started using Bulletin Board Services (BBS's) and the Internet (with a text only browser for a while); I downloaded all types of programs to play around with music and graphics (both still pretty primitive compared to what you can do today); I even taught myself how to program in BASIC. And this was the first computer we had with good enough graphics capabilities that pictures on the computer actually looked real. By the time I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I had done a lot of playing around on that computer, and felt confident enough to build my own computer to take to college with me. I saved up a bunch of money from my job at KFC, and went out and bought the latest issue of Computer Shopper. That was back in the days when Computer Shopper was much bigger than most magazines - taller, wider, and about an inch thick - and just full of ads for computers and computer parts. I scoured through every page, looking for the best deals on everything. I ended up ordering parts from several different sources, and bought one of the new Pentium chips, and built the whole computer once all the parts got in. I guess I missed the real early days of building computers, when you actually had to do soldering and the like. By the time I built this computer, it was actually pretty easy. Tab A into Slot A type of stuff. The only thing that made it tedious was that you had to set jumpers on all of the devices to give them their IRQs and DMAs, plus go into the BIOS to configure it to handle your hard drive.

Anyway, when it was all said and done, I had a pretty good computer. It wasn't quite top of the line - after all, I was limited to a high schooler's budget, and you could have easily dropped $5000 or more trying to get the best of the best, but when I compared it to other computers that I saw being advertised, it was a good deal. I'd saved myself quite a bit of money, and gotten the exact parts I wanted, by building the computer myself. I remember thinking at the time, and telling it to anyone who'd discuss this type of thing, that I'd never buy a computer already put together. If you just spent a little bit of time looking for the best prices and building it, you could get a far better computer for the money by building it yourself. Well, it didn't take long for that to be overturned. I think it was only a couple of years later when my dad was looking to buy a new computer, and he bought one already put together. He'd done a little looking, too, and by then, it wasn't worth it to try and build a computer yourself, when it was so cheap to get one already put together.

I didn't buy a new computer for a long time after that. I had my computer, and I just kept upgrading it. Eventually, by the time I quit using it, I think the only original parts were the case and the sound card. Everything else, motherboard and disk drives included, had been replaced. One of my good friends bought himself a laptop during that time. I remember hearing how much he paid for his laptop, seeing how limited it was and how much my computer could do, and thinking that I'd never buy a laptop for myself. You could just get so much more for the money with a desktop.

Well, fast forward a few years to the present. About a year ago, my wife and I bought a laptop computer. My computer was getting so old (and Frankenstein-ish from all the mods I'd done to it - I'd even taken a saw to it to cut the case to make certain parts fit better), that it was getting impractical to upgrade it anymore. My wife had a relatively new computer that I'd just upgraded with a bit more RAM, so I figured that maybe now would be the time to try out a laptop, as a kind of secondary computer. And boy do I love it. It's become the primary computer, and the desktop is now the secondary computer, serving mainly for backing up files, or getting onto the Internet from time to time.

My new computer's almost a year old now, and I'm still digging it. It's a Sony Vaio laptop. It wasn't top of the line, but it does everything I'd want it to do except burn DVDs (I bought a DVD burner for our old desktop to do that). The fact that I've got a Sony camera, so the memory stick works in both, is a big plus.

Now that I've owned a laptop, I don't know if I'll ever buy a desktop again. I really like the portability of a laptop, and to me it's worth the decreased performance and/or increased price. I don't do a whole lot of travelling, but when I do, it's invaluable to have our computer there to download pictures from our digital camera so that the memory card doesn't get full. Not just that, but it's great to have it as a kind of digital photo album to show people pictures. And with how many hotels have internet connections now (and now that I've got my new cell phone that works as a high speed modem), it's nice to be able to access the internet from anywhere, even driving down the highway. And aside from travelling, it's nice to be able to take the computer to any room of the house - especially sitting it on your lap in the family room to browse the internet while you're watching T.V., and then to take it into bed to keep on reading something from in there. I even used it when I was redoing our kitchen, taking it in there with me to access the blue prints I'd made. Anyway, I'm not trying to turn this into a commercial, but I really was surprised at how useful it was to have a portable computer, even with as little travelling as I do, and how much the portabilityoffset the reduced performance.

And to tell the truth, the reduced performance on a laptop isn't nearly as big of an issue as it was when my friend bought his laptop back when we were in college. Back then, it was a huge difference between using his computer and using my computer. Now, any application that I can run on our desktop, I can run just as well on our laptop. And not just that, but it seems less important now to have the latest technologies. Back on my old computer, I was always upgrading my computer every year or so so that it would run the newest programs well. Now, about all I upgrade is RAM and the hard drive - everything else is already so overpowered for the applications I do, that I wouldn't notice a difference by upgrading. I mean, how powerful of a processor do you need to browse the internet, or type on a word processor? I know that computers will continue to get more powerful, and people will keep on figuring out cool new applications, but it seems to me that computers now can do so much now (dvds, video editing, wireless internet), that I don't feel a big need to have to have the latest technologies. I think the frenetic pace of upgrading/replacing that characterized the computer industry before is going to slow down here in the near future. Sure, gamers will always want the latest and greatest, as will techno geeks, and from time to time there will be some new developments that will make you want to upgrade, but pretty soon, I think that for the average user, computers will become like other appliances, that only get bought rarely. Now wait for 15 years from now, when I come back and read this on a holographic display projected onto my retina from a cell phone computer, and I won't be able to believe how naive I was.

To get back to desktops, though, they've come a long way as well. We still buy desktops for the computers where I work. In this case, it does make sense, since most of us don't really do any travelling that we'd need a laptop for, and we really do use most of the computer power for our engineering applications. I'm basically the IT department here at work, so I've taken these computers apart quite a few times. And boy, is everything set up better than it used to be. I remember when I built that computer back at the end of high school. It was easy enough, but like I said above, the jumpers were tedious. Not just that, but anytime I wanted to upgrade a hard drive or disk drive, I actually had to take out the motherboard to get to the screws that were holding the drive in. Taking out the motherboard meant taking out all of the cards attached to it, because they were screwed into the case. It was a pain in the neck. Now these new cases on the computers here at work either have hinges, or sliding parts, or any other ingenious solution, so that you can get to and change just about any part in 5 minutes or less. I mean, even just the cases now are nicer. And there aren't any more jumpers to set on anything (well, you could with the hard drive, but most new computers seem to be using cable select). Everything's plug and play. And the new BIOS's auto detect the hard drives, so there's nothing to set up there, either. It's just so much easier to work on computers now.

And the Internet. Can you even remember what it was like to have a stand alone computer? Or a computer with just a dial up modem? There's just so much information out there, available at your fingertips. And it's great to be able to talk to my parents using a video conference, so that they can see their grand daughter. The Internet's become such a big part of how I use my computer that now when my Internet connection goes down, it feels like my whole computer's broken.

Anyway, that's enough gushing about computers. It's hard to believe how much computers today are capable of doing, especially considering how fast it's come about. I'm sure my prediction about the pace of technology change slowing down will prove to be dead wrong. Just look at what's happening with cell phones. It's probably been about 20 years since our family bought that Commodore 64. It'll be interesting to see what computers are like in another 20 years.

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