My history with computers, Part 3

Old computers sometimes had a “Turbo” or “Boost” button to manually switch to a higher clock speed. Toggling this on and off could count as a valid game-playing strategy, if you needed to “speed past” obstacles, etc. Yes, it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.

Context

In the last decade (and half, roughly) people have gotten used to a lot of niceties in our operating systems, smooth integration between different devices, nifty apps, wonderful cameras, and more — but not increases in speed.

It is hard to convey how different this aspect was in the 90s. Every year, sometimes twice a year, there were glossy magazine advertisements about faster computers.

A new computer

So around 1998, it was possible to buy a new computer, with a CPU rated at 233Mhz. Two hundred thirty-three megahertz. It also had a fancy new operating system, the just-released Microsoft Windows 98 (ooh 😐).

There was an actual sound card (something that isn’t thought of as a “pluggable thing” any more), which meant it was possible to get speakers to play actual sound (today if you buy speakers, it’s as a part of your room, not as a part of your computer).

The display (or “monitor”; heh, no one uses that word any more) had color, and there was a mouse that could be plugged in, and this computer didn’t just have a floppy drive, but a new optical media, the CD-ROM.

Aside: relative speed evolution

The first computer at our home, mentioned in the earlier post (late 1994), had a CPU with a clock speed of 33 Mhz. Thirty three megahertz (btw this seemed huge to me at the time: “so many calculations in a single second!”)

My first ever personal desktop (mid-2002, more on this later), had a single-core CPU with a clock speed of 1Ghz. One thousand megahertz, or a 30x increase.

My first MacBook (mid-2008) had a dual-core CPU rated at 2.0Ghz. Two thousand megahertz, or a 2x increase.

My current MacBook Pro (mid-2019) has a 8-core CPU rated at 2.3Ghz. Two thousand three hundred megahertz.

My iPhone (early 2018), uses the “A11 Bionic” with a maximum clock rate of 2.39Ghz. Two thousand three hundred ninety megahertz.

You can imagine the graph in your head.

Programming

QBasic was gone, to be replaced with … Visual Basic. This allowed a lot of experimentation with simple forms, but I didn’t really have any ideas on what to do with it, so I let it lapse.

There was also Turbo C , which, despite the name, was a reasonably popular language environment (from Borland, which is not a name most would recognize today, but at the time, it was … like JetBrains plus Visual Studio, and more). There weren’t a lot of materials to learn from, though I remember at least being able to copy in a few examples, and so on.

Still later on, around 2000-ish, I got some game programming books, and really liked learning from them, since it was very straightforward to build something with DirectX (never mind) in C .

Nothing comparable to the vast tools and materials available to kids these days, but … good times.

Apps

There were a whole bunch of computer magazines that came with CDs, containing free trials of all sorts of stuff, and it was something to look forward to every month — to try out whatever was new that month: install it, fool around with it, then delete.

I wish I had pictures or notes or anything, but I don’t, so this vagueness will have to do.

I do remember the first time I used Microsoft Flight Simulator (which, btw, is making a big comeback). Even with that relatively poor graphical resolution, a 3-d experience of this sort was magical.

Something else that stands out: Microsoft Encarta. It was the first digital encyclopedia and they did a really good job of it. There were audio and video clips, lots of articles to read and switch between.

The pros and cons with paper should’ve been apparent already: the content was beautiful, though I can’t imagine someone spending hours and hours interacting with Encarta they way I can imagine someone spending that time with a paper version (but maybe that’s just me).

Aside: the time of Microsoft

In case it isn’t obvious: yes, this was the decade of Microsoft domination, something that people have no gut feeling for anymore — but twenty years ago, before big-Google, big-Facebook, big-Amazon, big-Twitter, big-Netflix, big-Apple, there was only big-Microsoft.

Games

This was the highlight of my time with the machine 🙂

FPS

First of all, I finally had something to play Quake with (the minimal RAM requirements were 8MB; our earlier computer had 4MB, while this one had 64MB. As a fun exercise, try to find out how much a single tab in your browser is using right now).

Quake was made by the same company (ID Software) that made Wolfenstein (which we had played so much of on our earlier computer), and Doom (which I missed out on for whatever reason). Again, this is something hard to convey now, but these were iconic first-person shooter games, the very first ones, in fact … which is probably why they were popular, since they seem quite boring by today’s standards.

Anyway, Quake was just the beginning, this machine was in a sweet spot to play most of whatever came out, and the free apps on the CDs in the monthly computer magazines were usually free games.

Aside: single-player gaming

Although much remains the same in games over the decades (apart from the massive improvement in their visual appearance), something that is very different is the experience “un-connected” solitary game.

Most games today either directly involve other players, or indirectly (through comparison in a leaderboard, etc). I think the only equivalents of “playing something alone, immersed in the world” are certain mobile games, like Monument Valley, etc. where you own the game, you play the game, and no one else really knows about how you played, the experience is yours alone.

Early on, everything was like this (although it was quite common for friends to sit along side you as you played, so there’s that).

RPG

Just as ID Software dominated gaming in the first-person shooter genre, in the first part of the decade, another company, Blizzard Entertainment (of the two, still going strong!) dominated role-playing games.

All that’s needed to convey this are a few names: Diablo, Starcraft, Warcraft, each of which I probably spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on.

It’s worth mentioning that there was a lot of competition early on, and the only reason these stand out is that they balanced a lot of factors in RPGs very well, designing the details very, very well.

Note 1: If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Starcraft.)

Note 2: But, more on all this some other time, especially an account of this one game that was insignificant but that I liked: Microsoft Urban Assault

Aside: storage media

Going from a floppy disk that stored 1.44MB to a CD-ROM that stored 650MB was a big change, one that really opened up a whole variety of new, rich content.

DVDs and Blu-Rays went an order of magnitude higher each, but have been used for richer and more detailed versions of existing content and not newer kinds of content (in my opinion).

There were other stops along the way, and not just for alternatives like HD-DVDs that no one remembers. For a while it was quite common to have a “Zip drive”, awkwardly between a floppy and a CD.

(Of course, a new laptop today has neither of these)

Aside: man and machine

I should point out something: I had a certain sort of … affection … for the first computer we had (I remember being upset and crying once (embarrassing, right) when it didn’t start and appeared to be broken), in a way that I didn’t have for the second one (which was “just a machine”), or any of the countless ones (laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, watches, appliances) since.

It might be a pets vs cattle thing, dunno.

Transition

I haven’t really thought through the episodic nature of this series, which means there isn’t any plan of having “equal chunks”. But yes, we’ll plod along steadily. Next time: the internet (!)

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