My PC history: A road to ruin
Microsoft has just retired Windows 3.1, a move which got me thinking about my own computing history, and how I ended up with the monstrous desktop machine that now glares at me from the corner of my bedroom.
My first PC was a Carrera Swift, which was just slightly prettier than a sledgehammer. It had a 14in monitor, a hard drive so small I might as well have welded a floppy disk to the motherboard, no soundcard, CD drive or graphics chip, and I adored it. This will seem daft, but every computer I’ve ever owned had its own character. It’s own quirks and foibles that ensured it was more of a pet than a work machine. The Swift’s foible was that it was rubbish. Completely and utterly rubbish.
The 4Mb of memory and 25Mhz processor were just enough to make an intruiging slideshow of Doom 2, though thankfully the “turbo” button on the front could knock the processor up to a blistering 33Mhz, and then we were cooking on gas. Not a lot of gas admittedly, but enough to be eating toast in under an hour.
In order to get anything running, whether that was Doom, Word Perfect, or anything else I had to edit the config.sys and autoexec.exe files – plucking out drivers and commands that soaked up that valuable 2k which was the dividing line between a program springing into life, and the odious “not enough conventional memory” refrain which so blighted my early PC days. God I loved that machine. It was complicated, difficult to handle, moody and yet, when it all clicked, fantastic. It’s that girlfriend. The one you know you’re best shot of, and yet the one with whom the highs are so much higher because the lows feel like flooded graves.
It was on the Swift I first saw Windows 3.1. It wasn’t even preinstalled. It came on a seperate batch of floppy disks when I got the computer and I really didn’t get it. I remember being baffled by the idea of having to start DOS, start Windows, and then run the program. Why couldn’t I just start Word through DOS, like I could Word Perfect? And it was pointless for games. Opening Windows took so much of the gold dust that was my 640kb of conventional memory, that there wasn’t enough left to open the game. Ridiculous.
So, I ignored it. A lot. And plodded along with DOS quite happily until I upgraded. To an Apricot MS540. My supermodel girlfriend. Scarlet Johansson has less curves than that Apricot case, and the 120Mhz Pentium processor that powered it was essentially bottled geek sex. There was 128MB RAM, a hard disk big enough to hold the entire sum of human experience, a sound card, a 16in monitor and … well, it was phenomenal. And to this day my favourite machine. There was just one niggle, one flaw on her beautiful face, one bogey in the perfect nose, one peice of brocoli between the gleaming teeth – Windows 95. I hated it… really hated it. DOS was my environment. I was happy there, and suddenly Windows 95 was inflicted on me. DOS was relegated to a little icon in the menus – and it was a trimmed down version at that. None of my games worked properly, and the damn thing was so needy. Demanding my attention every five minutes with a stupid pop-up, or error message. I couldn’t leave it alone for fear it would drown itself in the bath while I was absent. So there it was, my Apricot. My needy, supermodel Apricot. Myself and Windows 95 did eventually come to terms, much as you have to with the chav brother of your partner, but there was never much love there.
Past that was a succession of self-builds. Processors offering 5% more whoosh, and RAM offering 20% more wow. The machines got bigger, faster, stronger, and increasingly hollow. Windows 98 arrived, ME, XP and Vista and while they grew on me, that place in my brain where I kept all the computer happy emptied out. And now I have a monster in the corner of my bedroom. A machine that made Crysis whimper, and slapped around Far Cry 2 for good measure. It really is a rampaging bull of angry technology that makes a china shop of whatever dares get in its way.
I feel absolutely nothing for it. It’s just a machine. It’s got Vista on it. It’s just an operating system. I miss my Swift. I miss my Apricot. I miss the days when technology wasn’t just an endless slog of incremental upgrades and carefully-crafted soundbites. I really need somebody to make technology exciting again, but I wonder if anybody can.