Technologies of Christmas past

The grandest Christmas traditions have been with us for centuries, and many will doubtless stick around for centuries more. Trees, gifts and alcoholic exuberance come to mind.

Technologies of Christmas past

But we techie types have some more modern rituals too. Online Christmas shopping, for example. Loading up your Sky+ Box or Windows Media Center with films you’ll never watch. And, of course, hiding away in the study while you get to grips with this year’s must-have PC game.

For many of us, these customs are as much a part of the Yuletide season as wassailing and mulled wine; yet the technology that makes them possible has only come into being within the past few decades. And as 2010 comes knocking, I find myself looking back over Christmases of the past and marvelling at the huge advances we’ve made within my lifetime to get here.

1980: The infancy of home computing

As Christmas 1980 came around my family had just acquired our first home computer — a Sinclair ZX80, arguably the first mass market home PC. It was sold on the promise of unparalleled flexibility, with adverts boasting that “you could use it to do quite literally anything from playing chess to running a power station.”

ZX80By today’s standards, though, it was impossibly limited. With its 1KB of RAM and 3.25MHz processor it could run only simple text-based BASIC programs. Graphics were limited to a black and white 64 x 48 grid, and the video subsystem was so slow that the screen went visibly blank before every redraw. In principle I could have hooked it up to the TV in the front room for Christmas day, but I don’t think the family would have been enthralled.

Needless to say, in 1980 there was no online shopping. The Internet was still purely an academic communications network, and though dial-up BBS services did exist, they were very much a niche service. At this point I don’t believe I had ever even laid eyes on a modem.

1985: The age of rubber keys

Step forward five years and I had graduated from the ZX80 to the ZX Spectrum 48K.

SpectrumLike the ZX80, the Spectrum was marketed as a serious machine – “you’ll quickly be moving into the colourful world of professional-level computing”, promised the adverts — but like millions my age I used it almost exclusively for playing games. Loading software from tape was slow and flaky, but by the standard of the day it was a versatile and affordable system (costing £175 at launch) and the colourful graphics palette from which the system took its name was pretty enough to justify taking over the front-room TV on Christmas morning.

(In truth, though, since only two colours could be used within each 8×8 character square, many Spectrum games made very sparing use of colour, to avoid ugly “attribute clash”.)

daleyIt was possible to use a joystick to play Spectrum games, but you needed a special interface, and for kids my age those were expensive add-ons. So on Christmas Day 1985 I was using the rubber keys to control Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, Knight Lore and Jet Set Willy. What a year.

The online scene was starting to take off, too: the Prism VTX 5000 modem, running at a sprightly 1200/75 baud rate, let Spectrum users connect to Prestel. You couldn’t buy presents as such, but you could check information such as weather reports and train times, and it was even possible to access your bank account — so long as you were a customer of the forward-looking Nottingham Building Society.

1990: Guru meditations and Megablasts

Skip on another half-decade and we were in another world. The computer of choice was now the Amiga 500, a machine light years ahead of the Spectrum.


The standard model used a 7.14MHz Motorola 68000 CPU, packed 512KB of internal RAM and ran a multi-tasking, mouse-driven OS. The graphics really had attained arcade quality, overshadowing the contemporary Sega Megadrive and NES consoles. Indeed, the Amiga’s graphical resolutions challenged the capabilities of the front-room TV, leading to flickery interlacing in the highest resolutions – and you needed an ugly external RF modulator to connect to a television at all.

Though the Amiga was most popular as a gaming platform, it also had a hand in kickstarting the media revolution. Media Center-type abilities were still a long way off, but partnered with NewTek’s Video Toaster suite the Amiga could serve as a powerful video-editing and production station. Famously, Amiga hardware was used to generate the special effects for the TV show Babylon 5.

Its sound capabilities were notable too: though limited to 8-bit audio, quality was exceptional by the standards of the time. One fondly-remembered game is the Bitmap Brothers’ game “Xenon 2: Megablast”, which featured a house track by Bomb the Bass as its theme music – and this, of course, was during the days of the 3½in floppy, before audio could simply be streamed from a CD.

1995: Windows breaks through

Win95By 1995 another transformation had taken place. The Amiga was succumbing to a lingering death – the result of poor management rather than any technical weakness – and its place was being taken by the PC, made accessible to the mainstream for the first time by the arrival of Windows 95.

For many households, this was the first home computer that required its own monitor. And though this opened up graphical possibilities far beyond what a TV could handle, it also removed the home computer from the living room (I personally spent most of my first Christmas day as a PC owner hidden away in my bedroom). Thus was created an entertainment divide that to this day hasn’t been satisfactorily bridged.

Still, on premium PC systems with CD-ROM drives it was for the first time possible to play music and watch videos on your desktop. You were stuck with VCD media, though, as DVDs had yet to arrive on the scene.

CDROMA typical 1995 PC system might have been based on a Pentium processor running at 90MHz, with 8MB of RAM. For those who had come from the Amiga, these were big numbers; yet in everyday use these machines typically felt sluggish and underpowered, due in part to Windows 95’s heavy reliance on virtual memory (which wasn’t used at all by most Amiga models).

This – coupled with the increasing average age of home computer owners – perhaps explains a shift away from fast-moving action games towards less resource-intensive strategy and adventure games. Christmas 1995 might have found you playing games such as Colonization and Command & Conquer.

The online world was getting more grown-up too: the world wide web was now a few years old, and with a state of the art 28.8Kbits/sec modem you could send faxes and connect to services such as AOL and CompuServe. I wouldn’t have been allowed to do this on Christmas Day, though: leaving aside the £20 a month subscription fee, it would have tied up the phone line, preventing our various relatives from calling up to relay their seasonal wishes.

WindowsME2000: Evolution, not revolution

Once Windows had established itself as a standard home OS, the pace of change appeared to slow to a crawl.

To be sure, hardware kept growing more powerful: the original Pentium processor matured into the Pentium III and 4, while AMD’s competing “Thunderbird” Athlon processor was gaining respect as a credible alternative. Graphics hardware from the likes of 3DFX and Matrox – as well as our friends ATI and Nvidia – was driving the PC to unprecedented heights of high-resolution 3D gaming.

All the same, the standard home desktop, running Windows 98 or Windows Me, still looked almost exactly the same as it had five years ago under Windows 95.

In incremental ways, though, these new releases of Windows did reflect the changing role of the in PC. The most obvious upgrade was Internet Explorer: the original release of Windows 95 hadn’t included a browser, but within a few years the internet had become a huge mainstream business. Microsoft infamously bundled Internet Explorer into Windows 98 and Me, and even tried to make the Windows Explorer mimic the browser with its disastrous “single-click” mode.

Whether you chose Internet Explorer or the cutting-edge Mozilla browser – still very much in beta at this stage – it was now possible to place orders online with “e-tailers” such as Amazon, Dabs and even Sainsbury’s. By 2000 those in the know were doing their Christmas (and everyday) shopping via 56k modem connections. ADSL had yet to be rolled out in the UK, though trials were underway.

wmmlogozf1And with Windows Me the PC continued its metamorphosis into a general purpose media station. This was the first edition of Windows to bundle Windows Movie Maker, turning video editing from a specialist usage into a standard application. Media Player was upgraded to make use of online media information, and the DVD Player application no longer required special decoder hardware.

It’s also notable that Christmas photographs were now starting to be taken on digital, rather than film-based cameras: typically these would have been two- or three-megapixel images, shot on a chunky compact camera with a fixed-focus lens, but this was enough to give the PC another media-type role, editing and organising photographs.

PCs were still largely banished from the front room: some graphics cards promised “TV output”, but in reality this normally meant an S-video connector that only the most expensive televisions could accept.

Still, laptops were by now starting to percolate into the mainstream, so this Christmas I was at least able to play Hearts from the comfort of the sofa. I couldn’t browse the web from there, though: while 802.11b had been standardised during 1999, almost no domestic hardware yet supported wireless connections.

Intel_CPU_Pentium_4_640_Prescott_bottom2005: Today’s tech starts to emerge

By 2005, home computing had all but reached the form in which we know it today. Laptops and desktops were by now running Windows XP, still today the most popular OS among PC Pro readers. The familiar Core 2 Duo processor was just around the corner, although if you’d bought a top-of-the-range PC for Christmas 2005 it would have come with a Prescott Pentium 4, the first mainstream processor to use the LGA 775 socket. 64-bit support was becoming standard too, though the new Windows XP 64-bit Edition hadn’t found wide acceptance (and never would).

Internet access had matured too: ADSL and cable broadband had become almost ubiquitous in London and the home counties, though less populated areas were still waiting to be hooked up. Wireless routers were becoming common too, thanks to the rise of laptops (by some measures they would overtake desktop sales within two years). I believe 2005 was the first Christmas I enjoyed with the assistance of an always-on wireless broadband connection.

The actual business of browsing the web in 2005 was very similar to today, though those who hadn’t jumped to Firefox 1.5 were still stuck with the pokey Internet Explorer 6. At this point YouTube was still a small independent startup, Facebook was open only to students and Twitter didn’t exist at all.

Bb189131.mce_controllayout(en-us,MSDN.10)2005 also saw the arrival of Windows XP Media Center Edition, aimed at putting the PC back into the front room. The platform never did satisfactorily learn to connect to a standard television, but the rise of HDTV sets with digital inputs made that a moot point. Dedicated Media Center PCs didn’t exactly transform the market, but with their ability to record live TV for later viewing and play user music and media on demand they set the scene for modern services such as Spotify and BBC iPlayer.

For early adopters, at least, the technological pieces of today’s Christmas pie were finally falling into place.

And what of the future?

Technology is an industry that never stands still, and since 2005 we’ve seen Windows 7, netbooks, iPhones and DSLRs all arrive in the mainstream. And, of course, it won’t stop there. No one can really predict the technologies that will become a part of Christmases to come, but 3D Blu-ray, motion-sensing game controllers and domestic projectors have all been touted as marvels to come.

Personally, one trend which I think will continue is the re-establishment of the PC as a home entertainment hub. Intel’s 32nm Westmere processors promise to pack massive computational power and HD graphics into a tiny platform with tiny power consumption, opening the door to the most efficient and unobtrusive media PCs yet. With broadband becoming almost a given in UK households, I reckon the potential of  on-demand video, games and services is ready to explode. And personally I can’t wait: just think, if you don’t fancy next Christmas’ Bond film, you could just flick over to a different one.

What do you think? Am I barking up the wrong tree? Are my recollections wildly at variance with your own? Let me know your thoughts about what’s to come. And they do say that Christmas is a time for sharing, so why not share with us your own fond memories of the technology of Christmases past?

Image credits: ZX80 by Daniel Ryde; ZX Spectrum 48K by Daniel Ryde; Amiga via; CD-ROM via; Pentium 4 processor via; iPhone by Ed Schipul

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