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12/15/2015
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11 Things Computer Users Will Never Experience Again

Once upon a time, microcomputers weren't all-in-one devices. They were put together from standalone components, each with its technical merits -- and we had to know all about every one of them.

Click thumbnails for full-size image.

Figure 1:
(Image: Esther Schindler)

(Image: Esther Schindler)

Figure 2:
Inside The Box
Everything started, naturally, with the chassis into which you plugged all the components. You needed room for all the cards and devices, which forced several decisions. For example, you had to ask yourself: 'Do I want a full-height floppy drive?,' 'Will I use an internal tape drive?,' and 'Are any of my cards full-length?'
You also had to determine which CPU you planned to use, and whether it ran so hot that you needed a dedicated fan to cool it off, so the computer wouldn't overheat.
The answers to each of those questions affected the number of drive bays you needed, and thus how big the actual physical box would be. It was a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. 
Most of my computers were too tall to fit under my desk. It was also a mark of geek pride if you never bothered to put the case back on the computer.
The above magazine advertisement, from 1998, is relatively late in the era. For $399, you got 'the guts to build your own system,' which meant it included the case, the motherboard, a power supply, and a fan. That was a fair price for a (sort of) pre-built system. Of course, there wasn't a CPU, storage, video, multimedia, or monitor.
(Image: Advertisement scanned from Sm@rt Reseller, 1998, from the author's private collection)

Inside The Box

Everything started, naturally, with the chassis into which you plugged all the components. You needed room for all the cards and devices, which forced several decisions. For example, you had to ask yourself: "Do I want a full-height floppy drive?," "Will I use an internal tape drive?," and "Are any of my cards full-length?"

You also had to determine which CPU you planned to use, and whether it ran so hot that you needed a dedicated fan to cool it off, so the computer wouldn't overheat.

The answers to each of those questions affected the number of drive bays you needed, and thus how big the actual physical box would be. It was a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Most of my computers were too tall to fit under my desk. It was also a mark of geek pride if you never bothered to put the case back on the computer.

The above magazine advertisement, from 1998, is relatively late in the era. For $399, you got "the guts to build your own system," which meant it included the case, the motherboard, a power supply, and a fan. That was a fair price for a (sort of) pre-built system. Of course, there wasn't a CPU, storage, video, multimedia, or monitor.

(Image: Advertisement scanned from [email protected] Reseller, 1998, from the author's private collection)

Figure 3:
Options, Options, Options
We had options. Lots of options. Every printed computer magazine (including InformationWeek) had entire sections devoted to ads from mail-order computer companies, printed with ever-teenier print in order to fit every product on a single magazine page. Each mail order company promised to sell you equipment from any vendor you liked -- presumably at the lowest possible price.
Some mail order companies specialized in one kind of product, as you can see in the above ad (circa 2000), with all its attention on SCSI hardware. My favorite item here is The Book of SCSI: An Adventure! Other mail-order firms sold only programming tools, camera equipment, or computer memory.
Magazines had page after page of ads like this, and many people loved reading them in the wish-book sense of 'Wouldn't it be fun to buy that?' These mail-order ads supported a healthy marketplace of computer publications, wherein the articles explained how each of those hardware components worked, and how to choose the best device.
(Image: Scan of Granite Digital ad, 2000, from the author's private collection)

Options, Options, Options

We had options. Lots of options. Every printed computer magazine (including InformationWeek) had entire sections devoted to ads from mail-order computer companies, printed with ever-teenier print in order to fit every product on a single magazine page. Each mail order company promised to sell you equipment from any vendor you liked -- presumably at the lowest possible price.

Some mail order companies specialized in one kind of product, as you can see in the above ad (circa 2000), with all its attention on SCSI hardware. My favorite item here is The Book of SCSI: An Adventure! Other mail-order firms sold only programming tools, camera equipment, or computer memory.

Magazines had page after page of ads like this, and many people loved reading them in the wish-book sense of "Wouldn't it be fun to buy that?" These mail-order ads supported a healthy marketplace of computer publications, wherein the articles explained how each of those hardware components worked, and how to choose the best device.

(Image: Scan of Granite Digital ad, 2000, from the author's private collection)

Figure 4:
The Motherboard And CPU
In a personal computer all the smaller boards (or cards) plugged into one larger main board. The term was interchangeably used with 'motherboard.' A sow and her piglets gives you the correct, if inelegant, imagery.
Makers of motherboards advertised their support for a given brand of CPU. These nearly always were sold separately, since CPUs varied in speed, cache size, and other factors -- and yes, to set up a computer you really did need to know the differences. Similarly, the choice of motherboard told you which type of hardware memory you could use, as well as the speed it would support.
Importantly, the motherboard also defined the number of slots you could use, sometimes referred to as the 'bus.' On several occasions, I couldn't add another device to my computer (such as a special-purpose board to speed up my laser printer) because I'd already used up the four or six bus slots in my PC.
Over time more and more functionality was built in. Initially, it was primarily 'something that connects all the cards,' but gradually motherboards included video, parallel, and serial ports; storage support; and multimedia. The above 1998 print ad shows that transition underway.
(Image: Mainboard ASUS 1998, from the author's private collection)

The Motherboard And CPU

In a personal computer all the smaller boards (or cards) plugged into one larger main board. The term was interchangeably used with "motherboard." A sow and her piglets gives you the correct, if inelegant, imagery.

Makers of motherboards advertised their support for a given brand of CPU. These nearly always were sold separately, since CPUs varied in speed, cache size, and other factors -- and yes, to set up a computer you really did need to know the differences. Similarly, the choice of motherboard told you which type of hardware memory you could use, as well as the speed it would support.

Importantly, the motherboard also defined the number of slots you could use, sometimes referred to as the "bus." On several occasions, I couldn't add another device to my computer (such as a special-purpose board to speed up my laser printer) because I'd already used up the four or six bus slots in my PC.

Over time more and more functionality was built in. Initially, it was primarily "something that connects all the cards," but gradually motherboards included video, parallel, and serial ports; storage support; and multimedia. The above 1998 print ad shows that transition underway.

(Image: Mainboard ASUS 1998, from the author's private collection)

Figure 5:
Filling It Up With Memory
Then, and now, a computer's power is affected by how much random access memory (RAM) the CPU can address, and how fast the processor can interact with that RAM.
Memory has always been relatively expensive, as it is today. In the days before the IBM PC, when hobbyists still relied on the S-100 bus, an advertisement like the one above, for the Cromemco (CP/M) personal computer, could crow about 16K (that's in bytes) turning your computer into 'a working giant.' Nowadays, it'd be positively Lilliputian.
In 1998, a specialist mail-order company (which had phone sales and a website!) could offer 128MB for $265. Such a deal.
Whatever the cost, installing the memory into the computer could be a frustrating exercise. For instance, if you tried to install the proprietary memory sticks for the IBM PS/2 the wrong way, the little plastic clips that held in the sticks would pop off. (Guess how I know?) You could 'fix' that broken motherboard with a rubberband. However, rubberbands don't like to get warm, and eventually they pop off, too. (Guess how I know that, as well?)
(Image: Cromemco ad in Byte magazine, from author's private collection)

Filling It Up With Memory

Then, and now, a computer's power is affected by how much random access memory (RAM) the CPU can address, and how fast the processor can interact with that RAM.

Memory has always been relatively expensive, as it is today. In the days before the IBM PC, when hobbyists still relied on the S-100 bus, an advertisement like the one above, for the Cromemco (CP/M) personal computer, could crow about 16K (that's in bytes) turning your computer into "a working giant." Nowadays, it'd be positively Lilliputian.

In 1998, a specialist mail-order company (which had phone sales and a website!) could offer 128MB for $265. Such a deal.

Whatever the cost, installing the memory into the computer could be a frustrating exercise. For instance, if you tried to install the proprietary memory sticks for the IBM PS/2 the wrong way, the little plastic clips that held in the sticks would pop off. (Guess how I know?) You could "fix" that broken motherboard with a rubberband. However, rubberbands don't like to get warm, and eventually they pop off, too. (Guess how I know that, as well?)

(Image: Cromemco ad in Byte magazine, from author's private collection)

Figure 6:
Choosing A Video Card
Perhaps the biggest choice most of us made was in regard to the monitor, and video card to support it. Certainly, it was the most visible difference between one computer and another. Almost anyone could appreciate the speedy evolution in graphic standards (from CGA to EGA to VGA, and onwards), if not the rate at which the technology we chose became obsolete.
Each video adaptor, of course, had a different price point. Did you want to spend $89 on a basic VGA card, or invest $379 for better resolution and faster video refresh rates? (By the time of the above 1998 ad, prices had dropped significantly.)
Gamers always justified the fastest video. But it was harder to convince the boss in a large enterprise that your productivity would be significantly enhanced when you could see 10x10 cells in Lotus 1-2-3, instead of 6x6. As a result, most of us had a faster and more powerful computer at home than we did in the office.
(Image: Diamond Video ad, 1998, from the author's private collection)

Choosing A Video Card

Perhaps the biggest choice most of us made was in regard to the monitor, and video card to support it. Certainly, it was the most visible difference between one computer and another. Almost anyone could appreciate the speedy evolution in graphic standards (from CGA to EGA to VGA, and onwards), if not the rate at which the technology we chose became obsolete.

Each video adaptor, of course, had a different price point. Did you want to spend $89 on a basic VGA card, or invest $379 for better resolution and faster video refresh rates? (By the time of the above 1998 ad, prices had dropped significantly.)

Gamers always justified the fastest video. But it was harder to convince the boss in a large enterprise that your productivity would be significantly enhanced when you could see 10x10 cells in Lotus 1-2-3, instead of 6x6. As a result, most of us had a faster and more powerful computer at home than we did in the office.

(Image: Diamond Video ad, 1998, from the author's private collection)

Figure 7:
Coping With Storage
In every era, computer storage follows the law of closet space: No matter how much you have, it isn't enough.
As a result, we expended a significant portion of our time, in the early days of microcomputers, trying to fit 10 pounds of data into a 5-pound bag.
Early innovators were successful, by which I mean that in only a few years we went from floppy diskettes that could hold 360K, to diskettes that could hold four times as much. Then we had hard disks, which used ever-more-efficient technology so we could store more data. Though, in my experience, whether the hard disk stored 10MB, 40MB, or 120MB, it always seemed to cost $850.
All that data needed to be backed up, whether on diskette, with a portable medium (ZIP drives were common) or, ideally, on (expensive) tape. Backup to the cloud? Ha! We didn't have a cloud. At best, on a fast network, the important data would be copied to a data center.
And, of course, each of those technologies meant another card inserted into one of those precious slots on your motherboard. Need RAID? SCSI? A floppy-disk controller? Each of those cost something, and rarely was it a trivial amount.
(Image: Fireport ad, from the author's private collection)

Coping With Storage

In every era, computer storage follows the law of closet space: No matter how much you have, it isn't enough.

As a result, we expended a significant portion of our time, in the early days of microcomputers, trying to fit 10 pounds of data into a 5-pound bag.

Early innovators were successful, by which I mean that in only a few years we went from floppy diskettes that could hold 360K, to diskettes that could hold four times as much. Then we had hard disks, which used ever-more-efficient technology so we could store more data. Though, in my experience, whether the hard disk stored 10MB, 40MB, or 120MB, it always seemed to cost $850.

All that data needed to be backed up, whether on diskette, with a portable medium (ZIP drives were common) or, ideally, on (expensive) tape. Backup to the cloud? Ha! We didn't have a cloud. At best, on a fast network, the important data would be copied to a data center.

And, of course, each of those technologies meant another card inserted into one of those precious slots on your motherboard. Need RAID? SCSI? A floppy-disk controller? Each of those cost something, and rarely was it a trivial amount.

(Image: Fireport ad, from the author's private collection)

Figure 8:
Support For External Peripherals
The computer needed to interact with other hardware. Printers generally used a parallel port (intimating the manner in which data traveled), so you needed a parallel cable with the right adaptors. If you had two printers, that meant two parallel ports -- and an adaptor card supplying such a thing. That led me to create one of my most popular Halloween costumes: I spent the evening carrying around two bottles of fine fortified wine (parallel Ports, get it?).
RS232 serial ports were the common choice for other devices, such as modems, mice, and (eventually) plug-and-unplug devices, such as digital camera connections. The technical specification was exhaustive (and the basis for much of what we see in USB devices today). The connections? Not so much. That led many of us to collect adaptor cables and gender changers, especially if you had, say, an older-era computer mouse that needed to plug into a newer PC.
(Image: StarTech ISA Serial/Parallel Card via recycledgoods.com)

Support For External Peripherals

The computer needed to interact with other hardware. Printers generally used a parallel port (intimating the manner in which data traveled), so you needed a parallel cable with the right adaptors. If you had two printers, that meant two parallel ports -- and an adaptor card supplying such a thing. That led me to create one of my most popular Halloween costumes: I spent the evening carrying around two bottles of fine fortified wine (parallel Ports, get it?).

RS232 serial ports were the common choice for other devices, such as modems, mice, and (eventually) plug-and-unplug devices, such as digital camera connections. The technical specification was exhaustive (and the basis for much of what we see in USB devices today). The connections? Not so much. That led many of us to collect adaptor cables and gender changers, especially if you had, say, an older-era computer mouse that needed to plug into a newer PC.

(Image: StarTech ISA Serial/Parallel Card via recycledgoods.com)

Figure 9:
Network Cards
As with so many other 'standards' in microcomputing, the rapid pace of innovation (and marketing clout) meant that every company had to choose a 'standard' in network topology on which to place its bets. IBM's Token Ring? ARCNet? Ethernet? Each needed its own network cabling, too. And that's without regard to the software options, such as Microsoft LAN Manager or Novell Netware.
There were also adaptor cards to make a PC emulate other, older equipment. For instance, the IRMA board was a brand of coaxial interface cards for PCs and Macintosh computers. They enabled 3270 emulator programs to connect to IBM mainframe computers.
(Image: IBM MCA Token Ring NIC, via recycledgoods.com)

Network Cards

As with so many other "standards" in microcomputing, the rapid pace of innovation (and marketing clout) meant that every company had to choose a "standard" in network topology on which to place its bets. IBM's Token Ring? ARCNet? Ethernet? Each needed its own network cabling, too. And that's without regard to the software options, such as Microsoft LAN Manager or Novell Netware.

There were also adaptor cards to make a PC emulate other, older equipment. For instance, the IRMA board was a brand of coaxial interface cards for PCs and Macintosh computers. They enabled 3270 emulator programs to connect to IBM mainframe computers.

(Image: IBM MCA Token Ring NIC, via recycledgoods.com)

Figure 10:
The Modem Issue
I don't know how many years we spent proclaiming that this would be 'the year of the network.' It probably didn't really arrive until 1995, after the 'year of the Internet' in 1992.
Until then, if we wanted to connect to the outside world, we used modems. If we bothered.
Plenty of people saw no reason to dial into a BBS, or a paid service like CompuServe. If they needed to transfer a file to another computer, they copied it onto a diskette, the way you might use a USB key today, though the tiniest USB key today is bigger than an early PC's hard disks.
Modems weren't always an internal card, like this D.C. Hayes Micromodem 100, first produced for S-100 systems, which sent data at speeds ranging from 45 up to 300 baud. Some folks (including me) preferred an external modem, as long as there were enough serial and parallel ports to go around. The last modem I used transferred data at 14,400 bits per second, which today would seem slightly faster than the rate at which grass grows. 
(Image: Hayes modem, via s100computers.com)

The Modem Issue

I don't know how many years we spent proclaiming that this would be "the year of the network." It probably didn't really arrive until 1995, after the "year of the Internet" in 1992.

Until then, if we wanted to connect to the outside world, we used modems. If we bothered.

Plenty of people saw no reason to dial into a BBS, or a paid service like CompuServe. If they needed to transfer a file to another computer, they copied it onto a diskette, the way you might use a USB key today, though the tiniest USB key today is bigger than an early PC's hard disks.

Modems weren't always an internal card, like this D.C. Hayes Micromodem 100, first produced for S-100 systems, which sent data at speeds ranging from 45 up to 300 baud. Some folks (including me) preferred an external modem, as long as there were enough serial and parallel ports to go around. The last modem I used transferred data at 14,400 bits per second, which today would seem slightly faster than the rate at which grass grows.

(Image: Hayes modem, via s100computers.com)

Figure 11:
Multimedia Wasn't Included
For quite a while, personal computers didn't play music. Well, not unless you were willing to create music using the computer's built-in speaker, which could only produce a simple tone at a fixed volume. That sufficed for a status beep ('Change the diskette for your backup!'), but little else. While the IBM PC's BASICA had a PLAY statement that would generate real notes to create a melody, it wasn't exactly melodious.
So if you wanted music to, say, accompany a computer game, you bought a multimedia card. This was always an optional item, and not cheap. Few enterprise computers had one, in part because it would never have occurred to anyone to buy headphones for a company computer.
Through much of the 1990s, the market leader was Creative Labs' line of Sound Blaster cards. The first of these were full-length cards that consumed one of those precious motherboard slots. Before long, the Sound Blaster Multimedia Upgrade Kit supplied an audio card, a CD-ROM drive, and software that enabled you to upgrade 386 PCs and above to the Multimedia PC Level-1 standard. Yes, I remember when that was a big deal.
(Image: Creative Labs Sound Blaster 32 bit ISA Sound Card, via recycledgoods.com)

Multimedia Wasn't Included

For quite a while, personal computers didn't play music. Well, not unless you were willing to create music using the computer's built-in speaker, which could only produce a simple tone at a fixed volume. That sufficed for a status beep ("Change the diskette for your backup!"), but little else. While the IBM PC's BASICA had a PLAY statement that would generate real notes to create a melody, it wasn't exactly melodious.

So if you wanted music to, say, accompany a computer game, you bought a multimedia card. This was always an optional item, and not cheap. Few enterprise computers had one, in part because it would never have occurred to anyone to buy headphones for a company computer.

Through much of the 1990s, the market leader was Creative Labs' line of Sound Blaster cards. The first of these were full-length cards that consumed one of those precious motherboard slots. Before long, the Sound Blaster Multimedia Upgrade Kit supplied an audio card, a CD-ROM drive, and software that enabled you to upgrade 386 PCs and above to the Multimedia PC Level-1 standard. Yes, I remember when that was a big deal.

(Image: Creative Labs Sound Blaster 32 bit ISA Sound Card, via recycledgoods.com)

Figure 12:
Cables Galore
All these cards stuffed into a metal chassis had an unavoidable effect: We ended up with boxes crammed full of cables and other connectors. I had adventures that began with a missing SCSI terminator, an errant jumper, a hard drive ribbon cable that wasn't long enough, or a motherboard whose standoffs didn't line up correctly with the holes in the case.
Then, too, was the predictability with which a case refused to slide back together once you opened it. The hardware struggle inevitably would pinch you and leave an angry welt. I was reminded of this fact while I took the photo above, and it caused me to say, 'I don't miss this at all.'
I've left out plenty of elements that were required in building one's own computer system. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section below -- or tell us about the pieces that make you, too, appreciate how much better things are these days.
(Image: Esther Schindler.)

Cables Galore

All these cards stuffed into a metal chassis had an unavoidable effect: We ended up with boxes crammed full of cables and other connectors. I had adventures that began with a missing SCSI terminator, an errant jumper, a hard drive ribbon cable that wasn't long enough, or a motherboard whose standoffs didn't line up correctly with the holes in the case.

Then, too, was the predictability with which a case refused to slide back together once you opened it. The hardware struggle inevitably would pinch you and leave an angry welt. I was reminded of this fact while I took the photo above, and it caused me to say, "I don't miss this at all."

I've left out plenty of elements that were required in building one's own computer system. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section below -- or tell us about the pieces that make you, too, appreciate how much better things are these days.

(Image: Esther Schindler.)

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Michelle
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50%
Michelle,
User Rank: Ninja
12/29/2015 | 7:03:40 PM
Re: A Giant leap
Everything was command line launched back in those days. I remember when Windows 3.1 was new. You had to typed Windows in DOS to launch it. Times have changed!
Broadway0474
50%
50%
Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
12/22/2015 | 9:05:29 PM
Re: A Giant leap
It's interesting to note that electronics recycling is a serious cyber risk issue as well. If a company thinks it is recycling with a not-so-reputable firm, which then instead resells the equipment in the developing world, whatever data was stores on those hard drives, say, is now potentially out there, privacy be darned.
Susan Fourtané
50%
50%
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
12/22/2015 | 9:31:28 AM
Re: A Giant leap
Broadway, Yes, true. It's also good that electronics manufacturers are paying more attention to their recycling programs, which also makes it easier for consumers, not only businesses. -Susan
Susan Fourtané
50%
50%
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
12/22/2015 | 9:24:41 AM
Re: A Giant leap
Jagibbons, not really. I was talking about 3D printed electronics using a new method that uses graphene based inks. I interviewed the researcher behind the new method for an article. It has not been published yet, so I have no link to send you. -Susan
jagibbons
50%
50%
jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
12/21/2015 | 10:06:37 AM
Re: A Giant leap
Recycling is imoortant, given the many heavy metals and other toxins in electronics. There need to be more incentives so that it becomes easy for consumers; so easy that they ask "Why wouldn't I?"
Broadway0474
50%
50%
Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
12/20/2015 | 10:22:43 PM
Re: A Giant leap
Susan, electronica recycling is growing. Perhaps not at the pace it needs to, but if more retailers partner with the major recycling operations and make it easy for consumers, and businesses make it a point to partner with recyclers for their old equipment, there will be continued responsibility on this issue.
Li Tan
50%
50%
Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
12/20/2015 | 9:59:15 PM
Re: A Giant leap
Although I don't need to worry about PC desktop anymore - nowdays there are plenty of good products in the market, I miss those days when I assemble PC by myself and try to solve some tricky compatibility issues. It's a kind of fun that you cannot get elsewhere.
jagibbons
50%
50%
jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
12/20/2015 | 1:14:21 PM
Re: A Giant leap
Fast and cheap works for many companies, but it is hard to stay in that space and differentiate. To stand out above the rest of the market, it may take some additional customization that demands a higher price.
Susan Fourtané
50%
50%
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
12/20/2015 | 8:00:53 AM
Re: A Giant leap
It's all part of a cycle, Jagibbons. Now you can get printed electronics that are very cheap. Recycling electronics is a problem today, and it will become worse. Fast and cheap manufacturing is what you mostly get today, right? But this is not only In electronics. It's a general tendency In other industries as well. -Susan
Susan Fourtané
50%
50%
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
12/20/2015 | 7:50:18 AM
Coping with storage
One of the things I have always been grateful of is cloud storage. Yes, In computers or in closet storage space you always want more, and more is never enough. -Susan
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