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My Computing History

BBC Owl logoSpurred on by Andrew Field’s new ICThistory.co.uk site, Dave Stacey reminisces about the computers of his youth in Early Computer Memories. The venerable Mr Field needs more examples of this to share with his ICT students, and I’m always happy to oblige. It has meant I’ve had to do some thinking about when these memories I have actually happened!

I suppose it’s relevant here to say that at the time of this post being published I’m 28 years old, being born in December 1980.

BBC Micro

My Dad was Deputy Head of the high school (13-18) I eventually attended. I can remember him bringing back a BBC Micro that must have cost the school a fair chunk of cash. Given that the BBC Micro was discontinued in 1986, it couldn’t have been long after that he started bringing it home in the school holidays. I can distinctly remember having to type in lines and lines of code to play a game called Duck Hunt. There was no way for me to save it once I’d programmed it in, so there was more typing than playing going on! I don’t think it was exactly the same as this version for the Nintendo NES, but it was similar…

My Dad also brought an Acorn Computer back once, but as we had no games for it, we (my younger sister and I), didn’t really use it.

Nintendo NES

I was never allowed to have a games console, my parents being of the belief (quite rightly) that I’d just spend my life playing video games. One of my friends who I only saw outside of school time had a Nintendo Entertainment System, which was legendary – Super Mario and the like made me a frequent visitor to his house!

Amiga 600

As my birthday is very close to Christmas, I was in the fortunate situation of being able to combine the money that would be spent on present for me to get one ‘big’ present. Given that the Amiga 600, according to Wikipedia, went into production in 1992 and was discontinued in 1993, I must have received it for birthday/Christmas 1992. As a 12-year-old, I can remember going to Canterbury when we were on a family holiday and my parents buying Lemmings and Kick Off 2 for me. Although, theoretically, the Amiga 600 was a computer and a games console, I never did anything other than play games on it! 😉

Sega Megadrive

Whilst I had my Amiga 600, another friend had a Sega Megadrive. This was my first experience of Sonic the Hedgehog and I found the graphics on it amazing – especially when the 32X add-on was released!

Compaq Presario Pentium 75

My Dad had brought home his 486DX-powered PC during the holidays during 1994 and 1995. It was upon this that I learned how to touch-type with a version of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing that came free on the front of a magazine. Then – and I’m not sure how I managed to do this – I persuaded my parents to spend £1,500 in Bainbridges (now John Lewis) on a Pentium 75-powered PC. I think I promised that it would not only be a combined birthday and Christmas present for 1995, but for 1996 and 1997 as well!

I can remember playing Sim City 2000 and especially, the Secret of Monkey Island on this machine. My sister and I would return from school and be straight on the PC trying to figure out the next puzzle! I also had Sensible Soccer, a flight simulator, and some other games.

It was with this machine, however, and Windows 95 that I began to use the PC as a computer rather than a console. Before Freeserve, you had a choice between paying Compuserve or AOL around £15 per month on top of dial-up charges to access the Internet. My PC had a 28.8kbps modem – twice the speed of the previous 14.4kbps standard.

There was no way that my parents were going to pay this to allow me access to a resource they didn’t see as necessary to my education. I tried and tried and tried to persuade them, but when they didn’t agree I decided to take matters into my own hands. I used my Dad’s credit card to sign up for a 30-day Compuserve trial, and then used the Internet when my parents were not using the phone. This, of course, was slightly dangerous as, if they’d picked up the phone when I was online, they would have been able to hear the giveaway noises. I had to go to a phone box and pretend to be my Dad after about 29 days to cancel my (his!) Compuserve account, and make sure I wasn’t connected for longer than an hour. Billing was only itemised for calls over 60 pence, you see… :-p

In 1997, as a 16-year-old, I was getting a bit fed-up of Windows 95. I’d read about Open Source Software and Linux in particular. Although by now I had a 56kbps modem and my parents allowed me online via Freeserve, downloading anything substantial over this connection speed was painful. I bought a book with a title something like Teach yourself Red Hat Linux in 24 hours. Despite the book that came with it, I couldn’t get Linux to work properly on my PC.

More PCs

I can remember getting an ‘overdrive’ processor. This fitted on top of the existing Pentium 75 processor I had and took it up to something like 150mhz. Then started the period of me building computers to my own specification. I can remember spending the £1000 left to me when my Great Auntie passed away on components for an AMD-K6-2/400 computer I took to university with me in 1999. Of course, I should have invested that money as the computer became outdated very quickly. I had word-processed my essays in Sixth Form on my PC and done some research on the Internet.

I should probably also mention that John Roden, my Physics teacher, introduced our class to Dreamweaver and creating websites. My first was hosted via the webspace I had via my Freeserve account and was basically a Monty Python fan site called BiggusDickus.net. I put sound clips and images on there that I captured directly from the VHS video I had of the Monty Python films. 😀

At university, I continued to upgrade my PC and replace parts until it was pretty much the Ship of Theseus!

LG Phenom Express

Towards the end of my time in Sheffield, I bought an LG Phenom Express. This was a Windows CE sub-notebook that I could take to lectures and seminars to take notes. It was touchscreen too! The only bad thing was that you had to connect and transfer information to your PC via serial cable. It wasn’t really a computer in its own right.

I bought the LG Phenom Express from eBay, and was my most expensive purchase on there during my time at uni. I then sold it for about the same price as I bought it a year later in 2002.

Compaq Presario becomes MP3 jukebox

After my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, I decided to move back in with my parents and do an MA in Modern History at the University of Durham. This was 2002/3.  During this period, with lots of free time on my hands, I hacked and modified my ageing Compaq Presario to turn it into an MP3 jukebox. It was running a cut-down version of Windows 98 and Winamp and the track titles were displayed on a Matrix Orbital LCD I imported from Canada. I got stung for about £50 import duty on that! It worked reasonably well, but took some time to boot up…

Energy efficient PC

After getting married in 2003, my wife and I decided not to have a television. We couldn’t really afford to buy one and pay the TV license and, as we were both training to be teachers, didn’t have time either. We did watch DVDs on my PC, though.

When we moved down to the Doncaster area, I decided that I needed to have a machine that didn’t cost us much to run. I also wanted it to be near-silent. I used the components from QuietPC.com to build a machine that was mainly used for web browsing and downloads. It worked really well. 😀

I was dabbling with Linux again, but didn’t really have much success.

Laptop era

When laptops started coming down in price, I bought myself one. It was a Compaq laptop that I managed to get cheaply via a special offer. It would have been 2005 and I believe it was processor with a speed around 1Ghz. I’d researched it on the Internet and it seemed like a good deal. Of course it was impossible to upgrade in the same way desktop PCs are, but a lot more portable!

I kept on dabbling with Linux, and Ubuntu – the new kid on the block – worked reasonably well. I still couldn’t rely on it for day-to-day use, though. 🙁

Since that first laptop, I’ve many and various laptops. I’ve had a few, mainly cheap, Windows-powered laptops but then, with the release of the Macbook in 2006, I decided to delve into the world of Mac. It wasn’t such a risky proposition as OSX-powered Macbooks can still dual-boot Windows via Boot Camp. Nowadays I run Windows XP on a virtual desktop via VMware Fusion on my Macbook Pro when I need to run a Windows-only program. 🙂

Xbox

I bought a console for the first time in 2005 – but not to play games on! I bought, from eBay, a modified Xbox that could run Xbox Media Center (XBMC). This, in conjunction with a NAS drive, meant we could watch programmes and films encoded in DivX format via our TV! This is largely in disuse now, as Nick Dennis has loaned us his AppleTV (which I’ve also modified to run Boxee and XBMC)

Netbooks

In 2008 I bought my first netbook – an Asus Eee 701. Although this was amazingly small and cool, the 7″ screen was just too small. I then sold that and bought an Advent 4211 that I managed to hack to run Mac OSX. However, when I used my E-Learning budget at school to buy some Asus Eee 1000‘s, I decided to sell it on eBay.

Apple iPhone

In October 2008 I replaced my ageing Nokia N95 with an Apple iPhone 3G. This is my computer and Internet connection on-the-move. It’s a joy and a wonder to behold, and a paradigm shift in terms of always-on, ubiquitous access to online content. 🙂

Conclusion

So there we are. I’ve had many and varied computers, and the pace of upgrade and change has certainly accelerated as I’ve grown older. I’m really happy in an Apple-powered world, as everything ‘just works’ and I can concetrate on being productive and on the things I enjoy doing. My wife has a Macbook, and these are both backed-up continuously to an Apple Time Capsule. These days, if I want to tinker with something, it will be software – usually something to do with my websites – rather than hardware.

As I write this, my son is playing next to me. His earliest computing memory will probably be a more powerful machine than the Macbook Pro he sees me using now. Given the pace of development in the twenty years of my computing history, I can’t even imagine what his will be like when he gets to my age! 😮

 

 

 

 

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Wanna buy my Macbook?

[Update: my Macbook sold for £475 – thanks for all who asked questions and made me offers!]

I bought a shiny new Macbook Pro last week. As a consequence, I’m selling my pimped, maxed-out white Macbook Core2Duo 2Ghz. It’s got a custom skin, 2GB RAM and a 250GB hard disk!

Interested? Get bidding! :-p

Oh, and I’m open to offers… 😉

4 reasons you should jailbreak your iPhone 3G

I’m never happy to leave things be. I like doing things with devices that they’re not ‘supposed’ to do. Happily for my bank balance, there’s other people who feel the same way and are a lot more gung-ho with their devices than I am. My strategy is basically to see how they get on and then copy if they’re successful.

I don’t think I’ve actually mentioned that I re-purchased an iPhone after previously returning one. I love it. I paid £59 upfront for a 16GB version, then £45/month for 9 months and then dropping down to the £35/month contract for the remainder of my 18 month contract, as recommended on moneysavingexpert.com.

‘Jailbreaking’ your iPhone allows functionality not offered by Apple either via the in-built software or that available through the App. Store. Here’s 5 reasons to jailbreak your iPhone:

1. Apple doesn’t always allow a level playing field

For applications to show up in Apple’s App. Store, they have to be approved by Apple. Unfortunately, Apple don’t allow a level playing field. For example, applications that allow ‘tethering’ (using the iPhone as a broadband modem) aren’t allowed, and those that offer similar functionality (but are better) than Apple’s offerings aren’t allowed through the net. Podcaster, with it’s ability to download podcasts wirelessly is an excellent example of the latter. More on ‘Apple’s capricious app. policy’ can be found here.

2. Bypass silly things

Sometimes, applications that are allowed through into the App. Store have been crippled in some way. Take the applications that allow you iPhone to be used like a torch, for example. Apple’s rules don’t allow for developers of applications to play around the brightness settings, making this particular one of limited use. Jailbreak your iPhone, on the other hand, and no such restrictions apply! :-p

3. Customisation

I’m sure that I’m not alone when I say that I like my devices to feel personalised, not just the same as everyone else’s. Jailbreaking enables you to make your iPhone yours. Look at the image to the right, for example. I’ve got rotating Mac backgrounds on there, a subtely different theme, coloured signal bars (which change colour depending on signal strength) and I’ve changed the ‘O2-UK’ carrier name to ‘DAJB’ (my initials). I’ve got lots of applications installed on my phone, but I just have the ones I use most often available at-a-glance. The rest are hidden away in a coverflow-style program for app. launching (see below). Much better! 😀

4. Mobile broadband with iPhoneModem

I bought a mobile broadband modem when we moved house and I was without landline broadband for a few weeks. This week I’ll be selling it on eBay. Why? iPhone Modem allows me to use my iPhone as, guess what? Yep, a wireless broadband modem. It works most straightforwardly in conjunction with Mac OSX, but it’s not impossible to use with Windows or Linux. Result!

Interested in jailbreaking your iPhone 3G now? The best place to start is probably the link below:

modmyi.com/wiki

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We have a winner!

Macvatar skinLast week I launched a competition to win a Macvatar Macbook skin after the company sent me two skins for the price of one. The number of entrants was, well, underwhelming, but congratulations should nevertheless go to John Johnston, who wrote:

Hi Doug,
My macbook looks exactly like the 6 we have at school and I want to avoid a mixup. The scratch resistance will also be important to me, my macs last a long time, my new macbook (no scratches yet) replaces mt G4 which was born in the year 2000.
a skin also might prevent this problem from developing

John, let me know your postal address and the Macvatar skin will be winging its way to you in no time! 😀

Competition: win a Macvatar Macbook skin!

Can you spot the difference in the picture to the left? Yep, that’s my Macbook at the bottom, Hannah (my wife)’s Macbook in the middle, and a Macvatar Macbook skin all by its lonesome at the top. I’m absolutely delighted with the resulting look from the skin I chose from their website. The quality of the vinyl material used is excellent, and you can remove and re-apply it easily. The speed of delivery was nothing short of fantastic (4 working days from US to UK!)

Macvatar were either very kind or mis-counted when they sent my chosen skin. Yep, they sent two. I could sell the second on eBay, but I’m not going to: I’m giving it away! To get your hands on that second skin I’ve got spare, simply do the following:

  1. Tell me (in the comments to this post) why you need the skin so much. This could be because of scratches or other damage to your once-shiny Macbook, because you have 2 or more Macbooks in your household/school, or some other creative reason! 😀
  2. Attach, or link to, a picture backing up your entry. This, again, can be as creative as you’d like. Try Bayimg.com for free image hosting if you need it…
  3. Wait in anticipation until Sunday 27 April 2008 when the winner shall be announced!

Around 450 people subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog. I reckon that means that about 1000 people read it regularly. Of those, probably 20% have Macs, and of those, probably about a quarter have Macbooks. That means 5% of 1000 = 50 people. Of those, only about a fifth will no doubt enter….

So, if you enter you’ve probably got a 1 in 10 chance of winning! 🙂

Mac OSX: changing spots back to stripes

OSX LeopardI was all set to take my Macbook back to the Apple Store in Meadowhall this evening. For the last couple of months it’s had a really annoying ‘flickering’ problem which gets especially bad when I turn the screen brightness down. I need to do this in the evenings, otherwise I find I get lots of glare from the screen. Must be my old age… 😉

Continue reading “Mac OSX: changing spots back to stripes”

Return of the Mac

Macbook Core 2 Duo

I’m pleased to say that I returned from the Apple Store, Meadowhall with an Intel Core 2 Duo Macbook. Yes, the one with the 2Ghz processor(s) and 80GB hard disk. Which leaves me in somewhat of a quandry: do I sell it (as I swore I would) and make c.£800 whilst keeping the (actually rather good) Acer laptop I bought recently, or do I swallow my pride and keep the admittedly very cool Macbook? I’ve actually quite enjoyed using Ubuntu Linux recently, so it’s a harder decision than you’d think.

Hmmm….

Continue reading “Return of the Mac”

Macbook vs. my new laptop? No contest…

Apple vs. Acer logo 2

After being properly messed about by the Apple Store in Meadowhall, Sheffield and having received an extremely flaky Macbook that I had to take back 5 times, I’ve decided enough is enough. As soon as I get my replacement Macbook I’ll be selling it on eBay. Continue reading “Macbook vs. my new laptop? No contest…”

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