Legacy Computing vs. Emulation – a resurrection

You know that old dusty gray piece of junk you have in the basement behind that bike next to those yard tools and golf clubs? Yes that one, the one you bought in 1995 with the brand new Windows 95 Operating System installed, the Soundblaster card, and a whopping 32MB of RAM. You’ve been thinking of getting rid of it. After all, nobody has used it for several years, and that big screen you already pronounced dead several years ago. Why not just get rid of this one as well? It isn’t worth anything and selling it on craigslist or eBay is just a waste of time. Yes, do it now, get rid of it! Your wife will thank you for finally coming to your senses.

Here’s another thought, why not hook it up and see what you have on it? What was your last wallpaper, screensaver, or desktop setup? What documents did you work on in 1998 before this one got the label “that old one in the basement?” Or why not see if there still are some old family photos on it from that first digital camera you bought? Well, take a look. Maybe you’ll discover something fun – something magic? Maybe even… games? More specifically DOS games that you haven’t been able to play since due to the Windows NT environment’s lack of support?

Now you’re sitting there saying that DOS Box can do all that and much more. Why do we need an old piece of junk for this? That’s true, DOS Box can emulate a lot of software – but that’s beside the point. Why is there a sudden resurgence in the sales of the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis? After all, there are plenty emulators out there. It is because it’s simply not authentic. This is not how you remember it being and therefore it becomes less fun. You don’t want to play Duke Nukem 3D on your UHD screen capable of blowing up four bluray movies in your face at once. This kind of software was optimized to run on a resolution lower than 640×480 – way lower than phone screens and even some calculators nowadays. Later games were of course optimized for higher resolution – but much of the feeling is lost when playing it with higher specifications than you were used to at the time.

This is why legacy computers are becoming a modern thing – a desktop or sometimes laptop computer set up as a kind of game console in peoples’ houses. The computers have no access to the internet and exist as a contained environment so to not get infected with the unpleasantries of the modern world. What type of system you want to run is kind of up to you and your memories. The DOS environment with its Windows 95 and 98 shells seem to be the most preferred as most of the older software will be compatible with these operating systems but no further.

They’re getting expensive, too. Soon you can pick up a brand new computer for the price you’ll have to pay for a retrofitted Pentium II or III computer. The sad thing is that many of us had those gray boxes in our basements and got rid of them because they were just outdated. Now though, they’re so outdated they’re in again. Modern computers are simply so new that it becomes a struggle to run older software on them. Much of this software isn’t really that old and many people drive cars that are older on a daily basis. Vintage computing is great fun, too – and besides – old CPUs are way too cool to be collecting dust.

So go down there and give your old gray box of metal a brush up – it deserves it.

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Screen Saver Series – Part 1: Duke Nukem 3D Atomic Edition

“I came here to save screens and kicking as, and I’m all out of kicking ass!” – Something Duke should have said.

One of the later versions of Duke Nukem 3D didn’t only offer additional episodes, maps, and other goodies on the CD-ROM, but also fun stuff that games of today seem to lack such as wallpapers, screen savers, icons, and the theme music. The Atomic Edition of Duke Nukem 3D offered all this and oh was it great fun! One of my all time favorite screen savers came from this version.

Intel Pentium III-M @ 800MHz

This weekend I had the pleasure of enjoying the aesthetics of a Pentium III-M processor with the groundbreaking speed of 800MHz while changing the thermal paste on the heatsink.

If I may be a little abstract for a moment I find these Intel processors to be a thing of beauty to behold. There is a robust yet a sense of non-urgency about these processors. It’s a feeling that you know the thing isn’t going to get anything done quickly but it is going to do it well. It’s like a master painter painting its next masterpiece. You know it’s going to be great but it’s going to take a while to get there.

Intel had a whole line of these robust little workhorses during the late 90’s to early 2000’s and involved both the Pentium II and III lines. Although not really underpowered overheating never really was an issue as they were pretty slow to begin with. In any case they’ve become a beauty to behold. The image below is the processor inside an IBM ThinkPad T21 with the residual thermal paste removed.

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Why the floppy disk still is valid

Aah, the floppy disk. It’s square, it’s bendable – it’s undoubtedly floppy. It’s fanning capabilities has cooled down even the most basement bound nerd on a hot summer’s day and it’s orchestral noise has given hope to many of the same computer geeks attempting to rescue their mother-in-law’s virus ridden Windows 98 computer using the very utilitarian boot disk. Wait, who am I kidding? They don’t have a mother-in-law, but maybe their non-geeky friend does have one – a mother I mean… you get my drift.

I want to make the case that this magnetic square disk hidden away in a sturdy plastic cover isn’t as antiquated as manufacturers and USB flash drive manufacturers want to suggest. I mean – they have a point that there are USB drives soon almost reaching the 1TB threshold and there is the cloud, CDs, DVDs, blurays, or why not just having a portable hard drive with up to two or even three terabytes of data capability goodness?  Or why not just store it in your web based email system? After all Google offers you gigabytes of storage nowadays. It’s easy to just email something to yourself and keep doing that back and forth between home, school, and work. You must think I’ve gone nuts suggesting there is room for this obsolete piece of square frees bee matter in today’s hyper modern society. But hear me out here.

First there is the element of trust. Do we trust cloud computing companies like dropbox to without a shadow of a doubt hold our files forever? What happens if they have a server leak and ten years of your tax returns you’ve painstakingly saved as a *.pdf file suddenly just disappears. Will the cloud computing company be held accountable for their actions? Do they have backup? Is there any way if the unthinkable happens you’d think you have any chance of getting what’s yours back to you intact or getting any reimbursement or settlement if you can’t? The end user agreement is long – have you really read it? No you most certainly have not, and now you’re going to be turned into a Human Cent-iPad (obscure South Park TV reference) – I’ve already called the team and they’re on their way.

Okay, so cloud based storage maybe isn’t the most secure. What about CDs, DVDs, or bluray? It is a more modern media and all bluray players can read CDs – they will most likely be around for a while longer so why not? Given that most of these storage media is not re-writable and most of it works funky even when it is labelled RW maybe this isn’t the best way to store the same ten years of your tax returns? I mean, you’d like to add next year’s return as well? And what about that W2 from 1999 you recently found and want to add to your file system? This is an issue of inflexibility that most other storage methods do not suffer from. Actually before the CD came along there were very few mass storage methods – portable or otherwise – that were not re-writable. To add to that – burning a CD is not really something you do in just two seconds before you run off to school or work. This takes a little time as it has to both write and verify the information it just wrote. For being a more modern method it sure has many inconvenient factors. Never mention that RW deal that usually requires some type of 3rd party software to make it run smoothly – no thanks smartypants. Besides – these things scratch – but since you’re a very structured person this is not an issue you’ll face.

What about the USB flash drive then? It is small, it’s portable, re-writable, and it can hold way more information than the floppy? It’s a slam dunk deal and the case should close here. Wait, before you send the men in the white coats after me I’d like you to consider two things that’s becoming increasingly important for the modern information archive – conformity and ability to archive many of them. The main issue here is that there is no uniform standard for how a USB flash drive should look. There is nothing that governs the form factor, which means that it is very difficult to store many of them in an orderly fashion in any place. After all, you may not have the luxury of finding the same manufacturer or model every time you buy a flash drive. This means that there are no storage boxes produced meant to carry several drives. This means you throw them in a drawer, which means that you will lose them – because you’re clumsy and your office is a mess. Good luck! Another issue with these flash devices is that most of them have no space for labeling. This means that if you have more of them you have to guess which one contains your tax returns and which one contains your Great American Novel masterpiece. This just isn’t a secure solution for archival storage.

Aha, you say, I’ll just save it all on my portable USB hard drive. This surely must make him shut up about these ridiculous square pieces! The problem with these is that they’re just too big and you’ll be tempted to use it for more than just your important documents. This makes it an unreliable storage solution as you’re constantly tampering with the file structure of the drive. It’s an easy storage medium to discredit as reliable. These type of storage devices are better for storing your home movies or digital photographs and not your tax returns from 1996-1999.

This is not without saying that floppy disks are not without their faults. However, they are a self contained small file storage medium – and for storing documents like Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, notepad text documents, text scanned *.pdf files, and other small file types they are perfect. The one big drawback with a storage medium utilizing a magnetic disc such as the floppy is just that – magnetic interference. But since you’re a very methodical tax filer you’ve labelled your floppy disk as “TAX RETURNS 1996,” put it in your designed floppy disk cabinet where you keep your other similarly labelled floppies in a very structured manner so that you can easily flip back and forth between them, and put the box in a safe dark and cool spot where they’ll outlast even the most persistent CD. Your tax return disks are safe from scratches, dust, and general mishandling and abuse. If you bought one from a good manufacturer these things will also last for decades. If the country suffers an EMP blast, however, you’re out of luck but will likely face larger problems than finding your tax returns from 1984.

So if anything these things still have a good place in society. It’s a lack of structured thinking that has marked them as obsolete. There are storage devices that are larger, theoretically more secure, and fit into an archive just perfectly. They all, however, have major drawbacks that make them inappropriate in one way or another. The floppy disk offers a self-contained small storage environment that nothing else offers. The floppy disk still has a place to fill and therefore it is most VALID as a modern time storage medium. In all honesty they also do look rather sharp. So if we could just all sing in peace and harmony and just all agree that floppy disks in fact are awesome, then that would be great!

Besides – the drives make wonderful music instruments!

Screensaver Series Introduction

Long, long ago – at the very dawn of time – screens had the ability to see the supernatural. Yes, ghosts of windows past could be etched into your computer screens forever and always leave a trail, yes indeed – a ghost for every viewer that would view that screen after you. It was a annoying and it looked terrible when you came to your grandma’s house and discovered that she was indeed the victim of a haunting. Once haunted, the screen would forever be lost to the dark souls of the window ghosts.

Fortunately preventative exorcist John Socha came up with a solution. In 1983 he created the first screensaver simply called, uuh… screensaver, or scrnsave for the original IBM PC. He also coined the term screen saver, making him the first preventative exorcist linguist in the world. Scrnsave simply blacked out the screen after three minutes of idle usage. This time could only be changed if recompiling the entire program.

Technically screensavers in computers existed as far back as 1977 with the Atari VCS/2600. It would simply change the color palette of the game every so often so that the screen would not leave a mark on your dad’s expensive TV set. These were not really screensavers as they did not depend of idle usage of the computer but was merely a part of the programming and intended usage. If counting calculators as a form of computer then the 1976 Texas Instruments TI-30 contained a screensaver that filled the matrix with dots after 30 seconds. This was merely a part of its intended function though as this was a battery saving feature due to the screen’s LED display.

Today screensavers are more an echo of the past. People like them and I don’t blame them for doing so because screensavers are awesome! Today’s screens are constructed with modern LED technology and therefore the screen cannot burn the same way as the old CRT monitors did.

Screensavers are imaginative, inventive, and fun! Therefore I’ve devoted a series of PixelTopics about screensavers. There will be cool ones, there will be nostalgic ones, some classics, some favorites, and some just awful ones. So sit back and enjoy the new PixelTopics SS… uuh, Screen Saver series.

The Golden Age of Computers

It was the dawn of a new decade. Bill Clinton was in his formative years as president – still so innocent and pure. Disney had just produced what would become their most successful cartoons in history, namely DuckTales, TaleSpin, and Gummibears – oh those Gummibears, soft and… cuddly… Oh yes! Back on track – this was the 90’s and part from leading the world out from spangly jump suits making every housewife look like a turnip version of Jane Fonda it was also the dawn of the computer seeking its way out from universities and companies and finally making its way into peoples’ homes. The hardware became more affordable and now every man, woman and ch… no, kids could arguable not… afford the technologies of the closing century.

I remember my first computer experience as a child. It was when my dad brought home his first laptop from work – a Compaq LTE 486. It ran Windows 3.11 and even had some of the Entertainment Packs containing SkiFree and other games installed. SkiFree early became one of my favorite games. I loved the way it always inevitably ended – with the yeti monster more suitable for a Scooby Doo cartoon attacking and eating your precious little skier forcing you to start all over again. Oh man, this dude was scary. I’d get a mini heart attack every time he appeared on the screen and youngster me tried to avoid him every time only to become his breakfast two and a half seconds later.

The launch of Windows 3.11 and subsequently Windows 95 along with the availability of home internet sparked a revolution that’s been unprecedented since. Stores emerged where you could not only buy new computers, but also parts for upgrading existing computers. It sparked a digital revolution where everything you do in real life now could be mimicked on a screen – yes, I’m looking at you The Sims. The typewriter became even more obsolete as the editing of documents now more and more could be handled by a computer.

For a few years there Intel released it’s Pentium processor line which through an easy numbering sequence you could compare your computer statistics with the fellow next to you on the school bus. I fondly remember all the computers I had the privilege to own during the decade – all having the now famous label on its chassis. The same goes for nVidia’s GeForce series of graphics cards. The options were few, yet abundant.

Nowadays the PC market feels much more limited. Computers back then felt like organic creatures that could follow you for years. The components were robust and didn’t complain (much) when they got a little dusty. Modern computer products of today are sensitive – as if they need a psychologist every time they enter a new system just so that they don’t get their feelings hurt. The components are tinier and a chip set contains so much more today than it did back in the 1990’s.

This environment of modern computing therefore lacks in one aspect the Golden Age of Computing offered in abundance – the ability to learn and technology’s overall greater understanding of trail and error (meaning that the components wouldn’t break just because they weren’t put in exactly straight). The hardware was clunkier and that’s a good thing. As a youngster trying to learn it made it easier to understand what task each part of the chip was designed to perform.

Nowadays manufacturers try to hide as much of the chip set as possible under plastic coverings. Ever bought a new car – opened the hood – only to be met by one of those black plastic covers? Do you remember your parents cars being that way? No, and that’s because manufacturers today think that you shouldn’t be concerned about what’s under there. It’s unknown, it’s scary – just like that yeti monster in SkiFree.

That’s why the 1990’s were the Golden Age of Computers. They were clunky enough to accept rookie mistakes, they were cheap enough to enter your home, and they didn’t hide any of its components from you – and that’s why you’re interested in computers today. It’s a marvelous invention – and building one today is just as joyful albeit arguably less forgiving than it was in 1997 at the launch of Windows 98.

Laptops suck! – and that’s why they’re great (or the story of my first laptop)

Before explaining why laptops suck, and therefore are so great, I need to start with a personal story. That being said I would like to say that I like computers, especially old computers with their gray industrial utilitarian design. If you were trendy you could even get them in black. As a kid in the 90’s I always admired people with a black computer. Their choice of color – in my mind – showed an impeccable sense of professionality and taste in design. Like this guy is with it and can in no time tell the difference between a floppy disk and a CD.

One day I remember my dad coming home with a new laptop from work. It was black; it had a chassis with a rubbery feeling to it. The keys were of high quality. As a matter of fact the computer oozed high quality – this unspeakable fact was clearly manifested by the black color. When opening it up it had a red dot in the middle and three letters in the lower right corner. The letters spelled out the iconic name IBM.

Yes, this was an IBM ThinkPad 600 laptop and it was the most beautiful laptop I’d ever seen. Little did I know that all of them were black and that was kind of IBM’s thing with laptops since the start of the ThinkPad series. To this day, even though the series has been produced by Hong Kong based Lenovo since 2005; the computers are black with a red TrackPoint device in the middle of the keyboard. It is their staple winning design and at this point it is hard to imagine them any other way.

When it was time for my dad to upgrade the ThinkPad 600 he had the option from his company to buy it out. I got it for Christmas that same year, maybe 2001, and I was overwhelmingly happy. It had a Pentium II processor with 233 Mhz, 64 MB of RAM, 3.2GB hard drive, a docking station, CD and floppy drives, a 13” display capable of 1024×768 resolution. I immediately installed Red Alert on it, one of my all-time favorite games, on it – started it – and got a nasty error message telling me it wasn’t compatible. I tried another game – SimTower, and nope – same thing here. The fourteen year old me was confused – why wouldn’t it work?

It was now I learned the difference between DOS and NT based operating systems. Because it was a business machine it ran Windows 2000 Professional – an NT based system on which I could not play the games I knew and loved. Because I was a purist and arguably somewhat of an idiot it never occurred to me I would re-format the computer and make it run Windows 98. This would also counteract how incredibly slow the machine ran under Windows 2000 Professional. But I liked the aesthetics of the NT environment and ended up using the machine as a portable homework machine and later on as an mIRC client running more or less 24/7.

With time it came to run slower and slower. The 3.2GB hard drive didn’t take me very far either. I ended up upgrading the RAM to a whopping 128MB, something that revitalized the computer for a while. I remember this experience being similar to my 80 year old grandma drinking a shot of vodka. All of a sudden it sparked to life and was full of energy only to download the latest Windows 2000 Professional service pack and act like a donkey with a ton of rocks around its neck once again.

This laptop brought me a lot of joy but I ended up selling it around 2006 for way less than I should have. Throughout my ownership of that laptop it also taught me a valuable lesson. Laptops suck! Yes they do, they completely suck and are a complete pain to repair, upgrade, or do anything useful with what so ever. Part is because it is its own completely contained system and is meant to function independently without any external interference. This also means that components are prone to overheating due to how densely packed the electronics are, and underperforming in every sense of the word.

I guess this is why I love antique laptops though. It’s a love-hate relationship at its very best. Laptops offer a self-contained glimpse of the past and will give you snapshot of the world’s technological development at the time of its creation. You don’t need to search for time typical CRT monitors, keyboards that are long gone and destroyed, and other types of hardware. Laptops are very limited in the sense what you can upgrade which is why they are so good at functioning as a time capsule. At the most people only upgrade the memory modules and perhaps also the hard drive. But laptops are so particular in what they can accept that those upgrades are minuscule. Buy a 1998 laptop today and you’ll get everything in one package.

Laptops suck – and that’s why we love them.

Hello World – and welcome to PixelTopics

Hello World* – or salutations reader, and welcome to PixelTopics – a blog, YouTube channel, and Twitter account highlighting everything to do with… uuh, pixels. Yes, pixels – the smallest addressable element in all addressable displays. They come in all size and shapes, and colors. PixelTopics is devoted to the life of pixels and all the equipment that attributes to their production. This includes but is not limited to computers, cameras, data recording devices, screens, recordable media, software, games, and all the paraphernalia surrounding these elements of human imagination and ingenuity. Ever since the pixel entered the life of humanity it has not only sparked an imaginative flare in the human psyche, it has also totally transformed society and how we interact with everything surrounding our daily life. In that sense – PixelTopics reflects back on this complete and total societal revolution. So sit back, relax, and get intrigued by the wonderful world in the life of pixels.

*”Hello world!” – first coined by Bell Laboratories programmer Brian Kernighan in 1974. The phrase is also traditionally used in a sanity test to make sure that a computer language is correctly installed, and that the operator understands how to use it.