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.

IMG_7327

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.