Sunday, December 18, 2005

Computers Then and Now...

Anyone who has used a computer for a little while can tell you how much these devices have changed over the last several years. If you have been using computers for a long time, and you sit back and think about the first computer you touch verses today's modern personal computer there is an amazing quantum leap forward in several orders of magnitude in processing power.

The first computer I ever used was an Apple ][+, with 48K of RAM (with a maximum memory size of 64K), a color monitor (basically a TV without a tuner), and two floppy drives. This machine had a 1Mhz 6502 CPU (8-bit), and cost about US$1000 at the time.

The first home computer that I could afford (it cost about US$100) was the Timex Sinclair 1000, I think it also had a 1Mhz 6502 CPU, 16KB RAM (with the expansion pack), and tape drive for storage (which never work). To be honest, I don't even think my 16KB RAM expansion pack worked. But I was still happy to have my own home computer.

Then in the early 80's IBM changed the personal computer market by introducing the IBM PC (specs: Intel 8086 4.7Mhz 16-bit CPU, 640KB RAM [max.], 2 floppy drives, keyboard, CGA graphics video). This was an okay machine for its time, but because IBM created it this gave it a market advantage over the competition.

A little while after the IBM PC was released, the clone makers started producing copies of it because IBM used off the shelf technologies. Soon the clone makers surpassed IBM in innovation of the technology that they created.

Then in 1984, Apple release the Macintosh (specs: Motorola 68000 8Mhz 16/32-bit CPU, 128KB RAM, keyboard, mouse, built-in monochrome monitor) and the world changed again. For the first time consumers were introduced to a functional Graphics User Interface (GUI).

Now let's fast forward to the modern day, today's computers are much different from the days of yore. For example, recently I found a site that allows you to run Apple ][ software from inside your browser (this site has been taken down). It’s really amazing to think that the state of the art home computer 20+ years ago can now be emulated in a browser (although, at the same time technically its not that amazing).

Let’s consider today's hardware; we will start out with the basics and work deeper into the computer:

  • Computer cases: As far as the PC industry goes, the biggest advance in cases was made when the tower case was invented. Otherwise, they're relatively the same style as about 15+ years ago. If you want avant-garde case designs, buy a Mac. Note: There has been some innovations in computer form factor designs recently, but none of them have really gone mainstream.
  • Power supplies: These devices have steadily increased in power output over the years. I think the original IBM PC power supply provided under 100W of power. Modern PC power supplies can now output 1000W of power.
  • Motherboards: The basic look of a motherboard has not changed radically in base appearance, but looks can fool you. Modern motherboards are light years ahead of their predecessors; they're faster and more advanced.
  • CPUs: have radically evolved over the last few decades. The modern CPU now has the ability to process 64-bits of data at time (along with the ability to address terabytes of RAM), and as have the ability to run multiple cores on the same chip. These chips also have multi-megabyte level 2 caches of fast RAM. Although, since these devices now run so fast (almost 4Ghz), they also run much hotter then they ever did. So we have had to resort to air, and in some cases liquid cooling to keep them running as fast as we do.
  • Video Cards: Like CPUs have evolved radically over time, and are continuing to advance at a breakneck pace. Video cards can process more graphics information then previous generations, and create semi photo-realistic 3D virtual environments in real-time. These cards now have their own dedicated GPU (Graphic Processing Units), memory (up to 512MB of fast RAM), cooling and power requirements. These cards also have the ability to drive multiple monitors at high resolutions.
  • Hard Drives: When the IBM XT came out there was an 20MB hard drive option for it (about 20,000,000 bytes, 1 byte = 1 character of information). Over the years, these devices have gotten smaller, cheaper, faster, and higher capacity. Modern hard drives are now approaching a 1 terabyte of storage capacity (about 1,000,000,000,000 bytes/characters of storage).
    • Hard Drive Interfaces: This is the technology that connects the computer to the hard drive. There have been many significant advances over the last few decades in this technology sector. The original IBM PC-XTs used an MFM technology to talk to the hard drive. So after that there was SCSI (and its variants), ATA (and its variants), and now there is SATA (Serial-ATA). External hard drives can be connected to the computer through its USB and Firewire ports.
  • RAM: The IBM PC used to DIPP chips, these were individual memory chips that looked like bugs with metal legs. Every time you put these chips into the computer, you ran the risk of bending the legs. Today, we have SIMM style high-speed DDR2 memory, with storage capacities in the multi-gigabytes. This was undreamed of in the early days.
  • Audio: Back in the early days if we heard a few high pitch beeps we were happy. Now computer audio cards support: 7.1 channel surround sound and incredibly realistic audio fidelity. Modern audio cards like video cards are always trying to push themselves to the next level.
  • Optical Disks: All the early PCs supported tape or floppy drives for storage, optical drives (such CD and DVD drives) were not even an option until several years later. In fact in the early 90's the early sound cards and CD-ROM drives started the multimedia revolution. Currently there are double-layer read/writable DVD optical drive can hold over 8.5GB of data. Next generation DVD drives (such as Blu-Ray or HD-DVD) will hold 30GB-50GB.
  • Expansion Cards: When the IBM PC was available, all you had were 8-Bit ISA slots, later it was expanded to 16-bit. The next PC bus technology to take hold was PCI, which supported a 32-bit data path. The next generation of PCI, is the PCI-X standard which supports a 64-bit data path.
  • Ports: When the IBM PC came on the market, all it had was keyboard and cassette ports. Serial and parallel ports were optional, and required an expansion card. Now, all those ports are obsolete, and have been replaced by USB 2.0 and IEEE-1394 (AKA Firewire) ports. The USB 2.0 ports can support data transfer rates of up to 480Mbps.
    • Wireless Ports: These ports have been available for sometime (i.e.: Infrared, and RF), but have not really taken off with the exception of maybe Bluetooth (and it's success is limited).
  • Monitors: Early monitors were little more then glorified television screens. Which eventually evolved into large CRTs. Now a single computer can have two or more large LCD screens. This was just unimaginable at the time.
  • Media Cards: Now that the floppy has gone the way of the dodo, we have media cards and USB drive that come in all shapes and capacities. These media cards allow you to move data quickly from your electronics (such as cameras, MP3 players, etc.) to your computer. The biggest problem with this type of storage is that there are so many standards.
  • Networking: Networking personal computers it the early days was very complex. The nightmare was getting the network cards to work properly. Today, its becoming more common for home computers to support Gigabit Ethernet, and brand new homes are now network ready. Let us not forget our friend Wi-Fi (which now support transfer rates at 100Mbps+). Without this technology we would all be at the mercy of some Ethernet jack somewhere.
    • Modems: I want to give an honorable mention to our friend the analog Modem. Long before DSL and Cable digital modems existed there was this analog device. The first modem I ever used was a 300Bps on the Apple ][, the last one I ever used was a 56Kbs.
  • BIOS: One of the few leftovers from the original PC is your computer BIOS. The BIOS (which stands for Basic Input/Output System) is loaded right after you turn your computer on. The information in the BIOS is used to get your computer to load the operating system from the hard drive (or whatever device has your OS). The amazing thing about this technology is how little it has advanced from the early days. The latest innovation in this technology is EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface).
  • OS: When the IBM PC first came out, the only real choice of an operating system you had was IBM-DOS (based on MS-DOS). Which was a 16-Bit text based OS that could support 640K, and allow only one program to run at a time. Today, Windows supports 32 or 64-bit applications (depending on which OS you're using), using a graphical user interface, and runs multiple applications and CPUs at the same time. Windows can now also address gigabytes of RAM.
  • Keyboards and Mice: These devices like the BIOS have not advanced significantly over the years. There have been some innovations like wireless and optical variants for mice. They have also added some new buttons, wheels, and more ergonomic form factors to these devices.
  • Media Centers: Inspired by the Tivo DVR (Digital Video Recorder), these computers are targeted to be center of your living room entertainment experience. They will play your music, movies and video, record your TV shows, and more.
  • Printers: These devices have gone through many evolutionary advances over the years. The original printers were just glorified typewriters, then came dot-matrix, inkjet, then laser printers. The dot-matrix printer was a major evolutionary advancement over the original text printers, because they allowed you to mix graphics with your text. Then inkjet and laser printers, allowed you to do this faster and better. Color has been a fairly recent innovation for these devices. The latest advancements with these devices have been in the multi-function device market, which combines a printer, scanner, and fax functionality into one device.
  • Cost: Besides advancements in technology, one of the major considerations for buying any of these devices has been the cost of it. I remember when the PCs first dropped under $1000, then a few years later there was the sub-$500 PC market. There was a huge surge in demand for buying these devices. Its now possible to buy a sub-$200 PC from Wal-Mart.
    • Apple vs. Microsoft: Until fairly recently the Macintosh was always considerably more expensive then the WinTel (Windows/Intel) PC equivalent. Apple has some great technology and software, but it has always had problems competing with Microsoft as far as market share and the amount of available software for the two different platforms.
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