Yesteryear's Hardware

 Andy explores his PC parts nostalgia..
Old Hardware


Why write an article on old PC gear? After all, we chuck it out and forget it when something new and better comes along, don't we? So why is my room so full of old bits of hardware which I'll never use again and why do I find it so hard to throw it all away?

Just as I like to remember old cars and motorbikes I have owned, I do find myself with a peculiar nostalgia relating to time spent with certain peripheral devices. I have been in the PC industry for nearly ten years now and in that time have used a variety of tools. I don't use them any more. Not because they no longer work, they do. But because they are now obsolete; either too slow or lacking in useful capacity.

Rebel with a Cause

It all started with my first PC back in 1994, an Olivetti 486SX25 - yes 25MHz CPU! - 4MB RAM and 120MB hard disk. That was it for the princely sum of $2000, thank you Harvey Norman of Chatswood. Then I saw Rebel Assault - a new game based on the Star Wars series which played off - gasp! - a CD-ROM disc. We were used to CD-ROM music, but a CD with computer data on it, that was cool. And a whopping 650MB too - that was more than 5 times bigger than my hard disk!
Creative's Soundblaster 16 kit came in at a cool $600 and for that you got a dual speed CD-ROM drive and a Soundblaster ISA sound card. This card was state-of-the-art in 1994 and was the sound card to get for maximum compatibility with the current games. Now I'd be able to hear the shotgun in DOOM - high tech! Soundblaster 16 Kit
Installing the Soundblaster kit was my first introduction to assembling PC hardware, a path which would eventually see me on a new career in this fine business. The CD was interesting as it plugged directly into the sound card rather than onto the IDE bus. Oh what joy it was configuring MS DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.0 to recognise the card and drive, screwing around with config.sys and autoexec.bat and IRQs and DMAs. Plug-and-play was a concept yet to be discovered and the ISA bus had a lot to answer for. But it was an education..

At this time a fledgling internet was just getting off the ground and I marvelled as I looked at pages in other countries, using a 28.8K connection and Netscape 3 for Windows 3.11.

The next big step was when my mate Mike sold me a huge 200MB SCSI drive and SCSI card to go with it. I presently found a second 350MB 'brick' at a computer mart; the extra capacity was useful but the bloody thing was so big it took up two 5.25" drive bays and when it started up it sounded like a jet engine. It also taught me a lot about disks with bad sectors. In the end I kept it outside the case; more of a curiosity than anything.

CPU Blues

The CPU was eventually upraded from 486SX25 to a DX66 overdrive, for the unmodest sum of $300; but then came the Pentiums. Oooo so much performance, a radical new structure! I missed the dreadful Pentium 60s (slower than 486 DX100s) and marvelled at a Pentium 100. Then came the Pentium MMXs and I've still got an old Digital Pentium 200MMX, just for the old games. A Celeron 400 was procured from my days working at Compaq Computers back in 2000.

Funny how one tends to leapfrog technology, because I've never bought another Intel for home use. Not because I don't like Intel, I do, but AMD's range caught my heart and starting with a Duron 850, I decided to suport the 'underdog' - competition is always good for the consumer and I wanted to see AMD do well.

In the aftermath of the Slot '1's and Slot 'A's, I progressed to the Athlons and the strangely number coded MX range, currently sitting on a 2.1GHz jobbie. I've never rushed out to get the fastest CPU, usually the opposite. There's a lot of market speak out there and I only upgrade when there's a need to.

As in, the latest game..
AMD Duron

Cartridge Capers

Around 1995 a number of manufacturers, SyQuest being the most prominent, were starting to come out with removable storage drives. This was a bit radical as the only removable storage of the time had been the venerable floppy disk drive.
SyQuest EZ 135 I was already hooked on computer things and with bated breath, purchased SyQuest's ruggedly styled EZ Drive 135. It plugged into the SCSI card's external interface and looked very cool on my desk.

It came with a 135MB cartridge in a big, fat plastic case, which were available separately for around $25 each.

The SyQuest was great but it required a SCSI card; not a common PC interface in the mid 90s. So the competition was on to see who could get decent removable storage onto the PC. The clear winners of the time were Iomega with their excellent range of removable storage drives. My SyQuest was quickly supeceded by the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Iomega Zip drive.

The Iomega Zip had a number of things going for it. It was light, stylish and competitively priced. It also used common PC interfaces such as the parallel port and in later versions, the USB port.

I loved my Zip 100 and ended up owning three of them: two external parallels and a SCSI internal - same size as a floppy disk drive. It was great as I could carry it around at work and transfer large amounts of data to and from PCs. CD-ROMs
Iomega Zip 100
were still after market items at the time and not as intrinsic as they are now.

Probably Iomega's greatest achievement was that they were first to market with a good removable storage option and it was this which made the Zip the industry standard; almost as popular as a floppy disk. These days of course, you wouldn't leave the house with anything less than a USB 'thumb' drive. But it's interesting to see where we've come from.

Other storage media of note include a classic 'backpack' external CD-ROM drive, which could be plugged into a PC's parallel port. I only had the heart to throw this one out last week, together with a USB 1.1 version of the same thing; how technology advances.

I even remember purchasing my first CD burner in the late nineties..$300 for a SCSI 2X CD-R. The prospect of making (and er, copying) stuff onto CD was just brilliant! I think I gave that one away a couple of years back..

Network Nasties

I taught myself networking in order to be able to get DOOM working in deathmatch mode. As a die hard gaming enthusiast, it was brilliant to get this fine game working so you could play against other real players! The network was an IPX/SPX 10base2 coaxial jobbie, with ISA network cards and T-pieces flapping around everywhere..

Coax, BNC connectors, T-Piece

I remember fondly the evenings (and mornings!) I spent fiddling with those good old IRQs and DMAs - getting the sound card, CD-ROM drive, SCSI card, graphics and network cards to work nicely together; and then the juggling of conventional memory so the game would run. And then getting a particularly cantankerous Duke Nukem 3D to work properly with these settings.

Naturally with the advent of Windows 95 and plug-and-play and TCP/IP and Cat5 cable and the PCI interface, things are much easier and the network gradually grew to 100baseTX and an 8 port hub (which is now obsolete, of course). That gigabit stuff is looking mighty tasty as it slowly comes down in price..

VGA Vexations

Now I'm not even going to mention the graphics cards I've been through in any great detail. Suffice to say the original one in the Olivetti was an ISA 512K jobbie, which I later upgraded to the new Diamond Stealth 32 with 2Mb RAM and that old chestnut of an interface: VLB. Like many enthusiasts of the day, I had an assortment of PCI cards, notable classics including the 4MB S3 Virge and Trio range.

If there's one thing that goes out of date faster than a mound of mouldy cheese, it's graphics cards. Not (yet) so much for their Windows functionality of course, but for their gaming potential. It all started with the Diamond Monster 3D, a venerable classic which transformed blocky, jaggy edged games into a thing of beauty.
Diamond Monster 3D The Monster was installed next to your usual VGA card and, by means of a pass-through cable, kicked in when a (supported) game was started. Ah, the many hours I spent running around in Quake 2, fragging with my chums in Sydney.

The original Monster with Voodoo chipset came in at a cool $300 for the 4MB version. I ended up with a couple of 12MB versions too in later years. I think I've still got them somewhere.

Naturally Diamond cashed in on the phenomenal success of their Monster graphics range, and like other companies brought out similar products such as the Monster Sound cards. Mine was the MX300. These days I'm happy with on-board..

Creative had really cornered the PC sound market however, so other companies had to make their sound cards compatible with the SoundBlaster as most games were configured to use it.
Diamond Monster Sound

By now I'd moved up to a 33.6K modem, fried it in a thunderstorm, and moved on to a 56K yes, Diamond Supra Express 56e Pro. Diamond have really got their money out of me. At the time the manufacturers were squabbling about a common standard for 56K. In one camp was US Robotics' (later bought out by 3COM) X2 standard versus Lucent and Rockwell's K56Flex. Eventually sanity prevailed and the common V90 standard allowed us all to upgrade to 56K.

Following on the success of the Monster 3d cards, the AGP bus hit the streets. Suddenly you only needed one card to do both Windows and Games. However the first AGP cards were just PCI cards with AGP interfaces and consequently a bit crap for gaming, but they soon picked up in performance.

I've always considered buying the latest and greatest graphics card a bit of poor value, so I think my first AGP card was Nvidia's MX400. Certainly not the best of its time, but better value once the price had come down. Since then it's been a shift from nVidia's GeForce 2s to ATI's Radeon 9200 and 9600s.

New Tools of the Trade

Ah, isn't technology wonderful! I've said it before, but it's true. You can always rely on it to bring out newer, better and cheaper products. PCI Express is taking over from where AGP left off and Serial ATA will soon see an end to the older parallel standard for hard disk connectivity.

We are currently poised on the brink of a new universal storage standard: Blue Ray will have around ten times the capacity of DVD. USB is everywhere, with USB2 providing most that was promised with USB1. Here is some of the gear I'm currently using..

LiteOn SOHW-832S LiteOn SOHW-832S Dual DVD±RW Recorder The dual layer burning technology was developed by Philips and MKM Mitsubishi, offering up to 8.5GB storage on dual layer blanks. Capable at writing to a DVD+-R disc at 8X and currently the fastest DVDR write speed available, with a maximum CDR write/read speed of 40X. Current reviews at ExtremeMHz.com and CDRInfo.com.

Mittoni USB2 External Disk With the popularity of USB2 a number of new products have hit the market including external USB drives. This one from Mittoni.com.au features a slim aluminium case (with pouch) containing a 40GB 2.5 inch laptop hard disk. Very useful for easily portable heavy duty data storage in a light case.

Mittoni External 2.5 inch Drive

USB2 Bridge USB 2.0 Host to Host Cable Remember those good old LapLink cables. Connect Parallel (or even serial) to parallel port and transfer data? Well they do 'em in USB now. Simply plug the two ends into the two computers' USB ports and transfer files using the included software. Extremely handy when you haven't got a network happening and need to transfer files quickly. Available from PC Casegear.com

SMC fast Ethernet to USB Adapter yet another USB device. This little box acts like a network interface card, allowing a PC to be connected to a network using its USB interface. This particular one was donated by telstra when they installed ADSL for me (they didn't want their engineers opening the lids of PCs, heh). They vary in shape and size, but are darn useful. Go to SMC.com


SMC USB Network Adapter

PQI USB Stick PQI USB2 Memory Stick No respectable travelling computer user should be seen without a USB stick of some description. The ultimate in portability and ease of use. New ones are also MP3 players, but make sure it's USB2. Varying in size and capacity, they are getting cheaper all the time. If I need anything bigger, I use the Mittoni. Available from PC Techbuy.com.au

D-Link Wireless Network Networking without wires is definitely in vogue at the moment. The advantages are obvious and it's certainly here to stay, in whatever form. I think the home network trend will continue to get really big. There's nothing like being able to connect without wires, just watch out for the security issues and buy 802.11g. There's wireless networking stuff under Advanced Networking. For D-Link gear you could do worse than go to D-Link.com


D-Link Wireless Network

D-Link Wireless PC Card D-Link Wireless PC Card By the time the home network was running nicely with the wireless, a lot of the gear had come down in price. I don't use the laptop a great deal at home, but occasionally it would be nice to be able to surf from bed. Why? Who cares? I didn't want to keep drilling holes in the wall, so I lobbed this PC Card (PCMCIA) into the laptop and voila! Internet on a Sunday morning..

Fujifilm Finepix S5500 It took ages for this camera to come into my life. My ancient classic Nikon FM was looking exceedingly long in the tooth and for the past couple of years I'd been looking and waiting for the right cam at the right price to come along. I love this camera! How do they get so much stuff into such a small package? Fujifilm S5500 review


Fujifilm S5500

I suppose one day, all of this stuff will be obsolete. Hard to imagine isn't it..



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