Geek Week Special: Twenty Years On A Computer, Part 3

As I continued to attend the monthly computer fairs and watch some of the vendors build machines from parts, I was gaining confidence that I could actually do this myself. All I needed to know was what went where and why. Asking a lot of questions of computer savvy people, reading everything I could about PC’s and doing some searching of the forums on Compuserve helped.

Somewhere in that process I actually reconnected with a couple of people I hadn’t spoken to since high school. I learned that since I moved away and pretty much dropped off the face of the earth as far as my classmates were concerned, some people thought I might have died. We exchanged emails for a while and brought one another up to date about life events. Obviously I hadn’t attended any class reunions and that continued into the future as between a father of three, living far enough away that it would require taking time off from work and working for retailer who refused to give me more than one week off at a time combined to making the idea nearly impossible. But I was using the computer in different ways and finding that it was useful.

Also my kids, especially my son, were beginning to take a more active interest in it. So I began to consider upgrading to a new computer and letting my son and daughters have the existing computer. My wife and I discussed it a few times. She suggested saving the money to buy a new one at the store but I was adamantly set on building my own because I believed I could save money and have a much better machine.

For one thing, I wanted to get a bigger monitor. In order to drive that to full color at a high resolution I would need a graphics accelerator with its own memory. I knew what kind of sound card I wanted as well as the processor and amount of RAM. I was looking at the future, running the new operating system everyone at the computer fairs was talking about, so I needed to build a machine that would be designed to run Windows 95.

In April of 1995 my son and I flew down to Florida to visit my parents. While there we spent some time at the amusement parks and went to the beach. It was a father son trip intended to be a bonding experience as my son was approaching nine years old.

When I returned to work I felt as if I were coming down with the flu. The symptoms were so severe that I actually called out sick – which was something I never did before. I had a extremely high fever and couldn’t get out of bed all weekend.

Since I had a heart murmur that was diagnosed when I was in the military my primary care physician was a cardiologist. I knew of the dangers of bacterial infections and always pre-medicated prior to dentist visits. I was very careful. However, while I had been in Florida, I had cut my foot on a sharp rock while at the beach. Through that wound, whether it was while I was in the ocean or in the shower after coming back from the beach, bacteria entered my bloodstream and began attacking my heart valve. After suffering through a weekend, with my elevated fever, at times approaching 104 F, my wife insisted I go to the doctor. They ran some blood tests and immediately sent me to the hospital where I would be treated for a month and eventually have open-heart surgery to replace my defective heart valve. Scary times.

While I was in the hospital there was little else to do than sleep, watch the O.J. Simpson trail on TV or read. Everyone brought magazines and books on computers to the hospital. Quite possibly I learned more about PC’s in that month than at any other period of my life.

When I was finally released I was recovering for a couple of months and had even more time to learn about computers. Once I was allowed to drive again, I attended a computer fair with every intention of buying the components to build my dream computer except when I had someone price that out for me it seemed it was going to cost a lot more than just having someone build a computer for me with the same specifications. I opted for the latter.

When I returned home with the new computer and a 15” monitor I was excited but my wife was less than enthusiastic. She thought it was stupid to have bought a computer the way I had. I should have waited and bought a ‘real’ one, meaning a name brand machine, certainly not a no name clone. Still I was happy for a while. The machine was much faster, sporting a Pentium 100 MHz and 16MB of 66MHz memory and graphic card with 1MB of RAM onboard. It was running Windows 3.11, which was designed for workgroups, something to do with networking which I didn’t intend to do but otherwise the operating system worked the same way.

That machine became my playground for learning everything about repairing, upgrading and replacing components. Systematically I changed out everything on that computer over the next year, except for the motherboard and processor. Always wanting a faster machine, I added memory, switched graphics cards, upgraded the sound card and eventually ordered a 17 inch monitor online that was delivered to my door a few days before Christmas. The kids’ computer received the 15” monitor.

I didn’t upgrade to Windows 95 right away, although I did stand in line outside at CompUSA the night it was released to get my upgrade copy. I had heard it was always wise of wait until the bugs were identified and fixes made. So, I waited a couple of months and read everything I could about the upgrade process and the experiences, good and bad, that people were having with it. Finally, when I felt comfortable that everything would work fine, and that I had the necessary drivers for everything on my computer, I inserted the install disc in my CD-ROM drive and began the process.

At first it went smoothly. After an hour or so my computer was running Windows 95. But not every program I used with Windows 3.11 was functioning properly. Some of the programs that ran in DOS didn’t like the new version of DOS that supported Windows 95. Other programs needed to be upgraded. So it took a few weekends to address the problems. At times I needed to call Microsoft tech support. I took notes. Some of the problems I was experiencing baffled the first level support people so I talked to second level techs at times. Some of the problems were so unique that they called me back when they figured out a work around or a solution.

Microsoft tech support walked me through editing the system registry, exiting out into DOS to use the text editor to rewrite certain system files and even showed me a couple of back doors that I wasn’t supposed to remember – but of course did. Problem-by-problem I received a crash course in computer software troubleshooting and an education directly from Microsoft experts. Eventually, from having so much experience reinstalling everything from a clean format of my hard drive I became something of a Windows 95 guru.

On the hardware side of everything, the only way to make my computer any faster was to upgrade the level two cache memory on the motherboard. It was a minor tweak to the speed but, in addition to upgrading to a 120MHz process – which was the fastest my motherboard would support, I wanted to maximize the performance. So I ordered the computer memory chips for my board along with a tool to extract the old memory chips and install the new ones to take my system from 256 kB to 512 kB.

That upgrade worked well for about an hour before I experienced a system failure from which my computer never recovered. Obviously I had performed the work properly, otherwise the computer would have never rebooted after installing the new cache memory. But something failed. Perhaps the motherboard was never intended to run the things I had installed. Maybe it was just overworked or I caused a hairline stress crack in one of the silicon layers in the process of removing the old cache and installing the new. At any rate, it was pretty clear that I needed to replace my motherboard. So I went to a computer shop with my tower and had them verify that the motherboard was fried. They recommended a new motherboard that would support everything I had already installed but also it would support up to a 200 MHz processor – one that did not yet exist using something called MMX technology.

Although I considered having a go at installing the board myself, I opted to allow professionals do it. It took them less than a hour.

I couldn’t believe how much faster my computer was after changing the motherboard. The memory and processor were the same as was all the component cards. Still it booted up faster and the execution of everything seemed crisper. I used that computer, upgrading the graphics card and sound card again and upgraded the hard drive. But of course when the new MMX enabled processors came out up to speeds of 200MHz, I had to have one of those. And it sort of worked in my motherboard except that the system kept crashing. A phone call to the motherboard manufacturer’s tech support confirmed that although the design supports a 200 MHz processor, it was made prior to Intel actually finalizing the processor design. I was now the proud owner of a processor that didn’t work with my motherboard.

#computers #upgrades #processors #motherboards #technology


Geek Week Special: Twenty Years On A Computer – Part 1

As a computer geek I have officially proclaimed this a Geek Week and as such I’ll be posting a nostalgic story about my personal evolution with computers. Some may find the references to older hardware quaint. Others may empathize with my quest for knowledge as I recount going from computer novice to computer guru. But I think anyone who has ever used a personal computer will be able to relate to a lot of this.

Actually, it was twenty and a half years ago that I started to use a personal computer. It’s just that except for playing solitaire most of the time I sat at my desk staring at the Windows 3.1 screen filled with icons wondering why I ever paid $1600 for a machine that substituted for a deck of cards.

I worked in retail management, so I didn’t have a lot of free time anyway. The computer was something I resisted buying for as a long as possible because I’d heard they become obsolete really fast. It was January when my now ex-wife decided we needed to look for a computer, ostensibly for the kids because our son was seven going on eight and our oldest daughter was in kindergarten while my youngest was in preschool. I suppose it sort of made sense. We could foresee that the kids were going to grow up in a world of computers and we wanted them to have every possible advantage in life.

We went to the nearest Nobody Beats The Wiz store in Meriden, CT. It was just a few miles from where we lived in Wallingford. They were having a sale on some things, as always and were offering special financing on their store credit card. We had one of those too. I’d heard about PC’s and Macs, of course. The store carried both platforms. I didn’t have a side in that battle because I never thought I needed a computer. The store carried both so I figured we’d get the story and make a choice.

I liked the way the Macs looked as opposed the variety of PC’s but in my wife’s logic PC’s were better because there was more software titles available. As we perused aisle after aisle of boxes of PC software she continued to make her point. Then she stopped at the section for Mac and pointed out how few the options were, with a waving gesture and a vocalized, “See.”

I shook my head. “It looks to me like everything you need to do on a computer is pretty much covered right here, though.” I pointed out that the couple of software vendors representative supported the Apple platform very well. “I mean how many different word processors do you need for a computer?”

“We need PC. It does Windows.” She explained in her customary truncated way with a Korean accent.  She didn’t see my point.  Neither did she want to acknowledge that Microsoft, the maker of Windows for the PC, was one of the software developers for Macs. Her mind was made up and I knew form experience there wasn’t a point in debating the matter further. The number of software titles available was the only reason we ended up looking at PC’s as opposed to Macs.


The salesperson was helpful enough in supporting her cause. Personally he owned a PC and claimed that everyone he knew who had a Mac complained about having compatibility issues with PCs. Then he went over the differences between IBM’s line of computers and the various ‘clones’. “We buy the real thing,” my wife said. So we opted for the IBM Consultant line of computers. There were essentially two models we were deciding between. One sported a zippy new Intel Pentium running at a blistering 60Mhz. The price for the latest system including a 14 inch monitor was $2400. The other was last years state of the art checking in at $1600. I was thinking along the lines of getting the best available because it would have at least a year less obsolescence, but the salesperson said there was a error in the Pentium’s math co-processor. Not that it was really going to cause any problems for anyone using it for a home computer but that soured my wife on the Pentium. Also she saw the Intel 486 25MHz model as a viable alternative, kind of ‘on sale’. It looked almost exactly like the Pentium model, ran all the same software and it could be upgraded with a chip to run at 50 MHz. In fact, the salesperson explained we could upgrade the modem from 300 baud to the lasted thing which was a 28,800 bps deluxe modem – except that he said the fasted online services available used either 9,600 or 14,400. The system came with 4MB of RAM and a 170MB hard drive. The RAM could be upgraded as could the hard drive, the salesperson explained, but the system used something called disc compression to more efficiently use its space so it was like having 240 MB of room.

All those numbers and options swirled around in my head. At the time I barely knew anything about computers. When I was in college we used mainframes to write batch programs on punch cards. Right before I graduated the upperclassmen in computer science were allowed to use the CRT terminals to process their programs. I had been pretty good at writing programs, though. So I sort of fancied the idea of maybe buying the software for writing programs for a PC and selling them on the side.

We got the system home, unpacked, hooked up and I turned it on. It booted up successfully to the Windows screen. Success! Now what?

“You figure out,” my wife said. “You show kids.”

Six months after the purchase, I was still trying to figure out a lot of things about the computer. For one, why did I needed AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve? Couldn’t I just use one or the other of them for connecting to this thing called The Internet so I could start sending and receiving emails? Oh, and by the way, who was I supposed to be sending emails to anyway? Except for a few guys at work, I didn’t know anyone who had a computer. Which one of the online services was better? That was the essence of my dilemma. The few times I had been online using Prodigy, I noticed how slow things seemed. I tired AOL but couldn’t figure out how to use it. And Compuserve had all these things called Forums that I didn’t understand.

I mentioned to one of my computer savvy friends at work how slow my computer seemed when it was connected online. He told me to upgrade to a 14,400 bps modem. He said 28,800 was wasting my money since no one used that yet. And the best thing about the faster modems was that they could be used for faxing things in a snap. I could create faxes on the computer and send them out. Oh, and I could buy a scanner and use that along with a printer and my PC would act just like a fax machine.

So, I paid $1600 for a deck of cards and a fax machine. What else could this thing do that was useful?

Somewhere along the line I noticed a word processor was included in a program called Microsoft Works. My friend at work told me Works was an office program for homeowners. He said businesses use programs like Lotus 1,2,3 or Office. The idea occurred to me that something I could do with my computer was take those boxes of typed pages that I had produced in my effort to write the great American novel and somehow convert them into files stored on the computer. That way I edit them without literally cutting and pasting paper. Yeah, that was how editing was done back in the day, you know? Finally, there was something sort of useful I can do with this $1600 machine.

The kids for whom the PC was originally purchased had watched me use it a couple of times. My son played solitaire on it. The girls weren’t very interested in sitting in one place long enough to learn much about it. None of them were yet using computers int he classroom. My boy expressed interest in playing some video games if I’d install them. The ones he wanted said they’d work on the computer.

I took a vacation week in the middle of the summer. It was a slower time of year for my departments, so they wouldn’t miss me much at the store. I decided to return to The Wiz and ask a bunch of questions and make my computer useful. First order of business was upgrading the hardware as much as possible. Second was buying some software to entice the kids to using it. Third was getting a printer and maybe a scanner because my wife was thinking about starting a business and she could use the computer for sending and receiving faxes.Also someone at work said there was a way of scanning a page of text and having the computer convert it into a digital file using optical character recognition. I wanted to do that to all those typewritten pages.

When I arrived at The Wiz I looked for my salesperson from months ago, but it was his day off. His boss was there, though. We talked about modems first. His take on it made some sense. Eventually everyone will be using 28,800 and it wasn’t that much more expensive Also adding in the extra memory would make the computer faster as well as dropping in the DX2 math coprocessor that make my machine purr at 50MHz. Oh and there was a 540MB hard drive available. I could have plenty of room for storing all the files I’d be creating with my scanner as well as the new ones I’d be writing. There would even be enough room for storing all my wife’s business stuff for whenever she decided what sort of business she wanted to start.

Oh yes, I bought some games. I needed to get the kids using the computer. After all, wasn’t that why we bought the thing int he first place?

After spending a lot of money that first day of my vacation I had a whole week to get all that stuff installed and working. The memory turned out to be a snap, literally. With the system restoration disks that came with my computer the manager at The Wiz assured me that installing the larger hard drive would be a breeze, especially since I had next to nothing stored on my original hard drive. He suggested I keep it in a drawer just in case the new hard drive ever crashed. I could boot up the system with that. Although it took a while to feed in all those floppy disks in the proper order the hard drive install proved to be simple as well. Getting the printer installed wasn’t that hard either. The scanner, however, took a phone call to IBM tech support. They walked me through doing it, for a fee, of course. It required adjusting some things in what they called BIOS and to do that I had to enter the dreaded Setup Menu that they warned me never to enter unless I was talking to someone in tech support.

After all that, I figured I was pretty savvy. I was ready to tackle the modem install. It said int he instruction that it should be pretty easy. Just set it up the same way as the existing modem. Well, it wasn’t that simple. It urned into a major pain in the butt.

Adamantly I refused to call IBM tech support again because paying for them to explain how to do something that should be user friendly seemed absurd. After all, once they explained about the serial and parallel ports on my machine and something about the COM Port in BIOS, I was able to get the scanner working along with the printer.

My stubbornness persisted for much of the rest of the week as each day I’d wake up and wrestle with different ideas of how to get the modem working. It seemed so simple in the instructions but what it said in the manual wasn’t working at all. I resorted to calling the modem manufacture’s tech support, seeing as it was their product I was installing and tech support for that should be free fir the first month, right? After trying a few things, changing some jumper settings not he card, they gave up, punting to IBM because, according to the the guy on the phone, everything should be working so there much be some conflict, maybe between IRQ’s – whatever those were.

Well, after a week of frustration with this faster modem thing and getting it to plug into properly to what I now considered a made-for-adults puzzle, I was ready to pay the money to learn the secret. IBM tech support confirmed it was an IRQ (Interrupt Request) setting that needed to be adjusted. Also, they explained that since we had changed settings to install the scanner and printer I needed to reassign the COM ports on the modem. It sounded complicated, but tech support told me how to get into the system setup menu in BIOS again make some changes and, once I did that, everything worked.

You’d think that I’d never want to crack open the case again, just leave good enough alone. But after learning how to tweak things a bit I was hooked. I had made my machine significantly faster while upgrading its storage capacity and made it more functional – even if a month after all the expensive upgrades no one but me was using anything I’d installed – except my oldest daughter had tried using the Disney software in DOS that, despite my having installed more memory continued to tell her she was out of memory. Every time she wanted to play the game I had to close out of Windows and reboot into DOS. Sometimes it would play fine but other times it would not.

After asking my friend at work about it he explained how DOS memory worked and that I needed to edit my AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS to free up memory. Just when I thought I’d figured out everything about my computer, now there was this new wrinkle. Pursuing the solution would take me on an adventure that continued for years. Ever in pursuit of a more powerful computer to do this or that better than my old one, at the end of the journey I became a self-taught computer technician…and that’s another story for next time.

#personalcomputers #computers #geeks #Windows #DOS #upgrades