Commodore computer models

Commodore computer models

The Commodore 64 is by far the most famous and successful computer Commodore ever made. But there were numerous Commodore computer models over the years. Some were also successful. Some were complete flops. Overall Commodore had a good 18-year run, but it could have been so much longer and better.

Let’s take a walk through the Commodore computer models from the beginning in 1976 to the bitter end in 1994.

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Why did old PCs have a turbo button?

Why did old PCs have a turbo button?

Old PCs, especially PCs from the 1980s to the mid 1990s, have a button with the curious label “Turbo.” On some PCs, a number on the front changes when you push it. Why did old PCs have a turbo button?

Turbo buttons are a quirk of old PCs, kind of like their beige color that tends to turn yellow, but it served a functional purpose.

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Radio Shack computers

Radio Shack computers

Radio Shack released one of the first home computers, the TRS-80 Model I, in 1977. Between 1977 and 1979, it sold 100,000 units. Radio Shack sold them just as quickly as Tandy could make them. You can count Radio Shack and its parent company Tandy among computer companies that failed, but they enjoyed a good run. For a time, Radio Shack computers, later marketed as Tandy computers, were very popular.

Radio Shack and Tandy computers included the TRS-80 Model I from the inaugural class of 1977, the pioneering Model 100 portable, and the Tandy 1000 series, which helped bring PC clones into homes.

There were several reasons why Radio Shack computers were hard to compete with in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

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Mark Hurd doesn’t sound like he’s just what Dell needed

Word on the street is that Blackstone Group has a plan for turning around Dell: Buy the company, take it private, and install Mark Hurd as CEO. The thinking is that he’s available, has experience, and would have baggage keeping him from being the CEO of a public company.

I just see one glitch. Available != good fit.

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Why Amazon can’t make a Kindle in the USA

Dan Bowman sent over this ongoing series at Forbes. I’d seen the first couple of parts of it, but didn’t realize it was still ongoing. In light of new Amazon tablet rumors, it takes on new relevance.

It’s a thought-provoking look at the state of U.S. manufacturing today, and the state of management. I don’t know if the author thinks it’s too late to reverse this decline, but presumably no. Otherwise he wouldn’t be writing it, probably.
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Upgrading my mother in law’s Compaq Presario S5140WM

About the time my wife and I started dating, my mother-in-law bought a new computer. With an Athlon XP 2600+, that Compaq ought to be faster than anything I own. Even though it’s almost three years old now, it ought to still be pretty good.

It wasn’t. I fixed that.It has the Compaq name on the front but anymore that doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s a clone made in the Far East, with bog standard parts inside. When I visited earlier this month, she complained about its speed. I couldn’t find anything obviously wrong, but I checked the memory usage. It was over 250K with nothing loaded. Not good.

I happen to know the F-Secure-based security suite her ISP issued her can use nearly 256 megs all by itself sometimes. Not good.

So I paid a visit and ordered her 512 megs of memory. For 35 bucks, shipping included, why not? It’s overkill, but memory requirements are going to go up before they go down, and there was little point in buying half as much memory for 10 bucks less.

I bought Viking. I prefer Crucial or Kingston, but in my days doing desktop support, the people who insisted on Viking did OK, and it was cheaper the week I ordered it, so I got it. Don’t buy the cheap and nasty no-name stuff; the failure rate on no-name commodity memory has always been very high–somewhere near 30 percent, in my experience, and computers are more sensitive to memory today than they were in 1995 when I got my first job doing desktop support.

When I got the computer open, I saw it has an AGP slot. I really should get an AGP video card to put in the computer. Built-in video steals some system memory, which isn’t a big deal when you have 768 megs, but it also steals memory bandwidth. It’s like that bridge I cross over every day to go to work–it’s normally three lanes, but they have it closed down to two or even one lane some days. So it takes a longer time to get over that bridge. If I put a video card–even my old Nvidia-based card I bought back in 1997, if I could find it–with its own memory in her computer and disabled the onboard video, it would be like reopening that lane, and her CPU would have a full three lanes to work with when accessing memory.

I just checked Ebay, and found an Nvidia TNT2-based card for 99 cents Buy-it-now, with $9 shipping. The shipping is a ripoff, but the seller is probably paying a couple of dollars for the card and making $4 on shipping. At $10, the card is more than anyone needs for word processing and Internet use, and it’s probably better than the built-in video would be for light gaming. It’s a cheap way to soup up a computer like this.

If you can’t afford to buy any memory for this or any other computer with built-in video, but you’re running short on memory, here’s a free upgrade: Go into the BIOS, and set the amount of memory dedicated to the video card as low as you can. In this case, I can go to 8 megs. You won’t be able to run high colors at high resolution after doing this, but if you’re happy with 1024×768, it’ll give your system some memory back and make it a little more peppy.

I sure wish Intel or AMD would steal the old Amiga concept of chip memory, which was a bank of memory that could be used by either the video chip or the main CPU, at the expense of speed of course. But slow memory is still way faster than the swap file. The system just gave priority to the main memory (called fast memory) when it was available. It’s amazing how many good ideas were out there 20 years ago, some of which we’re enjoying today but some of which are sadly lost to history.

And, as always, a newer, faster hard drive is a good way to hot-rod an aging PC if it feels a bit sluggish.

But, $35 worth of RAM and a $10 video card goes a long, long way.

Not enough IT workers?

His Billness claims he can’t find enough IT workers. I think this is more posturing so he can get more visas–it’s cheaper to import labor from the Far East than to outsource, I guess.

I don’t see this shortage he’s talking about. Billy needs to read what I’m reading: unemployment is up and salaries are down in the IT field.

If he can’t find the workers he needs among the 2005 graduates, it seems to me he needs to be looking at the people who have a bit more seasoning.

And when the unemployment rate among IT workers is higher than the national average and salaries are decreasing in the face of increasing cost of living, do you think that might have something to do with why the dean of engineering and applied science at Princeton sees fewer people going into that field?

I just came off the job market. Trust me, it’s not like your phone rings every hour with a job offer or even an interview.

Either the situation is extremely different on the programming side than it is on the sysadmin side, or Gates isn’t seeing (or refuses to see) the whole picture.

Is this Apple a surprise to anyone?

So, Apple unveiled its new Imac today. (I’m sick of improper capitalization. We speak English, not C++.) To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, it has a bigger screen. And I’m sure it’s not too surprising that they crammed everything into the unit next to the screen. It’s the next logical step, after the lamp-shaped Imac.

So how’s it gonna do?I think it has potential. Do people really want laptops because they can carry them everywhere they go, or do they want laptops because they can move them about the house freely and don’t have to have a dedicated “computer room”?

I suspect to most people, the latter is more important. Most people have better things to do with their lives than surf the ‘net at Starbucks or Panera Bread.

This new Imac can go on a small desk in a study or spare bedroom and not take over an entire wall the way computers have been doing since the late 1970s. As long as there’s a way to add some memory, and there are ports for people to plug in their digital cameras and their portable MP3 players and a printer, they’ll be happy.

Who knows, maybe demand for wireless printers will increase too.

Some analysts have said they don’t think all-in-one is the slam dunk it was in 1998. I agree it isn’t, but small is a slam dunk. Witness the explosive popularity of cube PCs. Yes, it flopped for Apple, but Apple’s cubes lacked the flexibility, there was too much confusion about their expandability and what exactly they were compatibile with–I designed a Mac network for a client right around the time the Cube was released, but the rumor was it would only work with Apple monitors. That alone killed the deal. They bought G4 towers instead, which would work with NEC and Viewsonic monitors.

But the other problem with the Cube was the price. Yes, it was cheaper than a G4 tower. But the price difference wasn’t enough to make people willing to take a chance on it. And besides, if it was cheapness you wanted, there were at least four companies willing to sell you a PC for half the price of a Cube. Emachines would even sell you a PC for half the price of an Imac.

And that’s the biggest problem I see with this new Imac: price. $1299 gets you in the game. Ten years ago, that was cheap. But this isn’t 1994. Emachines didn’t exist in 1994, and while a Mac would cost you more than a Packard Bell, there wasn’t much price difference between a Mac and a Compaq or an IBM. Compaq or IBM usually had one model that sold for a hundred or two less than the cheapest Apple, and Apple usually wouldn’t give you quite as much CPU speed or quite as much disk space, but if you walked into the store with $1500 in your pocket, which was pretty much the selling price of an average PC, you could walk out with a Mac just as easily as you could walk out with something that ran Windows.

What will Dell give you today for $800? 2.8 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB hard drive, CD burner, printer, 17-inch monitor, and some software.

For the same money, Apple gives you 1.25 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB HD, CD burner, and a 17-inch display. No printer.

For $1,299, the price of the new Imac, Dell gives you twice the CPU power and twice the memory. Just not as much wow factor.

Yes, I know the Pentium 4 is a horribly inefficient processor but the design does scale surprisingly well, and efficiency alone won’t make up a 1.6 GHz speed deficit. Besides, if you’re willing to spend four figures, you can get an AMD Opteron. Just not from Dell.

Will this Imac sell? Yes. Will it do much to increase Apple’s 2.2 percent market share? I doubt it. The main audience is going to be people with aging CRT-based Imacs who’ve been holding out for something with a G5 in it. They’ll buy it, find it’s a lot faster than their old one and takes up less space. Of course they’ll like it. But it’s still the Amiga problem. The Amiga didn’t take over the market because it it only sold 6 million units. The Amiga was a commercial failure because those 6 million units sold to 1.5 million people.

People will ooh and ah over how little space this new Imac takes and how convenient its wireless keyboards are. But most of them will buy a Dell because it’s faster. Or cheaper. Or both. Maybe they’ll complain about how much less convenient it is, but it’s just as likely they’ll forget about it.

It happened with the first Imac and it happened with the Cube and it happened with the dual G4 and it happened with the G5. Who are we kidding? To some extent, it’s been happening since 1983 when the Lisa came out. People see the machine and it knocks their socks off until they see the price tag. The classes buy it anyway, while the masses figure out how to get by with something cheaper.

History is going to repeat itself one other way too. Somewhere in the Far East, I guarantee you a no-name maker of whitebox PCs is designing a box that puts the brains of the outfit behind the LCD, just like this Imac. Maybe the thought didn’t occur to the designer until this week. Maybe the designer has been working on it for months already.

It will look a lot like this new Imac, only it will have an AMD or Intel processor in it, and it will run Windows. It might be three months before we see it. It might even be six. But it will appear, and it will be priced under $1,000.

It will sell. And within another six months, everyone will be doing it. This new form factor may not come to dominate the market, but it won’t take much for it to outsell this new Imac. A small percentage of 97.8 percent is likely to be a lot bigger than even a large percentage of 2.2 percent. Compared to the new Imac, these clones will look like a runaway success.

And Mac fanatics will be screaming about another Apple innovation stolen by someone else.

No surprises in the PC Magazine reliability/service survey

It’s that time of year again. Time for PC Magazine’s annual reliability and service survey. I’ve been reading it for almost half my life, and half a lifetime ago, it really meant something.

Today, the subtitle ought to be “What happens when you outsource.”So what does happen when you outsource? All the PCs are basically the same these days. It makes sense. We’re down to three or four suppliers for almost all of the chips on the motherboard, and everyone, including the big vendors, buy their motherboards from one of a half dozen or so companies now. Some contract manufacturer in the Far East puts them all together and puts some other company’s name on it.

The good news is that if there’s a secret to building good, reliable PCs, it’s really poorly kept. The basic hardware is much more reliable today than a decade ago. Back when I sold computers at retail, I remember a Compaq sales rep complaining bitterly that Intel’s “Intel Inside” campaign was hurting them by making everyone think all computers were the same inside. At the time they weren’t. Compaq’s engineering and rigorous testing didn’t always produce the fastest PCs, but they were always near the top, and it did produce some really reliable stuff.

Would that same philosophy applied to today’s technology yield something better? It’s impossible to know. Compaq PCs are exactly the same as everyone else’s these days. The good news is the hardware is about as problem-free as it was back then. And so is everyone else’s. The only difference is the software the manufacturer loads on them.

You may be surprised, but even the bargain-basement eMachines scored high on reliability ratings. It turns out it’s cheaper to get things right the first time than it is to cut corners on quality and have to accept lots of returns. Their machines were dirt cheap, the company was profitable, and the reliability was good. That’s why Gateway bought them and then turned management of the combined company over to the eMachines management.

Speaking of Gateway, support is almost uniformly lousy across the board. People have always complained to me that the support people don’t know what they’re doing. Now it’s hard to know how much the phone techs know because you can’t understand them.

Someone has got to realize this makes poor business sense and make a change. IBM knows, but IBM doesn’t sell PCs at retail anymore. In the early ’90s, Gateway had tremendous brand loyalty. Their PCs were terrible, but the tech support was friendly and determined. When Dell and others started undercutting Gateway’s prices, they cut costs by decimating their tech support. The result was lousy computers and no help getting the problem fixed. The only thing left to do was to buy eMachines, whose management had walked into a similarly bad situation in 2001 and righted it.

It’s pretty obvious to me that the way to break this logjam of sameness is to offer first-rate technical support. I want to believe that the first company that moves its technical support back to the United States and advertises the fact would even be able to get by with charging a premium price.

In the meantime, you stand to get slightly better support by buying from a retail store rather than over the phone or web, if only because the store will be able to help you with basic questions. The quality of in-store help varies widely, but if you find good help in the store, find out that person’s name and ask for that person if you have to call again. Most people who are really good don’t stay in retail for long–at least one company here in St. Louis scouts the retail stores’ computer help and tries to hire away anyone over the age of 21 or 22 who seems to be any good–but you may get some good help in the meantime. Use the manufacturer’s support as a backup, if the store will let you.

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