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How the IBM PC became the de facto standard for desktop computers

I saw a question on a vintage computing forum this week: How did the IBM PC become the de facto standard for PCs, and the only desktop computer architecture from the 1980s to survive until today?

It’s a very good question, and I think there were several reasons for it. I also think without all of the reasons, the IBM PC wouldn’t have necessarily won. In some regards, of course, it was a hollow victory. IBM has been out of the PC business for a decade now. Its partners Intel and Microsoft, however, reaped the benefits time and again.

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A quick fix for the Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor’s biggest annoyance

I’ve written about the Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor before. It’s a reasonably good low-end monitor with the annoying tendency to change the video input back to VGA any time your system goes to sleep or changes from text to graphics mode. I accidentally discovered this week–after using the monitor for months–that if you push the OK button on the front of the monitor, it brings up the input menu, allowing you to quickly flip it back to DVI without fumbling through the menus.

I still wish the monitor would let me set the default to DVI and make it stay that way, but this is an acceptable workaround for the price, at least for me.

Follow-up on the Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor

After about a month with an Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor, I still mostly like it, but can note one annoyance. When booting up a system, the monitor sometimes likes to switch from the DVI input to VGA, without warning. If you happen to be sitting there when it happens, you notice it and can switch it back. But more than once I’ve rebooted, walked away, come back a few minutes later and wondered why I have a weird black screen in front of me instead of a logon screen.Read More »Follow-up on the Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor

Review: Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor

My 15-inch Dell LCD died this weekend. Its date of manufacture was October 2001, so I can’t complain. I bought it used a number of years ago and paid a pittance for it. It had been acting up for more than a year, and at least it had the decency to wait until a potential replacement was on sale before dying completely.

Best Buy had its house-brand 20″ LED monitor on sale for $90, and I had a gift card with a few dollars on it, so I braved Best Buy again, and found a good low-end monitor for the money.Read More »Review: Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor

64 bits or bust

I’ve resisted the pull to 64 bits, for a variety of reasons. I’ve had other priorities, like lowering debt, fixing up a house, kids in diapers… But eventually the limitations of living with 2003-era technology caught up with me. Last week I broke down and bought an AMD Phenom II 560 and an Asus M4N68T-M v2 motherboard. Entry-level stuff by today’s standards. But wow.

If you can get one, an AMD Phenom II x4 840 is a better choice, but those are getting hard to find. And if you can’t afford a $100 CPU there are bargains at the very low end too: A Sempron 145 costs less than $45, and a dual-core Athlon II x2 250 costs $60.  The second core is worth the money.
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Farquhar discovers power-sipping AMD Fusion motherboards

AMD just announced its next-generation Fusion CPU/GPU combo. I’m not quite comfortable with AMD’s APU (Accelerated Processing Unit) moniker, because CPU-GPU integration isn’t about speed so much as it’s about reducing price and power consumption. This version of Fusion is intended to compete with mainstream Intel CPUs. Pricing isn’t available yet.

And that reminded me to go look and see what’s going on with first-generation AMD Fusion motherboards. I’m not so much interested in Fusion as a netbook/low-end notebook solution as I am for a power-sipping PC. Looking at the reviews online, it looks like I’m not alone in that. I don’t think I can afford to run multiple 750-watt fire-breathing dragons at home, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Give me a cool, quiet PC that doesn’t get bogged down in Visio, and I’m happy.
Read More »Farquhar discovers power-sipping AMD Fusion motherboards

How to connect an Amiga to a TV

Amiga monitors aren’t always the easiest thing to come by. Of course just about every Amiga sold was also sold with a monitor. But sadly, many of the monitors weren’t as reliable as the computer. So being able to connect an Amiga to a TV helps.

There are several options, and while some are far from ideal, most of them are suitable for playing video games. And these days I’m sure you’re a lot more interested in Shadow of the Beast than you are in Amiga Word Perfect 4.1. Read More »How to connect an Amiga to a TV

The Revolution of 1985

Twenty five years ago yesterday, a revolution happened. Nobody really noticed, and nobody thinks about it today, but the effects are still here. That we take these things for granted today shows just how wide-reaching the revolution was.

It took the form of a computer with a 32-bit Motorola CPU, full stereo sound, a display capable of 4,096 colors, and a fully pre-emptive multitasking operating system. At a starting price of $1,295, though it rose to closer to $2,000 by the time you added a second drive and a monitor.

The specs on that machine don’t sound all that impressive today, but keep in mind what else was available in 1985. The state of the art from IBM was the 16-bit IBM PC/AT with very limited sound capability, color as an expensive option, and DOS 2.1. Windows at the time was little more than a glorified DOS shell. Apple had its Macintosh, but it cost twice as much as an Amiga, had only slightly better sound than that IBM, and just a tiny black and white display.

Over the course of the next nine years, Commodore sold 3 million Amigas. Along the way, they worked out the early glitches in the machine, and upgraded the capabilities, though not always as quickly as the competition. But the machine aged remarkably well. And ultimately it did for television production what the Macintosh did for publishing, replacing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of specialized equipment with equipment that merely cost thousands, and fit comfortably on a large desk.

The big problem was that Commodore sold those three million machines to one million people, and never really knew what to do with it. It should have been a great business computer. It was the ultimate home computer. It could have been the ultimate education computer. And it was the ultimate video editing computer. But Commodore never marketed it effectively as any of those.

Mostly the company went through the motions while financier Irving Gould lined his pockets with whatever money was left after Commodore got done paying the bills each quarter. Some years, Commodore spent more money on Gould’s and his yes-man company president’s salaries than they spent on Amiga development.

So, slowly but surely, the competition caught up. VGA was better in some regards than the Amiga graphics and worse in others, but over time, the combination of VGA and fast 386 and 486 CPUs became enough to keep pace. Macintosh graphics followed a similar curve. Affordable sound cards for PCs started appearing in the late 1980s and were commonplace by 1992 or 93. It was a lot harder to get it all working on a PC, but when it worked, it worked pretty well. But making DOS boot disks to get it all working was a black art, an art I remember practicing at least until 1998.

It was in the early 1990s that PCs and Macs got multitasking. First it was horrible cooperative multitasking, followed later by pre-emptive multitasking like the Amiga had. Eventually they even added memory protection, something Amiga didn’t have (when it was initially designed with an 8 MHz CPU and 256K of RAM, that was the one thing they had to leave out).

The money ran out in 1994, and the rights to the architecture changed hands more times than most people can count. The Amiga’s days as a mainstream computer–if it ever could claim to be one–ended then.

The rest of the world spent the 1990s catching up. When Windows 95 came out with its promise of Plug and Play, improved multimedia, and pre-emptive multitasking, it was all old news to Amigans. Amigas had been doing all that for 10 years already.

For a long time after 1994, I was bitter. I’m less so now that the rest of the world has caught up. But I still wonder sometimes what might have been, if the industry had spent the 15 years between 1985 and 2000 innovating, rather than just catching up.