Monday, December 03, 2007

May be it was better when it was worse

We zip along at gigahertz speed, not megahertz. We store gigabytes instead of kilobytes. Going strictly by the numbers, we're living in a computing paradise compared with 20 or 30 years ago, when the personal-computer revolution was just beginning. But there are a few things from the old days that we still cherish.

1. More RAM Than You Can Handle

One early quote often attributed to Bill Gates is that 640KB--that's right, kilobytes--should be enough for any computer user. (He vehemently denies saying it.) We joke about it today, but in 1981 that sentiment would have made sense.

The phenomenally popular Apple II and Commodore 64 computers had 48KB and 64KB of system memory, respectively, and the IBM PC's basic configuration had a measly 16KB. Few people complained. For personal computing's first decade, none but the seriously hard-core had to push their system beyond the seemingly limitless 640KB. These days, even 2GB isn't enough to prevent Windows from dipping into the virtual-memory well.

2. Easy, Registry-Free Tweaks

Hey, want to tweak your WordPerfect settings? Fire up your favorite text editor and edit the WP.INI file to your heart's content.

Prior to Windows 95's introduction of the Registry, editing .INI files was the way to customize your experience on a PC. Sure, some of the parameters seemed arcane, but dealing with them was better than deciphering the enigmatic HKEY_local_machine parameters infesting Windows machines over the last 12 years.

The .INI files were also easy to back up, restore, or swap, and messing one up wouldn't take down your entire system. And honestly, did you ever hear of an .INI cleaner? I rest my case.

3. Software That Goes With You

Back when hard drives were expensive (and therefore rare on most PCs), the medium of choice was the floppy disk--which, depending on your operating system, could hold as little as 180KB. Without hard drives, software had to fit on floppies, meaning that applications were reasonably compact and self-contained. You could easily run your programs with your own settings on any compatible computer if you were willing to tote a few disks around. Recent innovations such as the U3 spec for USB drives are just starting to bring that capability back to modern PCs.

4. Lightning-Fast Startups

Microsoft has worked hard to keep startup times down for Windows, but let's face it: With all of the drivers, antimalware utilities, and other doodads that load into memory (do you really need that casserole-recipe widget on your desktop?), you can probably make a cup of coffee before you can do anything on your PC.

In the old days, either the operating system was built into ROM (so the computer was ready as soon as you flipped the switch) or you loaded it from a disk (which took just a few seconds).

5. A Virus? What's That?

It's not that malware didn't exist--computer viruses actually predate personal computers--but virus protection wasn't as big a concern as it is now. Running virus scans certainly took less time; since most personal computers lacked hard drives, you could guarantee that a clean floppy would stay uninfected simply by write-protecting it. In a certain sense, an inch of adhesive tape, back then, provided better protection than a battery of antimalware utilities does today.

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