Posts Tagged ‘computers’



January 15, 2010

So I bought a netbook. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a year or so, and the recent changes in my circumstances meant I could indulge myself. As I usually do, I dwelled on this for weeks, trying out different models, experimenting, researching … my mothers have a Dell Mini 10, which I’ve used and liked. When the Dells went on sale after Christmas I thought I’d made my choice.

But the Dells were sold out, so I went shopping, and ended up with a Compaq Mini 110, only because the store I went to had really fantastic customer service and the sales guy figured out that I was willing to trade some features for a larger keyboard. That turned out to be crucial. I am large, and my hands are big and clumsy; a tiny keyboard would not work for me. Had he not noted that, I might not be so happy. Thank you, Mike at Staples Business Depot.

This is why my previous experimentation with subnotebooks failed. About 10 years ago, I bought a Toshiba Libretto from a pawn shop. It seemed like a good idea at the time: a paperback-sized minicomputer, running Windows CE, that I could use in my work as a reporter and writer. But it was useless. I couldn’t type on it. It couldn’t transfer files easily (this is pre-USB key, folks … pre-CD burner, too, for that matter). Its operating system was a joke. It couldn’t go online. After a few weeks, I put it down somewhere. I couldn’t tell you where it is now.

Years later, I would buy a Compaq EVO laptop, second-hand, a weird little machine with a docking station. Undocked, it’s an inch thick, a truly compact laptop running Windows 2000. It still runs. It was my primary computer for a couple of years, and got me through some times when I really needed to be portable.

As I write this on my Compaq Presario desktop, my new Compaq netbook is sitting on top of my closed Compaq laptop. We’re a three-Compaq family now, with Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby bear. Years of use, years of good performance. I can’t argue with that. Yeah, my Mac is here to the left, and I’ll be going back over there once I’m done this. And I’m still dead set on buying that 27-inch iMac in 2010, or, at the very least, a MacBook Pro.

The Compaq netbook:

  • Pros: Fast, light and simple. Starts up quickly. Has a 160-gig hard drive, a 1.6-ghz Atom processor with a gig of RAM (I plan to upgrade that to 2 gigs this week) and a matte monitor (more important for me than for you). Keyboard is close to regular size. Holds a charge for about three hours of heavy use, including watching the digital edition of Star Trek included on the DVD release. Crystal-clear video display. Finds other networks effortlessly, and connects on its own. Charges really quickly when plugged in.
  • Cons: Half-sized shift key on the left, which is where I shift, and a weird placement of the backslash near the return key, meaning a lot of typos. The casing feels cheap and brittle, and the shiny finish holds every single fingerprint. The touchpad doesn’t always do what you want it to, and the placement of the buttons on the side is strange and awkward. There’s a single audio port for both headphones and a microphone. Overall audio quality is poor.

A note: There’s no Bluetooth on this thing. At first I was a bit ticked, but then I remembered that I have Bluetooth on my two desktop computers and I’ve never actually used it. You know what I miss? IR ports. My old phone and my old laptop used to swap photos via infrared. A great system.

For now, I’m loving the netbook. I’m a journalist; I need that quick, easy access to the web, to word processing, to photos. I used it to take notes at a meeting the other night, and just finished editing a short video on it — with its built-in card reader, no less — and it’s firing on all cylinders. The next step is to test audio recording and editing. I’m still downloading software (VLC, Audacity, iTunes, Ad-Aware, Chrome, OpenOffice) to it in stages.

It’s a real wonder tool. It may not last; I have concerns about the build quality. But really, it’s a $260 computer; worst-case scenario, I give it to one of the kids, and it’s used to visit Littlest Pet Shop Online.

Wait, that’s what happened to the Libretto. I remember now. It became someone’s Tetris machine, kind of an early Nintendo DS, but with a keyboard, and probably covered in Doritos dust. It disappointed a whole new generation. And then it was donated to the Dharma Initiative.


Failed Futurists: Predictions Gone Wrong

December 28, 2009

Here’s a list of famous technological predictions that got things horribly, horribly wrong. One of these predictions is fake. I know because I made it up.

  • “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys,” Sir William Preece, chief engineer at the British Post Office, 1878.
  • “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” H.M. Warner, Warner Bros., 1927.
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
  • “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night,” Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, 1946.
  • “The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most,” IBM executives to the eventual founders of Xerox, 1959.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” Ken Olsen, founder of mainframe-producer Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.
  • “People won’t want to play these electronic games for more than a week, not once we start selling pinball machines for the home,” Gus Bally, Arcade Inc., 1979.
  • “No one will need more than 637 kb of memory for a personal computer—640K ought to be enough for anybody,” Bill Gates, Microsoft, 1981.
  • “Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput,” Sir Alan Sugar, British entrepreneur, 2005.
  • “I’d say three pounds of bacon will be enough for breakfast.” Weathereye, 2009

I can remember the first time I used a personal computer. It was a Commodore Pet that was brought to my school when I was about 10 or 11. At that point, I had played Pong and Night Driver in a video arcade, and was fascinated. A year later, a friend got the Atari 2600, and before long the Tron movie opened the world of computers up to our young imaginations.

My kids are baffled by the concept that we didn’t have video games when we were young. “That’s not all,” I tell them. “If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to the theatre or wait til it came on TV. And we only had two channels.”

As a young sci-fi geek with a big imagination, I had a lot of ideas when I was younger. A friend and I formed a small software startup in 1984, writing games for the VIC 20, and we had an idea to somehow create comic books that would be sold on cassette tape and “played” on the VIC. Our plan was to spin that off into books, magazines and maybe even television and radio shows. Sadly, the VIC 20 does not lend itself to large-scale technological development, and once I discovered the guitar that was pretty much it for our idea.

What might have been …

The changes in technology within my lifetime — since the 1960s — are immense. The changes over the course of the past 120 years are staggering. Our world has changed more since 1890 than it did in the millions of years of human presence before that. I don’t blame those people quoted above for being unable to see outside their narrow window. None of us did. I’m still marvelling at fax machines even as I read about the Apple tablet. Now, though, we are suitable acclimatized to rapid change that we can predict, or create, the future, and new developments are less of a surprise. If I’m writing on one of those Tom Cruise Minority Report floating holo-computer thingies in a couple of years, I will probably not be surprised.

Anyway, the tech predictions I listed above come from a very good Wall Street Journal article you can read here.


Mac & Me: Two Decades Later

October 20, 2009

I’m actually a year late. Last year was the 20th anniversary of a pretty major moment in my life: the day I first used a Macintosh computer.

I didn’t realize how big the moment was at the time, because I was not the gadgety techy Internetty geek you know and love today. I was a journalism student at a Canadian college. We were learning the craft the old-fashioned way, using phototypesetters and PMT cameras to build our weekly newspaper. Pagination was a fairly new concept at the time, and we had heard about PageMaker, but none of us had ever used it. And then the Macs showed up. Three of them, those classic little boxes with the tiny black-and-white screens … man, these things were cool.

It’s easy to forget how revolutionary the Macintosh was. My computing experience had been limited to writing games in BASIC on Commodore PETs and on my first home machine, a VIC-20. I had tinkered with an IBM XT, but I never cared much for DOS and, to be honest, during the mid-to-late 80s I was less interested in computers and more interested in getting my hair just right and cruising around in a K-Car. I was a very cool guy.

The Mac was something new. It had a mouse; it wasn’t the first computer to use one, but it was the first to make it work well. It had a GUI, a classic and simple design that set the standard we still use today, whether we’re on Vista, Linux or OSX. And it sure speeded up our production process. Within weeks, the phototypesetting machine had a dust cover on it, and once we got our hands on a scanner that was it for the PMT camera.

But what I liked most about that Mac was its MacDraw and MacPaint software. I was, back then, still an avid artist and cartoonist, and the ability to produce art on-screen — in black and white, of course — was revolutionary for me. (I even considered dumping J-school for a career in graphic design, for about five minutes.)

Looking back, I can see the foundations of most of my interests — personal and professional — in those funny-looking little beige computers. Art, music, journalism, podcasting, web design … all the things I do for fun and money are possible because of what Apple came up with all those years ago. I knew those Macs were something special that first day, and I was right.

Over the years, I would own several of my own, although it has now been five years since I started using Windows at home. Not for much longer, though.

We’re talking about an overhaul of our home computing setup. My kids are old enough now for their own computers, and we’re looking for the right fit. We already have computers all over the place, but a couple of them are getting pretty old and aren’t much good for anything other than a free chess game I downloaded in 1997.

This got me thinking about going back to Mac, putting at least one Mac in the house, on our network.

I admit this is probably more for me than for the kids; they aren’t fussy. They just want to play those online flash games and type up lists of reasons why my cooking sucks. But a new Mac would greatly increase my own productivity. Honest.

Bringing a Mac back into the house would make me pretty happy. It’s just a matter of finding the right one. Wait, what’s this?


The Great Video Game Divide

August 24, 2009

I don’t know much about video games. This became clear when I listened to the latest episode of Nerd Hurdles, which was all about video games. Actually, it’s made clear all the time when I try to play Lego Batman with my kid, who groans and moans when I don’t understand what “hit right, triangle, triangle, square, Dad!” means.

By rights, I should love video games. I’m from the first video game generation. When I was a kid, pinball arcades started bringing in the first wave of coin-operated video games: Night Driver, Pong, Gunfighter … simply, basic games that caught my attention. Later, a friend received an Atari 2600; that was a blast. I had a VIC-20, a cousin had ColecoVision, and I spent a lot of time and a lot of money in arcades during those shiny, glorious early 80s, playing Tron, Vanguard, Gorf, Pac-Man, Pole Position …

But by the mid-80s, I had moved on to other interests, and I missed the so-called collapse of the home console industry, the rise of Nintendo and the spread of home gaming. It wasn’t until I bought my oldest son a Sega Genesis in 1993 that I realized how huge things had gotten. I remember playing NHL 94 on it and marvelling at the “realistic” graphics. Later, someone gave me Wolfenstein 3D for my Mac LC275, and I played it a lot while waiting for Mosaic to load early WWW pages.

Since then, though, I’ve never really played video games. I worked through HalfLife on the PC over the course of a year, and I did buy the Sims, although I lost interest fairly quickly. Now and then I’ll play something with the kids, and I’ll confess I’ve found the original Wolfenstein 3D online, and I’ve been playing that again.

I suspect my age has something to do with it. People under 35 grew up with video games everywhere. They were never new to them. People even younger think that Sega Genesis is “old.” But I was right at that age to take advantage of the early rise, then lose interest when things got shitty in the mid 80s. Remember Dragon’s Lair? All the hype about that? I think that was the end of video games for me.

No, I think the fact that I entered my peak rockin’ years — 16 to 24 — right as the gaming industry was in a slump was the factor. This is why I own more guitars than I do game controllers, and why I suck at Tetris. By the time the industry flared back up again, I was too old to learn new tricks. And while I was long-haired and wild, ignoring computers and gaming, a lot of guys stuck with it. They’re the ones making games now, or working in software development, or inventing BlackBerries. I’ll bet they’re still jealous of me.