April 24, 2004

Ancient History, part 2

(continued from part 1)

I don't want to piss off the Appleciders out there, but the late '83/early '84 lineup was pretty ugly. The Mac hadn't come out yet, while the Apple III (AKA the "pop-up toaster") and the Lisa did not inspire confidence. Cross it off the list.

The DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) Rainbow was interesting. It could run CP/M-80, CP/M-86 (IIRC a dual processor design), but was bloody expensive. It was also different enough from standard CP/M machines that I crossed that one off the list as well.

So it all came down to the IBM PC, and the Epson QX-10.

From my research at the time, a standard IBM PC didn't pack a whole lot of punch for the money. It included 64K RAM and one 5.25" 160K single-sided floppy, a monochrome (AKA text-only) monitor, and MS-DOS 1.0 (a copy of CP/M), and not much else. Even I knew, back then, that MS-DOS was not a mature product as was CP/M, nor was there nearly the same amount of sofware available for MS-DOS. Not to mention that with the IBM PC, everything was extra!

Let's match them up, head-to-head:
Main cpu: PC had an 8-bit 8088 @4.77Mz, while the QX-10 had an 8-bit Z80 @3.5Mz.
RAM: PC came standard with 64K, while the QX-10 carried 256K
Storage: PC started with one single-sided 160K floppy. The QX-10 came standard with two 380K floppies.
Video: base PC had monochrome (text-only), and while the QX-10 was technically "mono" (green screen) only as well, it could output a high-quality 640x400 text font (compared to the CGA 640x200 and the MGA mono 742x350) and graphics at the same resolution, compared to the above "high" resolution CGA. "Hi-color" CGA graphics (i.e. 4 colors) displayed at impressive 320x200.

With the PC, everything was extra. Printer port? Extra. Serial port? Extra. Etc., etc. Entire companies got their start from supplying add-ins to the PC.

The QX-10. on the other hand, came standard with an RS-232 parallel port, a standard Centronics printer port, AND a light-pen port! Mind you, you could match the QX-10, feature for feature, but it would kick up the price nearly a grand...

MS-DOS had just recently been released, and (as one person put it to me at the time) "the only software it (the PC) comes with is a buggy word processor."

CP/M, on the other hand, was a mature operating system with a large variety of software available, not to mention the Epson-specific Valdocs package, which included one of the earliest mass-market "what you see is what you get" word processors. Italics showed up on the screen as italics. Boldface the same. It was scary.

Hell, the Epson was even prettier than the PC! Follow the link above. The QX-10 was one of the nicest designs that never came out of Apple computers. Consider the esthetics: while the PC featured full-height floppy drives, the QX-10 featured third-height drives, where even half-height drives didn't become popular in the PC world until the AT.

And I have to say it: check the link. Look closely at the photos of the QX-10 keyboard layout. Coincidence? I think not! Heh.

Bottom line: feature for feature, the Epson QX-10 was superior to the IBM PC in every way.

Well, except for a single detail: the three letters "I", "B", "M".

Whoopsie. That's when I learned my first computer lesson: market share trumps brilliance.

This is why I never seriously considered buying an Apple.

(to be continued...)

Posted by Casey at April 24, 2004 2:12 AM | TrackBack

Casey, thank you very much! For some reason, this topic of experiences with the "ancient history" of computers fascinates me— perhaps because people of our generation can remember back to the stone age, before the home computer. Just as my parents can remember back to "before TV," and my grandmother can remember back to "before radio"...

I first made the acquaintance of computers when I took a computer science course at the UW-Madison in the spring of 1979. Yeah, I remember FORTRAN. I also remember typing up programs on punch cards at a keypunch machine. When we could get access to a terminal (sign-up list and long waits), we would use a primitive line editor— probably "ed"?

A friend of mine had an IBM PC in the mid 80s— big ungainly thing, cost him an arm and a leg. We used to play around with it. I remember that damn 16-color 640x480 CGA monitor— reading text on it was like reading through the wire mesh of a screen door.

First got a computer of my own in 1989. A Leading Edge Model D. No hard drive, just two 5¼" floppy drives. 512K of RAM. 8088 processor. Ran at 7.16 MHz "turbo speed." Came with no mouse (as a perpetual student, it was a while before I could afford to go out and buy a mouse as an optional add-on). Glowing green Hercules monochrome monitor, which at least had a decent resolution. I ran that computer under MS-DOS 3.3, which I continued to use with it until the computer gave up the ghost on me in 1997. (By that time, I had upgraded to 640K of RAM, and a 42 meg Seagate hard drive.)

Back when I first was exposed to computers, I never would have dreamed where all this was going to lead. Here I sit, 25 years later, hooked up to the Internet and typing away on my IBM ThinkPad. (Which— you know of course I've got to mention— runs under Linux, not Windows! ;) Email, websites, blogs, Google.

I'm still just amazed that there are graphics on the screen! Hell, to this day I still find myself sometimes sneaking back to my older laptop, to do word processing in 80x25 text mode with MS-Word 5.0 for DOS! In fact this ancient version of Word turned into a pumpkin on 1/1/00— it's not Y2K compliant— to get it to run since then, I had to write a little utility which fools Word into thinking that it's 20 years ago.

And speaking of CP/M, I knew someone who was still using CP/M on his computer in the early 1990s...

Posted by: Paul Burgess at April 24, 2004 5:21 PM

Yes, I remember my first reaction to a CGA monitor after that lovely 640x400 mono screen on the Epson: EWWWWWW!

Actually, your memory decieves you. :) The best CGA could do was 640x200 in two colors. Yes, two. The next highest resolution was 320x200 at four colors.

The MGA (monochrome graphics adapter) had a stunning 720x350 pixel resolution, but was text-only.

The IBM platform didn't even hit 16 colors until EGA came on the scene, with 640x350 resolution.

This is why I fell in love with the original Compaqs, back when they still made industrial-grade computers. The Portable and the Deskpro both had monochrome multi-scanning monitors, so when the application (or system) called for "text mode" the card & monitor would switch to a high-frequency 720x350 resolution that looked exactly like the IBM MGA. When an app selected a CGA mode, the display would drop the scan rate and show as 640x200 or 320x200 as required. Actually, if the app selected CGA "mono" or "text" mode (B&W 640x200) the unit would invisibly switch to MGA-style, so text automagically got the best resolution. Very cool.

All this time the Amiga was running off of a 4096-color palette.

No wonder the C64 and Amiga folks laughed at Big Blue... :)

Hey, mention away with Linux! I think it's great that MS has some real competition. You already know why I'm not using it regularly. And there's another article you're going to make me write, damn your eyes! Heh. Although this time I may just cannablize my comment over in Dean's recent thread on Linspire.

Oh, that reminds me: I don't think I mentioned it over there, but the Linspire-modified WINE module lets me install and run Office 2000 under Linspire. Very cool. All have to do is get them to export that to OS X to really piss off MicroSoft!! Heh heh heh...

You know, if I were working a real job, full-time (not what I have now), I would be thinking very seriously of an iMac, or a single-processor G5.

Of course, the problem is that I'm not in school anymore, so I can't get Office for Mac for $12... (sigh) But that would really rock!

Hmm. I wonder if StarOffice has been ported over to the Mac yet?

BTW, I'm surprised that your Word 5.0 can't handle Y2K dates. I have a PC running MS-DOS 5.0, and a Compaq running PC-DOS 3.3, and both allow me to enter current dates (i.e. 04/25/2004).

Or does the DOS allow you to enter a proper date, then Word blows up? This is very strange...

Posted by: Casey Tompkins at April 25, 2004 2:10 AM

Yeah, DOS handles the dates fine, it was just this antique version of Word. I remember getting up on New Year's Day 2000... electricity still working, TV and radio stations still on the air, civilization still humming along just fine... I fired up Word, started typing something up. After I'd typed a few paragraphs, all of a sudden chunks of hieroglyphics started appearing here and there in the text. Type a little more, and Word would crash.

And if you saved the document and quit before Word crashed, all documents had the same size— something like 6K, no matter what. Versus size of documents increasing by increments of 512 bytes, before 1/1/00.

The only Y2K problem I ever encountered.

Posted by: Paul Burgess at April 25, 2004 9:33 AM