Tales from the crypt: Our first computers

Tales from the crypt: Our first computers

Computerworld editors share stories of their first PCs, from classics to clunkers

1995: The Mac's darkest hour

The first computer I owned was one of the worst Apple Macs ever made.

I came late to this whole "online thing," as I described it back in 1995. At Thanksgiving that year, I asked a friend whether I should get a Mac or a PC. He told me to go Apple. Within a week, I'd gone shopping.

My purchase? A crippled, cobbled-together Macintosh Performa 6200, complete with 15-inch monitor. The price was around US$2,100, I think.

It came with a shocking amount of storage: a 1GB hard drive. It also came with 8MB of RAM and ran on a 75-MHz processor. Best of all, I could get online using the zippy 14.4K modem that came with it (and which I later upgraded to a 28.8K).

At the time, Apple had an online community (eWorld), and I joined that. Eventually I wound up as an AOL subscriber, where I found myself having a great time tracking down and printing up weather maps. Before long, I took off the training wheels and wound up really online, and I never looked back.

Given how buggy the computer was, how awful it was to upgrade and how often it crashed, it's a wonder I stayed with Apple. I got my first laptop less than two years later, an early PowerBook 3400. It's been all downhill for my bank account since then.

-- Ken Mingis

1985: Attack of the clones

In the summer of 1985, I accepted a technical support position at PC clone vendor Leading Edge Computer. It was there that I bought my first personal computer, the Leading Edge Model D.

The standard Model D included a 4.77-MHz 8088 processor, dual 5.25-inch floppy disk drives and 256KB of RAM. It also included monochrome green-screen graphics by way of a clone of a Hercules graphics card that wasn't quite perfect.

But the price was right: For US$1,495, you could have your very own IBM PC clone. With an employee discount, I paid a few hundred dollars less. As a support tech, I fielded calls all day long on the Model D, so I knew what I was getting into.

This was the era when the BIOS chips in clones weren't entirely compatible, and the Model D had its share of issues. Some programs would not run at all. In other cases, a bug in the Hercules emulation prevented some games from rendering properly. I recall countless calls from irate buyers who couldn't get the chess program Sargon III to run.

Some problems we acknowledged; others we were told to take down as though we had never heard about the issue. The reason: The ROM BIOS chip needed to fix those early problems cost about US$50, and the company didn't want to spend the money. Needless to say, I didn't last long at that job.

As a general-purpose business computer, though, the Model D worked just fine. At some point I upgraded the memory to a whopping 640KB and added a 10MB hard drive.

Eventually the machine passed out of my hands and went to live with my mother-in-law. To this day, it remains at her house, unused and forgotten, the ghosts of a thousand text screens burned faintly into the green glass of the monitor. It sits idly on a small desk in a dark corner of a utility room, long since abandoned and frozen in time alongside its now outdated successor: an Apple IIe.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

1982: IBM PC vs. Olivetti typewriter

In the summer of 1982, my wife began working as a computer operator for Computerland, one of the first US retail chains for PCs and such. She was able to get us an original IBM PC at a discount. I believe we paid about US$1,500 for it.

It had two floppy disks, ran DOS and was, to me, not particularly useful. I continued to depend on my Olivetti electronic typewriter, which had, as I recall, a small screen that remembered your last 200 characters or so, allowing you to "easily" change text.

Ah, the bad ol' days.

-- Mark Hall

1985: Who needs Word when you have XyWrite?

Freelancing for the first time in 1985, I needed a shiny new computer, so I went off and bought a Compaq Deskpro Model 2 with a 7.14-MHz 8086 processor, two 5.25-inch floppy drives, 256KB of RAM and a 12-inch monochrome monitor.

It cost US$3,000 -- more than I had paid for anything (including a car) at that point -- so I had to have it financed through Citibank. I took out a loan and paid it off over three years.

The thing was a tank -- meaning it worked and worked, through coffee spills, massive amounts of cigarette smoke and no air conditioning. It was indestructible, and I used it for at least a decade, until my Geek Husband shamed me into an "upgrade" that lasted only half as long.

The major program I used was XyWrite, a.k.a. Son of Atex. Atex was a centralized, dedicated word processor that we used in the first computerized newsroom I ever worked in. XyWrite, a local, DOS-based word processor, had been written by Atex developers to look and feel exactly like Atex, so it was a natural for me when I got my own computer. You typed in commands at the C:\ prompt to make XyWrite create a new story, save your work and so on. Very simple, clean, direct.

About a year after I bought the Deskpro, I decided it was time to begin e-mailing my stories to various editors. To do that, I needed to install a modem -- but I couldn't pry the PC's case off. That sucker just didn't move. So I implored the construction worker living in the apartment across the hall to come over and help me out. He was around 6' 5" and a pretty strong guy. He couldn't get the case off either.

Finally, my dad came over and, after a couple of Scotches and a lot of cursing in Italian, he was successful. I popped the modem into the chassis and put the cover back on but didn't snug it down too tightly ... just in case I ever wanted to open it again.

-- Johanna Ambrosio

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