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The wonderful evolution of personal computers.

I just bought this computer. I need it to produce my quota of courses and articles while I'm away from home. I travel too much. Until last week, I used two computers for my work: a powerful desktop computer (Dell 133 MHz Pentium processor) to create courses, and a notebook computer (IBM Thinkpad 75 MHz 80486 processor) to make presentations. The Thinkpad is adequate for making simple presentations, but not for the multimedia programs with high-resolution graphics (that now take up more than 100 megabytes of disk space) that I produce for the ACPE and The Informatics Institute.

Having two computers was more of a nuisance than a convenience. Too frequency, I found myself copying files from one computer to another, to keep the most current version of an article, spreadsheet, or presentation on both machines, and with files of 100 MB in size, copying can take a long time, even with LapLink for Windows 95.

So, this week, I gave the Dell desktop and the IBM Thinkpad to my colleagues and I bought a Compaq LTE 5200 with an active matrix color monitor, 120 MHz Pentium processor, 1.35 gigabyte disk drive, a removable 4 speed CD ROM drive, a 28,800 baud fax-modem, a PCMCIA 10BaseT ethernet adapter, and 75 megabytes of RAM. What a technological marvel is this computer! I recall that I said something similar, maybe even the same words, when I began using my first PC in 1983. This new computer fits effortlessly into a docking station in my office, which connects it to a local area network, external keyboard and monitor, and another hard disk drive for backups.

My first computer

I bought my first personal computer in the Mecca for PCs: Palo Alto, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. I was studying business administration and health care economics at the Stanford Business School, after having finished my clinical training in Internal Medicine on the East Coast. My wonderful wife and I had our infant son with us, our first of four, and I wanted to spend less time in the computer laboratory and more time in our apartment.

So, I considered personal computers. I selected the TI, an IBM compatible system of sorts, in that it used an Intel 8088 processor, but with a proprietary graphics card from TI to give it better resolution than the CGA graphics of the IBM PC could produce. The Apple Macintosh had not been announced, and the computers from Kaypro, Osborne, Radio Shack, DEC, and Apple did not seem as modern or reliable. But vendors had to rewrite part of their software to accommodate the TI graphics design. I assumed because the image was better, people would buy these computers preferentially, and the TI system would succeed in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, TI sold only a tiny proportion of the computers that IBM sold, and vendors lost interest in writing software for the TI graphics standard. In fact, TI abandoned its standard in favor of the IBM design within two years. Still, while I had it in business school I thoroughly enjoyed it. The interface was simple: primitive DOS from Microsoft, modified and supported by TI. The computer had a screen with 320 by 200 resolution, I believe, no hard disk drive (I added one later), 128 K of RAM, and a 14 inch color monitor.

By today's standards, the PC was large and heavy. With it and Microsoft Multiplan, I could do all the spreadsheet analyses I had done with a DEC minicomputer in the data center at Stanford. I could do my work when I wanted to do it, at home, close to my wife and son, so we could walk to dinner at a small Mexican restaurant we loved and return to our apartment for me to continue my homework late into the evening. If I'd had a portable like the one I am using now, I would have carried it with me on my bicycle to the VA hospital in Palo Alto, where I moonlighted in the emergency room most weekends to pay my way through business school. Compaq, creator of the first successful IBM compatible portables, did not yet-exist.

After I graduated, I took the TI with me to Lakeland, Florida where I became Medical Director of The Watson Clinic. I used it for two more years, but grew concerned that vendors were not writing new versions of their software for it. I thought I needed a portable computer, because I was beginning to travel to conferences and wanted to take work with me. I can type faster than I can write, and almost faster than I can dictate, so a portable computer with word processing software would have been a godsend for me.

As an aside, the most important course I can recall taking in high school was typing. Far more than any single course in chemistry, English, geography, Spanish, history or mathematics, my course in typing has influenced my life in many beneficial ways. I have never been afraid of computers or their keyboards. And computers are much more appealing than the manual typewriter on which I practiced my lessons in class and at home.

I bought the TI Portable Pro, with the same architecture and processor as the original TI Pro, but packaged in a luggable computer weighing about 40 pounds, with a small-6-inch color monitor. It was only portable relative to the heavy TI Professional on my desktop. With no portables any lighter, I thought it was a marvel, and used it for the last year I worked at The Watson Clinic.

I used the same first generation PC design for three years in a desktop and about one year in a portable. I added a little bit more RAM, eventually totaling 764K in a desktop that used an operating system that could not address more than 640K. That first generation lasted longer than any other. The pace of change in PCs began to accelerate in the late 1980s, and continues to do so, and I began upgrading more frequently.

My next computer

When Lotus 123 was released without a version for the TI Professional, I bought a TI Business Pro, which was compatible with the IBM PC AT, meaning it had the next generation of Intel microprocessor--the 80286. Contained in its massive tower case were a 40 megabyte hard disk, 2 MB of RAM, an EGA video card, 15-inch color monitor, and it could run the newest version of Lotus 123. That baby was fantastic, but heavy as the dickens. Not portable by any means.

I was using early versions of WordPerfect for word processing, and Lotus 123 for spreadsheet-work. For database storage, I used dBASE a little. The interface for all those packages was based on text. With the EGA card some simple graphics were possible, and I was comfortably mainstream, no longer envying IBM PC owners who, when I used the original TI Professional, had access to more software than I did. The Apple Macintosh had been available for several years by then, but with its small, black-and-white screen and under-powered design, I chose to stay with the IBM standard. When I moved to Washington, DC in 1986 to join an HMO development firm, I sold the TI Portable Pro and took the TI Business Pro, with its large hard disk space (40 MB), ample RAM memory (2 MB), and fast processor (80286).

Then I moved to Compaq

I was traveling more than ever. When Compaq announced its second generation of portable PCs, the Portable II, with an 8-inch green monochrome screen, a 20 MB hard drive, 1 MB of RAM, and an 80286 Intel processor at about 4 MHz clock speed, I bought it. Back then, less than ten years ago, the public would have had no way of knowing whether 4 MHz clock speed was good or not. Nowadays, even my eight-year-old son knows that a 120 MHz Pentium is middling fast, and a 200 MHz Pentium Pro processor is state-of-the-art.

Personal Computers with multiple Pentium Pro processors are available now, with combined clock speeds of 300-400 M-Hz, capable of 200+ million instructions per second. When it was first introduced, computer journals, including Byte magazine, featured photographs of Rod Canion, then the CEO of Compaq, holding the Portable II aloft with one arm, something most people would not do with most portables. The speed of its processor had little or nothing to do with its success. It's light weight won over converts. It only weighed about 20 pounds.

I loved that Compaq Portable II. I installed another 1 MB of RAM and a 40 MB hard disk card in one of the two expansion slots. In the other ISA slot, I put a sound card. The Hardcard cost at least $500 for 40 MB of disk storage, and so did the 1 MB of RAM. Now two gigabytes of disk storage cost $500 and 1 megabyte of RAM sells for less than $25. I bought my first copy of Microsoft Windows, version 1.something, and suffered all the problems that you have heard about. I also loaded DesqView, a text-based interface, and sometimes used one, sometimes the other, to load my text-based applications from WordPerfect and Lotus.

Back then, Windows was not a user interface as much as it was a cool way to launch DOS applications. It crashed a lot or locked up the computer, and it was slow. I liked some of the utilities that came with it, especially the calculator. Most of the time, I preferred DesqView. I carried that computer to meetings in Minnesota, where we had started an HMO, to North Carolina and Virginia, where we were trying to start them, and to conferences. Even though by today's standards that little computer is very heavy and slow, I still have a great fondness for it.

Late in 1995 I gave it to my sons, school, and one of the teachers uses it for word processing and DOS-based games. Newer versions of Windows will not run on it, so its current owner uses a simple text interface to launch programs, one at a time. But I used that Portable II as my only computer for about two years, and as a computer for our home for about six years, though we added more modern computers to our inventory along the way. My fondness for Compaq computers derives from that gem of a Portable II.

Along came Intel

In 1987, along came Intel's first 32-bit microprocessor, the 80386, and Compaq beat IBM to the market with a desktop computer con-taining it called the Deskpro 386. I bought one immediately. It had a 40 megabyte hard drive, an EGA video card, a 15-inch external color monitor, about 2 MB of RAM and processed at about 8 MHz. I used it at work for modeling business plans on Lotus 123, and for word processing. Boy, was it fast, and it could run Windows more reliably, addressing more memory, than the Portable II.

This was the second time that I found myself using a desktop com-puter at work and a portable at home that I would take with me on trips. The richness of the computing power around me offset the inconvenience of swapping files. At least back then I could switch all the files I worked with on a single floppy disk because I used text-based DOS applications that took up little. memory tn store That was about to change, as I began to dabble with early versions of Microsoft Windows.

I read favorable reviews about microsoft software designed for Windows, such as Excel and Word. But they were slower than my DOS applications. I continued to use Windows for my interface, though I loaded DesqView occasionally. Then, in late 1987, I heard abaut Framework, an integrated package of software from Ashton-Tate with features for word processing, spreadsheets, and database. I used it for several months, but decided it had no benefits over WordPerfect, Lotus 123, and dBASE.

Time for another Compaq

Less than two-years passed and, in 1989, I bought a Compaq Portable III, with a faster 80386 processor than I had in my Deskpro 386, and it was lighter than the Portable II. So, now I hoped I'd have one computer for all my work. The Portable III used a novel lunch box design with a moveable amber flat panel screen. It had room for two full-sized lSA interface cards, an internal hard disk with about 80 MB of storage, and room for about 4 MB of RAM.

I usually upgrade computers because they have become too slow or restricted in RAM or hard disk space, but back then, reliable disk compression utilities were not available. Compaq and IBM started competing head-to-head in the market for portable computers, bringing out substantially more appealing designs about every twelve to eighteen months. It was Windows that fueled my insatiable thirst for faster processors, larger hard disk drives and more RAM memory in lighter, more portable cases. I was entering a period when I switched PCs almost every year.

The IBM Portable era

In 1990, the IBM Portable was introduced based on a 33 MHz 8D486 processor. This new processor was getting a lot of attention because it had a 32-bit internal and external data path, so it moved data to the computer's circuitry more quickly than the 80386, and had faster processing speeds. This portable had more space for modem, video, and sound. Its marvelous flat monochrome orange screen, ample room for expansion cards and hard disk, and great keyboard converted me. It had a peculiar Microchannel bus, so I bought an expensive SoundBlaster card that I could not use in any other computer, but it produced great sound.

I had entered my IBM portable period. My first presentations to ACPE were made using Microsoft PowerPoint arid the IBM Portable and I delivered my message with computer-driven slides. Even though my arm stretched whenever I carried its 30+ pounds, I brought it everywhere happily. It did not have a battery, but I preferred a fast computer with AC power rather than a smaller notebook with a monochrome screen and slower processor. It had an early 80486 processor, about 8 MB of RAM, and a 400 MB hard disk that filled up quickly when I began to use Microsoft applications running under Windows.

I used that luggable portable for about a year, until IBM released its first 80486 notebook, an early Thinkpad, with a color monitor, full-sized keyboard and sufficient RAM and hard disk memory to run Windows 2.whatever. It ran on battery power, but they were nickel cadmium batteries that did not last long (less than one hour) and quickly lost their full charge due to an annoying memory effect. It was a large notebook, but much smaller and lighter than the IBM Portable.

Back to Compaq

I used it briefly, perhaps nine months, until, in 1991, Compaq released-the Portable 486c, with a 66 MHz 80486 processor, gorgeous flat panel color monitor, 500 MB hard drive and room for two full length ISA cards. It did not use batteries, but I gave up the ability to use it on airplanes to have a better screen image, larger hard disk drive and room for internal network and sound cards. The PCMCIA cards for notebooks about the size of credit cards) had not arrived on the scene yet, but they would eventually eliminate the market for luggable computers with room for full-sized ISA expansion cards.

I switched to the Compaq Portable 486c, though it was slightly heavier than the IBM notebook, because it had a better color monitor, more RAM with which to run Windows 3.0, a larger hard disk drive, and room for a sound card I found indispensable (for games). It weighed about i5 pounds. We still use it in the at The Informatics Institute. It runs Windows 95 and Microsoft Office applications well, with a 500 MB hard disk and 16-MB of RAM.

Then Compaq began using PCMCIA cards and produced a notebook computer, the Contura, with a 50 MHz 80486, great color monitor, and 340MB hard disk, weighing less than 8 pounds. Who would not give up a heavier lunch-box-sized luggable for a color screen on a much lighter, faster computer with just as much disk space and RAM? We still use the Contura, too, for business trips arid simple presentations.

Another IBM

But, I used the Contura for less than a year, because I was making presentations with Microsoft PowerPoint and wanted as much RAM, and as large a hard disk, and as fast a processor as possible. So, I switched back to IBM when their fast Thinkpads (Thinkpad 755c) with 75 MHz 80486 processors and state-of-the-art pointing devices came out. That machine holds a total of 32-MB of RAM, and a 500 MB hard disk drive, which I compressed with the DoubleSpace utility, from Microsoft, and compressed further with the Drvspace utility that is part of Windows 95.

Back to Compaq

I started using it in the Fall of 1994, and stopped using it this past week when I got this Compaq LTE 5200 with the extraordinary features I mentioned above. By the way, with Drvspace, I had nearly 1 gigabyte of disk storage on the IBM Thinkpad, but it would not carry all the files I need. The LTE 5200 I started using last week has a 1.35 gigabyte hard disk drive, and I have compressed it with Drvspace from Windows 95 for more than 2 gigabytes of disk storage, and have about 700 megabytes of disk storage remaining after loading all the files we use for The Informatics Institute.

I am amazed that the cost for a top-of-the-line notebook computer fully-loaded with RAM and hard disk storage and the fastest-avail able modem has remained at about $7,000 for the past five years, while the features that this amount of money will buy-have improved dramatically. Five years ago, $7,000 would buy a 33 M-Hz 80486 processor, 400 MB of disk space, perhaps a maximum of 16 MB of RAM memory and a 9,600 baud modem. Plow, that money will buy a 120 MHz Pentium processor (about 8 times faster in instructions per second), at least 40 MB of RAM, a 1.3 gigabyte hard disk drive (three times the data storage capacity), a 28,800 baud modem, and an internal quad speed CD-ROM drive.

Five years ago, the state-of-the-art monitors on portable computers were either dull color or monochrome amber. Now they are bright, vibrant, active matrix liquid crystal displays. This newest generation of portables arriving in stores right now includes modular and interchangeable 4 speed CD-ROM drives and lithium ion batteries which deliver power for three to four hours each. These computers can send and receive NTSC television signals and present full-motion video on their screens. I didn't spend this much money to have a portable television set, but the fact that I have one inside my computer amazes me. This computer is ready for video conferencing! Just attach an inexpensive video camera to it, hook it up to a network, and I can send a video signal to another computer similarly equipped.

The newest IBM portable, the 120 MHz Thinkpad 760CD, comes with a 12 inch diagonal screen. I opted for the Compaq LTE 5200, with a standard 10.5 inch screen, because it holds up to 72 MB of RAM and the IBM only holds up to 40 MB. Both have stereo speakers, Trackpoint pointing devices and interchangeable CD-ROM drives. Both accept multiple PCMCIA cards for modems and network connectors. And both are fully capable desktop machines that are also portable, weighing about 7 pounds. I wanted the extra RAM more than the larger screen.

Now I have one computer for all my work, and use inexpensive docking stations to make connecting to our corporate network in the office, and to an external monitor at home and in the office, very simple. I don't know how long I'll wait before upgrading to something else, but that something else has not been announced, yet. I hope that I can preserve the limited capital of The Informatics Institute by having one machine with which I do all my work, in the office, at home, and on the road.

Now my sons wont computers

Unfortunately, my oldest son who is going off to school this Fall has seen the Winbook line of portable computers and wants one. In time, his three younger brothers will want notebook computers, too. To rationalize the investment I expect I'll make in portable computing resources for the entire family over the next decade, I tell myself I'd rather have them learning to use computers than watching television. Then I think that they may want expensive portable computers so they can play video games and watch television wherever they go.

I frown, and dismiss the thought. No, they'll use these expensive devices to do their homework wherever they want to study, take notes in class, and search the Internet for edifying information. I'm kidding myself. I dismiss that thought, too, and hope their mother and I have given them sufficiently good examples of the value of diligence and honesty to help them to use their time and our investment capital wisely. I thoroughly enjoy, and take full advantage of, notebook computers. I hope they do, too. Will I allow them to upgrade to new notebook computers every 12 to 18 months? I shudder at the thought.

COPYRIGHT 1996 American College of Physician Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ruffin, Marshall
Publication:Physician Executive
Date:May 1, 1996
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