Tag Archives: technology

There’s a mouse loose…

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For some reason, this Apple Desktop Bus Mouse II has found its way onto my desk. I guess I was absent-mindedly rummaging in our Techno Drawer for something, and pulled the mouse out with a view to using it on the ancient and creaking Macintosh SE/30 stashed in the other room.

It’s fun to play with old tech occasionally, but it soon becomes apparent just how limited such things are in a modern context.

Reliving the past

I’ve just taken a trip down Memory Lane. It’s not at all like I remember it.

They say the past is another country. If you remember my saga about the ancient AppleTalk printer a while ago, you will recall the machine used to be partnered with an elderly Apple laptop, running an obsolete operating system. The sole reason for this was the proprietary Apple networking protocol, and my odd refusal not to purchase an ethernet-enabled printer in the first place all those years ago.

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The laptop in question is a PowerBook G3 Series, one of the first of the original curvy and rather sexy laptops that Apple created just after Steve Jobs returned as CEO. Further investigation into the machine’s provenance leads me to believe it may be one of the first Wallstreet models available, which dates it to around May 1998. It also appears to be the baby of the range, cheekily dubbed “Mainstreet” by the pundits! Geekily, this means it doesn’t have the L2 cache which its more expensive brethren had, which meant it was a bit of a slowcoach all told. 

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The official specs, therefore, look like this: 233MHz PowerPC G3 CPU, no L2 cache, 13.3in TFT screen, 6GB internal hard drive, 128MB RAM in two 64MB modules, running Mac OS 9.2.2 – the last of the “classic” operating systems before OS X muscled in. The ’Book can have two batteries installed in the module bays either side, but only one of the batteries I acquired with the machine holds any charge, and that for about a minute! There is a CD-ROM (20x no less!) in the right bay, and I have a floppy disk drive module. There is a double PCI card slot, so in theory at least, it could be enhanced with USB and FireWire connectivity if I desired. It has a modem, as well as the then regulation AppleTalk socket, and a high-density SCSI socket. Finally, a VGA monitor output rounds off the equipment.

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For something approaching its 13th birthday, it stands up pretty well. Okay, the screen is pretty dim by modern standards, the keyboard horribly clattery, and the hard drive is noisy and sounds very fragile indeed. Since the machine was only ever intended to act as a bridge between my wired network and the printer, I only bothered with the barest essentials of software beyond the standard OS installation. There’s a copy of AppleWorks on there, a freebie copy of Corel WordPerfect 3.5 Pro, and a copy of Microsoft Word 5 — probably the best version of that long-lived word processor that ever existed. (Interestingly, the full copy of Word 5 weighs in at a staggering 895Kb on disk. Yes, under a megabyte. The decade-old copy of Word X I also own comes out at over 13MB, and I really don’t think it was an improvement.)

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So, how does the old warhorse perform? If you want my honest opinion, I’m rather like Marvin the Paranoid Android from the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. When asked what he thought about humanoid brains, the robot with a brain the size of a planet opined he couldn’t imagine how anything could live in anything that small. It would definitely be hard to survive with 6GB of hard drive in this digital photo, high-def video and MP3 collection world. If all I wanted was a clackety typewriter, and wasn’t overly fussed if I knocked it off a table, then it would be fine. Of course, there’s the added complication of how to get any text files off the PowerBook and into the 21st century, but let’s not get sidetracked by small details!

The other thing of note is just how heavy the critter is. Did Apple road warriors really lug this machine about with them in the real world? It weighs about as much as my car, and it is supposedly lighter and slimmer than the PowerBook model it replaced. I can’t see where the weight comes from, unless the motherboard or frame is made of some base metal. With the G4 PowerBook and the MacBook Pro, you can easily pick the machine up with one hand. I daren’t risk it with the black behemoth, without having a hand spare to take the weight before it slips to the ground! I’d not want to spend any time with the thing on my lap, if I’m honest.

The old tech hard drive is abominably noisy. It whines and squeaks, and sounds like a dying animal when it spins down or back up again. It does feel very fragile, especially when compared to the battleship construction of its host machine. From experience, though, I know it’s dead easy to replace it should the need arise.

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The keyboard is clunky, yet all the keys are where my fingers expected them to be. This, in my opinion, is one of the things Apple has always got right, and it’s nice to know they haven’t really changed the pitch of the numerous keyboards that have come and gone since 1998. 

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The TFT screen is very dim. At first I thought it was purely down to being cold, but it didn’t get better after an hour of running. It also displayed a distinct yellow tinge, rather like a nicotine stained window in an old pub. With the machine sitting in front of my current machine, the newer screen is much, much brighter.

I’m led to understand the Wallstreet was capable of running OS X. While the idea of installing OS X 10.3 — the latest version it should be capable of supporting — would be interesting, I don’t actually think I’ll bother. The hard drive isn’t big enough, realistically, and I’d like a good deal more RAM installed to make it even a viable proposition. I also own the replacement G3 PowerBook model, the bronze keyboard 400MHz machine, and that only just copes with Panther installed, so I don’t know how well the Wallstreet would cope.

In conclusion, while it’s lovely a teenaged laptop Mac is still reasonably usable, it isn’t usable in any real world sense any more. The modern world has moved on apace since the late 1990s, and while it’s true you can still connect to the internet, the experience is not one that could be said to be enjoyable in any meaningful way. When compared to modern kit, it’s painfully slow, but when it was new it was one of the fastest and best-equipped laptops money could buy. We just expect more from our kit these days, I suppose. The past really is a different country.

As an interesting saunter down Memory Lane it’s been fun, but as a usable machine in today’s online world, I’m afraid the PowerBook G3 “Wallstreet” is a very much a museum piece.

 

Related posts: Hello, Old Friend; Farewell, Old Friend.

Farewell, old friend

A eulogy to a humble laser printer.

This is an updated version of an article first posted at x404.co.uk.

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The HP LaserJet 2100M came into my life in 1999. I had invested in a new Mac set-up, and was looking to furnish my potential freelance life with some sensible kit while I was still in gainful employment. This model of laser printer was a reasonable price — I think I paid somewhere over £400 for it — and had a full 1200dpi resolution, suitable connectors to allow me to plug it into my Mac, and importantly supported PostScript, or an HP variant of it.

I won’t bore you with the technicalities of PostScript, save to say it was important to anyone who worked in the graphic arts industry. It’s a page layout description language, and it used to be vital your studio printer could interpret this properly for proofing and so on.

The resolutely beige box has been resident in a corner of my studio since it was unpacked. It has been fed paper and cartridges, survived all manner of tantrums, and still faithfully, albeit slowly, churned out page after page of crisp black toner.

I should mention at this point the sole reason for purchasing this particular model when I did was the small, some would say insignificant, connector nestled next to the frankly enormous parallel port. It is a round socket, with about nine pins, and allowed me to connect the printer directly to the same socket on the back of my Apple PowerMac 6500. It was known as AppleTalk and was a proprietary Apple technology that allowed simple networking between machines. As I didn’t have a network at the time, I could literally plug the printer directly into my Mac, install the driver and away we went.

Time passed. I eventually added an ethernet network card to the 6500, and it was turned into a rudimentary server when I upgraded to a G4 Cube. The 2100 could still be attached to the 6500, and the 6500 could act as a bridge between the 2100 and the wider network, which now encompassed a couple of Windows PCs as well.

The 6500 eventually passed on to another, and I acquired a larger beige box to act as server and scanner station. Again, the 2100 was attached to this new machine and continued to perform its duties quietly, thanks to a little bit of software that allowed Mac OS 9 to feed the ethernet traffic aimed at the printer to the AppleTalk network.

I tried to improve the situation by acquiring a proper network bridge, but it turned out to be an exercise in frustration. I never fully resolved the issue, so there has remained a crusty Mac on my network, running a classic Mac OS, purely to serve the 2100 to the world. This situation has remained for the past three or more years. While I stride ever onward into the broad sunlit uplands of OS X, the 2100 sits patiently in the corner, idly chatting with the first generation PowerBook G3 that connects it to the CAT5.

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Until today. Today, I upgrade my work machine to the latest flavour of OS X, and today I must say goodbye to Old Faithful in the corner.

You see, after supporting AppleTalk in every variant of OS X since the public beta in 1999, Apple have seen fit to finally drop their proprietary archaic protocol in OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. Once I have installed Snow Leopard, I will no longer be able to communicate with the 2100. An old friend will effectively die. I honestly thought it would die with 10.5, because there wasn’t an official driver available for the 2100 — yet I still managed to get a driver to work with Old Faithful.

A last hurrah, then, yet in many ways, it marks the end of an era.

The 2100 has been a faithful and reliable companion through many adventures and many Macs. True, it has become slower and slower over the years, as the complexity of the design layouts I threw at it have bogged down the PostScript processor. However, only yesterday, I printed out a couple of sheets of A4, and they are as crisp as the first ones I ever printed on that machine all those years ago. If I’d had the foresight to get the 2100TN over the M, I suspect the machine would soldier on indefinitely, provided working printer drivers could be sought. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

The 2100M will linger, with its companion PowerBook “server”, for a while longer. There are other machines in my little network which are still able to print to it, and it makes sense to carry on with the printer until the final dregs of toner are used in the last cartridge. It’s funny, though, how attached to an old pile of ABS and electronics you can get. It will be a wrench to finally see it consigned to Silicon Heaven.

I wrote this article originally just before I updated the OS. I still find myself hitting “Print” and expecting to see the 2100M in the list. Funnily enough, after discovering the USB inkjet was also on life support since its manufacturer deems it too old to provide updated drivers — solved by using a different driver — I noticed the DeskJet 2100M still appeared in the driver list. If I can get a parallel to ethernet adaptor, Old Faithful may well live to fight another day. 

DNA

This article by the late great Douglas Adams cropped up on Twitter earlier. It’s still remarkably cogent.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this: 

  1. everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal; 
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; 
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really. 

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

Thanks to Adam Banks and others for jogging the brain cells.

Incidentally, I can’t actually believe it’ll be ten years since Adams died in May next year? How time flies. Sadly, although the world is a smaller, shabbier place since he left us, I am kind of glad he’s not been around to see the spiralling madness since 9/11.

Television Tech Sucks

I hate it when technology starts to give up.

We have three – count ’em – digital TV recorders. We have a single tuner one, and a twin tuner one, plus the HD Freesat box.

Not one of them can be relied upon any more. Here’s my tale of woe.

The single tuner machine, which is the oldest, freezes. I think it overheats or something. Essentially, all you can do is pull the power, count to ten and plug it back in again. I’ve tried resetting it, checking for software updates (it’s too old, apparently), and returning it to factory condition.

The twin tuner, which is potentially the most useful, has lost the electronic programme guide. It can “see” as far as the end of the next programme. I can manually programme it, but that’s a total pain the backside. Again, I’ve tried everything to remedy the situation, but it seems to have precognitive amnesia and nothing will solve it.

The Freesat box, our most recent acquisition, is great … provided you don’t want to record anything. Satellite is rubbish for television transmission, isn’t it? How do all you Sky subscribers put up with it? I can’t guarantee any programme beyond thirty minutes’ duration will not suffer picture and sound breakdown. I have to continually rescan for new channels, or to reset the old ones, which seems to fix the issue for a while, but it’s not long before a sparrow flits past the antenna and the picture becomes crazy paving again. And don’t talk to me about when it’s raining…

The only reliable picture system we have is the actual TV. I’m not about to relearn the time-honoured ritual of arranging life around live broadcasts, thanks.

So, it looks like both the Freeview PVRs are not long for the world, and we may have to shell out on at least one new one. Then again, it’s only another 18 months or so before we get Freeview HD in our area, so is it worth just coaxing things along until then? Or setting up another aerial to receive the terrestrial HD from Crystal Palace?

Or just give up watching telly at all, and get it all on the iPlayer. When that works…