The Era of the 486 is not gone – Until Monday

I happened on a small local business the other day and introduced myself.  I explained that I do computer repair work and was met with, “Do you hear that noise?”  I felt like I was going to get blown off – every once in a while you get some jerk that actually seems to think the “No Soliciting” sign works.  I think 95% of the places that I go into to give a card actually HAVE that sign on their door.  I figure if I’m just going in to give them a card – how painful is it? It’s not like computer people come around every day.  Anyway, I digress…

I DID actually hear a noise. The man said, “So is it a bad hard drive or a bad fan?”  Actually it sounded like a bad hard drive.  Later it DID turn out to be just a fan, but nonetheless, when I looked at the computer, I immediately asked if I could take a picture. I haven’t seen one of these running since the late 90s. A live RUNNING 486! I was amazed.

Most of my customers can’t seem to keep a computer running for honestly more than 6 months without a virus rearing up – causing grievous injury – and a call to the computer repair guy (read “me”).  Of course this is “good for me”™. But I really had to think about it for a moment.

Are the computer or components they built 15 years ago better than the ones now?  They sure were more expensive.  I remember being able to take about $800 worth of components to make a computer that was equivalent to one that would cost $2200 at the store.  I would never sell them that high though.  Usually about $1200 or so in those days – and it WAS a deal!  Then again, it took many, many hours to get those IRQs and memory addresses just right. It was NOT yet the days of Plug and Play (PnP) – far more plug and pray was involved. These days, you can’t even BUY the components cheap enough to build a computer comparable to the store prices, say nothing about cheaper than.  Well, I guess you *could* but it isn’t something that I would want to sell to anyone.

These days, I think it is just expected (by rational humans) that something is going to fail within 3 years. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later. But I can honestly say, I really don’t ever expect something to run without failure for 13 years. It’s not even in my area of conception that this could or would EVER happen. I would be on a 4th,5th or 6th computer by then.  Actually I think I’m on number 7 – and of course there were multiple reworks and overclocking mods on that delightful Celeron 300a core 🙂  Had that thing to 450 while the Pentiums were just hitting 400! Annoyed the crap out of my IT manager that prided himself on having the cutting edge stuff – well, the STOCK cutting edge stuff 🙂

But that is also the kind of thing that leads to hardware failure.  Asking things of hardware that it was never designed for – and fans dying. Overall, it comes down to heat.  I see a lot of fans spinning mighty slow in my visits to client computers. Usually, they’re caked up with dust and just general gunk.  The processors these days produce MUCH more heat than the earlier computers did.  In the “good ol’ days”, it was possible to run a processor without a fan – my first computers had little heat sink fins on them and NO fan.  Now, even a second or two is death without the heatsink and the additional fan ON that same heatsink. It’s gotten even worse now that most graphics cards are the same!

Performance has been really pushed to the limits and has been for the last several years. Years ago, there wasn’t this whole “living on the edge” with everything in your computer case.  There also wasn’t the Windows into everything OS. I got a computer a while back that had a bad chip on the mobo (motherboard – the BIG one in any computer). Would NOT boot into Windows. Booted into LINUX fine!  But Windows really, REALLY wanted to know what was going on with that chip.  Linux didn’t care and it ran great.  But Windows just refused to boot.  Linux IS a pretty capable OS, DOES Windows really need to be all into every aspect of the computer to the point where some inconsequential (apparently) issue will prevent operation?

A live 486 (or somewhere in there)Hardware performance is pushed to the absolute max. The heating problem that I mentioned earlier is only exacerbated by our (as users) familiarity with having a computer around and thus our disregard for it’s needs.  I’ve been to homes to work on computers and the owners will need to literally uncover it from beneath a pile of clothes. Y’all really didn’t catch the part about ventilation room in the owners manual, did you?  Or they’ll have it jammed in a cabinet with no ventilation.  “The fact that your whole desk seemed to be smoking never gave you an indication that something MIGHT be wrong?”

Software performance is pushed to the max!  We don’t just ask our computers to do a single and simple thing now as was done with this humble 486. It apparently has performed flawlessly with a minimun of fuss for 14 years or thereabouts.  In the DOS days of “green screen” as it’s called now, we ran ONE program and moved on to the next. We did NOT run 10 or more at the same time!  We ask our computer to do everything from balance our checkbooks,show us our buddy’s latest tweet from somewhere in the world and keep track of what we’re supposed to be doing minute by minute to keeping track of and playing all of our MUSIC, recording our phone calls, keep us amused with the latest high-intensity video game and everything in between!

NOW when a computer goes down, we ARE in a world of hurt.  If I lost my Outlook contact list, I would be just flat hosed. And I know there are a lot of others out there in exactly the same place. I have backups, and the same list IS on my Blackberry too (BONUS), but those 30 minutes of “AAAACCCKKKKK!” would be OH so painful. For those minutes (hopefully not hours), I won’t be able to click on a name to get a number or email addy. In the case of businesses, I couldn’t pull up the last or next to last conversation that I or someone from the sales department had with any of them. Without my electronica, I couldn’t tell you HALF of the people that I have in there, say nothing about what their phone numbers, email addresses, or my recent conversations with any of them are!

We have become so dependent on our computers that computers have become truly crucial to just everyday life. And that’s where the problem for most people lies. Any failure, even a small one, becomes a major obstacle and possibly a showstopper.  I had a CEO, hopefully my last, not too long ago. He got a little tweaked with his iPhone when his 10,000 person contact list would drag coming up. Admittedly it probably was NOT 10K folks, but it was bigger than any individual could possibly EVER need to the point of “Really?”  Besides, it sounded pretty good as I thought this little diatribe out in my head.

Anyway, every time I heard him complain about it, I thought of the comedian that did the little “GIVE IT A MINUTE! It’s coming from OUTER SPACE!” line. It’s not actually outer space, but we do take our environment for granted far too often and forget about all the things that have to be in perfect alignment to get the results that we want – and many of them out of our control.  And many times they don’t line up quite as well as we might like.

So, are they built better now or then?  Still don’t really know. But I *DO* know that we didn’t used to ask our computers to do nearly so much, or depend on them nearly so much. We didn’t have a complete emotional meltdown because we couldn’t get to our email or find out the latest on Paris Hilton via the web.

In the mid to late 90’s, the computer was something cool and we embraced it with all it’s faults; now, it’s something that is so integral to our lives that we can’t even imagine operating without it and get a bit pissy when it doesn’t do our bidding as demanded.

So hats off to this 486!  This computer was asked to do the reasonable, albeit for an extraordinary length of time. It will be retired to a backroom (after pictures) on July 13, 2009 and will be replaced by a very humble eMachine that should handle the 1996 era DOS program required with little issue.

It is a breed, and age, of computers that we will NEVER see again.

Give your computer a hug today. And clean it’s fans while you’re at it. It will love you much longer.

Or don’t. And call me in a few months – if you live in the Raleigh area!

Addendum:  Does anyone remember BNC cable?  I haven’t seen that in – well, you can guess.  To add more excitement to my day, I ran up against yet another technological anachronism that I was certainly not expecting during my final inspection of the site. Ironically, I was cleaning out my toolkit the other day eyeing over the aging BNC cable goodies in there and thinking, “I will NEVER see this again…” and pulled everyting out .  Truthfully, I haven’t seen a vendor offering BNC network components SINCE about 95-96.  BNC was rather straight forward, very logical, and actually pretty dependable to use once it was in place. The biggest annoyance was when you had equipment (read “a 7 or 8 pound ‘laptop'”) coming and going from the network. When it left the network, you had to trolley over and put the cap on the BNC node.  With the currently favored TCP/IP star network configuration, you either plug, unplug, throw a WEP or WPA key in or out, flip a little switch, or even just shut the little gem down and not sweat it – the network adapts happily for the most part.  My GOD – BNC.

Author: Eric Erickson

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