Popular Science article

From: Jim Arnott <jrasite_at_eoni.com>
Date: Tue Oct 21 21:46:57 2003


The Pride of FrankenMac

Lurking in the shadows of Moore's Law is a subculture of
retrocomputerists who believe PCs only get better with age.

DOWN IN THE SPARE ROOM IS the computer I affectionately call Frank. As
in FrankenMac. It has the case and motherboard of a Macintosh clone from
1997, stuffed with new RAM and a CPU upgrade six times the speed of the
original. It's on its second video board and Ethernet card, and has a
USB adaptor (a technology barely invented when Frank was born) and a
replacement 60GB disk. I installed Linux on it a while back because the
last few generations of MacOS never did run quite right. And what with
the realities of my eat-at-your-desk household, I've lost count of how
many keyboards Frank has gone through.

In the world of active-yet-obsolete, the polite term is "vintage
computers." Frank is an infant. As the era of mass-market personal
computing heads for its 30th year, no one knows how many superannuated
desktops are still out there chugging away, though reports from around
the Net mention still-active Apple IIs, Commodore 64s, first-generation
IBM PCs and clones, and even the odd IBM PCjr (a scaleddown, overpriced
PC offshoot that garnered widespread ridicule when it was introduced
back in 1983).

There are three types of people responsible for this
computing-with-the-undead phenomenon. I like to think of them as the
nostalgists, the pragmatists and the adaptists.

The nostalgist impulse sequesters ancient machines in ad hoc museum
collections-veteran programmer Bruce Darner's Digibarn (digibarn.com),
for instance, houses hundreds of PCs dating back to the mid-'70s. Damer
says he keeps old hardware and software running because static museum
displays do nothing to convey the actual experience of using a Radio
Shack TRS-80 with its subminiature tape drives, or one of Steve jobs's
original Next cubes. Damer invites computer builders and users to his
museum to put their reminiscences on video for the day when old
components finally give up the ghost.

Meanwhile, says Vintage Computer Festival organizer Sellam Ismail, the
pragmatists are plugging away at dayto-day office work on uncounted
thousands of archaic PCs. When Dell ran a contest back in 1999 for the
oldest small-business PC still in use, the company turned up more than
200 worthy entries in addition to the winner, an Altair 8800b that had
been used for word processing since October 1976. And aging control
computers that run industrial or lab equipment generally don't get
replaced until the machinery they're attached to wears out --one
classic-computer aficionado says his mass spectrometer has been hooked
up to the same Apple II for 20 years.

Finally, adaptists around the world continue to bang out letters,
novels, e-mail and code on revamped elderly machines. Consider British
electronics designer and ex-particle physicist Tony Duell, whose primary
machine is a pervasively upgraded PC-AT from 1986. (Among the many other
computers running in his house is a 31-year-old PDP-11 minicomputer.)

"Why?!" asks the megahertz junkie in me. "Why not?" replies my
retrocomputing alter ego. Fact is, if you don't absolutely need your
computer to play broadcast-quality video clips in 3-D windows while you
navigate via throbbing full-color control buttons that unleash CD-grade
stereo sound with each click, you probably don't need a machine built in
the past 10 years--certainly not for your backup basement machine.

Sticking with the same computer ("same" being a relative term) also
yields real benefits, says Duell. You seldom have to throw away your old
software, and you're less likely to misplace crucial files, as can
happen when upgrading from one machine to another.

"I never trust people who say they'll copy all the files over to the new
machine," Duell laments. "They never do, and five years later some poor
person like me is called in to recover a file from some unknown floppy

If you're willing to install Linux or FreeBSD instead of the bloated
monsters that pass for in dust industry-standard operating systems, a
386 or 486 machine with 16 or 32 megabytes of RAM will do just fine for
everyday work. Even if you're addicted to windows and mice, there are
some minimal windowing systems whose entire program code takes up less
RAM than half a dozen icons on a fancier box. (A simple Google search
for "minimal window system" yields a range of options,)

And all the hype about Internet-optimized Pentia notwithstanding, 386
and 486 computers around the globe serve as firewalls and routers,
e-mail and Web servers directing Internet packets to their destinations
in homes and small offices. It only stands to reason, after all, that a
machine capable of performing tens of millions Of 32-bit operations per
second should be able to keep up with a pipe that delivers no more than
a million bits of new data in that time.

Finally, in an age when bleeding-edge hardware can set you back a few
thousand dollars every year or two, the price of obsolete technology
looks right. Used-computer dealers sell perfectly capable machines for
$50 to $100-or you can try to snag one of the millions of working PCs
that end their lives in dumpsters every year. Even vintagecomputer users
who bought new and pay top dollar for parts upgrades are saving a
bundle: Duell, for one, hasn't bought a new kit since 1995.

1 have mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. On the one hand, I'm
always going to lust after the newest, fastest hardware out there. On
the other, I can't bear to get rid of my old toys. Maybe Frank will
become a Web server or an image-processing engine or an outlet for some
of my stupider software ideas. And if I make some terrible, terrible
hacking error on Frank, I'll still have the working--if far less
romantic-machine on the desk in my office.


IF YOU DON'T ALREADY HAVE AN old computer cluttering up your closet,
you'll have to cadge one from a friend, find the nearest office trashing
old machines this week, or visit your local computer junk store -the
place on the other side of town from me offers 30OMHz Pentium Ils with
128MB of RAM and a 4GB drive for $95, or 20OMHz PenHum Is with 48MB of
RAM and a 2G8 drive for $50. When I asked about 486 boxes, one of the
techs pointed me toward the clumpsters in back and asked, "How many
pallets do you want?" (YOU can also find old computers on eBay, but the
cost and risk of shipping 30 or 40 pounds of iron across the country
tends to kill any price advantage.)

Once you've got the machine, junk its obsolete Windows system, flip a
coin to decide between FreeBSD and Linux (the first will probably be
more work; the second probably requires a slightly heftier computer) and
start downloading. (You can find either system at linuxiso.org.) if you
have a computer with a CD-ROM burner, you'll typically be making three
installation CDs-if you don't, you can scrounge one, order one online
for $50 or so, or read the instructions for installing from floppies. (A
barebones installation sufficient for sucking the rest of the software
down over an Ethernet connection is only a few disks, and a no-name
Ethernet card, if you don't have one, is about $ 10. While you're at it,
consider another $60 for a 30GB hard drive. Don't worry: These days all
the plugs for such things fit in only one way.)

Depending on what you want your new old machine to do -browse and read
e-mail, serve files, act as a router or firewall -installing the
operating system and the appropriate free software (on FrankenMac,
that's Mozilla, Open Office and probably Portable AllegroServe) should
take about half a day. TOTAL COST: Anywhere from zilch to about $200.
Received on Tue Oct 21 2003 - 21:46:57 BST

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