Remembering IBM PC and compatible computers

Remembering IBM PC and compatible computers

Some personal impressions of the IBM PC XT and the Amstrad PC1640 – as it was in the 80s.

IBM PC 5150

Instant success

The original IBM PC was released in 1981 and was a success from the very beginning. In addition to the famous name of IBM, there were more serious reasons for its popularity. The main ones include open standards and the availability of expansion slots.

The open architecture contributed to the excellent support of this PC. The developers dived headfirst into writing the software and developing expansion cards for it. The variety of application software for computers at that time was simply amazing.

Even video output became possible through an expansion card, which opened new horizons for users.

Compatible computers

After reverse-engineering the BIOS, compatible PCs did not have to wait. One of the first was a rather large and heavy computer from Compaq with the proud name “portable”.

One of the first computers compatible with the IBM PC was the Compaq Portable

Business orientation

At first, even in my thoughts, I was far from this computer. A machine aimed at business users as a home PC seemed overpriced and boring compared to others designed purely for gaming.

And only after a few years I was able to properly appreciate it. With a huge set of available software, he alone could cope with many tasks.

Switching to a PC to solve work tasks

In 1986, when I started working, I spent a lot of time on computers Apple II. I had to program in assembly language for the 8-bit 6502 processors. Later, by hand assembly, I started writing code for Hitachi microcontrollers on the 6303 processor.

I had to squeeze my code into the Apple II memory, and to transfer it to the microcontroller, I had to use an SPROM programmer card in the expansion slot (the controller had a built-in UV-erasable SPROM).

The process was excruciatingly slow and tedious. However, everything worked out.

Soon, with the increase in complexity, the initial size of the SPDROM from 4 KB increased to 8, 16 and finally to 32 KB. The amount of code for manual assembly grew accordingly, and a cross-assembler was needed to improve performance.

Before working with the cross-assembler, the IBM PC was a natural choice.

A few days with an IBM PC XT

The company I worked for at the time was relatively small, but after becoming part of another corporation in 1988, it grew immediately.

One of the new directors realized very quickly how much I needed a cross-assembler available for PC and compatible devices. Somewhere he managed to borrow an old PC, on which I tested the Crash Barrier METAi assembler.

As I recall, it was a genuine IBM PC XT with a 10MB hard drive. In addition, with a color monitor. The distance between the dots was quite large and I could clearly see the red, green and blue phosphors. But despite this, the image was very clear.

The 8088 processor ran at 4.77 MHz and the keyboard was very good quality.

It took about 30 seconds to assemble the code, accompanied by periodic flashing of the hard disk indicator. But not the disk, but the speed of the processor turned out to be the bottleneck of the computer. Yes, I did not get an amazing increase in productivity. But still, it was much better than assembling the code by hand. What I actually had to do for at least two years before that.

Unfortunately, the PC XT soon had to be returned to its owners, and the management started looking for another machine for me.

Amstrad PC1512 and PC1640

Amstrad PC1512

In 1986, Amstrad entered the PC market with an inexpensive PC-compatible machine, the PC1512. (Two years before my PC XT experience. Around the time I was pulling the strap on the Apple II).

On board, the computer had 512 KB of RAM and an 8086 processor running at a frequency of 8 MHz. The company then released the next model, the PC1640, with 640 KB of RAM.

I was offered a choice of two Amstrad PC1640 models. One had two 5.25” floppy disk drives and the other had one floppy drive and a 20MB hard drive.

After seeing how smooth the XT was with the hard drive, I went with the second option without a second thought!

As far as I remember, the PC1640 ran MS-DOS 3.2. Studying its commands and frequently editing the autoexec.bat and config.sys files left a lasting impression on me.

Working with MS-DOS-based METAi, which I first tried on an IBM PC XT, took up most of my working time.

I also often did simple editing of text files, but almost any computer was suitable for this task. Amstrad’s high-speed processor (compared to the PC XT) fully revealed itself in code assembly.

I am full of fond memories of those days.

Windows 2

In 1988, in addition to working with text assembler under MS-DOS, I got to experience Windows for the first time, most likely version 2.1.

It was interesting to play with it, especially in color. Although some things seemed a little clumsy compared to the Apple Macintosh, which I also had to work on.

From time to time I really wanted to run Windows with its graphical interface, file manager, notepad and other programs like Write or Paint.

Although Windows was nice to talk to, I haven’t yet felt the need to replace my home Amiga 500 with a PC.

Incident with incompatible MS-DOS backups

As they say, God protects the protected. I always kept this in mind and regularly backed up the PC1640 hard drive. To create them, you need several 5.25-inch floppy disks (the HDD was 20 MB) and the standard backup utility included with MS-DOS.

I once upgraded to the latest version of DOS and found that the old backups were unusable!

The file format in the new version has changed, and in the future I no longer risked relying on regular funds. Instead, I preferred to operate ZIP files with copies of important data using the pkzip and pkunzip utilities.

Route planning

There were many programs written under DOS. I can only partially recreate the feeling of magic from the perspective of that time from the example of one of them. It was the AutoRoute program – one of the first route planners.

What you saw on the screen can now only be called maps with a huge stretch – they were just lines on the screen. But I have never seen anything like this before. And when our service engineer asked me to lay out routes for him all over Great Britain, I enthusiastically took on the job.

Transition to faster machines

Around 1990 I got a 286 machine running at about 12 MHz, which I was very happy about. And after moving to a new place in 1991, I was lucky enough to sit down at the 386th PC-compatible computer with a frequency of 16 MHz manufactured by Ahkter.

Since that time, the upgrade, aimed at increasing speed and memory, went quite quickly. In 1992 I replaced the motherboard in Ahkter and became the owner of a PC with a 486SX processor with a frequency of 25 MHz.

There was already Windows 3, then 3.1, but I finally adopted this OS a little later. Somehow stuck to MS-DOS and a small monochrome monitor.

In the 1990s, I had to learn CAD software to design an FPGA project. Another computer was needed and it was a Dell (486 processor, 33 MHz and 8 MB of RAM). I used LapLink to move files between the two computers.

In 1997 I switched from McCAD for Macintosh to Accel EDA for PC. I used it to create circuits and build printed circuit boards. It was then that Windows became my frequent companion at work.

The computer was built on the basis of AMD Athlon. The presentation of this processor promised a sharp jump in performance thanks to its inherent potential. With excitement stronger than in previous upgrades, I awaited the results.

The PCB layout package on my Athlon 500 MHz PC redrew the screen in about half a second, while the old 68040 33 MHz Mac did it in 30 seconds.

(Of course, the comparison is incorrect – I’m sure a PowerPC-based Mac would be even faster!)

Home PC

For most household chores in the late 80s, I used Amiga 500. But then I realized that the PC has a much wider range of software, especially serious programs.

CAD software, which allows you to draw layouts of printed circuit boards, took one of the first places among them. There was, of course, a general-purpose CAD program for the Amiga called X-CAD Designer, but it was lacking. I wanted something more professionally sharpened.

As a result, I bought a board for my Amiga 500 KCS Power PC Board and got my first home PC. The board contained the NEC V30 processor, which was very similar to the 8086 Amstrad PC1640. It ran at up to 11 MHz and allowed MS-DOS software, although there were some compatibility issues.

Around 1992 I put together my first PC clone. It consisted of a Midi Tower case with a 25 MHz 486 SX processor, a 52 MB hard disk, 4 MB of RAM, and 3.5-inch and 5.25-inch floppy disk drives.

This machine was about 9 times faster than the Amiga with the KCS board, plus I could now run Windows 3.1 at home.

A PC was used for CAD, drawing, and word processing. Later, it was the turn of spreadsheets. (It was basically the same thing I was doing on my Amiga, Macintosh SE and Performa 630.)

Performance vs. Cost

My PC has been upgraded several times over the years. Cyrix 686, AMD Duron 700, AMD XP2000 and other models. It became clear that the PC is the platform that offers the most performance for its money.

The graphics capabilities of the PC surpassed the Amiga, at least in terms of resolution and number of colors. Add to that things like high-end 16-bit sound cards, high-speed networking, and CD burners.

The operating system was constantly updated. Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows XP and newer versions were released.

By the late 1990s I had sold the Mac and stopped using the Amiga.

But in 2010, I got a Mac in my house again, necessary for developing iOS applications, and today I use a Mac even more than a PC.

Conclusion

Back in the 1980s, attitudes towards computers were somewhat different than they are now. They attracted us much more strongly with the mysterious power and undiscovered potential imprisoned in them. Maybe for this reason, or maybe because of the many different brands and models, they seemed more interesting. The trouble was that they were mostly incompatible with each other.

The IBM PC set the standard that many followed, and compatible machines came to dominate the personal computer market.

Today I use both Mac and Windows machines. But I consider them only as tools to achieve the set tasks. Unlike those early computers (including the first PCs), I have no particular emotional attachment to them.

Do you have memories of the early IBM PC or compatible machines? Share your thoughts with each other in the comments.

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