5 Things We Miss About Old-School Computing

Written by Emru Townsend

PCs that started instantly and no Registry to worry about–what’s not to like

We zip along at gigahertz speed, not megahertz. We store gigabytes instead of kilobytes. Going strictly by the numbers, we’re living in a computing paradise compared with 20 or 30 years ago, when the personal-computer revolution was just beginning. But there are a few things from the old days that we still cherish.

1. More RAM Than You Can Handle

One early quote often attributed to Bill Gates is that 640KB–that’s right, kilobytes--should be enough for any computer user. (He vehemently denies saying it.) We joke about it today, but in 1981 that sentiment would have made sense.

The phenomenally popular Apple II and Commodore 64 computers had 48KB and 64KB of system memory, respectively, and the IBM PC’s basic configuration had a measly 16KB. Few people complained. For personal computing’s first decade, none but the seriously hard-core had to push their system beyond the seemingly limitless 640KB. These days, even 2GB isn’t enough to prevent Windows from dipping into the virtual-memory well.

2. Easy, Registry-Free Tweaks

Hey, want to tweak your WordPerfect settings? Fire up your favorite text editor and edit the WP.INI file to your heart’s content.

Prior to Windows 95′s introduction of the Registry, editing .INI files was the way to customize your experience on a PC. Sure, some of the parameters seemed arcane, but dealing with them was better than deciphering the enigmatic HKEY_local_machine parameters infesting Windows machines over the last 12 years.

The .INI files were also easy to back up, restore, or swap, and messing one up wouldn’t take down your entire system. And honestly, did you ever hear of an .INI cleaner? I rest my case.

3. Software That Goes With You

Back when hard drives were expensive (and therefore rare on most PCs), the medium of choice was the floppy disk–which, depending on your operating system, could hold as little as 180KB. Without hard drives, software had to fit on floppies, meaning that applications were reasonably compact and self-contained. You could easily run your programs with your own settings on any compatible computer if you were willing to tote a few disks around. Recent innovations such as the U3 spec for USB drives are just starting to bring that capability back to modern PCs.

4. Lightning-Fast Startups

Microsoft has worked hard to keep startup times down for Windows, but let’s face it: With all of the drivers, antimalware utilities, and other doodads that load into memory (do you really need that casserole-recipe widget on your desktop?), you can probably make a cup of coffee before you can do anything on your PC.

In the old days, either the operating system was built into ROM (so the computer was ready as soon as you flipped the switch) or you loaded it from a disk (which took just a few seconds).

5. A Virus? What’s That?

It’s not that malware didn’t exist–computer viruses actually predate personal computers–but virus protection wasn’t as big a concern as it is now. Running virus scans certainly took less time; since most personal computers lacked hard drives, you could guarantee that a clean floppy would stay uninfected simply by write-protecting it. In a certain sense, an inch of adhesive tape, back then, provided better protection than a battery of antimalware utilities does today.

18 thoughts on “5 Things We Miss About Old-School Computing

  1. PA Fan

    There’s no need for U3 (which is being discontinued next year). Just grab stuff from PortableApps.com for a free, fully open-source portable app platform that works on any device you want.

  2. Korey Pelton

    I’m a big fan of fast startups and portable software. For a fast startup, my favorite method is to run a barebones Linux kernel and system that starts up in text mode and runs minimal daemons. That’s about the fastest startup you are going to get nowadays, and it gives you the option of whether or not to fire up a graphical environment and/or whatever programs and daemons you need. For portable software, you can grab an ssh client off the net from any PC and login to your home Linux server, restore your screen session, and you are emailing, chatting, and editing files in seconds!

  3. me

    Actually, Windows uses the swap regardless of how much physical RAM is installed. You have to flip a switch somewhere to use swap only after you run out of RAM.

    Disk-based OS’s have ALWAYS taken a bit of time to load, albeit not more than 1 minute or so.

  4. Pedro

    .We could play really cool 3D games with a 286 PC (ELITE and more) full speed.

    .we could make excelent music in Commodore Amiga(and later PC’s) with the infamous trackers

    .a 16yo kid alone in is room could make a C64, ZX Spectrum or Amiga great game on is own and win some cash (today is only >100 professional people and BIG companies) but most games, except for the graphics, are worst.

    In the good old days people learned computing ‘programming’ the machine, not learning how to click buttons and use the mouse.

    oh well…

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