Welcome back to the Vault
Which actually makes no sense, it’s not even a vault.
It’s my basement.
My name is Matt Mutch.
I am a computer enthusiast.
I’d like to tell you a story.
For most of my computing life, I’ve been a Windows PC user. Initially it was by choice, because I’d had some exposure to the Windows platform in school with PCs in the library. At first, it was a single one on a cart, wheeled around to demonstrate the “multimedia revolution” that was set to be upon us any day then, but eventually it was a cluster of them in a corner of the library used to access the internet, as it was back then in the early 90s, with a strange detour to the incredibly antiquated typing lab in the middle school, where dozens of what must have been 486DX monolithic slabs hummed away, running WordPerfect on a DOS SHELL which would have been perfect to teach typing on distraction free except for the capacity of some of them to run “The Oregon Trail” or “Sim Ant”.
In the early 1990s, (the exact year is lost to memory), my mother did months of research into current and upcoming PC technology. Out of newspapers and magazines she wrung enough information on up-and-coming technology to walk into a local boutique shop and order one of the most staggering machines it seemed they’d ever assembled.
A recent 66 or 75 MHz model of the Pentium processor? No, thank you, she wanted the top of the line 100 MHz Pentium processor. Would she pair it with 4 or 8 megabytes of RAM? She asked for 16. And a spacious 500 MB hard drive? What’s that? A full gigabyte? No m’am. Perhaps you’ve misunderstood. No one will ever fill an entire gigabyte of storage. She insisted upon it anyway. It should have lasted us forever. She planned on it sufficing for a decade. For what we shelled out for it in 1990s dollars, it really should have. But the march of technology is inexorable. It served us well for about 3 years, and then continued to serve us for another two, eventually under some duress. That PC is no longer with us. It functioned on in some capacity through maybe 1997. I believe something caught on fire eventually. I can’t quite recall. I may have had something to do with that. Not kidding, I literally can’t remember is all.
Around 1996, give or take, my family upgraded from that massive steel mid-tower filled with ribbon cables and hot glue to a slick, injection molded Dell XPS R400. Ordering was done over the phone, taking at least 45 minutes to an hour with the representative to go over each customizable option. By then, I had taken the reigns from Mom as in charge of understanding what everything meant, and with both of our rudimentary understandings of PC hardware, once again we went completely HAM on a computer.
Specifications aside, it was beautiful. I remember I was legitimately home sick from school the day it arrived in the mail and I was still scrawny in middle school so I nearly killed myself by 1) hauling the boxes including the massive 19 inch CRT into the house and 2) waiting as I was told to by my mother to open it when everyone was around to enjoy it.
The Dell ran Windows 98, which was new to us. Windows 98 impressed out of the box simply by defaulting to a more colorful palette, operating with the now no brainer of millions of colors rather than the 256 color palette of Windows 95. Yes, 95 supported more than 256 colors but let’s face it, it really didn’t want to. It greeted us with animation and bold sound. And it was quickly discovered that it supported full screen movies on the built in DVD-ROM drive complete with hardware MPEG-2 decoding, which took the then incredible stress of DVD decoding off of the inadequate CPU. The Pentium II 400 MHz was still top of the line, mind you. DVDs were simply the stuff of the future at the time. And quite apart from the dedicated movie-watching hardware was the extravagant nVidia Riva TNT graphics card on the still mysterious Advanced Graphics Port.
One fun part of this computer was the clever Altec Lansing surround speakers with their attached subwoofer that belted out sound in a way that I had never heard before. The only CDs around the house were a couple of the best of the 60s collections that Dad had gotten on a lark and it was like we were hearing them for the first time. Also included in the system settings was a demonstration app to show off the 3D positioning capabilities which baffled everyone who listened to it. There were no rear speakers in the set up, just angled front satellites, that bounced the sound off of the walls to give the appearance of dimensionality.
[This will be the Stone Age Gamer portion of the article. I’m Dan Ryan. (I’m not Dan Ryan)] The sound was amazing, but back to that nVidia card. This Dell was a gaming PC before that was really a thing. The old Pentium computer could run Doom and even Quake, but rarely did thanks to the proper parenting from Mom and Dad. But I was older by the time the Dell showed up, and frankly I couldn’t be stopped. Doom and Quake are enough to make me question video game naming now as an adult, but my mother was certainly upset when my two closest friends at the time pooled their money and got me a copy of Diablo for my birthday. Now I can appreciate the reasoning, but as we did then, I’d still insist that it was a harmless adventure game with, perhaps, a poorly chosen title.
I played the hell out of Diablo, with the Dell’s fancy 56k modem enabling multiplayer play with those friends online – at the time another brand new experience. The game Diablo was also an unexpected connection to a female friend of mine at the time but that’s an issue for a completely separate therapist’s couch.
But the true spectacle was the strange day when, unusually close to its release, I found a retail boxed copy of Valve’s Half-Life in the grocery store bargain software bin. I had only just heard about it somewhere, but I was interested in the fairly benign mottled orange box, and mom was always generous, and agreed to buy it.
While the true crux of the experience of the Dell was probably bringing us a more capable internet experience, the thing I will always remember about the Dell was the astonishment of how capably it ran Half-Life. I’d never seen anything so impressive as Half-Life. My good friend Box (née Mike) in particular never seen anything as astounding as how that Dell rendered Half-Life, and he’d coaxed his PowerMac G3 (beige, Pre-Steve Jobs) to run Unreal. His enthusiastic amazement was much more animated than anything I usually mustered. Judging from the slew of positive reviews and Game of the Year awards, we were not alone. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. We didn’t even have to get past the opening sequence in the (physics breaking) tram to be completely blown away.
[End Stone Age Gamer portion of the program] I’m beginning to think computer hardware is a little heartier than I’d initially anticipated. I’ve had several pieces turn on recently when I really would not have blamed them for being long dead. The Dell XPS R400 still turns on. It still makes all of the oh-so-analog noises older PCs made with all of their moving parts. It is strikingly close to stock configuration. The original hard drive failed at some point, replaced with a similar 20 GB model. Cables were specially modified using a trick I’d seen online for better airflow. And, the original drive having failed, the software is all different. It still boots up, to an un-updated Windows XP home, but despite having a capacious 100 MB iomega Zip Drive built in, I’ve never been good about backing up.
Honestly, the loss of a chunk of personal data does make me a little sad. It was probably nothing important at all, but sometimes, computers get turned off and no one realizes they won’t be turned on again for a decade. And they become neat little time capsules we can go back to and remember with. I don’t sell my iPhones when they become too obsolete because I can turn them back on and see photos and texts from a bygone era and recall fairly well what that life was like.
I really wish I had the Pentium PC and the Dell intact from their day. It’d be fun, and a more than a little cringey, to go back there. Remember, kids, back your stuff up. 🙂
Got an old computer or a new computer you like or hate or are indifferent to and want to talk about it?
I’m @geekadematt on Twitter and this has been
Into the Vault – Dell XPS R400
Prepare yourself to either be amazed by or roll your eyes incredibly hard at the specifications, which I needed shockingly little help to remember off the top of my head:
The Dell XPS R400 was configured from the factory to do work using the 400 MHz Intel Pentium II CPU with 512 kb of L2 cache running at half the CPU speed on a CPU card slotting into the Slot 1 interface. 128 MB of PC100 RAM supported the CPU, and at the time a massive 16 GB 5400 rpm hard drive handled storage. The graphics were produced by an 8 MB nVidia graphics card and sound surrounded when produced by the Turtle Beach Voyetra sound card. A DVD-ROM drive required the assistance of a hardware MPEG2 decoder card, which never worked properly. Additional removable storage fell to a Zip 100 drive and an ordinary floppy disk drive. The Dell communicated with the world by a 56k v.90 capable modem, and late in life had that swapped for a 10/100 Fast ethernet card when cable internet finally came to town. We viewed its glory on a giant 19 inch CRT monitor at a splendid 1024×768 resolution.
-400 MHz Intel Pentium II
-128 MB of 100 MHz single data rate RAM
-16 GB 5400 rpm rotational hard drive (IDE)
-8 MB nVidia Riva TNT graphics card on the Advanced Graphics Port (AGP)
-Voyetra Turtle Beach Montego 3D sound card with special surround speakers
-2x DVD-ROM drive with hardware MPEG-2 decoder card, later removed due to hardware conflicts (remember those?)
-100 MB iomega Zip Drive
-56k V.90 modem (?) – later replaced with a Netgear 10/100 Ethernet card
-19 inch 1024×768 capable Dell CRT monitor