Does Not Compute

March 29, 2013

raspberrypi1

Welcome to a boring trip down computer memory lane. You might want to skip to the last two paragraphs if compuspeak puts your to sleep.

I’ve been nostalgic lately for the pre-PC era of computing. I discovered a site that has scanned issues of Family Computing Magazine from 1982 to 1989 and skimmed through almost all of those. After that I discovered Atariage.com and read even more about those older machines. I’ve also been reading retroGamer magazine and learned more about the machines that were popular in the UK during that time.

The 8-bit era of computers was remarkable in its variety. Each model differed in speed (back then CPUs had clock speeds in the single digit Mhz, roughly a thousand times slower than today’s computers) and RAM (64K was a lot back then) and storage was on floppy disks (if you ponied up the bucks, otherwise it was cassette). The processors also varied by model and were simple enough to understand their architecture. The MOS 6502 was very popular due to its low cost and found itself into the Apple ][, Atari 800, Commodore 64, and later in the NES game console. The Zilog Z80 was big in “business” machines that ran CP/M (and in the Spectrum in England), but the best 8-bit processor was in the machine the I owned, the Tandy Color Computer. While it was a bit weak in the graphics and sound chips compared to some of its competitors, the Motorola 6809 at its heart was an elegant and powerful design.

The 16-bit era followed with the Macintosh, the Amiga and the Atari ST. At this point IBM’s PC started gaining traction, but when the flood of PC clones started spawning left and right the competition between models quickly led to a price and feature war that droves PCs to the forefront of computing. When Microsoft finally released a version of Windows (3.1) that could compete with the graphical operating systems of the 68000-based systems it was game, set, and match.

I miss that era quite a bit. While people played games and wrote in world processing programs back then, a good percentage of people who used computers in those days actually learned to program. Software was hard to come by at times, so writing your own was often the best way to make a computer useful. But they were so limited in speed and memory that creativity was needed to make programs work properly. Magazines and the occasional book on programming (Radio Shack stocked a couple) were the only sources of information. The massive amount of info about these computers on Wikipedia today would have been a godsend back then.

Recently I’ve sensed a bit of that spirit in a hobbyist device that is inspiring people do do more with computes than stalk people on Facebook and watch YouTube videos. It’s called the Raspberry Pi and it consists of the little circuit board I’m holding above. It has HDMI video out (connected to my TV in the photo), 512MB of RAM, an ARM processor (like your phone), a couple of USB ports and an SD card slot (for storage). The best part is that its only $35. I’ve already tried a couple of operating systems and it runs well, if a bit pokey compared to my trusty Macbook Air.

I’m not sure what kind of project I’m going to use my Pi for yet, but I’m sure something will come to me. I bought a second one and gave it to an exceptionally bright student of mine. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with his as well.

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