14 September 2008

Computer Technology

I am constantly amazed a how much computer, electronic, and storage capabilities have improved in the years that I've been involved with computers. I'm sure kids today will be equally amazed with continued advancements when they are 30 years older.

When I started working with computers and learning to program, there was no Apple Mac, no Linux in its myriad flavors, no Windows, no IBM PC or compatibles, just something analogous to the DOS window. There were the DECs, IBM, CDC, and other large computers. The most powerful thing available to the average person were the programmable calculators. These were the days of the first microprocessors. The CPU speeds were an incredible 1 MHz. There was no mass storage for these microcomputers, only cassette or paper tape. Soon there were disk drives, 8.5" inch disk drives. You only see those in a museum any more.

This is the computer that I started with.

Read more about it here.

I built many of them back in those days. Building back then meant wiring the case and putting components on the circuit boards and soldering them. Today it means plugging in the components in the case.

It would still be a few years before 5.25" disk drives and hard disk storage. A 10 MB disk drive was like a two drawer filing cabinet laid on its side. 5 MB internal and 5 MB removable on a 12" platter. They weighed about 200 pounds and took two people to move. Some people probably still have 5.25" drives for their older PCs. I do. I'm not sure if that PC will even still boot. Most new PCs today don't even have a 3.5" drive.

But, this was all from nearly 30 years ago. Everyone knows how much things have advance since then. However, even in recent years, things have advanced considerably, as they seem to do every few years.

The 1.6 GHz P-IV Dell that my kids use is so slow that I can't stand to sit in front of it to do anything. I think the major reason is the low amount of RAM in this PC. I've been fortunate the last several years to be able to use a 3 GHz P-IV HT laptop. But, it is even slow compared to the current processors. But, don't feel too badly for me because I was recently able to upgrade to a 2.6 GHz Core 2 Duo laptop. I got my wife a quad core desktop PC so that she didn't have to compete with the kids.

Just to show some comparisons, here are timings for a fractal image on the different PCs I have access to. The image isn't relevant, as I'm just wanting to show comparative times.

Dell Dimension 8100/P-IV 1.5 GHz - 11:43

Dell Inspiron 9100/P-IV HT 3.0 GHz - 9:33

Dell Precision 9300/Core 2 Duo T9500 2.6 GHz - 1:29

Gateway/Core 2 Quad Q6600 2.4 GHz - 0:53

I was rather surprised to see that the Inspiron laptop was not much faster than the 8100. I have 2 GB of RAM in the laptop, but only 256 MB in the 8100. It uses RDRAM, which is quite expensive compared to DDR RAM, so I never upgraded. I may have to investigate prices again because it might be worth the performance gain to have 1 GB of RAM in that old thing. The 8100 is probably four or five years older than the Inspiron.

The jump in speed increase with the two newer systems was quite dramatic. Much more so that I would have initially guessed.

I can walk around with dozens of gigabytes of storage in my pocket in the form of USB sticks or memory cards. I can easily carry 500+ gigabytes of storage in my computer case. I can print photographic quality prints on my printer. Today's widescreen monitors where you can view high quality images are a tremendous leap from the old text only terminals or the first 320x200 monochrome graphics monitors.

The increased speed, memory, and graphics capabilities let us compute fractal images that used to take weeks or months in minutes or hours. Today's images that take weeks or months will be done in hours in the future. We now have digital SLR cameras that have surpassed film in the image data that can be captured. I knew this would happen, but a few years ago, I wouldn't have suspected it happening so soon. We can do things with Photoshop or other image editing program that used to be impossible, or very difficult in a darkroom. Anyone can publish their own book of photographs or images. The list is endless.

What will happen in the next 30 years? We have a glimpse by looking at what is being researched, but I think we'll be just as surprised when we look back then as we are when we look back now.