With all the talk about how prices on this, that and the other thing are always going up, let’s stop a moment and bow, or at least give a polite nod, toward Silicon Valley, Poughkeepsie and Boston’s Route 128. Over the past 40 years, the tech titans of the FPCE (Founding PC Era) have given us the greatest ongoing upgrade at the biggest continuing discount ever. The saga of the personal computer is as fantastic a tale as any sci-fi story ever. Truth isn’t just stranger than fiction—it’s often got more magic and miracles in it, too.
The longer you’ve been using computers—and some of us had the original Apple, Tandy (Radio Shack) and Timex Sinclair models in the 1970s—the more you can appreciate the astonishing speed of progress. This is a tale that everyone working with computers really should know, and uses terms that everyone really should understand. If you don’t understand a kilo-this from a mega-that, you will never get the full impact of this amazing tale. So read on—you’ll be glad you did.
You can consult the accompanying Glossary whenever you see a new term (in red for its first appearance), but we’ve written the blog in such a way that you should understand much of it in context. Some of you, of course, are true experts, so if we’ve erred in any way, by commission or omission, drop us a line. We’re going to demonstrate just how much technological progress has been made in “personal computing.” It really is an awe-inspiring tale.
Basic computers in 1981
IBM introduced its first consumer-level personal computer in August of 1981, running on an Intel 8088 CPU with a clock speed of 4.77MHz, or 4.77 million cycles per second. It came with either 16 or 64kB of RAM, expandable to a whopping 256kB. It connected to a TV or a monitor, and gave you storage options that included one or two 5¼ -inch floppy drives, an optional 10MB external hard drive or your own cassette recorder. The software bundle? It came with an operating system. Nothing else.
With a monitor and a single floppy drive (giving you 180kB storage per single sided disk) it cost $3005 in 1981 dollars. Depending on how you figure it—Consumer Price Index (CPI) is one common method—today it would take about $2.50 to buy what a dollar bought in 1981. Translation: that IBM-PC computer would cost $7,512.50 (in today’s dollars). Now let’s see what type of desktop computer you can get today.
High-end computers of today
Entry-level computers today are thousands of times faster and more productive than the IBM-PC. The H-P xw8400 workstation that CRE rents is a high-end model – it comes with dual 2.66GHz quad-core Xeon processors, meaning eight separate CPUs. A single one runs almost 600 times faster than the IBM CPU, so we’re talking almost 5,000 times as fast with a rough clock speed comparison. Its 160GB hard drive holds close to million (932,000) times as much data as that single floppy. There are now hard drives 2TB in size selling for $200, a cost per MB of 1/100th of a cent, versus the floppy’s $30 per MB. That’s 300,000 times less expensive.
For the monitor, the comparison is between today’s 16 million crisp clear colors, precisely displayed by about 2.3 million pixels, with about 9,700 pixels per square inch—and a black-and-white TV with 480 wiggly lines for the entire screen.
Bottom line on PC’s Today
Today, you can store a million times as much, crunch numbers thousands of times faster and watch videos in beautiful, high-definition color. For a few hundred bucks you can buy a pocket-sized netbook incalculably more powerful than the room-sized, air-conditioned behemoth that helped send Apollo 11 to the moon—and you don’t have to be a programmer to use it, either.
bit: abbreviated lower case “b”; the smallest unit measure for area occupied by data, measuring both where it is processed (RAM) and where it is stored (memory “media” such as tape, floppies, hard drives, SecureDigital and other flash memory, etc.); 8 bits = 1 Byte
Byte: abbreviated upper case “B”; 8 bits = 1 Byte; 1024 Bytes, in metric terms, is a kilobyte (kB, see below)
clock speed: CPU speed as measured in hertz (Hz), or cycles per second
CPU: Central Processing Unit, a computer’s “brains,” the fancy calculator
FPCE: Founding PC Era, a name and acronym for the years circa 1970-1985; we just made this one up, how do you like it?
GB: Gigabyte, 1024MB, or 1024 x 1024kB (1,073,741,824 Bytes); often considered “a billion” Bytes
k: lower case “k” means “kilo”; often considered a thousand (more precisely, 1024) of a unit
kB: kilobyte, or 1024 Bytes; often considered “a thousand” Bytes
MB: Megabyte, 1024kB, or 1024 x 1024 Bytes (1,048,576 Bytes); often considered “a million” Bytes
medium/media: a substance used for electronic storage of audio, video or data, from wire in early wire audio recorders to such magnetic media as recording tape; computer media progressed from soft-sided to hard-sided floppy disks, then to hard drives with multiple platters, Compact Disc (CD), DVD and, now, Blu-ray
memory: a term for both RAM and storage media, measured in Bytes
pixel(s): term created from “picture element” to describe the basic unit of programmable color in a computer image or display
RAM: Random Access Memory, the “head” or space where the CPU “brain” does its calculations
TB: Terabytes, 1024GB, or 1024 x 1024MB (1,099,511,623,680 Bytes); often considered “a trillion” Bytes