Saturday, 31 January 2015

Retro desktop

    For someone who earns a living by sometimes pushing computers to the limits of their abilities, I have been rather deficient in some of the things most people use them for. Take office tasks, for instance. My laptop sports a copy of LibreOffice as part of its Ubuntu Linux distribution, but it rarely gets used. I've not had a functional printer set up for about a decade, as very little of what I normally do is paper based.
    So I found myself rather unprepared recently when I realised I was going to be needing a bit of good old-fashioned office word processing. All the things most people have to hand around their computer, I didn't. The thought of shelling out for a pile of new kit didn't really appeal, so to furnish myself with what I needed I turned to my stash of random stuff-that-will-come-in-useful-someday.
    My desktop PC hasn't had a refresh since the early 2000s. I remember when it was a cutting-edge gaming machine, now it just about runs a cut-down Linux distribution and is far too slow for the software in hand. Plus it has a very noisy fan. Useful to have for pulling data from old hard drives, but come to think of it that's all I've used it for these last few years.
    Fortunately I had a handy replacement already on my desk. A pocket-money-cheap Raspberry Pi with a GertVGA adaptor drives the venerable CRT monitor, and I had to dust off my 25-year-old IBM model M keyboard. It's difficult to explain the attraction of these rather noisy devices, but their unique bent-spring mechanism gives a typing action like no other.
    The oldest item I pulled out though was the printer. A 24 pin Epson dot matrix printer from the 1980s, complete with period sound effects. With properly configured software these printers can produce output that would fool you into thinking it came from a laser printer, but because most people didn't know how to set them up they gained a reputation for poor quality. The reason I hung onto mine though is cost. Instead of ink or toner cartridges these printers have a ribbon like that in a typewriter which only costs about a fiver, and produce an astounding number of pages from a single ribbon.
    All I had to buy to complete my junkyard desktop were a couple of USB adaptors which together cost me under a tenner: a PS/2 keyboard and mouse adaptor and a parallel printer adaptor.
    I was pleasantly surprised with how usable LibreOffice is on a Raspberry Pi. It's not the fastest of machines by today's standards so I hadn't set my hopes too high, but I guess using Microsoft Office 2010 over a network at work had conditioned me to poor performance. After a bit of playing with the Linux printing system to get everything talking I soon had my documents coming off the printer in very high quality.
    So there I have it. The sounds of a 1980s office, clack-clack-clack keyboard and dot-matrix whine. I guess you have to be here to appreciate it.  
   

11 comments:

  1. This reminds me of the early 1990s in one of the offices where I worked.

    So, old machines never die. You'll be wanting my 2006-vintage Windows XP laptop one day!

    Lucy

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  2. This reminds me of the early 1990s in one of the offices where I worked.

    So, old machines never die. You'll be wanting my 2006-vintage Windows XP laptop one day!

    Lucy

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  3. Way over my head Jenny, I have difficulty with computer hardware unless it is plug and go and even then I get it wrong!

    Shirley Anne x

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  4. " random stuff-that-will-come-in-useful-someday. " Clearly a girl after my own heart. If only I had known that I could have adapted the old dot matrix printer from my Psion days... I have had two printers since which I loath in the extreme and only seem to exist to clog their heads and drain the bank balance when purchasing ink!

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  5. I think for the full retro experience I should have found a box of tractor feed continuous paper :)

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  6. Once heard never forgotten, the sound of a dot matrix printer.
    :-)

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  7. I haven't resurrected a modem to go with it though :)

    The most noticeable thing is the amount of space freed up by the computer part of the whole setup being the size of a deck of cards.

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  8. About the time that you were first using your dot matrix printer, I had a daisy wheel one. The print quality was excellent... until the petals started breaking off.
    Th n th r sults could b quit int r sting!

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  9. Then you may have seen some of those images formed using text instead of grey scales. My school computer lab had one of Marilyn Monroe, IIRC.

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  10. I loved our dot-matrix printer. My mother set it up properly and the quality of the stuff it produced still out-classes my bubble-jet printer that sits in the cupboard. We still have three boxes of tractor feed paper somewhere from when our local Halifax was chucking out paper back at the end of 1989...

    Thank you for the reminder!

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  11. I recently found an old floppy disc and FIFA 99' which takes me back to the days when I was playing the latter when I should be finishing an essay stored on the former

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