Sweaty Spice, the other Spice Girl

I have been a tech and computer enthusiast since the early 1980's, and one thing that I reminisce about is the experience of upgrading through the years.

The Early years - 8 and 16 Bit Ataris

There were no hard drives for most of this era, the OS was built into the computers, and on ROMs. Going from my original Atari 400 to an Atari 800, to the 800XL, and finally to a 130XE was stupid simple. Unplug the main unit, plug the new one in, attach the peripherals (disk drives, monitor, serial and parallel port box) and you were good to go. Virtually all versions of DOS worked across all versions of hardware, and loaded from floppies.

Since I ran a BBS, I had some weird disk drives, double sided, double density, and even for a while a pair of 8" floppy drives. The DOS version needed to support them, but that was easy peasy.

The Atari STs were almost as easy. No OS to boot from, because GEM was built in, but they easily supported SCSI hard disks, and of course I had a whopping 20 megabyte HD plugged in.

The MS-DOS era

It was probably 1986 or so when I first assembled a PC Compatible. Some cheap 80286 motherboard, an 80 megabyte Seagate 5&1/4" full height hard drive (it was LOUD, like a jet airplane taking off) 1 megabyte of ram (640K usable) and some version of DOS. A Hercules monochrome graphics card and an orange phosphor display rounded it out. I think this was the first computer that booted directly from the hard drive, and it worked well. I did a bunch of word processing and Lotus 123 work on it. Some basic programming, and of course I ran a BBS from it.

However, this began the upgrade cycle in serious. It was followed with a 386 motherboard upgrade and VGA hardware/display (I was poor, so I had a really shitty monitor at the time).

Then came a 486DX2. Holy shit those CPU's were stupid expensive in the late 80's. I think it was 1991 when I finally got one, and I think I paid a whopping $500 for just the chip!

At this time, I think I also had 4 megs of RAM, and you had to use some EMM (Extended Memory Manager), to leverage it, and programs had to be written to take advantage of it. I used QEMM386 and it was pretty good, if not the most stable thing in the world.

Around this time I began playing with the early versions of Windows, and frankly, it sucked donkey balls. You first booted to DOS, then ran windows as a shell. It was clunky, it didn't work great, and not many killer applications existed for it.

About the time that Windows 3.1 came out, it got a lot better. Still a shell on top of DOS, it was a pretty usable system. More importantly, the nascent Internet became accessible. Add a TCP stack (WinTrumpet was the rage) and the mosaic browser that took FOREVER to download and you could "surf" the web.

I was hooked.

The Doom/Quake/Counterstrike Era

Late 1993 saw the drop of Doom. Like everyone into computers at the time, Doom rocked my world. Suddenly killing creatures was the "in" thing to do, and thus began the very rapid upgrade cycles.

From 1993 through 2003 I was replacing many/most of my components every 18 months or more frequently. More memory, more CPU speed, better graphics cards (when the 3Dfx cards came out, it was fucking insane).

At the same time, I was growing my storage space. I think it was 1994 when I bought a 340 megabyte IDE hard disk for ~ $340, a phenomenal price. But quickly that grew to 800 MB, then 1.2GB (the Quantum Fireball series was the shiznit), then 2.1G and then I don't remember.

To back up such crazy amounts of storage, I got into QIC's or "quarter inch cartridge" tapes. Maxtor made them, and I went with SCSI. They worked. I guess. But every time I tried to restore from them, something would fail. I would get most of my files back, but not all.

Then came CD Writers, and that became the preferred method for handling my data files, but once I began ripping CD's that no longer worked.

About this time the progression of OS's also happened. Windows95, Windows98, Windows98SE, Win2K (I really liked that, but it was so so for games), then WindowsXP that was the bomb.

I think the last PC I built for this era was in 2002, an AMD Athlon chip, 32 megabytes of RAM, and a couple of pretty big hard drives.

But through all this time, each major upgrade was a major pain in the ass. No OS upgrades were wipes and reinstalls, with a fuckton of reinstalling software, mostly from CD's and then plugging in the extra disks (fortunately EIDE drives became the standard, and with Win2K and WinXP the NTFS file system was pretty seamless.

Throughout this time, each upgrade was - to put it bluntly - painful. That didn't stop me from upgrading, but it made me curse the march of progress.

Then it changed...

The OS-X Era

Circa 2002, I bought my first modern Mac. It was an iBook, and it ran OS-X. At the time, the OS was in rapid change and development, with major updates happening pretty much every year.

In my prior Windows experience, I spent more time and money replacing and upgrading hardware. Processors, Motherboards, Graphics cards, Disks, Memory were all swapped regularly as I went from 386 to 486 to Pentium 90, to Pentium 2, to AMD Athlon, as well as OS shifts to support the new hardware and capabilities.

Very painful, and regardless of how much I tried to prevent data loss, I had to reinstall software, and sometimes files got missed. In short, it sucked.

But within the Mac ecosystem, the hardware stayed relatively constant (I still upgraded every 2-ish years) I could get 2 or more OS updates on one machine.

And those upgrades were painless. Internet was getting faster (and I had pretty good Cable internet in Tucson and Phoenix for most of this era), and when the annual major update of OS-X happened, it was a ho-hum affair. About 45 minutes, unattended, with a simple scripted first run event at the end. All my data came across, and apart from the new functionality, everything just worked.

Time for new hardware? Use a firewire (and later a thunderbolt) cable to connect the two computers, and the migration assistant would just do its magic.

Same account, same password, same file structure, hell, even the same saved states were there.

Suddenly, you didn't need to be an expert user to keep up to date. The back end automation was outstanding and it all just worked.

Now with iCloud, and really fast wifi, if you store the bulk of your data files in the cloud, migration is even more trivial.

Now I am dipping my toe back into the Windows world, and alas, Microsoft too has gotten mush better at migration. Everything just works.


I enjoyed my early experiences, and even keep an old Atari 8-bit computer around for nostalgia, but whenever I fire it up, I remember that there was a reason that computers took a long time to become common in people's houses.

We have it great today, and the future looks even better.

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