Daily Archives: June 5, 2009

It was seventeen years ago today

And so we move on to 1992. By this point I’d upgraded to a 16Mhz 386SX system with colour VGA display, so could finally run Wing Commander and the like, and after subscribing to PC Plus for a couple of years I was also branching out to other PC magazines, in this instance the “does exactly what it says on the masthead” PC Magazine.

PC Magazine was pretty new in the UK, only being up to its fifth issue in August 1992. It was a rather heavyweight tome, both in number of pages (426) and the depth of its articles. The cover story of this issue was Windows vs OS/2, obviously something of a foregone conclusion in hindsight, but while Windows 3 had sold incredibly well for Microsoft and they’d recently brought out the improved Windows 3.1, OS/2 was technically superior, breaking away from the DOS infrastructure that Windows still sat on.

PC Magazine had in depth analysis of many aspects of the two systems over 22 pages, concluding that “OS/2 2.0 is just too big, too slow, too clumsy, too buggy and too incompatible – despite its superior multitasking and technical advancement”, and awarding Windows 3.1 the Editors’ choice. It wasn’t an unreserved recommendation, though: “Not that Windows 3.1 is perfect. To say that a major new software release crashes less often than the previous version is like saying that strychnine is less poisonous than arsenic.”

Alan Holland, author of the letter of the month, didn’t hold with these fancy GUIs, though, he was perfectly happy with DOS and hoping PC Magazine wouldn’t entirely devote itself to Windows. Peter Lloyd went one better; not only did he “hate the Windows environment”, but he had “yet to find a programmer who doesn’t hate DOS”, and generally was disgusted with the whole world of PCs. Alan Norman of Siemens Nixdorf also sounded slightly miffed that a previous issue had performed a “drop test” of their notebook without telling them, and returned it broken.

In the editorial columns Steve Malone highlighted the prospect of a worldwide 3.5″ disk shortage as programs got bigger and bigger, Windows taking up seven disks and many of its application a similar number, but forward thinking suppliers were already starting to move to CD-ROMs for distribution. Then, as now, the economy was in recession, and another piece offered some warning signs to watch out for when buying kit to avoid companies on the brink of collapse.

In reviews, Autodesk had brought out version 2 of 3D Studio, an “excellent upgrade” for £1,950. ATI’s 8514 Ultra graphics card brought “instant relief from sluggish Windows” for £499 for the 1Mb model with an unusual design with an ISA connector on one side and MCA on the other. Intel hadn’t yet released the Pentium, but the DECpc 400ST from Digital Research incorporated Intel’s Xpress architecture, designed to fully support the “P5 (586) family of processors”, at a bargain £6,337 for a 33MHz 486. Intel were being challenged on the processor front by AMD and Cyrix, the big group review of the issue being 28 AMD powered 386s, the Editors’ choices coming from Western Systems and Dan. Elsewhere in the magazine, the 8086 and 286 were all but extinct. £999 would get you a 25Mhz colour SVGA 386SX with 4MB RAM and a 100MB hard disk from Viglen, or for a bit more power MJN offered a 50Mhz 486 with a 325MB SCSI hard drive for £2945, pre-loaded with MS-DOS 5, Windows 3.1, Excel 3.0 and Word for Windows 3.0

PC Magazine wasn’t really a bundle of laughs, though; a Windows section on calling DLLs got four pages, the “After Hours” section got three. Of those three pages, one was devoted to the crazy knockabout fun of “The Perfect CV” and the training program “Professor Windows”. A second covered an electronic version of The Qur’an and the Gravis Mousestick, a joystick that could impersonate a mouse (in function, not form), an idea only hampered slightly by the fact that “it’s more cumbersome and less precise than using an ordinary mouse”, cost £90, and needed its own expansion card. There was a game review, though! Yes, in one slim sidebar, SimCity for Windows got a positive write-up, a be-Windowed update of the DOS version, yours for £44.95. The final item of After Hours was quite interesting, though: “The Logitech Fotoman aims to be the Box Brownie of the digitised picture. It’s a portable, easy-to-use unit that takes simple, monochrome snapshots which transfer to the PC with as little fuss as possible.” It took 376×284 pixel images with 256 shades of grey that transferred over RS232 in about a minute; seems almost unthinkable in this age of multimegapixel ubiquity, but it was quite remarkable at the time, though the review suggested the “£559 price tag is way too high with fully-featured colour cameras with better transfer rates coming onto the market”.