There was a time…

There was a time when computers had very small capacities, yet landed man on the Moon. And then 20 years later emerged in many homes much better computers, which in turn became the laughing stock of today’s smartphones.

I was talking on a social network and someone asked why I would still think about performances now that storing devices are so cheap compared to the volume of data they can keep.

So with a pair of friends we reminisced about the time when our computers had only 40 Mb of hard drive and 4 Mb of memory. And this was a behemoth back in 1988, when most PCs had only 1 Mb of RAM!

Did it crash often?, a young person asked. Actually, no, not so often. I had Windows 3.0, Word 5-something for Windows and Excel 2, if memory serves. Also it was the time when I learned about vector graphics through CorelDraw, and bitmap graphics with Corel PhotoPaint and Paint Shop Pro.

I ended up saying this is one more reason why I’m appalled at the expense of memory at the disposal of today’s computers, and how slow they still feel. I know of course that any computer feels slow very soon after you’ve bought it, due to your getting used to its relative speed, but yet. Optimisation was everywhere at the time.

Some of our younger readers may not know it, but we often had special boot diskettes for each and every game we wanted to play, because we had to optimise everything: what went to extended memory, what went to (what was it again) another type of memory. We would call EMM386 and HIMEM in a very special order so as to optimise what went from the first 640 Kb to the first 1 Mb, and then what went from 1 Mb to 4Mb, if I remember correctly. We would load (or not, depending on the game) drivers for the mouse, for sound, for lush 256-colours graphics. (This paragraph is dedicated to Brice who inspired it! Hi Brice!)

And now, the only place where optimisation still happens drastically, it seems, is the Web (more on that soon by the way, tomorrow I’ll talk about Firefox Quantum – update: here we go, Firefox 57).

Ah, the time we spent – or lost, depending on how you see it.


  • Pierre (22 November 2017)

    I fondly remember those times, and I often discuss this with some friends.

    > I’m appalled at the expense of memory at the disposal of today’s computers, and how slow they still feel.

    I agree this is frustrating, but this is because you forgot how slow computers were back in the days and because back then, they couldn’t do much apart from displaying things on a screen and receiving user input. When you look into how a modern operating system works nowadays, you realize how complex it got in order to handle networks (and related security), graphics card (that could basically render the 1993 Jurassic Park film in real time), a myriad of types of memory (and how data can be mirrored on to different disks if you use RAID), all these GPS/gyroscop/sensor data if you use a modern laptop or a basic smartphone, etc.

    A lot could be done to optimize, but you would compatibility with hardware and/or readability of the code for other engineers.

    Anyway, it’s a really interesting discussion!

    Reply to Pierre

  • Stéphane (22 November 2017)

    Pierre : Yeah, all too true.

    I remember creating visit cards with my first computer in Corel Draw, 24 clones of the same basic name/address stuff. Then I saved the document and it took it half an hour to save. Really, not making this up, I timed it. Then I printed it, and it spent a whole hour printing what can only be described as a very simple document!

    So yeah, they are much faster than back in those prehistoric days, whatever our complaints, you’re right. 😉

    Reply to Stéphane

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