The computing relics unearthed in the PC Pro Labs

27 Dec 2011

The PC Pro Lab is a dark, dingy place full of cardboard boxes, benchmarks and more motherboards, processors and PCs than we care to count, but it’s also home to a variety of kit that’s slipped through the net –  some of it even dating back to before PC Pro launched in 1994.

From iconic machines like the IBM PC to the silliness of Sony’s £1,190 netbook, we’ve scoured the darkest corners and blown dust off some of the oldest, oddest and rarest kit we can find – starting with a true icon of the industry.


IBM PC

Introduced on August 12 1981, IBM’s Personal Computer was the first machine to popularise the now-ubiquitous term – and one of these antiques sits at the back of the PC Pro Lab.

Processing grunt was provided by the single-core, 4.77MHz Intel 8088, and floppy disks and cassettes are both supported. There’s a mighty 256KB of RAM, with 64KB of that soldered onto the motherboard. The IBM PC didn't come cheap, either: a barebones model without any drives cost $1,565 and the top-end model came with bells, whistles and a monitor for $20,000.

The motherboard includes five eight-bit Industry Standard Architecture slots, with three of ours occupied: there’s a floppy disk drive controller card a SixPakPlus memory expansion board packed with 64KB chips, and a multidisplay adapter that’s actually two slabs of PCB stuck together. In the middle of the machine is an IBM 5 ¼in Diskette Drive.

Only one question remains, though, once we’ve blown the dust off this venerable old machine – can it run Crysis?

Apple Macintosh Plus

The Macintosh Plus might be a disturbing shade of yellow but that’s hardly surprising - it first saw the light of day in 1986. Released for £2,599, it was produced until October 1990 – the longest production run of any Macintosh – and was supported by Mac OS up to 1996.

It broke ground in other ways, too. As the first Macintosh to include a SCSI port it paved the way for external devices such as hard disks, tape drives, printers and CD-ROM drives, and this was also the first Macintosh to use SIMMs for its memory – with a massive 1MB of the stuff included as standard across four 256KB sticks.

Our particular model bears the familiar Cupertino, California label on its rear, but the sticker also reveals that this machine was “Assembled in Ireland” – a far cry from today, where most technology seems to be produced in Asia.


Apple Macintosh Colour Classic

Fast forward a few years – and look under a different test-bench – and you’ll find another piece of Apple history. It's the first compact Macintosh computer to come with a colour display, and we wouldn't have the iMac - the world's finest all-in-one PC - without the Colour Classic paving the way.

Originally priced at $1,400 in February 1993, it ran on Mac OS 7.6.1 – the first version of the OS to drop the “System” from its name so the more distinctive moniker could be trademarked and the OS licensed to third-party Macintosh manufacturers.

This ancient all-in-one was more upgradeable than most of today’s models, too. The Processor Direct Slot was used with the Apple IIe Card, and ran software designed for the older Apple II. This backwards compatibility was supposed to entice the education market to upgrade from Apple II machines to fully-fledged Macintoshes, but other upgrades were also available, from CPU accelerators to Ethernet and video cards.

This versatility means the Colour Classic enjoys a cult following today: users have modded the machine with Power Mac parts so its screen runs at 640 x 480 rather than 560 x 384, and others have fitted motherboards from more powerful models.

Casio Cassiopeia E-115

Technical editor Darien Graham-Smith found the Casio Cassiopeia E-115 hiding at the back of his cupboard, but it first arrived back in October 2000 when PDAs, rather than smartphones, were big news.

So, what did you get for £422? There’s the sturdy exterior, which we described as “dull-grey silver” and “resting on its laurels”, alongside a cradle that “feels cheap and doesn't engage with the Cassiopeia as solidly as we’d like” in its full review.

It wasn’t all bad news, with a 240 x 320 LCD screen that was better than its rivals, and a 131MHz StrongARM processor that was “fast enough to ensure instantaneous contact searches and speedy application switching”, according to us. It also had 16MB of ROM and 32MB of RAM memory - “about as much as you currently need”, at least back then.

Oh, and the software? Microsoft Windows CE 3.0 PocketPC Edition. Our model is old and, presumably, scarred by Darien’s cupboard, so it wouldn't turn on – although that’s probably for the best, given that we concluded that the Casio simply couldn't “match the standard” set by Compaq’s iPAQ.


Apple iMac G4

The G4 marked the first major redesign of the iMac, but the forlorn model found in the PC Pro Lab has clearly seen better days. It’s missing its monitor bezel, the distinctive round base is looking grubby, and it wouldn't turn on – although that chrome, cantilevered arm is as smooth as it was when the G4 was eased from its box in 2002.

We described the G4 as “smooth and elegant design that puts other computer makes to shame”. Even now it stands out in a sea of modern all-in-ones that all look a little too familiar.

Our review also highlighted Apple’s concentration on “excellent design and ease of use”, but that has downsides – a specification we described as “Paleolithic”. It’s the first time we’ve seen computers compared to dinosaurs, but the SDRAM was slow and the GeForce 2 MX graphics chip was a generation behind the curve. It might look nice – as Apple devices are wont to do - but PCs ran our Photoshop 7 benchmark almost twice as quickly.


Dell Latitude

The oldest laptop we managed to find demonstrates the changing of technology. This Dell Latitude isn’t quite as backward as we first thought. It’s either a C540 or C640 – we’re not sure which, as it’s been hidden on a high shelf for far too long – and it’s a mix of old problems and forgotten boons.

It’s running a Pentium 4 chip with Windows XP, but the most striking thing about this machine is its design – or lack of it. Plain plastic is the order of the day, and the lid features the familiar Dell logo, along with the kind of build quality that we’d slate if this machine were reviewed today.

The base doesn’t cover itself in glory, either, with stickers, flaps, screws, feet and even some exposed fans. It’s also obvious where laptops have fallen backwards as companies rush to build slim, snazzy Ultrabooks: we rarely see keyboards with the kind of comfort, responsiveness and travel as this Latitude offers, and the 4:3 screen has a native resolution of 1,600 x 1,200 – a huge amount of desktop real estate compared to the 1,366 x 768 and 1,600 x 900 screens that now seem to be the norm.

Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT, 7600 GS and AMD Radeon HD 2600 XT

We’ve a big plastic tub full of graphics cards in the Labs and, while most of them are recent, a trio of PCBs lurking amid the anti-static bags and DVI to D-SUB adapters come from decidedly older stock. Two Nvidia cards, the GeForce 7300 GT and 7600 GS, are joined by AMD’s Radeon HD 2600 XT.

They were launched in 2006 and 2007, and they handily illustrate the impressive speed at which technology is pushed forward. The first 28nm GPU has just arrived but, back then, Nvidia and AMD were using 90nm and 65nm processes – and the 390 million transistors in the AMD card pales when compared to the 4.3 billion in AMD’s latest.

The bandwidth statistics are telling, too: the Radeon card churns through 35.2GB/sec in its 512MB incarnation, with the 7300 GT and 7600 GS offering 10.67GB/sec and 12.8GB/sec respectively. The latest high-end card, the Radeon HD 7970, chews through 264GB/sec – and even modest boards, such as Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 550 Ti, handle 98.5GB/sec.

Oh, and our benchmarks? The 7600 GS played Call of Duty 2 at 18fps when run at 1,280 x 1,024. Bless.


Sony VAIO P-series

Sony senior vice president Mike Abary famously said his company would never join the "race to the bottom" when netbooks hit the big time, and he wasn't joking - Sony's VAIO P-series cost £1,190 inc VAT for the top-end model.

That money paid for radical design, with a base occupied entirely by the keyboard,  that's still so small and fiddly that you have to peck at the keys, prod at the trackpoint and squint at the 8in 1,600 x 900 screen. The Z-series Atom was decidedly Z-list, too, thanks to performance that couldn’t match £350 rivals.

Sony executives demonstrated the device by deftly pulling it from jacket pockets, but we thought it should stay there: laptops editor Sasha Muller said that its “sluggish performance and high price” limited its appeal, and it’s been gathering dust in a plain box in the Labs ever since. Sony can’t have been too keen on it, either: it followed this up with the sensible, £399 Mini W-series netbook.

Did you own any of this kit, or have any fond memories of these classic computers? Let us know in the comments, and check out the rest of the pictures in the gallery below.

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