Early years

When I was a child and from a pretty early age (maybe 7 or 8), I had regular access to two computers.

The first one was at home. My mom had bought it to be able to work during the evening (she was a researcher in nuclear physics for the French National Centre for Scientific Research). It was a Macintosh SE with a small black and white screen. She had also bought a StyleWriter printer to print scientific articles. I still distinctly remember how slow this printer was (you could literally see the print head drawing the text one line of pixels at a time) and how much noise it was making (I could hear it when going to sleep even with two doors closed in between).

The other computer was a my mom’s workplace, which I would frequently go to after school or during weekends. It was a typical IBM PC from the 1990s, with a 640MiB hard-drive! (seemed like a lot at the time…)

My main usage for both computers was playing games.

On the Mac, I would usually play the very first version of SimCity, which was very frustrating because my cities would never work. I would design them as typical French cities: a repetition of blocks, each containing about one residential square next one commercial square next to one industrial square. I believe such design is fancily called mixed-use planning here in California, and is the new hype nowadays. In France, it’s just common sense city planning. I only learned ten years later that a successful SimCity city was in fact a typical Californian city from the 1980s: a neat arrangement of sprawling but distinct single-use zones!

On the IBM PC, Grand Prix Circuit was probably my ultimate favorite (driving the McLaren on the Monza circuit), and I would sometimes play Dune but was not very good at it.

Teenage years

After bugging my parents for a while, we finally replaced the old family Mac with a brand new Compaq PC when I was about 15.

This computer had a Pentium MMX, which I later learned was the last x86 superscalar microarchitecture (introduced with the 80486) before Intel switched to a much more powerful out-of-order microarchitecture with the Intel Pentium Pro.

While the tower case looked somewhat stylish, it really wasn’t a great computer. If I remember correctly, the amount of RAM was really low (16 MiB onboard, which we had increased to 32 MiB with an extra DIMM) and it didn’t have a 3D graphical card so video games didn’t run well. At the time, one had to buy a specific 3D accelerator card (such as the 3fdx Voodoo2) which wasn’t cheap; my parents weren’t seeing any reasons to buy one 😢

Yet, I also mostly used it to play video games: Moto Racer, Duke Nukem, and Blood were among my favorite.

It’s also the moment when I started being interested in the OS, at least from an (somewhat informed) user’s point of view. The PC came with Windows 95, but my dad had purchased the Windows 98 update soon after it came out.

Every time we had to reinstall the PC (I’d say every 6 months at least), it was a 2-hour hassle. First we had to reinstall Win95, followed by the Win98 update. Since the install process was not Windows’ forte, one had to stay in front of the computer throughout the whole thing, because the installer would regularly stop to ask questions during the install (e.g., user name, timezone, keyboard layout) instead of asking all these questions at once!

Stay tuned for another Computer Stories episode :)