I wasn’t a newcomer to keyboard set, but my experience up until that point had been limited by my own poor decisions. I had owned three machines that could, if one squinted and tilted their head sideways, be mistaken for actual computing devices.
One was the Intellivision Aquarius, a rubber-keyed under-performer that can bundled with a thermal printer — the same sort of device still used today to produce receipts at low-end fast food joints. I once attempted to turn in my maths homework as a printout from this ridiculous device. As I recall, my teacher laughed in my face. I mostly used it to play Tron Deadly Discs.
Then I upgraded to the Colecovision Adam, a gleaming white beast with an actual dot matrix printer, a real mechanical keyboard, and the cutting-edge turbo tape drive, allowing for an unprecedented Buck Rogers gameplay experience. I dabbled with BASIC programming on this computer, but mainly I used Colecovision’s cheeky Atari 2600 adaptor to play older games.
My next attempt at computing came with an Apple II compatible Franklin computer, which hooked up to my television and allowed me to play Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Temple of Apshai before suddenly dying on me nearly a year after it was gifted to me. Seeing as it was purchased in a period of Apple decline, it was probably for the best.
Which leads me to that computer store in Alpharetta, Georgia. It was a Computerland, or Computerworld; possibly even a Microcenter. I can’t remember the name, but I remember the crisp red golf shirt worn by the man that helped us. I remember the smell of circuits being soldered in the back room.
I also remember being completely overwhelmed. Row upon row of machines were on display, each topped by a monitor, almost every one of which displayed with flying windows default screensaver from Windows 3.1. Each system had a mouse attached, and I had no idea how to use them. It’s hard to believe that was ever the case.
After looking around for what felt like an hour, both my father, then the CEO of software company, and myself, were completely confused. So when the customer service rep attending us suggested the Compaq Prolinea 4/25 SX, we knew it was the one. Quite frankly anything he said would have been the one. If he had pointed to a cardboard box with Christmas lights strung over it we would have dropped $US2,000 on the spot.
Luckily it wasn’t quite that expensive. Between the system, the monitor, a 9600 baud internal modem and the $US800 laser printer my father insisted we purchase (he’d read an article), we walked out of the store for under $US1,500.
A week later I returned to the shop to pick up my fully-configured computer. It was a true beast of a machine: an Intel 80486 processor; four megabytes of ram; super VGA graphics; and a 20 megabyte hard drive. We could have gone for the DX processor instead of the SX, but it was more expensive and who needed to mess with floating point integers anyway?
Months later I would add a SoundBlaster card to the system, a procedure I had to take the computer into the shop for because damn if I had a clue what was going on in there.
Nowadays I’m so confident inside a computer case that I often times just leave the covers off so I can idly poke around when I’m bored, but back then? Back then this was top secret alien technology.
The Compaq machine lasted me four years.
It’s the computer I first played Doom, Diablo and Jazz Jackrabbit on.
It was the computer I first downloaded porn onto, waiting a half-hour for a single image to arrive, hoping it was a good one.
It was the computer that hosted Atlanta By Night, a popular local BBS based on White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade role-playing game, regularly taken down so the Sysop could play Wizardry.
Most of all it was the computer that taught me how much more complex and mature PC gaming could be, free from the restraints and restrictions of console gaming. How it was a platform in which small, independent developers like Epic Games could thrive, offering its product in pieces and asking players to pay for the rest.
It also taught me how to take those Shareware gems and unlock them illegally, but I’m way over that now.
The PCs of today might make that old beige box look like the relic of some ancient civilisation, but if that relic hadn’t fallen into my hands I probably wouldn’t be here telling you about it today.
Feeling nostalgic? Tell your own first PC story in the comments section, and later we’ll all group hug.
Images of the Compaq Prolinea 4/33 DX (close enough) courtesy of Total Geekdom.