Can You Do Real Work With the 30-Year-Old IBM 5150?

Our intrepid reporter spends a week trying to write, browse the Web, edit photos, and even tweet on IBM's first PC.

Day 3: Getting Down to Business

Day 3 started with me rifling through my garage, looking for a 4164C RAM chip to replace the bad one in the 5150. Fortunately, I found a host of them in an ITT Xtra, a 1984 IBM PC XT clone.

Once safely in my remote isolation bunker, I opened the 5150 again and swapped out the bad RAM chip for a good one. Success! Everything was now in complete working order.

The Software Problem

With all that tinkering behind me, it was time to get some work done. But I had to surmount yet another obstacle: Where would I get the software for my tasks?

I had brought along about eight boxes of 5.25-inch floppies filled with IBM PC software that I had collected over the decades. In case I needed a program I didn't already have on disk, I set up a Pentium II-era machine running Windows 95 nearby. I had earlier equipped that newer system with a 5.25-inch floppy drive and an ethernet card so that it could serve as a bridge between the old and the new. I could pull software from both the Internet and my file server at home, and then write it to fresh, blank double-density disks for use in the 5150.

The first thing I did was set up my own master boot disk. I used PC DOS 3.3 as the OS because it was of the right vintage and I had it on hand. I placed a few official DOS files that I needed on the disk (such as the FORMAT and MODE commands and ANSI.SYS). Then I quickly located my favorite DOS text editor, SemWare QEdit, and crafted my own AUTOEXEC.BAT file, which tells DOS what tasks to run or what drivers to load when the computer first boots. Oh AUTOEXEC.BAT, how I missed you!

CGA Graphics Are Better Than I Remembered

One of the first disks I ran across was for a shareware image-file viewer called CompuShow (often called CShow for short). I regularly used CShow in the early 1990s to view GIF files that I had downloaded from local BBSs.

Undoubtedly, CShow's best feature was that it supported just about every graphics card and graphical mode then known to PC-kind. It would take an image--whatever the resolution and bit depth--and convert it on the fly to display on your graphics card.

CShow had no trouble running on the 5150, and it handily supported the machine's CGA board in either 320 by 400 resolution with four colors, or 640 by 400 in monochrome. I loaded up a few images that I happened to have nearby on disk.

First I viewed a color GIF headshot of Gillian Anderson in her X-Files days.

For the second image, I decided to display something a little more modern in monochrome.

CShow on the 5150 handled both images well, considering the limitations of the CGA standard. Overall, disk capacity ended up being the limiting factor in viewing images: With only 360KB available, I could fit just a few images on a disk.

Next page: Surfing the Web and checking email

Tags desktopsIBMdesktop pcshardware systems

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Benj Edwards

PC World (US online)

3 Comments

Dan

1

Great article, just shows the quality of engineering and the robustness of equipment in the early days of the personal computer was top notch. Granted size limitations and processor speeds were limiting by todays standards; your evaluation (experiment) show that old equipment can again be used (although limited).

Fleet Command

2

Computer collector, eh? Your computers are lucky having you to be able to see sunlight once again. Mine aren't that lucky.

The first computer that I had was an IBM-PC Compatible Aztech system sporting an Intel 80386DX CPU and a Trident VESA video card with 512 KB VRAM. It was built in 1992 and came with a HUGE hard disk drive (40 MB)!

I never retired that computer; it is KIA! Its longest surviving component was its keyboard which worked until mid-2001, when it suddenly died out. (By then I had to use a special adapter to connect it to PS/2 ports.) Its longest surviving thing was its tower's skin (box) which housed an Intel Pentium 233 and the corresponding retinue until 2003.

Egil

3

I loved the article!

Writing high quality document would be possible with mg/latex and html-pages is easy to write with vi/vim/mg . Emacs are unfortunalty too slow or big for these machines. Vi/Vim was developed for slow lines over modems. I can see these as workmachines, to do the real works nobody else would bother:
Write big books or big webpages. ;)

*BSD (before 4.3 BSD) was already around on universities,
long before this machine and DOS.

I have a Compaq DX486 with 48MB RAM and 480MB+2000GB HDD. I used it for several years as a firewall and router and had uptime for over a year until power outage. Sure it takes 14 seconds for ssh to log in, but who cares? :)
Now it's replaced by a boring small router from the cable company. The magic is gone.

I had a i286 but I had to throw it away as it was useless with Linux. Damn, I loved it, but it was so big and useless for me.

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