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 4: Of Mice and Menus

IBM did not design this PC to be a gaming machine. It was not intended to be a gaming machine. It was a serious computer for serious business, doggone it. A typical PC shipped with a monochrome graphics adapter. If you wanted color--CGA--you got 16 colors in text mode and a mere four colors (four ugly colors, at that) in 320-by-200 graphics mode.

For audio output, IBM equipped the PC with a simple one-channel speaker whose beeps often resembled the sounds of a miniature duck being strangled to death. And of course, the 5150 didn't ship with joystick or paddle ports (although IBM offered an optional adapter that added a port for those accessories).

Despite IBM's sobriety, game developers brought entertainment software to the PC in droves. Stopping them was impossible: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when you weren't word processing, gaming was the most useful thing you could do with a personal computer.

To test the PC's gaming muscle, I whipped out a few titles I had handy. A port of the arcade hit Arkanoid II worked well in CGA mode, although with only four colors I found it hard to tell some of the power-ups from the background.

Next I loaded up one of my personal favorites, ZZT, a text-based adventure game programmed by Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games (more recently, the same company created the Gears of War franchise).

I also played Jumpman, Alley Cat, and Digger--all of which are fun games that you could play for quite a while. But my time was precious.

Mousing Around

When I'm not busy typing letters of the alphabet into a computer, I'm usually crafting images for slideshows or touching up scans or photos for illustrations. I normally use a Photoshop-like application for this task on a modern PC, but what was the closest equivalent available for the 5150?

To do any decent image composition or editing on a computer, I first needed to hook up a mouse. This turned out to be a cinch. I had plenty of mice to choose from, including official Microsoft models that operated through a PC's serial port.

After simply plugging in the mouse, I loaded up a mouse driver (remember "mouse.com"?) from an official Microsoft Mouse disk, and ka-boom, it worked.

For a computer paint program, I first turned to an early DOS version of Microsoft Paintbrush that I happened to have. Unfortunately, it spit out some weird errors upon execution (possibly due to a corrupt disk), so I had to find something else. I combed the Internet for some vintage shareware equivalents, and found two from the 5150-era: FingerPaint and TPaint.

TPaint worked better for me, readily supporting both the CGA card in the 5150 and my Microsoft mouse. It allowed me to paint in four whole colors. I did not draw the picture of the sailboat you see in the photo; that came with the program.

With only four colors available, it was clear that I wouldn't be creating any PCWorld slideshows with TPaint. Score one for modern computing.

Conclusions

So, is it possible to use a 1981 IBM PC 5150 for real work? I'd say yes--for just about any text-based task. It can handle word processing, spreadsheets, and simple databases with aplomb. That isn't surprising, since IBM built the PC to do just that. In fact, I typed a significant portion of this article on the IBM PC itself.

Obviously, the 5150's greatest shortcoming lies in the image creation and editing department. The CGA card holds it back quite a bit, but at least you can easily use a mouse on the system. Theoretically, I could ramp up graphical performance a bit by switching back to the V20 CPU and installing an early VGA card, a hard drive, and, yes, even Windows 3.0 (the last version that can run on an 8088). But boy, would it be slow with a 4.77MHz CPU.

The PC's second-greatest weakness, in modern terms, is probably Web browsing functionality. The modern Web is just not meant for an ancient machine. Still, it's reassuring to know that I could perform some basic tasks on the Internet if necessary.

One impressive factor in this experiment is the durability of the machine itself. The very fact that I could use a 30-year-old computer -- including the original keyboard, monitor, and disk drive -- with a sense of stability and confidence is a strong testament to the quality of IBM's hardware engineering. Such a feat is rarely possible on a low-cost home PC of the same vintage.

I obviously won’t use the 5150 for daily work from now on. But I am satisfied that I gave this very important classic machine another well-deserved day in the sun. I’m a computer collector, and many of us like to think that a computer wants to feel useful, even in old age. In that stuffy back room, it was nice to give this old-timer a few more productive workdays.

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Benj Edwards

PC World (US online)
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