I Usually Don't Do This, But...
Even though a warm spell just before New Year's has removed any trace of the dreaded white stuff from southeast Michigan, several earlier freak blizzards and a quick glance at the Farmer's Almanac have sent me back to reviewing my elaborate plans for a computer-controlled snow blower. But a recent phone call from my editor unleashed the ultimate weapon against the legendary lateness of "Levitations" columns. "Miss this one, bud, and you'll be explaining to my kid why daddy can't go on vacation." Since explaining the gestalt of writer's block to hysterical three-year olds is a losing proposition, it's once more time to slide into my ergonomic high-back chair-the one that never fails to leave me with a smarting coccyx-and pound out this month's verbosity.
I'm going to try to hold the snappy patter to a minimum this month. Between Dan Quayle and my last few columns, I figure we've all had enough laughs to last until the second page of this column.
Besides politicians, I've grown tired of self-styled microcomputer gurus who write columns that tend to be nothing more than stream-of-conciousness commercials about the virtues of products they receive gratis from hardware and software manufacturers-products they've used for all of 15 minutes. That's why I usually refrain from using this space for hawking wares. Once in a while, though, I run into a product whose utility and value continue to impress, even after extended use.
I recently spent the better part of a week putting a half-dozen high-quality printers through their paces (see "Print That Page," November 1988) and came away from the piece as one of the Hewlett-Packard DeskJet's biggest fans. For those who have spent the last six months vacationing on Callisto, the DeskJet is an attractive alternative to both laser and 24-pin dot-matrix printers. The DeskJet uses ink jet technology to lay print down on regular-cut-sheet paper: It literally sprays fine globules of ink at the paper to produce nice, tight characters and images with a maximum resolution of 300 dots per inch. Although the $700 street price ($995 list) of the DeskJet is decidedly more expensive than most midpriced impact printers, it produces copy that's virtually indistinguishable from the output of $2000 laser printers.
The DeskJet qualifies as a long-term investment for most computer hobbyists. It can be made to work with just about every popular personal computer. I've personally used my DeskJet on a variety of IBM compatibles, Macintoshes, and an Amiga 500all with excellent results. Apparently the DeskJet is also on speaking terms with Atari systems; I've seen STs laying down impressive stuff on DeskJets at several trade shows. If you want to amaze your friends who own Apple IIs and Macintoshes, hook up a DeskJet to either machine, using one of Orange Micro's Grappler interfaces. The DeskJet is well-supported by most software packages, since it's fairly compatible with the control codes used for the ubiquitous Hewlett-Packard LaserJet laser printer. The DeskJet takes a lot longer to print a full page of graphics than a laser and many dotmatrix printers do, but the image quality, price performance, and flexibility of the DeskJet have made it my favorite piece of hardware.
I recently discovered an extra "feature" in the DeskJet that I'd never run into before. Like some other printers I've tested, the DeskJet comes equipped with both serial and parallel interface connectors. Since the manual clearly states (in bold type, no less) that you shouldn't plug cables into both interfaces at the same time, I had been using a parallel printer switch to allow two computers to share the printer. But I tossed caution and common sense to the wind and hooked up my PC AT clone to the parallel port and my Macintosh to the serial port. I poised my battery-powered Armitron robot arm over the power-strip switch, set it in motion, and stepped back to watch from a safe distance. The robot arm nudged the power on and everything came up gracefully. With growing disbelief, I printed out a couple of pages of text from my PC using Microsoft Word. I then knocked out a half-dozen or so pages from MacDraw and took turns printing documents from each system for half an hour. To my surprise, the DeskJet faultlessly switched between the two computers automatically, with nary a hitch or wisp of smoke.
Aside from being kind of pokey, the DeskJet does have other quirks. The ink jet cartridges are only good for about 500 sheets or so of text (about half that if your forte is dense graphic images) and are rather pricey at $18 a pop. Also, DeskJet ink is watersoluble. A few errant drops of rain or coffee can make your creations look like Tammy Bakker's eyes after a good cry.
Just How Bad Can Things Get?
A Lot Worse-You Could Be
Paying a Cool Quarter-Million
for $11,000 Worth of RAM
A Lot Worse-You Could Be
Paying a Cool Quarter-Million
for $11,000 Worth of RAM
Well, anyone who knows me realizes that such an effusive amount of kudos must be balanced by a few brickbats, so let's shift into Andy Rooney mode and mindlessly carp about this month's pet peeves.
My Macintosh and Amiga have been frequently making it clear that they're not at all satisfied with their measly megabyte of memory. I figure I need at least four megabytes of memory on the Macintosh so that I can replace the machine's various beep sounds with digitized sound bites from my favorite Three Stooges short. But no way will I shell out more than a grand per machine just so I can run killer animation de mos on the Amiga or get Hyper(hog)Card up under MultiFinder on the Mac.
Last year's roller-coaster pricing of memory chips has settled down somewhat, but I remain rather pessimistic about the price stability of computer memory, even though I know in my heart that President Bush will make every attempt to delay any tax hikes so that each and every computing American can purchase his or her own million points of bytes. The entire chip-drought exercise is eerily reminiscent of the great sugar and coffee shortages of the 1970s.
To briefly recap, just before both the coffee and sugar scams-uh ... shortages-relatively poor cane and bean harvests generated rumors that sent cola and caffeine junkies careening down the aisles of supermarkets, loading up their carts with enough beverage to hold the Alamo for a year. The price of soda pop and coffee went through the roof. The odd thing was that, during the imagined crisis, the price of related products with no sugar or coffee content rose as well. The price of diet soft drinks-which had nary a trace of sucrose-and tea rocketed up right along with pop and java prices. After the dust had settled, prices dropped slightly, but soon stabilized at a relatively high price with no apparent shortage to explain away the new support price. The phenomenon hasn't been limited to foodstuffs, either. An apparently innocuous remark by Johnny Carson about a toilet-tissue shortage triggered another nationwide wave of panic buying and subsequent price increases.
How bad can the price of memory chips get? A lot worse. Think you're paying through the nose for memory? Count your blessings. Be thankful that you don't have an industrial-strength IBM mainframe installed in your basement. For decades, corporate data processing types have been shelling out big bucks for the same silicon that you and I use to boot up flight simulators, spreadsheets, and word processors. Want to add 32 megabytes of main storage to your $5 million IBM 3090 processor? The $270,000 list price seems commensurate with the system's overall price tag until you actually consider the cost of the raw materials involved.
Believe it or not, there's no real difference between the chips that we pack into our personal computers and the wadding that's used with the high-priced cannons. You and I can buy boxcars full of one-megabit 80-nanosecond chips for around $40 each. Since it takes nine chips to make a megabyte (including a chip for parity checking), the raw cost of 32 megs of chips, without any kind of volume discount, is:
9 X 32 X $40 = $11,520
which leaves a cool margin of about a quarter-million for the manufacturer. Ever get the feeling you're in the wrong business? To justify that kind of markup, the printed circuit cards used to mount the chips must be die-cast from unobtainium, or be remanufactured Apple I system boards personally autographed by Wozniak and Jobs.
While we're talking about greed, I might as well vent my spleen at the current repair policies of most major PC manufacturers and their "authorized" repair centers. Back in ancient times (1982 or so), you could hand a broken machine over to a technician who would put the machine on the shelf for about a week, finally spend about an hour tracing the root cause of the hardware problem, and then replace the faulty $2 part. Total cost? Fifty bucks, tops.
As microcomputers became more crucial to performing routine, everyday work, it became obvious that such a service mechanism was clearly out of step with the times. You can forget about bug-shooting down to the discrete component level. Computer service at most specialty stores has been remolded into the likeness of Dante's Inferno. Today, smiling glad-handers take your machine over the counter, toss it into the corner for at least three weeks (or until after your 15th frantic phone call, whichever comes first), and then simply replace the entire motherboard and major functional components at $300 a crack until things more or less work again. Back at the factory, the real techs fix the broken part and send the board back out so it can be resold for another $300. One service manager defended the practice as the ultimate in corporate responsibility. "Hey," he explained coolly, "think of it as high-tech recycling."