March 23rd, 2020

Hard Stare

Fun times in the mid-1990s PC Pro labs

I ran the testing labs for PC Pro magazine from 1995 to 1996, and acted as the magazine's de facto technical editor. (I didn't have enough journalistic experience yet to get the title Technical Editor.)

The first PC we saw at PC Pro magazine with USB ports was an IBM desktop 486 or Pentium -- in late 1995, I think. Not a PS/2 but one of their more boring industry-standard models, an Aptiva I think.
We didn't know what they were, and IBM were none too sure either, although they told us what the weird little tricorn logo represented: Universal Serial Bus.
Image result for unicode usb logo

"It's some new Intel thing," they said. So I phoned Intel UK -- 1995, very little inter-company email yet -- and asked, and learned all about it.
But how could we test it, with Windows 95A or NT 3.51? We couldn't.
I think we still had the machine when Windows 95B came out... but the problem was, Windows 95B, AKA "OSR2", was an OEM release. No upgrades. You couldn't officially upgrade 95A to 95B, but I didn't want to lose the drivers or the benchmarks...

I found a way. It involved deleting WIN.COM from C:\WINDOWS which was the file that SETUP.EXE looked for to see if there was an existing copy of Windows.

Reinstalling over the top was permitted, though. (In case it crashed badly, I suppose.) So I reinstalled 95B over the top, it picked up the registry and all the settings... and found the new ports.
But then we didn't have anything to attach to them to try them. :-) The iMac wouldn't come out for another 2.5 years yet.
Other fun things I did in that role:
• Discovered Tulip (RIP) selling a Pentium with an SIS chipset that they claimed supported EDO RAM (when only the Intel Triton chipset did). Under threat of a lawsuit, I showed them that it did support it -- it recognised it, printed a little message saying "EDO RAM detected" and worked... but it couldn't use it and benchmarked at exactly the same speed as with cheaper FP-mode RAM.
I think that led to Tulip suing SIS instead of Dennis Publishing. :-)
• Evesham Micros (RIP) sneaking the first engineering sample Pentium MMX in the UK -- before the MMX name had even been settled -- into a grouptest of Pentium 166 PCs. It won handily, by about 15%, which should have been impossible if it was a standard Pentium 1 CPU. But it wasn't -- it was a Pentium MMX with twice as much L1 cache onboard.
Intel was very, very unhappy with naughty Evesham.
• Netscape Communications (RIP) refused to let us put Communicator or Navigator on our cover CD. They didn't know that Europeans pay for local phone calls, so that it cost money to make a big download (30 or 40 MB!). They wouldn't believe us and in the end flew 2 executives to Britain to explain to us that it was a free download and they wanted to trace who downloaded it.
As acting technical editor, I had to explain to them. Repeatedly.

When they finally got it, it resulted in a panicked trans-Atlantic phone call to Silicon Valley, getting someone senior out of bed, as they finally realised why their download and adoption figures were so poor in Europe.

We got Netscape on the cover CD, the first magazine in Europe to do so. :-) Both Communicator and Navigator, IIRC.
• Fujitsu supplied the first PC OpenGL accelerator we'd ever seen. It cost considerably more than the PC. We had no way to test it -- OpenGL benchmarks for Windows hadn't been invented yet. (It wasn't very good in Quake, though.)
I originally censored the company names, but I checked, and the naughty or silly ones no longer exist, so what the hell...
Tulip were merely deceived and didn't verify. Whoever picked SIS was inept anyway -- they made terrible chipsets which were slow as hell.

(Years later, they upped their game, and by C21 there really isn't much difference, unless you're a fanatical gamer and overcloker.)
Lemme think... other fun anecdotes...
PartitionMagic caused me some fun. When I joined (at Issue 8) we had a copy of v1 in the cupboard. Its native OS was OS/2 and nobody cared, I'm afraid. I read what it claimed and didn't believe it so I didn't try it.
Then v2 arrived. It ran on DOS. Repartitioning a hard disk when it was full of data? Preposterous! Impossible!
So I tried it. It worked. I wrote a rave review.
It prompted a reader letter.
"I think I've spotted your April Fool's piece. A DOS program that looks exactly like a Windows 95 app? Which can repartition a hard disk full of data? Written by someone whose name is an anagram of 'APRIL VENOM'? Do I win anything?"
He won a phonecall from me, but he did teach me an anagram of my name I never knew.
It led me to run a tip in the mag.

At the time, a 1.2 GB hard disk was the most common size (and a Quantum Fireball the fastest model for the money). Format that as a FAT16 drive and you got super-inefficient 16 kB clusters. (And in 1995 or early 1996, FAT16 was all you got.)
With PartitionMagic, you could take 200 MB off the end, make it into a 2nd partition, and still fit more onto the C: drive because of far more efficient 8 kB clusters. If you didn't have PQMagic you could partition the disk that way before installing. The only key thing was that C: was less than 1 GB. 0.99 GB was fine.
I suggested putting the swap file on D: -- you saved space and reduced fragmentation.
One of our favourite suppliers, Panrix, questioned this. They reckoned that having the swap file on the outer, longer tracks of the drive made it slower, due to slower access times and slower transfer speeds. They were adamant.
So I got them to bring in a new, virgin PC with Windows 95A, I benchmarked it with a single big, inefficient C: partition, then I repartitioned it, put the swapfile on the new D: drive, and benchmarked it again. It was the same to 2 decimal places, and the C drive had about 250MB more free space.
Panrix apologised and I gained another geek cred point. :-)