I’ve always been fascinated with computers, ever since my dad bought a 66 MHz PC back in the mid-1990s. They provide endless opportunities for customization, overclocking and programming amongst their usual functions. I’ve felt a shift over the past few years, however. Computers, for me, have moved more towards being items with a specific purpose and usage than a means of pleasure. Maybe I’m getting old, or the nature of the computer systems we interact with means that tinkering is no longer as useful.
Our first PC made tweaking a necessity – achieving enough “base memory” to run the games I wanted to play ate up quite a bit of my time. As a child of eight, I found this tinkering enjoyable; I guess it appealed to my slightly introverted nature at the time.
Eventually the DX2 began to show its age and our new PC (circa 1998) was a Windows 95 machine with a 333 MHz K6-2 CPU, 64 MB of RAM and a 6.4 GB hard disk. The games got more advanced, computers easier to use, and I got acquainted with the internet. The lack of the command line was a boon to my parents and made my life easier as well.
In December 2000, I did some research on the web and bought a PC based on a 650 MHz AMD Duron. The machine ran Windows ME at first (yeah …) and later ran Windows XP. It wasn’t long before I caught wind of overclocking and sought to squeeze extra 3DMarks out of my machine. I joined OC Forums and started reading; I spent many evenings and weekends on the forums and amassed a rather silly postcount. My computer played the games I wanted to play reasonably well, however the desire to tweak and get a few free FPS out of it took over. The computer didn’t overclock well – the best I managed was less than 720 MHz. The chipset was the VIA KT133, which wasn’t nearly as good as its successor, the KT133A. The board later ran a 1.1 GHz Athlon Thunderbird (best overclock: 1166MHz!).
By late 2003 I was in my final year of high school and was working weekends. With this new source of cash (from an hourly wage of £3.26!), I decided to go more exotic and built a dual XP1700+ (1.47 GHz) computer. A bit of bridge popping later (12 V battery and a couple of wires) and I had a pair of XP2100s (1.73 GHz). In hindsight, I should have tried for 2 GHz, but that’s one of the decisions I’ll just have to regret. The graphics card was decent for the time, and I overclocked simply because I could. In 2004 I bought an Acer laptop (XP-M 2400+ with 256 MB RAM) which I used for internet and word processing.
Then came a shift: the market for computers shifted towards laptops. I replaced my aging Acer with a new HP in 2006 (one of the first Core Duo machines) and soon after gave my duallie away. Laptops are by their nature less customizable, limited in upgradability and generally feel more serious. The final years of my degree hit me hard and I found myself tweaking, gaming and posting less and less. I relied heavily on the laptop for studying and writing.
I started my PhD in October 2008 and now lean more heavily on computers as a tool; a machine broken by tweaking or overclocking is a nightmare. I’m a chemist by trade, but focus mainly on quantification and measurement and this means I need access to my data without fail; from Word, Excel and Endnote to Brüker Topspin, Berkeley Madonna, Kintek Explorer, SciFinder and MatLab. It’s all serious – nearly two years of my life as a researcher is on my portable hard drive. There’s little time for gaming, and little need to tweak. My laptop is beginning to struggle with applications but I plan to replace it shortly with a newer machine. It’s a tool, a means to an end, as much an item of equipment for my PhD as flasks and chemicals.
I have an Athlon X2 7750 (2.7 GHz) machine at home. It’s nothing fancy – it has a few big hard disks and runs Linux. I store films, TV programs and music on it. It’s less serious, all play and no work.
It runs at 3.12 GHz, just because I can.