Technical Update

Upgrading my computer is turning out to be a bit more complicated than I had anticipated. I’d thought that it would just be a case of ordering a new graphics card and slotting it in, but I hadn’t reckoned with the fact that technology has moved on a bit since the last time I took an interest in the inner workings of my machine.

Things are made more difficult by the fact that I have only a hazy idea of what is inside the case at the moment. I bought the machine, without any documentation, at a bankruptcy auction about four years ago, and, apart from putting in a new hard drive a while back, I haven’t had any reason to open it up.

The last time I was in the market for expansion cards, they came in two flavours, PCI and ISA, which lets you know that it wasn’t yesterday. I had heard about the introduction of AGP, and I guessed that my current motherboard probably had such a slot, since it was modern enough to support a P4 chip. A little web searching helped me track down the specifications of the board to confirm this. (Tip: to find out more about your motherboard, make a note of the BIOS version listed in the setup menu, type it into Google, and you should end up with a link to the documentation for the board). To further complicate things I discovered that there are several different types of AGP slot, but luckily I managed to find this page, which reassured me that my board should be able to take any new card that I bought.

The card also has to meet the Second Life minimum requirements, with enough to spare to ensure that I don’t have to do all this again when they upgrade their system, not to mention working with Linux, preferably out of the box.

Eventually I narrowed it down to the nVidia GeForce 7 Series. I chose nVidia over ATI because the nVidia Linux drivers seem to be a bit more stable. (Purists would say that the drivers aren’t truly open-source, because nVidia don’t release the source code, but I’m willing to compromise to get this project off the ground). I would have gone for a cutting-edge 8 Series card, were it not for the fact that they seem to only come in PCIE format, AGP having evidently passed the date of its planned obsolescence. Most 7 Series cards are PCIE too, but I managed to track down the Inno3D 7600GS which comes in an AGP version.

I’ve gone into all this in rather obsessive depth, partly to explain why I haven’t managed to get my act together sooner, but also because the experience has made me reflect on how the way I use a computer has changed over the years.

Like many boys of my generation, in the UK at least, my introduction to computing came through the ZX Spectrum, back in the 1980’s. (I did have an Atari 2600 before that, but I don’t think that counts as a proper computer). I used to spend hours labouriously typing in programs written in Z80 machine code, which even at the time was pretty arcane. I created some neat stuff, including an Asteroids knock-off which, in my opinion anyway, was as good as the commercially-available games of the era. I might have gone on to a great career in the industry, if I hadn’t gone off to University and been distracted by drink, drugs, music, politics and girls.

Medical students today seem to spend most of their time sitting in front of computers, but back when I was at medical school “Information Technology” meant the telephone. I did have a couple of friends from the science faculty, who would sometimes talk about a wonderful thing called the “internet”, but nobody paid much attention to them.

It wasn’t until a few years after I graduated that I got myself a PC. I did a bit of programming, subscribed to a couple of magazines to keep up with technical developments and regularly dismantled the machine and rebuilt it with new components.

Then, around the mid-90’s, I acquired a 14.4 modem and discovered the internet, which at that time was just starting to become a mass phenomenon. I was soon enjoying Usenet groups and the first primitive web pages. I remember when I upgraded to a 33.6 modem (a US Robotics Sportster which cost me £200 – I dug it out of the cupboard a few weeks ago when my broadband connection broke down, and it still works) and was completely amazed at the speed. I taught myself HTML (in those days AJAX was something you cleaned the bath with) and put a few pages up on Geocities.

As time passed I lost interest in the computer in itself, and increasingly saw it just as a box that I used to access the net. Eventually I gave up trying to create any online content, web pages or even newsgroup posts, and settled into being a passive consumer of information. This blog is the first time in ages that I’ve tried to reverse the process, and I have to admit that I’m finding it hard going, since every time I sit down with the intention of composing a post I tend to be distracted by essentially aimless browsing. (I have a bad Wikipedia habit, as you’ll know if you’ve followed any of the links from this post).

Anyway, I’ve ordered the graphics card from Amazon, and I should have it by the start of next month. While I’ve got the case open I’m going to put in some more memory, a bigger hard drive and a DVD-RW drive, and I’m also planning to install the latest version of the Mandriva Linux distro. Once I’ve got all that up and running I should be able to install the Second Life client, and finally get down to business.

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