Friday, January 8, 2010

The IBM PCjr. Puzzle

The first personal computer that I ever owned was an IBM PCjr.

For you young 'uns out there, the IBM PCjr. was IBM's ill-fated attempt to introduce a "lite" version of their popular IBM Personal Computer to the home market back in 1984. This was back in the day when a full-blown IBM PC sporting two 5¼" diskette drives, no hard disk and 640K of RAM (yes, I said "K"; not gigabytes, not even megabytes, but "kay", as in "'Kay, after my word processing program is loaded, I have enough memory left for maybe a three-page document") cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000.

Oh, the idea was sound enough. Since most home users at that time were unwilling to shell out those kind of bucks for a bit of fledgling personal computer technology, especially when the likes of Apple, Commodore and Radio Shack offered much cheaper alternatives, IBM decided to entice them with a lower-cost version of their popular desktop business machine. The most obvious advantage was that those who were already increasingly using "Junior's" big brother at the office would have a smaller, yet compatible machine at home that could run the same software that they used at work. The Commodore 64, the Apple II and Radio Shack's Color Computer couldn't run WordPerfect or Lotus 123. Even when versions of those programs were eventually released for some of those other home computers, they still couldn't read a diskette created by an office PC. The PCjr. could.

Yes, it looked good on paper. Then IBM killed a perfectly good concept by fouling up the implementation as only IBM can. Part of the problem was in the way that they cut costs. For example, rather than including a "normal" keyboard, the PCjr. came equipped with a lower-cost keyboard that featured ridiculously small keys that were roughly the shape, size and color of Chiclets (by which I mean the gum). In fact, the keyboard became known far and wide as the "Chiclet" keyboard. The keys didn't even have letters, numbers or symbols printed directly on them. Instead, these were printed above and below the keys, on the keyboard itself. People hated it. Even the humble Commodore 64 and Radio Shack Color Computer included normal keyboards.

Unlike the IBM PC, the PCjr. didn't use a plug-in card for its graphical display; instead it used a chip built onto the motherboard. Although this chip did the graphical processing work, it had no memory of its own, unlike the plug-in video cards of the day, so some of the PCjr.'s memory had to be allocated for the graphical display, leaving less for programs and data. This was even more problematic since the PCjr. initially shipped with a maximum of just 128K of RAM (there was also a 64K version).

Although the PCjr. used the same Intel 8088 CPU that its big brother used, it ran more slowly than the PC because it didn't include a DMA (Direct Memory Access) chip, so some of the CPU's clock cycles had to be reserved for refreshing the RAM.

The biggest problem, however, was IBM's bizarre decision to make all of the PCjr.'s plugs completely incompatible with regular PC peripherals. You couldn't plug an IBM PC monitor into a PCjr. because the plug didn't fit. The same was true of a regular IBM PC keyboard, printer or joystick. IBM built special monitors, printers and joysticks just for the PCjr., and Junior owners were expected to buy them.

During the PCjr.'s short heyday, IBM licensed the character of Charlie Chaplin as the Junior's official spokesperson which, in hindsight, was ironically appropriate. Trying to get anything done with the PCjr. often felt very much like trying to eat a shoe.

Some of these shortcomings were eventually fixed, or at least worked around. The Chiclet keyboard was so reviled that IBM eventually gave in and released a more normal-looking keyboard for the PCjr. They even offered to replace Chiclet keyboards that had been shipped up to that point with the newer ones at no cost. Third party and after-market manufacturers eventually created upgrades that added more RAM and a DMA chip as well as adapters that would allow Junior users to plug regular PC peripherals into their machines, but these still had to be purchased separately. All in all, it was too little too late, and the PCjr. became the Edsel of computers.

In spite of its shortcomings, I liked my PCjr. It did have some cool features not found in a regular IBM PC. For example, its graphics chip was capable of displaying more colors than the IBM PC, which generally used a CGA graphics card and could display only four colors at a time. The PCjr. also had a built-in three-voice sound chip capable of playing harmonic music that sounded much superior to the PC's tinny, single-voice beeper. Computer games which specifically supported the machine looked and sounded better on the PCjr. than they did when running on its big brother, although they often ran more slowly.

My best friend, Mart, and I buy each other gifts for our respective birthdays and at Christmas time, being best friends after all. Over the years, we've sometimes given each other "gag" gifts, chosen with the intent to elicit a laugh or at least to raise an eyebrow rather than for their practical value, like the time that I gave Mart an audio cassette tape featuring sixty minutes of whale song.

"Whoa there, Halmanator," I hear you exclaim, "You've gone and started next week's post without finishing the last one!" I can understand why you might think so at this point. That's just because you don't know about the present that Mart sent me for the Christmas just passed. He sent me a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle promoting the IBM PCjr. I don't even want to know where he found it. Here it is:

Yeah, that's right Mart. I assembled it. Go ahead. Click on the picture. Get a nice, close look. Didn't think I'd do it, did you? But you forgot something. I'm out of work! I have all the time in the world on my hands! Go ahead! Gimme your best shot! Send me a model of the Eiffel Tower made entirely of match-sticks! I'll build that too! Muhahahahahaaaa!

You're goin' down, pal! Oh, you just wait until your birthday! Better clear that shed of yours, 'cause you're gonna need a large storage space, preferably with a lockable door! Nobody one-ups The Halmanator!


IBM Laptop Motherboards said...

Well done! I am curious how long it took to construct the puzzle. The IBM PCjr. was a classic device, and it must have been great to be reminded of the times when that was the latest and greatest.

Martin said...

As a postscript to your story, I'll let people know that when Andy upgraded to a newer, faster computer (was that the XT?), he loaned me the PCjr for a few months. This was just before I returned to university to finish my degree. This was the 1980s, before the personal computer revolution really caught on, and I had very little knowledge about to use one, so I cut my teeth on the PCjr. It was a revelation. In particular, the power of word processing programs on the computer blew my mind. No more writing out rough drafts by hand. No more scribbling and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting by hand. No more typing, with typewriter key jams and using "white out" everytime you hit the wrong key. The computer let me merge rough drafts into the finished product, making the whole thing a work in progress. It was simply ... amazing and beautiful.

Anyway, thanks Andy for the use of the PCjr! I truly appreciated it. And I await the payback you have in mind with trepidation.

Halmanator said...

To IBM Laptop Motherboards: Well, lessee... I opened Mart's parcel on Christmas Eve, that's Dec. 24, and I finished it the day before I posted, that was Jan. 7, so that's two weeks elapsed. I didn't keep track of the hours I spent actually assembling it, but I'd estimate it at maybe 8 to 10 hours. The secret is to start with the edges first. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I'm going to call shenanigins on that picture. It is a smaller version of the one posted here:

The defects in the picture are exactly the same as in the original. And the larger version of the picture is just interpolated, but with the corresponding loss of detail ...

It is a very nice recollection of the machine though.

Halmanator said...

Guilty as charged! You caught me in a lie. I have actually started the puzzle, but I found the same link you did, and decided to take a little shortcut. You're a cleverer man than Mart, my friend!

Martin said...

Clever than Mart?? Because I didn't search the net for images matching that of your puzzle, in case you hadn't built it? For shame, Halmanator, for shame!

Halmanator said...

In the words of Don Quixote, "I deserve the rebuke". To atone, I'm sending you the Golden Helmet of Mambrino for your birthday. Besides, you hardly need a barber these days in any case. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I bought a jr. when it first came out in an IBM store in Eureka, Ca. I had no computer experience. After some aftermarket upgrades, I loved it! Wish I still had it for old times sake, but back then it cost MUCH more than the top of the line system I am using today!

Halmanator said...

You can still re-live that old PCjr. magic today, thanks to an emulator called DOSBox. DOSBox emulates an 8088-based DOS-compatible PC. It also emulates many popular graphics and sound cards and chips, including the PCjr. and Tandy 1000's 16-colour graphics modes and the Yamaha 3-voice sound chip that both the PCjr. and Tandy used for sound. It even slows down program execution to roughly the speed at which an 8088 CPU would run. There are hot-keys to adjust the processing speed to your liking. In short, DOSBox will emulate your old IBM PCjr. in Windows.

You can legally download DOSBox for no charge from here.

Now all you need is some old PCjr. or DOS software to run. Check out some of the many abandonware sites out there. As The Carpenters once said, "It's Yesterday Once More".