Computers

Computers are a great interest of mine, especially personal computers.

1982 – MTU-130

MTU-130 personal computer
MTU-130 personal computer

My first personal computer was called an MTU-130, which I ordered in 1982 direct from Micro Technology Unlimited, a company in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was very advanced for the time, having two 1Mb 8″ floppy drives, monochrome graphics, MIDI music capability, a wonderful word processor, programming languages, and more.

My first modem – hooked up to my MTU-130 – was an original Hayes 300 baud model. I quickly discovered the online world of electronic bulletin board services (BBSs) and CompuServe. Now I communicate over the Internet at speeds unheard of in the early 1980’s using Shaw’s cable broadband service. This service gives me speeds of 25 Mbps, versus 300 bps for my first modem – an increase of over 80,000 times in throughput over the last 30 years!

1983 – Local computer users group

In 1983 I joined a small local group of computer aficionados, who later called themselves Big Blue and Cousins (now Victoria Computer Club). I joined because I had purchased a

Big Blue & Cousins' electronic bulletin board system (BBS)
Big Blue & Cousins’ electronic bulletin board system (BBS) in 1995

C compiler for my MTU-130, and needed some support while I self-taught myself the programming language. At the time, the colleges and computer retailers didn’t offer any courses in C programming, so I felt right at home among my peers – out there on the bleeding edge of technology.

The group soon decided to start running an electronic bulletin board system (BBS), and things took off from there. I ended up staying with this users group until 1996.

1985 – IBM-PC clones

In 1985 I jumped on the IBM-PC clone bandwagon, purchasing in quick succession: PC/XT, PC/AT, PC-386, PC-486 and Pentium clone computers over the next ten years. I also started using IBM-PC genuine personal computers at work as well as clones. They replaced proprietary, closed personal computer systems produced by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). I purchased my first laptop computer, a luggable Olivetti that weighed over 20 lbs, and would only run for an hour!

1999 – My own Windows server

In late March of 1999 I set up my own server at home. It ran all Microsoft system software: Windows NT Server, Internet Information Server, FrontPage server extensions, and Proxy Server. One of the motivations for this change was to regain control of my website. Although the Shaw service provided me with a reliable and fast connection to the Internet, their @Home web-hosting service left a bit to be desired. Web gadgets are not allowed (except for two very basic ones), and I had run into storage space problems, since my JoeTourist website contained so many graphics.

Having my own web server was great. It provided me with virtually unlimited space, and a place to play around with all of the various web-hosting tools available at the time. Using Microsoft’s FrontPage to manage and publish my web pages was wonderful. It was so much easier to keep the website up-to-date than hand-coding HTML, and the web pages had a more modern and clean look due to the style sheets available in FrontPage. The refresh speed for browsing my website also improved, since I wasn’t having to share web server resources with thousands of other Shaw@Home customers.

I had lots of support from Rick Macmurchie (Great White North Technologies), who worked through all of the technical problems of setting up a web server with a proxy server and other technical goo-gahs that were necessary to make this system work reliably in those days. Greg Hansen, who for many years was my computer systems dealer of choice (G.H. Business Computers and Systems) sold me reliable hardware to make things run. The moral support and technical know-how that Joe Macmurchie contributed was also very much appreciated. Having good friends to share my passion with just made it that much more fun!

2010 – Switched to Apple personal computers

I continued to run high end Windows workstation computers for many years, which I used to create videos, process digital photos (both terrestrial and astronomical), create content for my various websites, and do general office chores. Eventually, I decided to abandon the Windows/IBM-PC world and go over to the dark side: Apple personal computers.

MacBook Air 11.6"
MacBook Air 11.6″

My first Apple computer was a MacBook Air with an 11.6″ screen and a 128Gb SSD. I was very impressed with the quality of both the Apple hardware and software. The speedy access of using a solid state drive instead of a traditional hard drive was something I depended on very quickly. I used this notebook computer to take to meetings, to travel with, and I also used it to get acquainted with how the Apple ecosystem worked.

2012 – MacBook Pro with Retina display

By this point, I was so impressed with Apple’s computers, that I decided to shut down my Windows-based workstation and replace it with a MacBook Pro with a 15″ Retina display and a 256Gb SSD. I quickly adapted to the Apple way of doing things on a day-to-day basis. I still ran a few Windows-only software packages on my MacBook Pro using a Parallels virtual machine, but I quickly migrated to using Apple-based software for over 95% of what I needed to do on my computer. I subsequently upgraded my MacBook Pro’s storage from 256Gb SSD to 480Gb SSD using a kit from OWC. The MacBook Pro’s 15″ Retina display is gorgeous, giving tack-sharp text, beautifully deep colour rendition, and amazing high definition video.

2012 – Migrated my websites to online hosting

Despite switching to Apple computers for my workstation needs, I was still running a Windows Server 2008 to host my websites. However, I was getting tired of Microsoft’s never-ending updates to their operating systems, their attempts to extract new fees for services which I didn’t want to get involved with, and expensive licensing for my email server software from a third party. By December of 2012, things came to a head when Microsoft announced they were terminating their Technet service, which I had relied on for licensing all my Microsoft software.

I had always kept my eye on web hosting services supplied through third parties, and now was an opportune time to migrate my clients and my own websites to an external hosting company. I found one I was happy with (Toronto-based HostPapa.ca), purchased a hosting plan from them, and took on the monumental job of migrating multiple websites over to the new service over the 2012 Christmas holidays. It went surprisingly well, and I was all done with no major issues only a few weeks later. This migration included websites, email, and email lists.

Although my Windows server no longer hosted my websites or email, it was still my proxy server for my home-based network connection to Shaw’s Internet service. I was in no mood to do yet another migration, but I eventually did replace my server with a router that provides the proxy services I need. I ended up with a much simpler and easier to maintain home-based network by the end of 2013.

2013 – Mac Mini server

Mac Mini server - back ports
Mac Mini server – back ports

Since my MacBook Pro had limited storage (480Gb SSD), I had to access my extensive video and photo collections over my internal network to high capacity drives hosted by my Windows server. This worked well, but it was complicated to manage, and network latency slowed down access times, although once found, the files loaded quick enough. I eventually decided to purchase a Mac Mini server to host the mass storage I required. Looking back on it, I simply traded one devil for another, however I had plans to use the Mac Mini server for other purposes. For reasons I won’t get into, it remained a simple file server. However, having the Mac Mini server allowed me to shut down my Windows server, since the proxy connections to Shaw were being handled by a router, so there was nothing left for the Windows server to do.

Since I really wasn’t making full use of the Mac Mini as a server, I sold it in 2016. I was pleasantly surprised when I researched the market for used Mac Mini servers – they were selling for at least as much as their original purchase prices…rare in the high tech world. I ended up selling my Mac Mini server on eBay for about $300 more than I originally paid for it!

2016 – Mac Pro workstation and 4k video

My workstation: Apple Mac Pro
My workstation: Apple Mac Pro

I almost put an exclamation mark after the Mac Pro workstation title above, since it is such a superb setup! In 2016 my MacBook Pro notebook was coming off its 4 year AppleCare Protection Plan. Although it was still working perfectly, I wanted to get into 4k video, and the Retina display only supported about 2k video and of course it was only 15″ size. I also found that when rendering big video projects, the MacBook Pro’s cooling systems were being overtaxed. It was time for an upgrade, and so I decided to return to a desktop workstation computer built by Apple for just such demanding tasks.

The Mac Pro is the most capable computer Apple produces, and comes in an interesting cylindrical case that sits on a desk. It comes in several configurations, all featuring multi-core Intel Xeon processors, high speed SSD storage, and lots of ports for external devices and networks. The chassis is specially designed to keep the components cool, even during the most demanding tasks. I selected a Quad Core model with Dual GPUs and a 1Tb SSD.

My workstation: Apple Mac Pro with Dell 27" 4k monitor, Dell 24" HD monitor & WD 4Tb portable Thunderbolt drive
My workstation: Apple Mac Pro with Dell 27″ 4k monitor, Dell 24″ HD monitor & WD 4Tb portable Thunderbolt drive

Since the main justification for getting such a high end desktop computer was to produce high definition video, I also needed a new monitor, since the Mac Pro doesn’t come with a display of it’s own, and oddly enough Apple doesn’t sell a standalone 4k display. The only option for the Mac Pro is Apple’s 27″ Thunderbolt display which is about 2k resolution. So I was in the market for a 4k monitor that would be a good match for the Mac Pro’s high resolution capabilities. Since I had used a Dell P-series 24″ display with my Windows workstations for years and was well-pleased with it, I decided to purchase a Dell P2715Q 27″ 4k display as my main working monitor for my new Mac Pro, since this monitor fully-supports DisplayPort, which is Thunderbolt compatible for display technology (same plug and protocols).

I now have a superb video production setup with the Dell 4k 27″ display as my main working monitor, and the old Dell 24″ monitor as a second monitor suitable for use as an HD-capable monitor (through HDMI/DVI), all driven by the dual GPUs in my new Apple Mac Pro. Video rendering and transcoding is quick and painless at any resolution I choose for a project. Optical audio connects to my Yamaha receiver and 5-channel system in my office, giving superb audio quality from any program source. I subsequently added a Western Digital My Passport Pro 4TB portable RAID storage with integrated Thunderbolt cable to store all my media on. This drive is both fast and reliable using Raid 0 interleaving.

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