Operating Systems

Many people are familiar with Linus of Linus Tech Tips on Youtube. He just released a Techquickie video about the Microsoft Windows Operating Systems, past and present, titled ‘Every Windows Version Ever!‘. I didn’t realise the video wasn’t part of his main channel, which addresses one of my criticisms about the short video… it being sub-seven minutes long (if you exclude his usual advertising). Clearly one of his filler videos rather than him going more in-depth as I would certainly expect of other tech channels I’m familiar with, such as LGR.

This isn’t going to be an in-depth look at “Every Windows Version Ever!” but more my experience of various operating systems over the years, along with addressing some more of those criticisms I have regarding Linus’s brief look. This will be a trip down Memory Lane; feel free to share your experiences in the Comments section below!

Windows 1.0 – 3.1

Windows began with version 1.0, but my experience began with 3.11 when I was given a few old computers from my old primary school. I had one in my bedroom and set up the other two in my sibling’s bedrooms, and networked them together with the included 10BASE2 cable. I was lead to believe the difference between Windows 3.1 and 3.11 was the ability to network and for this reason Linus’ lack of specific mention of this version stood out. However I have now consulted Wikipedia and can see no such difference as I had always believed (for 20+ years!).

“Windows 3.11 was released on November 8, 1993. It did not add many feature improvements over Windows 3.1; it primarily contained bug fixes, but was considered a significant improvement because of those fixes, contributing to the operating system’s popularity. Microsoft replaced all retail versions of Windows 3.1 with Windows 3.11 and provided a free upgrade to anyone who currently owned Windows 3.1.” – Wikipedia

The middle school I went to have one PC that resided on a trolley at the end of a corridor. I would look at with wonder but frustratingly I was never allowed “on it” for what I always thought was the stupid reason of, none of the teachers knew how to use it and therefore only the kids who were fortunate enough to have a computer at home could be granted permission to go near it (and it seemed only a few kids then were in such a position).

Another disappointment was to come about near the end of my time at that school when the was a big clear-out happening and, what I late came to learn was a Commodore PET was given away to a couple of students… I was very jealous, even though I wouldn’t have had a clue about how to use it.

My first taster of proper PCs came when we got to visit one of the few high schools in our town and the day entailed (as I recalled) being in a small computer room and printing off reams and reams of clipart pictures. This stuff was amazing to me, it was surely the first time I ever used a mouse but being young I surely learned how to use that in no time. Years later I would assist the teaching of older people and still recall how some of them struggled with using a mouse, some of them amusingly travelling further and further off the mouse pad in awkward positions while they tried to get the cursor where they wanted it! Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Windows NT and 95

At the high school I attended there were a few computer rooms, and finally I would attend computer lessons. The best room had systems with Windows NT on I think, but it may have been 95. I had never even used an actual computer before, so I was mesmerised. I’m not sure what version of Windows was on the systems in the next-best room, maybe Windows 3.x. A third room had “RM Nimbus” systems which were quite different to the Windows one; as I recall they were all networked together and the teacher would load something on a main computer for us all to access from our terminals.

“RM Nimbus was a range of personal computers from British company Research Machines (now RM Education) sold from 1985 until the early 1990s, after which the designation Nimbus was discontinued …. RM computers were predominantly sold to schools and colleges in the United Kingdom for use as LAN workstations in classrooms.” – Wikipedia

There were also some BBC micro computers dotted about in science rooms but it seemed these were already outdated and I think barely once was one used for the demonstration of a temperature probe or something. There was also a different system in one of the art rooms which I remember used two floppy disk drives; one to load the operating system and the other to load the paint program; it may have been an Amstrad, but I was clueless at the time, although I think I did get chance to go on it to do some drawing.

Back at home I finally got my own computer, but being a ZX Spectrum it lacked an operating system entirely. That didn’t stop me from experimenting though and, even when I didn’t have a clue what an operating system was or really how it might function, I attempted to program one in BASIC. Really it just ended up being a crude representation, but I had fun creating it along with the imitation desktop and icons I must have seen elsewhere (it appeared to be an early Apple clone!)

Once at college and on a graphic design course I had my first taste of Apple systems. These were awkward for me to use with the lack of right mouse buttons and some different keyboard keys. I also remember the RAM being only 128MB which limited how many layers my design would could include in Photoshop.

Windows 98, SE, Me, XP

Back at home and I finally purchased my own Windows PC after winning enough money on the National Lottery. It was quite a high spec. at the time, it had Windows 98, and boasted (and I boasted) 128MB RAM and a huge 10GB hard drive.

A few years later I got to dabble with an early version of Windows XP but it didn’t work well on my system; that high spec was no longer high enough (I’d already tripled the hard drive space by adding a 20GB hard drive). A couple of years further on again I got hold of Windows 98SE and Windows Me (which I always called M E).

As much as Linus and many others bash Windows Me, claiming it to be buggy and just horrible, I actually preferred it over my 98 and the 98SE I tried. It seemed to work well on my computer, even if it needed a fresh install every once in a while (but this seemed to be the case back then), and I also liked the aesthetic which was slightly different to those others, with a slightly different default blue desktop and refreshed icons.

I replicated the Me desktop on this page on my Neocities site [link]

Even when I later used Windows XP on systems I would find myself opting for that same blue background and would often choose to set the desktop to Windows 2000 mode appearance over the somewhat “immature”-appearing Windows XP start button and bar.

What Linus also failed to go into, in addition to “Windows 3.11”, was bits. He finally mentioned, when he got to XP, that that was later available in a 64-bit variant for the first time. Windows 1.0 was a 16-bit operating system, and Windows 95 was 32-bit.

Windows 95 followed Windows for Workgroups 3.11 with its lack of support for older, 16-bit x86 processors, thus requiring an Intel 80386 (or compatible). While the OS kernel is 32-bit, much code (especially for the user interface) remained 16-bit for performance reasons as well as development time constraints. This had a rather detrimental effect on system stability and led to frequent application crashes.

The main consideration regarding bits from a user’s perspective was the amount of RAM the system or an operating system could address or access. I recall having to set up a command on my Windows 98/Me systems to properly utilise 512MB of RAM (I believe). It was then in the Windows XP-era that I got into building computers for people and 2GB of RAM was the practical limit for that 32-bit operating system; you could install 4GB but it wouldn’t be able to address it all. Or, you could install 3GB if you wanted to have a mixed pair of modules (in systems with only two RAM slots and weren’t going to benefit from “dual channel RAM”).

I rarely came across anyone using the 64-bit version of Windows XP. This seemed to be resigned mostly to serious gamers at the time who needed to overcome the RAM limitations mentioned. It wasn’t very well supported regarding device drivers.

Windows Vista

This is where our next black sheep comes into the story. Windows Vista came out in two variants also, 32-bit and 64-bit. I often had to have the talk with clients about the benefits and pitfalls of each; if they had old hardware they wanted to keep using then they would likely need to use Vista 32-bit, but with only 2GB RAM, or else bite the bullet and go for the 64-bit version. At the time 4GB of RAM was very expensive, but I was aware that Vista really needed 2GB as a bare minimum… some cheaper systems at the time only had 1GB (such as netbooks running Vista Basic). Very quickly this limited amount of RAM became problematic. Where possible I would be upgrading computers for people to 4GB, or telling them, “sorry, your [cheap crappy] computer [that you’ve only had for a year and already finding to be slow] doesn’t support any more than the 1GB of RAM it was supplied with.” I think a lot of people were essentially ripped off or scammed due to this limitation because they’d essentially bought new computers that had a very limited life, particularly once updates/service packs for the operating system were released and other software like anti virus protection started demanding more.

This is partly why, I believe, Windows Vista did so badly; it really liked its RAM, that coupled with its frustrating demands on the hard drive (made worse with a lack of RAM). I still have at least one computer with Windows Vista on it; it has 4GB dual channel RAM and a dual core processor. It works well; if it properly supported the use of an SSD instead of hard drives it would be even better. Similar to Windows Me, I quite liked the aesthetic too!

Then along came Windows 7 (and eventually proper support for SSDs) which filled the shoes of the failed Windows Vista. By now it was rare for anyone to opt for or find themselves using anything but the 64-bit version, so, coupled with (the by now cheaper) 4GB RAM it performed much better, and as Linus pointed out, there was improved driver support too, something Vista was plagued with in its 64-bit infancy.

Windows 8

Windows 8 however was to be another of those “Me” and “Vista” operating systems that people hated. For once I side with this consensus. The initial lack of start button (until it was put back in 8.1) and the Start Screen instead of menu made the system horrible to use for desktop users that just wanted to get on with work. (Microsoft seem to have lost sight of this purpose from this point onwards).

Windows 10

Linus claimed this start screen was done away with in Windows 10, but it’s still there in Tablet Mode which some users occasionally find themselves in (perhaps when a glitch happens with an Update). Windows 10 has not been without its Update glitches. With Windows 10 updates have become frustratingly large and unavoidable. Linus points out the change of tactic from Microsoft in that the operating system is now provided as “a service“, rather than new versions being released, which is somewhat contradictory if you are ever to install/reinstall the OS yourself and you get faced with the message about how some updates are being installed and you are asked to “hang tight” and then “Windows will be all yours…” I laugh at this point, really, Microsoft own your system.

That Windows 10 was provided as a free upgrade from Windows 7 or 8.1 is quite telling; “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” or something to that effect. Although one could then question how Linux fits into this.

Linux

If it wasn’t for a couple of pieces of old software I use that require Windows (although this is not entirely true), I would likely be using Ubuntu Linux as my main operating system. Microsoft Windows has lost its magic for me, and I never know what is going to change next during one of its covert updates. I’ve dabbled with a few versions of Linux over the years and once it became more user-friendly I managed to install Ubuntu along-side Windows 10 on my main system and opt to use it on other systems that don’t have a Windows 10 licence.

I recently acquired an old boxed version of Caldera Linux dating back to the Windows 95 era. I tried to install it until it I was reminded just how hands-on installing an operating system used to be. I was asked for details such as how many cylinders and sectors my hard drive had, what kind of mouse I was using (PS/2 or Serial for example), my network card details, and screen resolution. I got it installed but couldn’t do much else, let alone get online with it.

Apple OS and Android

Also recently I found myself dabbling with some more Apple Macs and an old iPad; I’m not so familiar with these systems. I could see the appeal of using the same system across multiple devices, and seemingly having things working more seamlessly, but overall these systems feel quite restrictive since one is more confined to the world of Apple (a bit like only using Google for searches, Wikipedia for research, or Facebook for communicating with friends and family).

In addition to the gripes made above about Windows 10, both Apple on their tablets and phones and Android on theirs concern me with how they can turn a perfectly functioning piece of equipment obsolete. Your printer might stop working and you think you can simply purchase a new one and expect it to work the same, but no, you now need an app for it, and that app requires a version of operating system of no earlier than x. E-mails or your banking app could just stop working following an update that went in without you knowing, with no option to revert the changes; creating yet another piece of tech that is only fit for the scrapheap.

With regards to old Apple OS and Android versions for smart phones and tablets, these seem to develop less of a cult following like their Windows desktop counterparts; new versions get released and installed (if your device is compatible) and your life is shoehorned into the new version with little time for you to mentally adjust – those once familiar icons now gone forever, the way you had to swipe or where you had to click, changed for good. For many people these devices are a life line; my desktop has been “my world” for many years, but these days, with a new update around the corner at any moment (or the next time I restart or switch on my computer or device) I feel like I can’t get too settled with what I currently enjoy using and the way I enjoy using it. I recently realised my Windows 10 taskbar had changed from black to light grey; there seemed to be little I could do to rectify this (I’m not even sure exactly when it happened) other than switching to Night Mode, which affected other things too.

If you thought this was a lot of Operating Systems to talk about, check out this list! [link]

What are your memorable Operating Systems, and/or what are the things you like about those you use today?

6 comments

  1. Operating systems to me always meant things like writing programs for printer drivers and recursive descent compilers. Things that tie your head in knots and take away the will to live.

    • The voice of Cortana takes away a little bit of my will to live every time she says “Hi there, I’m Cortana…” during a Windows 10 install.

  2. If anything, the startup and shutdown sounds of Windows XP hold a place in my heart. But still, nothing beats the startup sound for Windows 95 — that I even used it as my message alert tone!

  3. I’m not sure which windows version is was in 1986, but that was our first! I remember making batch files for the kids to access their games. We had the picture of the game and what they had to type to access it. I was so excited for 3.0!

  4. The first operating system which sticks in my mind was CP/M-2.2 . I’m not old enough to have experienced CP/M-1.4 but am aware of it. I probably did unknowingly come into contact with the Incompatible Time Sharing System as a child.

    I wouldn’t agree that the Spectrum lacked an O/S. Like other home computers running BASIC, it used the rudimentary command-line operations which the operating system for the original Dartmouth BASIC used, such as NEW, RUN and LIST.

    I used DOS in the mid-’90s, graduated to Windows 3.1 in 1998, then jumped to Windows 98. My impression of Windows 1.0 was that it was a load of flim-flam tacked onto DOS which nobody really needed, and although I was enthusiastic about the Lisa and Mac when they first came out, GEM was pretty slow on an 8086 PC and with each iteration of Windows I’ve felt less and less in control.

    Outside of Microsoft, I’ve used Linux and of course Android, and also BeOS and QNX. My main concern in all of this is to avoid built-in obsolescence. You might think Linux would do that but unfortunately it tends to be oriented towards supporting newer hardware.

    Ideally I’d use a live O/S on a memory stick and start anew every time. I have in fact done this but nowadays I’ve kind of got over myself and just use Android.

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