Five Unsung PC Components That Made Our Lives Better

Sitting in front of a modern, fancy laptop or blazing fast quad-core desktop, it can be easy to forget just how much technology has changed in the past few years.

Your average computer is now full of incredible technology, much of which represents the refinement of ideas that began a long time ago.

But like we often forget the bit players, artists and crew who make movies so amazing, we also sometimes forget the various parts and components that make our bits and bytes work better. And isn’t it about time we remembered some things that led to the incredible speed, power and ease our technology delivers today?

Here are five unsung components from our past – and present – that make life way better for us geeks:

 

Sound Blaster

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Picture it. For years, you’ve been a dedicated PC gamer, and you’re used to little beeps and clicks in your computer games, like the ones near the beginning of the video above.

Then, two things happen. In 1989, Creative release the Sound Blaster add-on sound card –  and later, in 1991, the 16-bit Sound Blaster Pro. Now, instead of blips and beeps, you get full rich music. And then, John Carmack and his team at id release the now classic shooter Doom.

Sitting in the dark playing Doom with the music and new digital sound effects was how many gamers first acquired their love of the pastime. And trust me – there were no gaming experiences as intense at the time. It was an entirely new experience.

By providing the tech that created these immersive soundscapes, Sound Blaster paved the way for the multimedia feast that is modern gaming.

 

3DFX Voodoo 1

Sticking with the gaming theme: there was once a time when computers weren’t very good at displaying 3D graphics. Hard to believe, I know. Graphics were blocky and framerates were low. Even the programming whizzes at id couldn’t figure out a way to make then normal computer hardware do more.

The mainstream solution came in the form of 3dfx’s Voodoo card. Rather than being a full video card, the only thing it did was accelerate 3D graphics – you still had to keep your regular 2D card.

But it was so worth it. Playing Quake on a Voodoo card versus not was like night and day. Suddenly, you had super smooth frame rates and what at the time were amazing graphics. Then Epic created Unreal (pictured above) and gamers everywhere with 3D cards collectively sighed and then fainted like a nineteenth-century Southern belle. It just looked that awesome.

And it was that first add-on card, the 3dfx Voodoo, that paved the way for today’s Radeon and GeForce cards that can now do things like this.

 

USB

Wait, what? USB? How can something with a name like “Universal Serial Bus” possibly be important? What the hell is so great about those?

Well, kinda’ everything.

See, back in the day, the idea of plug ‘n play had yet to come about. If you wanted to plug in an external hard drive or a printer, you had to turn your computer off, attach the cable, and then turn it on again. Parallel ports and SCSI connections, though fast for the time, weren’t ready for the advances in tech we have today. Worse, some devices used one type of connection while other devices used another. There was no standard – and if you can believe it, some peripherals like hand scanners came with unique, proprietary connections and cables.

Now that’s all changed. There’s generally one standard cable for all external peripherals – and you just plug it in, wait for drivers to install and go.

It was USB (and Firewire before it) that allowed for the mass expansion of plug ‘n play, universal compatibility – and the end of keeping track of four-hundred types of cables.

 

Scanners

Speaking of external peripherals… We know how big a deal printers were. They allowed you to take things from the digital world and make them physical.

But scanners – which of course allow you to go the other way round, from physical to digital – were pretty incredible. By breaking that digital/material barrier, scanners allowed people to email printed documents halfway around the world, save and archive old photo collections, or use Optical Character Recognition software to “read” sheets of text.

To put it simply, without scanners, the transition from paper to digital would have been a lot harder, since the humble device allowed the stacks of paper we all had around to make their way into the computer and become part of the digital revolution.

 

The Wireless Network Card

So, maybe this one is an obvious one. But it’s hard to overstate just how big a deal wireless networking cards were.

See, the internet has, by far, been the biggest change brought about by computers. But long ago, before most people had heard of “802.11”, people had to plug their computers in to get internet access. That meant that you had to take your laptop over to a desk and jack in an Ethernet cable any time you wanted to surf the web. Wi-Fi cards obviously changed that, and you could then sit anywhere within a home or office to work.

But what wireless did wasn’t just about convenience. It enabled the mobile revolution. Without wireless, there’d be no sitting in Starbucks and working, or chilling on the couch and IM’ing with a friend, or checking your email while on a patio. It was wireless that allowed the web to become an integrated, mobile part of our lives, rather than something only experienced at a particular physical place.

Sure now, it’s become a default, integrated part of how we work. But it’s precisely its invisibility that’s a testament to how important wireless networking has become to our day-to-day lives.

What about the future? What innovations from today will we look back upon as being fundamental in 20 years from now?

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang
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Comments
  • dan

    Unsung? Wifi? You’re kidding.

  • Boomer

    Ah the Soundblaster, I remember well. It was a race like now with graphic cards, who had the best sound on his PC. :)
    Still have one Roland SCC1 at home, too bad no machine has ISA slots anymore.

  • http://profiles.google.com/printhead30 print head

    A very insightful post. Thanks for the info.