Can you do real work with the 30-year-old IBM 5150?

Our intrepid reporter spends a week trying to write, browse the Web, edit photos, and even tweet on IBM's first PC.

Second to come to mind was Microsoft Works, a word processor (and office suite) that I actually used in the DOS days myself. The earliest version of Works that I owned sported an executable file size of 372KB, which would not fit on a 360KB floppy either. What was I to do?

To find the answer, I had to look back at what people with a 360KB floppy drive used. I happened to have a cache of floppies from my dad's free-wheelin' days with an ITT Xtra (a PC clone I mentioned earlier). His Xtra came equipped with only two 360KB floppy drives--just as my 5150 did. I found his copy of LifeTree Software's Volkswriter 3, a popular word processor that he utilized heavily until Microsoft Works entered his life.

Volkswriter boasted a strong user base in the 1980s because its first version had been one of the earliest word processing packages released on the IBM PC platform. Moreover, users held version 3 in especially high regard since it didn't rely on arcane typed commands or "Ctrl-Shift-Alt-H-1"-style keyboard gymnastics for added functionality.

Thankfully, the Volkswriter disks still worked, so I loaded up the program. I started with a warm-up exercise to keep my fingers limber, typing what you see in the accompanying photo.

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Volkswriter 3 turned out to be very useful, proving that out of all the tasks I had thrown at the 5150 thus far, word processing most resembled its modern PC equivalent.

PC Keyboard, Is That You?

I should take this opportunity to talk a little about the original IBM PC keyboard layout.

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To put it simply, it's weird--well, at least by our current standards (those set by the IBM 101-key Enhanced Keyboard released in 1984).

While most PC users respected the 5150's keyboard for its durability, its generally reasonable layout, and its now-famous clicky feel, critics took issue with the nonstandard placement of some important keys, including the left Shift key and the Enter key. On top of that, many of the most-used keys have an unusual design (a peak on top of a lower-set key face) that makes me think IBM wanted users to mistype them or miss them all together.

Still, one could get used to a keyboard like that, and I found myself growing accustomed to the layout after using it for a few days. Then I went back to a standard, modern keyboard and started making mistakes.

Next page: Playing games and mousing around

Day 4: Of Mice and Menus

IBM did not design this PC to be a gaming machine. It was not intended to be a gaming machine. It was a serious computer for serious business, doggone it. A typical PC shipped with a monochrome graphics adapter. If you wanted color--CGA--you got 16 colors in text mode and a mere four colors (four ugly colors, at that) in 320-by-200 graphics mode.

For audio output, IBM equipped the PC with a simple one-channel speaker whose beeps often resembled the sounds of a miniature duck being strangled to death. And of course, the 5150 didn't ship with joystick or paddle ports (although IBM offered an optional adapter that added a port for those accessories).

Despite IBM's sobriety, game developers brought entertainment software to the PC in droves. Stopping them was impossible: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when you weren't word processing, gaming was the most useful thing you could do with a personal computer.

To test the PC's gaming muscle, I whipped out a few titles I had handy. A port of the arcade hit Arkanoid II worked well in CGA mode, although with only four colors I found it hard to tell some of the power-ups from the background.

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Next I loaded up one of my personal favorites, ZZT, a text-based adventure game programmed by Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games (more recently, the same company created the Gears of War franchise).

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I also played Jumpman, Alley Cat, and Digger--all of which are fun games that you could play for quite a while. But my time was precious.

Mousing Around

When I'm not busy typing letters of the alphabet into a computer, I'm usually crafting images for slideshows or touching up scans or photos for illustrations. I normally use a Photoshop-like application for this task on a modern PC, but what was the closest equivalent available for the 5150?

To do any decent image composition or editing on a computer, I first needed to hook up a mouse. This turned out to be a cinch. I had plenty of mice to choose from, including official Microsoft models that operated through a PC's serial port.

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After simply plugging in the mouse, I loaded up a mouse driver (remember "mouse.com"?) from an official Microsoft Mouse disk, and ka-boom, it worked.

For a computer paint program, I first turned to an early DOS version of Microsoft Paintbrush that I happened to have. Unfortunately, it spit out some weird errors upon execution (possibly due to a corrupt disk), so I had to find something else. I combed the Internet for some vintage shareware equivalents, and found two from the 5150-era: FingerPaint and TPaint.

TPaint worked better for me, readily supporting both the CGA card in the 5150 and my Microsoft mouse. It allowed me to paint in four whole colors. I did not draw the picture of the sailboat you see in the photo; that came with the program.

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With only four colors available, it was clear that I wouldn't be creating any PCWorld slideshows with TPaint. Score one for modern computing.

Conclusions

So, is it possible to use a 1981 IBM PC 5150 for real work? I'd say yes--for just about any text-based task. It can handle word processing, spreadsheets, and simple databases with aplomb. That isn't surprising, since IBM built the PC to do just that. In fact, I typed a significant portion of this article on the IBM PC itself.

Obviously, the 5150's greatest shortcoming lies in the image creation and editing department. The CGA card holds it back quite a bit, but at least you can easily use a mouse on the system. Theoretically, I could ramp up graphical performance a bit by switching back to the V20 CPU and installing an early VGA card, a hard drive, and, yes, even Windows 3.0 (the last version that can run on an 8088). But boy, would it be slow with a 4.77MHz CPU.

The PC's second-greatest weakness, in modern terms, is probably Web browsing functionality. The modern Web is just not meant for an ancient machine. Still, it's reassuring to know that I could perform some basic tasks on the Internet if necessary.

One impressive factor in this experiment is the durability of the machine itself. The very fact that I could use a 30-year-old computer--including the original keyboard, monitor, and disk drive--with a sense of stability and confidence is a strong testament to the quality of IBM's hardware engineering. Such a feat is rarely possible on a low-cost home PC of the same vintage.

I obviously won't use the 5150 for daily work from now on. But I am satisfied that I gave this very important classic machine another well-deserved day in the sun. I'm a computer collector, and many of us like to think that a computer wants to feel useful, even in old age. In that stuffy back room, it was nice to give this old-timer a few more productive workdays.

This story, "Can you do real work with the 30-year-old IBM 5150?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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