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