May 31, 2021

The '90s PC setup, for that ultimate cozy computing experience

I've noticed over the past few years a revival of the '90s computer setup among online Millennial nerds, mainly those who are into video games and want to recreate their childhood experience of playing Doom etc. on the original hardware, for authenticity value. A couple visual reminders:

Aesthetically, everything is in beige or light gray. While most cutting-edge consumer electronics of the '90s were black, computers were supposed to be for more utilitarian tasks, and did not have to look cool and sleek and all-black. They were the same bland, unnoticeable beige-y color as medical equipment and landline phones.

The uniformly black appearance of computers and their peripherals only took place during the 2000s, when they were no longer used for utilitarian purposes, but rather as entertainment devices that were replacing the television set and the rest of the old home entertainment center.

Functionally, there are separate devices for each major function, instead of the current all-in-one device (laptop or smartphone). A desktop PC (tower or slab, either is fine), a good ol' CRT monitor, a keyboard (preferably clicky), a mouse (rollerball type, therefore with a mousepad as well), and speakers. I've also got a flip-top disk case meant for 5 1/4" floppy disks, which also fits CD-ROM cases (the color is beige body and tinted clear lid, naturally, with an '80s typeface on the front: "DATA-CASE").

As a result of all these bulky components being present, the '90s setup required a solid piece of furniture — a desk or table. These were not the nerd battle stations of future decades, but something right out of contempo home office design, as the computer was still treated as a productivity device, not one primarily for entertainment. Today's nerd battle stations or rigs look more like a home entertainment center from the old days.

Although it's something I'd like to explore more in depth in another post, the location of the computer was also more like that of a home office device. It was most definitely not part of a man cave, goon lair, gamer dungeon, or blacked-out bedroom. There was nothing escapist about the room it was in, since it was for being productive, not entertaining yourself into an alternate dimension where you no longer feel like killing yourself.

There was at least one window nearby, letting in natural light, and perhaps some natural white noise from the outside world. And there were other places and things and furniture items in the area that could distract you for awhile after you got bored of writing or spreadsheeting or whatever on the computer. It could even have been in a wide-open area like the kitchen / dining room, or the living room, where there was no expectation of privacy — because the user wasn't using it for escapist purposes. It was for wholesome, innocuous use for the entire household.

At any rate, the all-in-one setup only took over as computers became goof-off devices, where you don't really care about how each separate function performs. Back in the '90s, computers were not yet the next time-killing tech addiction.

Also portability was of no concern, because what kind of lame geek would want to do some computing on-the-go? All-in-one design dovetails with portability, and both are related to the current use of them as tech addictions to kill time. You need your fix wherever you go, so it must be portable, and therefore all-in-one.

One function, however, that laptops and smartphones never integrated from the old setup is the printer — a perfect sign of how disposable and impermanent the output of your touchscreen tapping truly is.

But the main function that was lacking on the old setup, which prevented it from becoming a mind-numbing, soul-sucking dispenser of digital opium was online connectivity. Sure, a few people had primitive internet service in 1993 with AOL — and basically no one was online before then — but recall how barren the online world was back then.

Hardly anything on the world wide web, especially anything of an addictive social media interactive nature. Not even the Web 2.0 stuff from the 2000s like blogging. Virtually no porn, let alone in a video format, let alone full scenes, let alone streaming.

What did an online account actually offer you back then? An email account that saw no more than a couple emails a day, a chat room that got old after an hour, Instant Messenger for the occasional conversation with a rando anon (not constantly touching base with your IRL social circle, or displaying status updates like the "away message"), probably only one discussion group that interested you, and a barebones reporting of the national daily news.

True, you probably had a handful of video games for the PC that could eat away at your free time, but except for the 1% of guys who are incurable video game addicts, nobody played them for hours a day, day after day. It was a fun little diversion for an hour, then you turned it off, came back to it a couple days later, picked up where you left off, and kept it casual.

And yet, just like the primitive form of the internet that would only get worse, the '90s computer culture was marked by the rise of the first-person shooter video game genre with Doom, which did allow for online multiplayer (although hardly anyone made use of that at the time), foreshadowing the disappearance of guys into the online video game vortex during the 2000s and after. But during the '90s itself, these things were still in a fairly benign state.

So, any attempt to recreate the '90s PC setup has to turn off the internet connections (if they exist), and restrict the number of video games to a handful... no more than 10. Probably just Myst, Doom II, a legacy copy of Oregon Trail, some Sierra point-and-click adventure games, etc. No autistic collecting of things you'll only play once or not at all, but rather a small number of things that you are committed to long-term.

This also economizes on memory usage, as online programs chew up the most resources, and it obviates the need for second-order programs like security / firewall, which also hog resources, and themselves need to be constantly updated over the internet. You can still transfer data from and to the internet via USB flash drives, or floppy disks, or CDs.

I've switched to writing all my stuff with offline-only computers, and if I need to upload it to the web, save it to a USB flash drive, which an internet-enabled computer can send off into the online domain, from which my composition computer serves as a virtual sanctuary.

This is the only way to accomplish "distraction-free" word processing, spreadsheet filling, coding, or whatever else you're trying to get done. It's not a full-screen word processor (although I do use one of those too — Q10), it's a machine that does not even tempt you into "just checking in on" the buzzing and churning of the online world.

And no, this does not render the computer into a mere "overglorified typewriter," because of all the other productive tasks it does (spreadsheet, database, etc.). It allows for some entertainment with separate video games, as well as fun little puzzle games like Minesweeper or Solitaire that you can play for a little bit and feel fine putting away.

And it serves as an archive, especially for pictures. Most people never look through their old pictures on a laptop or smartphone, because they're posting those pictures as part of their social media addiction and status-striving contests, where the buzz and novelty evaporates within 24 hours, and they're of no use or concern ever again. Something you shot on your digital point-and-shoot camera and downloaded onto a desktop computer, or older prints that you digitally scanned into modern image files, were meant to be looked at every now and again. They were meant to memorialize something, however mundane it may have seemed at the time, but which can really take you back and feel a larger impression when you look at them again for the first time in years or decades.

It can also serve as a music library, or at least playback device. All your digitally owned files, or CDs, will play perfectly well, and you'll have a better pair of speakers than what's in a laptop or smartphone (that includes the crappy headphones that are necessary for phones). No streaming, though — you actually have to commit to something for longer than a single listen, although you could delete the file or sell the CD later if you really don't like it.

You probably won't be playing TV shows or movies from DVDs or large digital files, since the monitor is not HD-capable, and the CD-ROM drive may not handle DVDs. But those should be played on a TV anyway, not a much smaller computer monitor. This also prevents getting endlessly sucked away into an escapist activity like binge-watching TV shows on a streaming platform.

Speaking of monitors, you probably won't be able to find a nice CRT monitor (of any color) for a reasonable price anymore. They, along with all the rest of "retro / vintage tech," got scooped up over the past decade, as the central bank's program of money-printing for the top 20% (quantitative easing) gave autistic collector nerds in the tech sector more disposable income than they knew what to do with.

Inflation shows up where they're actually spending their money, so that did not include ordinary clothing items at Walmart, but did target anything tech-y and collectible. Video games are the worst casualty, but it includes less nerdy and more artistic things like old photography equipment as well.

I was fortunate to score a flat-screen Sony Trinitron CRT from the early 2000s off of Craigslist for only $20 back in 2014. One of the most advanced monitors of its type. It's a beige box with Dell badging, so it feels more '90s than 2000s.

You should still be able to find beige LCD monitors, though, without too much hunting or paying too much for them. Beige computer stuff is getting more difficult to find in the wild at thrift stores, as the Millennial autists scoop it all up, but that's only necessary for aesthetic authenticity.

The most important aspect to recreate is the functional nature of these machines — separate components instead of all-in-one, arranged on a desk or table, near a window, in an inviting area rather than an escapist lair. And disabling the damned internet connection! You could revive this experience with a black-case desktop, black LCD monitor, black USB keyboard, black optical wireless mouse, and black speakers, according to current aesthetic trends.

It would have a more cutting-edge color palette, and probably none of it would be made in USA or Japan like in the good ol' days, but functionally you would be right back in the pre-degenerate stage of computer usage.

The dignity of the home office, or really the study / den / library, is something that most Gen X-ers — and certainly most Millennials — do not expect to ever enjoy. One of those things that the Boomers all had, but which our deteriorating standard of living has ruled out. But in this case, it's all your own fault, giving in to your online tech addiction, particularly involving social media.

None of the equipment has to be expensive (only if you want all vintage), especially if you buy it used or donated. Lower wages and salaries are not preventing you from using components instead of all-in-one, getting a table or desk (used / thrifted are cheaper and higher quality anyway), and placing it all in a pleasing, soothing location instead of retreating into a lair or slumping over in bed all day with your phone in hand.

Ideally, keep all the gay internet-enabled crap in another room, at least a different part of the same room. But you need a safe space from online world. It's more fun and enjoyable, anyway — and more productive!


  1. Demoralizing to believe that Internet use is generally a cocooning phenomenon; yet I can remember in the mid-2000s crime rate rise making Internet use somewhat more social, for instance people who met online meeting each other in real life(a videogame forum I posted on had several get-togethers like that in 2003-2004, though I couldn't make it to the West Coast). And also, of course, the mid-2000s political discussions on online forums - a semi-productive use of online time.

    " Sure, a few people had primitive internet service in 1993 with AOL — and basically no one was online before then — but recall how barren the online world was back then."

    Striking the rapidity with which gamers went on the Internet(though not really surprising) - "GameFAQs"(amateur instructional guides for videogames) was founded in 1995, only two years after the 'Net went mainstream, and quickly became one of the major websites on the Internet, with hundreds of FAQs.

  2. Unrelated, since I am GenX and we don't give two pins what the computer looks like as long as EQ loads and runs okay for the weekend's raid..

    In the past two weeks I have play-tested going maskless in two Deep Coronadoom states. Even when the signs said "Masks Required" (By whom? Who made you Emperor?) and staff and customers were masked... Nada.

    Including pleasant, smiling (me) convos with the masked. Be the change. Be bold.

  3. NTSC DVDs are 480i and 4:3 ratio. They were intended to be played on screens no bigger than 25", viewed from several feet away, although in the last years of the CRT the well heeled could get 32" televisions.

    XGA monitors that exceeded those specs were introduced in 1990.


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