Five years of CNET Australia: Computer retrospective

Five years is a long time in the realm of technology. Join us as we stroll through our archives, bringing up the highlights and lowlights of the computer industry of the last five years...

Craig Simms
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
1 of 13 Dell/Sony

Five years is a long time in the realm of technology.

We've witnessed technology evolve, categories and companies born and die, massive fails and amazing hail Marys shift and change the shape of the industry.

In just five years, laptops have overtaken desktops in terms of the preferred computing device, and it looks like smartphones will eventually do the same in the near future.

We have moved from the idea that more performance is better at the local level, to accepting less performance at the user end and relying on internet services and servers to fill the gap, paving the way for netbooks and lower performance, but thinner laptops.

Australia even managed to get itself sorted out and onto ADSL2+ in selected regions, and get itself in line for a new, fibre-based broadband network, which is planned to bring high speed internet to the majority of the nation — although it could be some time before this is met, and it remains to be seen if it's up to scratch.

Join us as we stroll through our archives, bringing up the highlights and lowlights of the computer industry of the last five years...

The year is 2004. Centrino did not yet exist. Dell's Inspiron wasn't a desktop, but a laptop. The Inspiron 700m cost AU$2098 for a Pentium M 1.8GHz, 512MB RAM, a 60GB hard drive and the small luxury of a DVD burner.

While performance has gone up massively since then, by and large ultraportables are still between one and two kilograms in weight. Thin and light laptops at the time were considered between two and three kilograms though, with Apple's MacBook Air, Lenovo's X301 and MSI's X-Slim X340 decimating that figure to under 1.5kg in 2008-2009.

Sony had also put out its first desktop dual-layer DVD burner in 2004, at an affordable AU$299. In the coming years it would eventually outsource its business to Taiwanese vendor LiteOn, and as of today a DVD burner can be picked up for as little as AU$40.

2 of 13 ViewSonic

We also asked in 2004 if 15-inch monitors were a dying breed (they were), as vendors moved to 17-inch. ViewSonic's VE510, pictured here, cost AU$605 and had a resolution of 1024x768.

Most screens had a 4:3 aspect ratio, and it would take until Dell's UltraSharp 2405WFP in 2005 before people really considered 16:10. Still, 2004 saw the introduction of Apple's monstrous 30-inch cinema display, boasting a resolution of 2560x1600 and unrivalled visual fidelity. While it would take Dell's 3007WFP model in 2006 to introduce competition, and technology would get better over the following years, we still haven't pushed beyond the 30-inch, 2560x1600 limit in consumer land.

In 2007, 22-inch screens became affordable and mainstream, and by 2008, monitors would start coming out to match TV aspect ratios, as the volume of LCD TV panels in 16:9 allowed monitor manufacturers to cut costs further.

3 of 13 Apple

The Apple MacBook (in this case, the G4) was still using a PowerPC processor, Tiger was our favourite cat and Apple was still claiming its architecture was better than Intel's, using highly selective benchmarks. Apple's penchant for lying about its performance was in full swing, too. Apple's premiums have come down massively over the years, a 15.2-inch, 1.5GHz, 512MB RAM, 80GB hard drive machine costing AU$3999 at the time.

In 2005, Apple would finally throw away years of hubris and announce its switch to Intel, with the first products launched in 2006. Snow Leopard, version 10.6 of Apple's OS X operating system and due in September 2009, finally does away with PowerPC support, only supporting Intel chips.

Then, of course, there was the whole one button mouse thing...

4 of 13 CBSi/Apple

The evolution of the desktop has been an interesting one to watch. While many didn't take the first lampshade-styled iMac in 2002 seriously, it turned out like so many of Apple's products to be clairvoyant — all-in-ones being the major desktop form factor in 2009. A refresh brought it closer to the current design in 2004, while 2008 and 2009 saw revisions to the formula.

In 2004 it was still all very much about building your own desktop PC (as pictured above), with mid to full tower cases, discrete parts, a separate monitor and high performance. Machines were noisy, hot and consumed a lot of power. While Lian Li would define taste for the PC market in 2000 with the release of the PC-60, it would take some years for the enthusiast level designs to bleed down to the mainstream.

Come 2009, all-in-ones based on laptop parts are in vogue, with the iMac very much leading the charge. Incidentally they're quiet, cool and don't consume much power. While you can still very much buy high-end performance desktops, they tend to be retreating back to the high-end gamer and workstation space. The mainstream consumer has decided all-in-ones or laptops are enough.

5 of 13 Intel

In 2005, Samsung announced it was working on something called a solid state disk for consumers, at a not so huge 16GB, with 57MB/s read and 32MB/s writes. They refused to be drawn on price at the time, but needless to say it would have been very bloody expensive, given that today's SSDs (such as the Intel X25-M, above), at 160GB with 250MB/s reads and 70MB/s writes go for around AU$1200. Of course, you can get cheaper SSDs, but these have been known to have problems. We'd expect SSDs will finally enter mainstream pricing and overcome their most threatening hurdles by mid 2010.

6 of 13 Sony

2006 brought two storage leaps, Blu-ray burners and 1TB hard drives. Although Hitachi was first to the one terabyte mark on the desktop in 2005, it would take until mid-2009 for Western Digital to hit the same milestone for laptop drives.

The Blu-ray drive was a mixed blessing, as Blu-ray always seems to have been. Although it would happily burn to writeable media (providing you could find any, and were willing to shell out the considerable cost), it wouldn't play back Blu-ray movies due to a lack of HDCP certified software, graphics hardware and monitors at the time.

Also in 2006, holographic storage was going to save us all. No, really, it was.

7 of 13 AMD

AMD enjoyed a stratospheric rise between 2001 and 2006, its Athlon XP and Athlon 64 X2 models beating Intel's Pentium 4 models soundly on price and performance.

However in 2006, Intel released its Core architecture on laptops, a CPU that outperformed even AMD's desktop chips at the time. This bled into Core 2 Duo, the desktop version, and Intel has owned the CPU landscape since, the battlefield eventually moving to quad-core.

AMD hurt further after its acquisition of the graphics company ATI in 2006, an attempt to battle Intel more evenly across a spread of products and a mammoth undertaking. It took until 2009 for its graphics products to become competitive again, and its CPUs only just started to make headway this year as well. We hope AMD will finally return to true competitive status in 2010.

8 of 13 CBSi

Just about every laptop manufacturer recalled batteries at some point. Mostly it was Sony's batteries doing the overheating or exploding in 2006, and eventually after vendors announced their own recall programs, Sony stepped in and did its own. Two years later Sony was involved in another recall, and HP had a smaller fiasco at the beginning of 2009.

9 of 13 Microsoft

Microsoft released Windows Media Center in 2005 as a stand-alone operating system, although eventually it would be rolled into Windows Vista as just an application. Apple followed up with the Apple TV in 2007. No one has managed to get the media centre right to our mind in either hardware or software, forcing us to build our own. Still, the PS3 and Xbox 360 get close with their multimedia playback — if only we could have matroska, ogg and soft sub support.

10 of 13 Microsoft

2007 rolled around, and despite Bill Gates claiming he saw a server in the home, not much had happened a year later beyond the enthusiast fringe, who were already running servers anyway. It seems any chance of the server becoming a mainstay in the home has been supplanted by both the NAS and the cloud.

11 of 13 HP/Asus

Also in 2007, an HP executive claimed its TouchSmart series would be more likely to popularise touch than the iPhone (oh ho ho), and Asus' EeePC hit the market, fathering the series of tiny notebooks to eventually be called netbooks.

12 of 13 CBSi

In 2008, we were still pining that Vista sucked, that MIDs sucked, and the fact that we still didn't have affordable OLED at decent screen sizes sucked.

Windows 7 and Snow Leopard info started doing the rounds, promising us optimised, fast versions of both operating systems in 2009.

13 of 13 CBSi

While it's not over yet, 2009 has shown a few interesting developments so far. Thin and light notebooks have come to the fore thanks to Intel's CULV chips, laptop hard drives have hit 1TB, and SSDs may well become almost affordable by year's end. Networking looks to be going from strength to strength, although most of the work will likely happen behind the scenes without the users even noticing. Interconnection between devices will become more easy, storage requirements will increase massively (although it will likely be shifted to online providers), and if we're really, really lucky, perhaps they'll sort out international licensing issues with video and audio, giving us near simultaneous releases with the US. OK, we admit, the last one is likely a fantasy, but one can dream, right?

While we can't even begin to picture the next five years, one thing is certain — we look forward to being there when it happens.

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