In the early to mid 90s, computing was almost universally beige or some standard colour. The case, drives, monitors, speakers, keyboards, mice. Beige was the colour. Even removable media didn’t dare to stand out too much, coming in a set of mostly “standard” colours.
Some dared to be a little different, like the dark grey of the Verbatim Teflon 3.5″ disks, but others remained very much “to code”. Double density disks were commonly this colour of blue (or sometimes white). High density disks were usually black, but sometimes beige. Even 3.5″ floppies tended to be nearly universally black or grey jacketed, with a few exceptions.
Aside from the more modern disk featuring a plastic shutter, every disk was quite conformist. Other brands took this to the extreme, like Imation embracing an “all-black” policy through several generations of 3.5″ high density floppies.
It’s 2019, so why am I bringing this up? Because around the late 90s, computers started to get a little less boring and today, we’re stuck with the consequences. Part of the reason was Apple’s iMac G3 which came in a swathe of colours, leading to manufacturers starting to get a little creative. Another contributor was the case-modding culture. So I thought, why not start off the year with some colourful memories I’ve collected? (Pardon the pun!)
As I mentioned above, floppy disks were boring and most of them looked almost the same, save for maybe a little printing around the shutter flap of a 3.5″ disk or a branding label and jacket on a 5.25″ disk. Some manufacturers were daring enough to provide coloured labels to help sort your disks out.
Crystal disks went one step further – they coloured the disks themselves, changing the shell to a translucent coloured plastic allowing you to see inside the floppy disk. While the mechanism itself was not particularly surprising, these disks came in ten packs with two disks of each colour. Unfortunately, for some reason, I can’t find any of my blue disks.
These were probably the first computer accessories I’ve owned that were not boring beige (or other unimaginative colour) and I was very fond of the disks purely for their novelty value. Maybe these were inspired by the transparent GameBoy or the iMac G3 itself (although it had no floppy drive)- I know at least a few people who lament that we don’t have more transparent electronics, but then again, I don’t think there’s too much to see anyway.
A few coloured disks, however, doesn’t really count for much as they’re very much low cost items. But how about making something colourful for inside your PC?
Kingmax Color DDR RAM
Enter the first piece of colourful computing hardware that I ever owned. It was a Kingmax 512Mb DDR PC3200 memory stick. I know that EDGE computing had a characteristic blue stripe along the edge of some of their SDRAM sticks before, but these were the first that I owned.
Surprisingly, I still have the box for the stick, as I remember venturing down to my local computer store looking to buy some RAM. As it turns out, this one happened to be the cheapest unit that was in stock, so I took it. The colour itself did not sway my decision – but it did make it memorable.
The module from Kingmax claims to have the World #1 Color Packaging Technology, which “overturns tradition” and helps set a “new milestone by shaking off the stereotypical image of [a] monotonous semiconductor industry.” Oh how I love the superlatives – but I don’t remember being able to choose a colour, so there’s that.
As with most memory products, a lifetime warranty was offered – this module is still working today, so I haven’t had to claim it yet, but I suspect they won’t have any of these left in stock.
My box came complete with the user’s guide, of which had a number of interesting catalogue pages.
Of note is that Kingmax had been producing modules with rather unique BGA packaging for the time. Now that all modern RAM chips are BGA, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but BGA was relatively uncommon at the time with leaded chips being the norm. As a result, the BGA modules were smaller and shorter than the regular modules, allowing “better airflow” and lower profile. According to the catalog, they had a number of relatively high performance DDR offerings, but they also offered SDRAM in BGA packages as well (I’m sure I’ve come across these once before too).
Breaking with tradition, the RAM is a pinkish-purple colour, sitting on a gold-coloured PCB. Very unique for the time and not easily achieved as well. But why go to all this trouble when the RAM would just be sitting inside a beige (or for the more lucky chasing the new alternatives of silver or black) case?
That’s because the mid 2000’s was the beginning of a new paradigm of case modifications. For the hard-core, there were CCFL lamps which you could install in the case, certain cases even had side window kits available and water cooling was just starting to become a thing. As a result, there was a chance that you could actually show these sticks off.
Of course, if you didn’t opt for the Colour RAM, there was another option – how about a red PCB instead of the regular green? Yep. They made those too.
GeIL DDR RAM
Before you can say “ay caramba”, I was in need of more RAM for another build … but this time, oddly enough, aesthetics did play a part in my decision.
This time, I purchased GeIL RAM, a 2GB kit which I still have in one of my machines. What is in the box is a pair of “unmatched” 256Gb PC3200 modules I also bought around the same time.
Just like the module above, the packaging has windows to show the attractive modules inside.
For convenience, the serials are visible through the package which is a nice touch.
What really attracted me to the GeIL modules was the smooth, almost sexy electric-blue aluminium heat spreaders on the modules, finished off with a logo that looks it would belong on the front of a piece of Hi-Fi equipment.
Unlike some other modules, they paid attention to the top as well – the part of the module that would be viewed “edge-on” through a windowed chassis, providing a nice closure. There was a lot to like about the looks – the performance was not bad either, although in reality, having the heatspreaders probably didn’t do much for the performance.
That is, unlike these Hynix DDR2 fully buffered modules where the heat-spreaders are necessary due to the heat buildup …
.. or like those on Rambus modules which also require them for similar reasons. This was not the first time that I encountered modules with heat-spreaders – I did have an SDRAM pair that did have heatspreaders, but they looked somewhat tacky …
Corsair XMS DDR RAM
Before long, it seemed like everyone was cashing in on the whole “pimp my PC” culture, noting that gamers, overclockers and case-modders were the market segment most likely to spend significant amounts on hardware. Corsair’s XMS series was one of the favourites amongst overclockers.
They too took the heatspreader approach, using it to advertise their brand and series very prominently. The colour and clip was, however, a little industrious looking for my liking.
The seam along the edge was somewhat average as well. But if you didn’t like silver … other modules in the series came in black too.
Kingston HyperX DDR RAM
Kingston also took a part in the action releasing their HyperX range targeting this segment. They had a blue very similar to GeIL’s, but the finish and branding were a little “loud” in comparison.
When viewed from the edge, it’s clear that this is merely a few plates of aluminium strapped onto what otherwise looks to be a “regular” module.
I suspect very few manufacturers took the Kingmax approach of colouring the IC packages themselves because that would be a rather difficult manufacturing process that would increase costs significantly, whereas just slapping on a few pieces of metal would be cheap.
Computers which were initially boring and beige in the early-to-mid 90s underwent a facelift in the 2000s, inspired by the translucent colourful designs of the Apple iMac G3 but also the growth in case modding, gaming and overclocking. This led to the average PC starting to gain more variety – cases started eschewing beige for silver and black, PCBs started coming in numerous colours, RAM grew heatspreaders, CCFL case lighting became available, watercooling went somewhat mainstream and even the WD Velociraptor hard disk grew a perspex window as well.
Ultimately, this has led to the full-on RGB LED assasult we see today. I was astounded to find my mid-range motherboard and stock CPU cooler both come with RGB LEDs as standard. Increasingly, peripherals such as keyboards and mice have RGB LEDs integrated as well, sometimes individually addressable. Even my RAM has red LEDs on them, with heatspreaders on RAM coming in a variety of colours, fin-shapes and sizes. Even case fans are RGB-LED enabled, with many cases having full tempered glass side window options as standard. The computer has evolved from just a machine to something which people can (and do) show-off – just as car enthusiasts pop the hood, PC enthusiasts take a peek through the window. Sleeved cables, modular power supplies and cable management solutions have become an integral part of this, along with certain sorts of watercooling piping, fixtures, coolants and lighting to show it off at its best.
For better or for worse, it’s something that we’re stuck with. From my perspective, while it’s not a crime to be aesthetically appealing, the LED craze has become a bit of an issue with devices now becoming so bright that it’s almost impossible to sleep in the same room as the computer. The other thing to think of is the energy cost – I don’t need my computer to be a Christmas tree – I need my computer to compute!
So maybe it’s time we took a breather … and instead turned our RGB LEDs off or stop buying them altogether.