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Low-Tech User Manuals

I know the reasoning behind this is probably due to not wanting to freak inexperience users out.

However, I am at work and someone has dumped this tiny blue folder on my desk entitled ‘Total Peripherals User Manual’.

There are no diagrams showing you how to plug the monitor into the back of the box, but there is heaps of really interesting information, nitty gritty type of stuff. At the back is little bound copy of a user manual for an ISA-486 Main Board. What all the chips on the board do, heck, even detailed information about what every pin on the SIS chip does.

Now I understand that your average mum & dad would be confused by all this extra information, that just want a picture of a big monitor, with two cords, and big arrows indicating where to plug them in….

But the number of times I have turned to the manuals supplied with my computer for something, and found that they contain no information of any use at all…well seeing an old manual like this was nice and made me wonder, is it just that I bought a low-end computer? Or is it that now days with lots more ‘non-tech’ type people buying computers, a ‘low-tech’ manual is better received?

Aussie Chick
Monday, November 24, 2003

I guess. It seems that our beloved western society is moving (for quite a while) rapidly towards the point where one person knows how to do only one thing.
Ten years ago, when you bought a IBM compatible computer, you simply had to know what you were doing. And the manuals were written for such people, who knew.
The same was with cars, but just a longer while ago. The manuals for those older cars had detailed explanations of how to rebuild a carburator using scissors and a single hair-pin. People don't do that anymore. They just call a technician.

I have a Russian made (1985) voltage meter at home that has a complete manual inside including a full diagram of its circuitry. It was a nice time when people who sold you equipment didn't think you were illiterate.

So yeah, the colorful picture with big black arrows are what I'd expect these days from everything - from a simple pen to a mutli-million-dollar atomic submarine (a big arrow that points somewhere and says "Plutonium goes here. Wear gloves.".

Eli Golovinsky
Monday, November 24, 2003

>It was a nice time when people who sold you equipment didn't think you were illiterate.

I don't object, I mean, I am not sure that most of the buyers are literate, well not as far as undoing the screws on the box anyway.

But it is nice (and inspiring) to flip through the old manuals.

Aussie Chick
Monday, November 24, 2003

I love those old manuals.  I wish that more of that information were readily available these days. 

Possibly companies could include web links in the manual to pages that contain more information, for those who have serious problems or simply want to know more about things.  It might even save them money on returns - but then again, maybe it would cost them more as they would be losing some of the 'hey, it's making a clunking noise, I think I'll buy a new one' crowd. 

The documentation for things like motherboards has to be available somewhere, for manufacturers, right ?  I am told this stuff used to all be put in the public domain - so that at the very least the interfaces were documented and could be worked with.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Actually that information IS available! Any computer part you can imagine, there are pdfs available of service manuals, schematics, technical specifications up the yin yang, etc.

Yeah, wehn a computer with 48k of memory cost $5600, it came with schematics and a commented disassembly of the operating system. It's not cost effective to include printed schematics any more, but there are tons of great things available for free on the web. You don't even have to send in a postcard or drive anywhere!

People! Attention! This is the GOLDEN era of technical specifications! You can BURY yourselves in reams of diagrams and specs that will take the rest of your lives to digest!!!

Even for other items, like pro audio equipment, automobiles, diesel trucks, and compressors you can order printed service manuals and technical manuals direct from the manufacturer if you care to!

This is the greatest time to be a spec geek!

Dennis Atkins
Monday, November 24, 2003

So then, the issue is one of organization and information.  Looking at a site like IBM's just gives me a headache. 

All that money (probably) spent on web designs and redesigns, and all they end up with is a stratification of pre-existing design types with no overarching architecture.  I've noticed this with huge sites - isn't anyone designing a good data mining and document retrieval system with a simple skinnable front end interface to access these things ?

Still, knowing it's out there will get me looking for it.

Monday, November 24, 2003


I think your idea to have a slip of paper in the box or on the product's label with a web address that will give links to all relevant info and downloads would be a great thing. I guess that CueCat thing was sort of the same idea. It failed, so I supposed this idea will never happen, but I do think youir idea is a good one.

Dennis Atkins
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

CueCat ?  I could swear I've heard that somewhere... was that in the vein of attaching barcodes to products and then allowing you to scan them and find relevant information ?

Something like that has a rather large adoption curve in comparison to a simple slip of paper ;-)

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Yes, and they were going to put it in advertisements in magazines. You'd scan the ad and it would bring you to the website.

Interestingly, this is a fun toy for tech geeks who like to interface with arcane devices.

Dustin Alexander
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

And on the other side of this coin... manuals that are not detailed enough.

Case in point: those "home" DSL/Cable firewall routers.  Easy to set up, but hard to validate from a security standpoint because their function is simply not adequately documented.

Anyone care to explain to me the exact (at a packet level) function of "IPSec passthru"?

Ten years ago I ran a homebrew firewall (386, two Ethernet interfaces, NetBSD 0.8, kernel patch to do a packet filter) and I knew exactly what it did.  Strange that that technology was much easier to validate than the new-fangled boxes (which at least are more reliable, having no moving parts).

David Jones
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

1) Ideally we would have available ALL levels of information:  simple cartoon schematics for plugging in wires when setting up, more detailed diagnostics for the most common errors, and then the board level details and firmware code for the true hackers.  Ideally...

2) At one time CueCat came with Wired magazine and was designed to allow you to scan an ad in there and go to the manufacturer's website for more advertising.  It deserved to die.  Maybe it was used in other contexts more beneficially.

Barry Sperling
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

This is one thing I've always liked about Dell: You can find the repair manual to any system on their web site.  Obviously for desktop systems that's not a big deal, but for laptops it can be quite important; you can't always tell where all the screws are hidden.  Even the systems that only have "return-to-depot" warranty service have their repair manuals on the site.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

"1) Ideally we would have available ALL levels of information:  simple cartoon schematics for plugging in wires when setting up, more detailed diagnostics for the most common errors, and then the board level details and firmware code for the true hackers.  Ideally..."

Most people are going to be confused by circuit diagrams. Most people aren't going to care, but some are going to be curious, even though they lack the basic grounding in electric circuit theory.

Wouldn't it be cool if, like, when you bought a new computer, not only was there a link on the back of the box to all the technical specs, but also a link to a very well thought-out and designed web page that explained fundamental things, like electricity, to the curious but as yet uneducated?

Maybe the "user" studied electricity in high school and found the whole thing deadly boring, but now that they have just bought themselves a new computer, it all suddenly seems much more interesting?

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

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