Thursday, 12 July 2018

Nokia Lumia 1020 (2013)

Nokia Lumia 1020. Check out those megapixels.
Introduced July 2013

Let’s say that you are one of the world’s most famous brands, and you make a smartphone which easily has the best camera that any smartphone in the world has ever had, and then you add all the modern features that all the rivals have on top of it. Sounds like a recipe for success, yes? Well, in the case of the Nokia Lumia 1020… it wasn’t.

The headline feature of the Lumia 1020 was definitely the camera. Featuring a stonking 41 megapixels combined with optical image stabilisation (OIS) and a large sensor, this smartphone’s camera completely stomped on its rivals.

This remarkable “PureView” camera had first been seen in the Nokia 808 – Nokia’s very last Symbian smartphone – a bit over a year earlier. The clever folk at Nokia had tweaked it a bit in the meantime, and crucially had added OIS to make pictures even sharper. By default, the 1020 actually took 5 megapixel cameras that were vivid and sharp by using oversampling, but you could also use a Pro Camera app that could save both a 5 megapixel picture and one up to 38 megapixels at the same time. If you wanted to edit the photo and zoom into some detail later, then the higher resolution was probably for you. The Lumia 1020 could also effectively emulate an optical zoom by providing 4X near-lossless zoom with the huge megapixel count.

The rest of the hardware was no slouch either – a 4.5” 768 x 1280 pixel display, 1.5 GHz dual-core CPU, 2GB of RAM, 32 or 64GB of internal storage, NFC, 4G support and even an FM radio plus all the things that every other smartphone had. The camera could also take 1080p HD video and there was a 1.2 megapixel selfie camera on the front too. It was a bit of a big beast and it certainly wasn’t cheap, but what was there not to like?

The catch was… this was a Windows phone. Nokia had been punting Windows devices for a year and a half, and despite being critically acclaimed it turned out that consumers weren’t really that interested. The Windows 8 OS shipped with the Lumia 1020 was elegant and complemented the hardware precisely, but it simply did have whatever it needed to have to steal customers from Android and iOS. The seamless support for Office 365 did appeal to corporate customers though, and quite a few did start to migrate from BlackBerry to Windows. But it wasn’t enough.

Nokia did start on the path to produce a successor – the Lumia 1030. But by then Microsoft were in charge and they tried to drive Windows Phone sales by pursuing the value end of the market instead. Although 2015’s Lumia 950 did revisit the PureView camera with a decent enough 20 megapixel unit, Windows Phone was largely irrelevant by that point.

Today an unlocked Lumia 1020 in good condition can cost you less than £40, where the earlier Nokia 808 will cost you several times more. Today, Android devices such as the Huawei P20 Pro come close in terms of camera specifications, but no mainstream camera phone to date has topped the Lumia 1020’s 41 megapixel camera.

Image credit: Nokia

Nokia Lumia 1020: Video

Check out some more shots of this epic cameraphone in the video we made to cover its launch five years ago.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Sliced bread (1928)

Lightly toasted sliced bread circa 2009
Introduced June 1928

There’s a common phrase “the best thing since sliced bread”. But have you ever considered exactly what time period that refers to? Yes? Well, wonder no more… because sliced bread is ninety years old this month. Apparently.

It’s a product you are possibly familiar with, having been around for thousands of years, presumably with a great deal of uneven sawing and cursing along the way. Having the bread pre-sliced not only made it easier, but it made bread more popular too.

All this convenience has to be a good thing, right? No downsides and all that? Well, bizarrely in 1943 the United States made sliced bread illegal.

Of course if you eat sliced and unsliced bread you might have spotted one downside with the sliced version – it dries out more quickly. Unsliced bread is protected by the dry crust, but when you slice it you expose the moister interior to the atmosphere. To protect sliced bread from drying out, it needs to be wrapped and in 1943 that meant using waxed paper.

They take this very seriously in Chillicothe, Missouri
Claude R Wickard - head of the War Food Administration – decided that the waxed paper could be better used for something else. Aircraft carriers, tanks and atom bombs perhaps. In New York, local bigwig John F Conaboy tried to clamp down on illegal sliced bread sellers even harder. You might suspect that neither Mr Wickard nor Mr Conaboy prepared much in the way of food in their households. The ban was finally lifted in March 1943, presumably after the Manhattan Project said they were more concerned about wonky sandwiches than saving waxed paper.

The city of Chillicothe, Missouri has a website dedicated to the product launched in their town, which also appears to have been created in 1928. Today both sliced and unsliced bread are commonly available in most food stores.

A few years after the ill-advised ban on sliced bread, the Second World War also produced another kitchen helper – the microwave oven. As far as many households were concerned, that really was the best thing since sliced bread.

Image credits:

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Nokia 6600 (2003)

Nokia 6600
Launched June 2003

Although Apple might like you to think that they invented the smartphone, in truth they’d been around for a decade or so before the ubiquitous iPhone. One successful early example is the Nokia 6600, barely recognisable as a smartphone today… but it certainly ticked all the boxes fifteen years ago.

The Nokia 6600 took a lot of technologies that were quite new and put them all in a single high-end device. Firstly though this ran the Symbian operating system which meant that users could install native applications on it (using a PC and a cable). It came with a relatively large 2.2” 176 x 208 pixel display, had a highly noticeable VGA resolution camera on the back (capable of taking video clips), it came with a multimedia player, MMC expandable memory, Bluetooth and it supported GPRS data.

You could read email and browse the web (slowly) and Symbian at the time had all sorts of applications available for it. For the time, the Nokia 6600 was an advanced piece of kit, and it was quite successful in sales terms, shipping 2 million units. Today it is largely forgotten, but good examples start at just £30 or so for collectors.

Image credit: Nokia

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Porsche 356 (1948)

Porsche 356, circa 1950
Introduced June 1948

Just three years after the end of the Second World War, the (then) Austrian firm Porsche came up with a little two-sweater sports car called the Porsche 356. Arguably the first modern sports car, the 356 created a template for a lightweight but relatively powerful vehicle that many others copied.

Although sales were slow to begin with, after a few years this sleek sports car started to pick up sales and became available as a coupé, convertible or roadster. Various engines became available, with a typical unit being the 59 HP 4 cylinder 1.6 litre air-cooled engine. Not a lot by modern standards, but with an aerodynamic car weighing as little as 771 kg it didn’t need to be a fire-breathing monster.

The engine was in the back above the drive wheels, a configuration which gives the fun of driving a rear-wheel drive car with the advantage that most of the weight was above the drive wheels which led to better handling. The 356 found success in motor racing, but it was equally at home pottering around the restaurants of the Côte d'Azur instead.

The production run was from 1948 to 1965, with four models and a pretty slow evolution of specifications and design over that period. The Porsche 911 was introduced to replace it in 1963, but 356 production continued a little while after that.

76,000 356s were built, with around half still existing. Prices for a used one seem to range from around £70,000 to over £250,000 depending on condition and exact model, although it’s of note that Porsche will still look after the car for you. Several companies (such as Chesil) make modern reproductions at a fraction of the cost.

Image credit: Matthew P.L. Stevens via Flickr

Monday, 25 June 2018

Space Invaders (1978)

Space Invaders (Midway version)
Launched June 1978

Forty years ago this month, Japan saw the launch of a simple little arcade game called Space Invaders. The premise was simple – five rows of pixelated aliens marched slowly across the screen while a laser cannon at the bottom tries to pick them off, accompanied with a basic four-note soundtrack and some sound effects. Simple it may have been, but Space Invaders became an enormous success.

The game came at a point when the technology was just becoming good enough to produce a compelling game. The Space Invaders machine itself ran an Intel 8080 CPU (a predecessor of the 8086) with a Texas Instruments chip producing the sounds (this in the same month as the launch of the Speak & Spell). A monochrome monitor in portrait mode gave a graphics resolution of 224 x 256 pixels, and in some versions of the game coloured strips across the screen gave the impression of a colour display when it wasn’t.

As with many classic games of the era, Space Invaders embraced the technical limitations of the hardware. The blocky aliens became a design icon, the simple but hypnotic soundtrack attracted curious onlookers. The fact that the very last invader raced across the screen in an adrenaline-fueled finale was simply a side-effect of the processor having less work to do.

The gameplay was simple enough but compelling, and Space Invaders machine soon started to rake in the money. A lot of money. A machine could pay for itself in a month or even less, and they soon started to pop up in all sort of places worldwide that hadn’t previously dabbled in arcade games, such as supermarkets.

There were two basic formats – creator Taito turned the game into a table-top format and cabinet with a joystick, while US licensee Midway used a cabinet with buttons replacing the joystick. Between them, the arcade versions raked in hundreds of millions of dollars of profit… and from then on there were adaptations for games consoles, home computers and a raft of sequels and spin-offs spanning generations.

Today prices for reconditioned original Space Invader machines can be £4000 or more. Alternatively for a few pounds you can buy an authentic reproduction of the original to play on your smartphone.

Image credit: Wally Gobetz via Flickr

Video: Reconditioned Taito Space Invaders machine

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Science of Cambridge MK14 (1978)

Science of Cambridge MK14
Launched June 1978

Before the Sinclair ZX80 – and before Sinclair even was Sinclair – came the Science of Cambridge MK14. A low-cost kit computer, the MK14 was similar to the successful MOS KIM-1 and a number of other kits launched in the late 1970s.

Instead of going with the 6502 or Z80, Clive Sinclair’s firm instead decided to go with the esoteric National Semiconductor SC/MP INS8060 CPU. This 8-bit CPU never really became popular, except for finding a niche in embedded systems of the era. The MK14 had just 256 bytes of RAM, expandable to 2170 bytes. Input was a 20 key keypad, and output was via a calculator-style display although it was possible to output basic text and graphics to a VDU. The architecture of the MK14 also allowed easy modification and the addition of peripherals such as a cassette interface.

Even for four decades ago, the MK14 was very basic. But at just £30 (equivalent to around £240 today) it was also very cheap – much cheaper than anything similar on the market. Science of Cambridge went on to sell tens of thousands of these, providing enough money for Clive Sinclair to launch the ZX80 a couple of years later. But it also provided a launch pad for the career of Chris Curry, who went on to become one of the founders of Acorn Computers  who eventually went on to change the world.

Despite selling in the thousands, MK14s are rare today and one in working condition might set you back £800 or so. Alternatively you can play with a MK14 emulator for free.

Image credit: Alessandro Grussu via Flickr

Monday, 18 June 2018

Apple iPhone 3G (2008)

Apple iPhone 3G (2008)
Launched June 2008

Launched ten years ago this month, the Apple iPhone 3G was Apple’s first smartphone.

But wait,” you say “obviously it wasn’t. The original iPhone was Apple’s first smartphone!

The original iPhone - launched in January 2007 – had plenty of potential and a lot of “wow” factor. But by modern standards, it wasn’t a smartphone at all. You couldn’t download applications to it, it didn’t have GPS or high-speed cellular data, it couldn’t record video and it only had one pretty basic camera on the back, so no selfies for YOU.

Added to that, the original iPhone was slow and very expensive and it didn’t sell in particularly big numbers. It really was a very elegant but extremely overpriced feature phone.

The iPhone 3G was a game-changer. Despite looking almost identical to the original and with a name that indicated that the main feature was 3G data support, the iPhone 3G was the first iPhone to come with the App Store through the new iPhone OS 2.0 operating system. Not only did this give the iPhone 3G a huge base of different apps to run, it also made adding those apps easy.

On top of that, the inclusion of 3G (and 3.5G) data meant that it was usable on the move. The new iPhone not only had GPS but also a mapping application and turn-by-turn navigation. It still couldn’t record video though and it only had the single basic camera, but it was faster and crucially cheaper too. It was a significant step in the right direction.

It was clearly a much better device than the original (even though that iPhone also got the App Store) and it was the iPhone 3G - not the original iPhone – that actually gave consumers what they wanted (apart from the ability to record video). The 3G was a proper smartphone in the modern sense, and it was this smartphone that drove nearly 7 million units worth of sales in the last quarter of 2008, finally giving Apple the sales breakthrough it was looking for.

Image credit: Apple, Inc