Saturday, 16 September 2017

Pot Noodle (1977)

Pot Noodles in the wild, 2017
Introduced 1977

A familiar snack food for students and bedsit dwellers, the Pot Noodle range was launched in the UK in 1977 and quickly became a popular and somewhat notorious product.

Instant noodles were invented in Japan in the 1950s with the Nissin Chikin Ramen. The same company then imported instant noodles in a cup in the the US in the early 1970s. This phenomenon had been spotted by Golden Wonder, who then introduced a version of it into the UK in 1977.

Preparation is simple enough. Boil a kettle, pour it in, wait a few minutes and stir. Sometimes there is a sauce packet to add. There's a tendency for the noodles to be high in fat and salt, and of course you shouldn't eat them all the time… nonetheless, the Pot Noodle did really open up new culinary adventures if all you had was a kettle.

Advertisements over the years ranged from the tame to the highly controversial, but they helped to make the Pot Noodle a rather laddish cult product. Although Golden Wonder sold the brand off years ago, they are still available today and retail for around £1 per pot. Although vintage Pot Noodles aren't really a thing, there's a lively trade in collectable spinning forks and matching mugs to go with your secret noodle obsession if you so desire.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Atari VCS / 2600 (1977)

Launched September 1977

1977 was the dawn of home computing, with the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80 Model I all being launched within months of each other. But another early computing pioneer also found success in the same year, and that was Atari.

Launched in September 1977, the Atari Video Computer System (“VCS”) was an early second generation console that came after the 1970s wave of single purpose games machines that could typically play Pong and nothing else. Based around a cut-down version of the 6502 CPU called the 6507, the Atari VCS was designed from the start to be a highly flexible system that could play a wide variety of games.

Atari VCS "Heavy Sixer" (1977)

One key thing that made the VCS easy to use was the cartridge system. Instead of struggling to load a game from tape or splashing out on a very expensive floppy disk drive, the VCS loaded in games from cartridges instead. Although it wasn’t the first cartridge console on the market, the VCS was the first one to be a real success.

Games included the ubiquitous Pong, Space Invaders, Breakout, Pitfall, Centipede, Defender and later on a poorly received version of Pac-Man and the infamous E.T. Despite the VCS’s fairly crude colour graphics and sound and the relatively high price of the cartridges themselves, the VCS and many of its games went on to sell in huge numbers.

Atari 2600 ad (1982)
Priced at just $199 at launch, including a game and two joysticks, the VCS represented impressive value for money. Cartridges were relatively expensive, typically coming in at $20 or more. However the cartridges were easy to use… and crucially for Atari, almost impossible to pirate.

The original VCS models were made in Sunnyvale, California and are known as “heavy sixers” because they have six switches on the top and a more solid construction than the later “light sixers” built in Hong Kong. Further revisions followed, with the fake wood panel surviving until 1982, but the VCS name was changed to 2600 in 1980. In one form or another, the VCS / 2600 remained in production until 1992, giving the console a staggering 15 year run with almost unchanged hardware, selling 30 million units in the US alone.

Despite ending production, the VCS / 2600 remained popular, and in 2004 a modern interpretation was made called the Atari Flashback which is currently in its eighth generation. A top-of-the-range Flashback with an HDMI connector and a huge number of games costs around €170, an original 2600 console can cost from next to nothing up to several hundred euro depending on exact model, condition and bundled games with consoles quite commonly available.

In 1983 a crash in the video games market led to Atari being sold by its then parent company, Warner Communications, and it split into two. On part of it was bought by Jack Tramiel (who founded rivals Commodore) and which later went on to make home computers including the Atari ST. The company’s name and assets have changed hands many times over the years, but “Atari” still exists as a gaming brand today.

Image credits:

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Nokia Lumia 920 (2012)

Nokia Lumia 920
Announced September 2012

By September 2012, Nokia had been in the Windows Phone business for just under a year, starting off with the Lumia 800 in October 2011 and then the bigger Lumia 900 in February 2012. Neither device was really successful, despite having their charms and the goodwill of an army of Nokia fans.

Although Windows Phone 7 and 8 had been well-received by critics, customers were not so keen and there was a general shortage of good applications. Well, Nokia was stuck with that problem whatever they did... but the other problem that the Lumia 800 and 900 had was that the technical specifications really weren’t up to much either.

The Nokia Lumia 920 addressed the hardware at least – here was a phone that made no compromises when it came to features and it could easily hold its own against the flagship devices of rivals.

Firstly there was the look of the thing – elegantly minimalist and housed in a variety of brightly-coloured thermoplastics, the physical design actually complemented the minimalist design of the operating system very well. A big, bright 4.5” 768 x 1280 pixel display dwarfed that of the iPhone and on the back was an optical image stabilised 8.7 megapixel PureView camera with Carl Zeiss optics, capable of full HD video capture. The camera itself caused quite a stir due to its advanced capabilities.

Mmmm... yellow.
Added to this was wireless charging, support for 4G LTE data, a 1.5GHz dual-core CPU with 1GB of RAM and 32 GB of flash storage and all the other features any high-end smartphone from the time would have. At 185 grams in weight the Lumia 920 was quite heavy, but it gave the whole thing a feeling of quality.

Windows Phone 8 was easy to use, integrated well with companies running on a Microsoft platform and Nokia threw in some useful apps of its own such as turn-by-turn navigation and a free music service. However, beyond that apps looked a bit scarce – not least because Windows 8 was built around a different core from Windows 7 meaning most apps had to be reworked.

In hardware terms Nokia had finally come up with a device that needed no excuses making for it, and which was just as good as, or better than the competition in most major respects. It was a relative success for Nokia and was the best-selling Lumia device to date. Even so, Nokia only managed to shift 4.4 million Lumia handsets in Q4 2012 while Apple shipped 47.8 million iPhones of all models in the same period. Despite giving it their best shot, the Lumia 920 was ultimately not the breakthrough device that Nokia desperately needed.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Apple iPhone 5 (2012)

Apple iPhone 5 (White/Silver)
Announced September 2012

Half a decade after the original iPhone, Apple announced the iPhone 5. The sixth version of this highly popular device, the 5 was an evolution of the second-generation iPhone 4 and 4S phones.

The launch of the 5 came when Apple’s competitors were beginning to pull ahead of Apple in terms of specifications, particularly when it came to screen size. For example, the rival Samsung Galaxy S III had a 4.8” display that completely dwarfed the 3.5” panel on the iPhone 4S. Indeed, even low-end rivals had bigger displays and it was becoming clear that a lot of customers wanted exactly that.

Of course the obvious solution was to make the phone bigger, but there was resistance from Apple management (reportedly Steve Jobs) in following Samsung’s lead with larger devices with each generation. Instead a design compromise was made, and the iPhone 5 fitted in a larger 4.0” screen by making the device taller. Adding 9mm to the height gave an extra half inch on the display (and yes, that IS a horrible mix of metric and imperial units).

The advantage was primarily that the iPhone 5 felt pretty similar in the hand, but because Apple also changed the connector on the bottom at the same time, you couldn’t easily dock the 5 in peripherals designed to hold the 4 and 4S.

A switch in materials from steel to aluminium made the iPhone 5 much lighter, and of course the 5 was faster than its predecessors and heralded a new version of the iOS operating system too. On the downside, the new Apple Maps application included with the phone was truly terrible and the paint on the devices was prone to scuffing and chipping.

Apple iPhone 5 (Black/Slate)
Perhaps it is no surprise to learn that the iPhone 5 was a massive success, although it only had a run of one year before being replaced with the popular iPhone 5S and the unpopular iPhone 5C. The 5S continued in production until 2016, and Apple recognised that many customers very much enjoyed the more compact design of the 5 over their newer and larger smartphones, launching the iPhone SE in 2016 with an almost identical form factor.

Software support for the iPhone 5 (and almost identical iPhone 5C) ended in July this year, so their usefulness is somewhat limited. Prices are currently around €100 for a unit in good condition, or alternatively the equally compact but much more capable iPhone SE starts at around €480.

Image credit: Apple

Monday, 21 August 2017

Stoned Virus (1987)

Stoned virus  hexcode
Created 1987

Computer viruses and other malware have been around for a long time, with early reports going back as far as 1982 with "Elk Cloner". However, one of the first really widespread viruses made an appearance thirty years ago - the Stoned virus.

Stoned first appeared in New Zealand in 1987 and spread on IBM PC compatibles via floppy disks. Now, it's quite possible that you have never used a PC with a floppy disk as they largely vanished from new PCs in the early 2000s, but on an early PC the floppy disk would be the A: drive (and if you had a second floppy, it would be the B: drive).

PCs would boot from the floppy first, even if they had a hard disk and because people would tend to leave floppy disks in the drive when they powered off the machine, this gave the virus an opportunity to spread. The PC would attempt to boot from the infected floppy and appear to fail - at which point most people just removed the floppy and pressed a key to boot from the hard disk. Unknown to them, the Stoned virus was then in memory and it would write itself to the hard disk when the machine booted up. One on the hard disk, Stoned would then try to infect all floppy disks put into the machine, and if an infected floppy was taken away and put in another PC then the process would begin again.
Ancient IBM PC of some description

The PC would sometimes display messages such as “Your PC is Now Stoned!” and “Legalize Marijuana” on boot up, and it would tend to corrupt anything other than basic 360Kb floppies. Other than that, it spread quietly.

And because the most common way to share files in those days was to swap floppy disks, spread it did. Not quickly at first, but like a zombie apocalypse eventually almost every PC in an organisation could become infected. And of course, any contemporary anti-virus product would stop it… but in those days many organisations didn’t take malware seriously or thought that security products were too expensive.

The virus continued to infect machines for years, but even though anti-virus software could stop the PC becoming infected then millions of floppy disks with it on meant that it would keep trying to come back. Eventually of course floppies fell out of fashion and then vanished altogether – and it’s quite likely that those decades-old disks have now degraded to the point of unreadability.

It wasn’t the last time that a virus used similar techniques to spread. The Conficker worm from 2008 could spread through USB devices and is still a problem nearly a decade later. Even more ancient malware such as the 2003 SQL Slammer worm still flares up from time to time. Of course, malware is not a gadget… but it seems to be an unwelcome companion to technological advances.

Image credits: Wikipedia and Luke Jones via Flickr

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Samsung Galaxy Camera (2012)

Samsung Galaxy Camera
Launched August 2012

Smartphone cameras can be fantastic, making it easy to fix images on the fly, edit or filter them and then share them with others. The one thing that they really can't do well is zoom. Sure, you can zoom in on something digitally but the results tend to be poor and grainy... and smartphones tend to have pretty poor flash capabilities too. On the other hand, digital cameras can do a lot of clever things with zoom lenses and usually have bigger sensors leading to better images, but the software tends to be limited and often rather difficult to use.

So instead of trying to choose… why not have both? The Samsung Galaxy Camera (announced in August 2012) tried to do just that. Essentially, one side was a Samsung Galaxy S III and the other side was a compact Samsung digital camera with a 16 megapixel camera with a 21X zoom lens with a big 23mm aperture on it, all designed to give superior pictures over a smartphone.

Surely Samsung would be on to a winner with this? Well, there were a couple of problems. Firstly, this was a bulky device at more than 300 grams in weight and about 35mm thick where the lens was. So, a bit big for a phone… but apparently it was a bit so-so as a camera as well.

Despite the unique charms of the device, it never really sold well. However, Samsung stuck with the idea and launched the smaller Galaxy S4 Zoom and the high-end Galaxy NX in 2013, and both the Galaxy Camera 2 (without any cellular connectivity) and the phone-based Galaxy K Zoom in 2014. Other manufacturers tried the same thing, for example the Panasonic Lumix Smart Camera CM1. All met with similarly cool responses from consumers.

If you don’t mind being stuck with Android 4 then you can pick one of these interesting devices up for a typical price of around €160. There’s not currently anything quite like it on the market, so if you are prepared to put up with its limitations then it could still be fun.

Image credit: Samsung

Friday, 11 August 2017

GPO Type 746 (1967)

GPO Type 746
Introduced 1967

Back in the stone ages... well, at least the 1960s... if you wanted to talk to someone a fair distance away there used to be a device called a telephone. And if you were living in the UK in the 60s, 70s or even 1980s then you probably had a GPO Type 746 in your house. Launched in 1967, the type 746 turned up absolutely everywhere.

Moulded in a variety of coloured plastics (grey! cream! black! two-tone green! and many - OK, a few - more) the Type 746 was introduced to a market apparently craving US-style telephones with... err... their curly cords. A simple enough design, the 746 was also nicely curved which gave it a friendly look. The loud mechanical bell could certainly give you a fright though.

Entirely electromechanical, telephone numbers were called using a rotary dial that basically made clicks down the line. One click for "1", two for "2" up to ten clicks for "0". Dialling a typical long-distance phone number would involve fifty to sixty clicks. If you got it wrong... you had to redial the whole thing. If the exchange connected you to the wrong number (a common occurrence)... you had to redial the whole thing. If the other number was engaged... you had to redial the whole thing. If you couldn't hear the person on the other end... I think you get the picture by now.

A telephone table was very sophisticated in those days
Telephone calls used to be expensive, so sometimes people would fit a lock into the rotary dial to stop unauthorised use. However, it was possible to bypass this by pressing the switch on the cradle down and up in rapid succession, for example clicking the switch ten times would dial the first "0" of a long-distance call, which you could then follow by the others.

As well as talking to people there were information services. Sort of. The speaking clock is still around today, but you could also listen to the latest records on Dial-a-Disc ("16") in case you didn't have a radio and wanted to PAY to listed to a cruddy tinny sounding song. If the cricket was on then Dial-a-Disc dropped off the air and you could listen to that instead. You could dial the operator on 100. If you dialled 192 you would get free directory enquiries, to help you find the number you needed. If you wanted to speak to someone local you would use a thing called a telephone directory, which was printed on processed wood pulp. Those were the days.

Most people didn't actually own their Type 746, but instead rented one from the GPO who provided the telephone service. Colours seemed to be a pot luck. The natural home for the telephone itself would be a small table in the hallway, as having one in the living room was often considered a bit gauche.

Mmm.. two-tone grey
Of course things got better with features such as push-button dialling, last number redial and even secrecy buttons. These days landlines remain an essential medium for elderly relatives, tech support scammers and telemarketers to get hold of you and in most cases not much else. Since almost all ADSL broadband connections also include a phone, which is probably the only reason a lot of people keep a landline.

There are lots of Type 746s available today, and a good one will cost you around £40 to £50 or so, but you’ll need to check that it has been converted for modern BT connections first. And you might not want to throw away your push-button model even if you do want to indulge in a bit of retro tech.