Friday, 25 September 2015

Sinclair ZX Spectrum 128 (1985)

Launched September 1985

Let's be honest here.. the ZX Spectrum 128 is not the most memorable computer launched by Sinclair Research, but it is significant as it is the last ever computer produced under the "Sinclair" name as an independent company, announced 30 years ago this month.

The original Spectrum had been launched in 1982 to huge success, but by 1985 the market had moved on significantly with 32-bit rivals such as the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST taking the high end, and arch-rivals Amstrad competing head-on with Sinclair with the likes of the CPC 6128.

Sinclair's attempt at a next-generation computer with the QL had failed (and had cost the company a lot of money on the way), so the only thing that was really selling was a warmed-over version of the original Spectrum, the ZX Spectrum+.. but this was still limited to just 48KB of RAM and was looking increasingly dated underneath.

Created in partnership with Investrónica of Spain, the ZX Spectrum 128 was an attempt to bring some evolutionary upgrades to the Spectrum platform. More RAM theoretically meant more powerful applications could run, but it was tricky to access all the memory. The Spectrum 128 had better audio than the miserable tinny speaker in the original Spectrums, had a much better keyboard and a cleaner, more modern design.

It was a modest success, but Sinclair were still wedded to the idea of selling the computer by itself and having the user supply the cassette recorder (for loading programs) and TV by themselves, where Amstrad would sell you the whole lot in a bundle.

But Sinclair was in deep trouble financially and there had been a string of failure, including the infamous Sinclair C5 electric car. After some abortive attempts to rescue the company, the Spectrum brand and its computers were sold off to Amstrad who licensed the "Sinclair" name.

Amstrad produced a CPC-style version of the Spectrum 128 the following year, followed by a version with a 3" floppy disk in 1987 with production continuing until 1992. But the story doesn't end there as you can now buy a "Recreated ZX Spectrum" with more modern interfaces or even a ZX Spectrum-based games console called the Vega. There are also Spectrum emulators for a variety of platforms including Android.

Although the ZX Spectrum 128 is the last "true" Sinclair Spectrum, Sinclair Research went on to fund the development of the Cambridge Z88, a 900 gram A4-size computer for note-taking and other applications which proved to be a niche success.

Image credits, ccwoodcock [1] [2]

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Nintendo Game Boy (1990)

Launched September 1990 (Europe)

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Nintendo Game Boy in Europe. This relatively simple 8-bit device proved to be hugely popular and the Game Boy turned out to be a game changer.

The Game Boy wasn't the first hand-held gaming console, but it hit the sweet spot when it came to technical features, design, prices and software. By today's standards the Game Boy seems primitive - it had a 8-bit CPU with a 2.6" monochrome display and loaded games in with a cartridge - and even in 1990 it wasn't exactly high-tech. But the Game Boy retailed for just $90 in the US, which made it very affordable.

The hardware comprised of a Sharp LR35902 processor clocked at 4.2 MHz (a sort-of-cross between an Intel 8080 and Zilog Z80), a pitiful 8Kb of RAM (plus 8Kb of video memory), a 160 x 144 pixel display that could display four shades of.. errr.. green and a slot that could take a cartridge of up to 8MB.

The Game Boy had simple but elegant controls ("START", "SELECT", "A" and "B") housed in an unfussy and cleanly designed box. Power was provided by four AA batteries which could give between 15 to 30 hours play time.

Perhaps the killer application that the Game Boy had was the bundled Tetris game, but there were quite a wide range of other games available too (helped by the fact that Europe had to wait a year for the Game Boy after Japan and the US). Although cartridges were relatively expensive, it was at least a simple solution. A very popular later series of games were based around Pokémon characters.

The Game Boy series continued until 2008, selling a massive 200 million units overall. Although mobile gaming would have probably happened even without the Game Boy, it is likely that this little device raised people's expectations and helped to create demand for the vibrant market that we have today.

Today, an original Game Boy in working order will set you back between €35 to €70 or more depending on condition and the number of games it comes with. Thankfully, rechargeable batteries are a lot better than they were 25 years ago!

Image source

Monday, 21 September 2015

Amstrad PCW 8256 (1985)

Launched September 1985

Thirty years ago we were seeing the dawn of 32-bit home computing with the state-of-the-art Commodore Amiga and Atari ST coming to market. The Amstrad PCW 8256 was also the exact opposite to these, and yet it turned out to be an enormous success in the countries it was launched in.

Back in the 1980s, wordprocessing was one of the most common things you’d do on a computer. Email and other online services were rudimentary and only used by a tiny handful of people, so things such as business correspondence were sent on bits of paper.

If you wanted to use something better than a typewriter, then you’d need a word processor. These tended to be expensive, or very difficult to set up. Or usually both. But the Amstrad PCW tackled both of those problems head on.

As with the Amstrad CPC range, the PCW was a combination of very cheap components cleverly packaged together. Based on a Zilog Z80 processor with 256Kb of RAM, and running the CP/M operating system (both designed in the mid 1970s), you could hardly call the PCW a high-tech device.

The package included a monochrome monitor, keyboard, one or two 3” floppy disks and crucially it came with a basic dot matrix printer in the package. With the possible exception of the floppy disks you had to buy, none of these components was very expensive, and this enabled the PCW to sell for a little over £450 (equivalent to about £1240 or €1700 today). This was a fraction of the price of (say) an IBM PC with similar capabilities.

The other advantage of including everything you needed in the box was that everything worked when it came out of the box. You didn’t need to worry about compatibility, or drivers.. or really anything else, because everything was designed to work together. The PCW can be regarded as an “appliance” in the same way that contemporary Macs could.

The LocoScript word processor was basic but straightforward to use, but because the PCW ran the CP/M operating system, it could also run a variety of other business applications such as spreadsheets and databases. And although the PCW wasn’t designed for games, inevitably there were those too.

Most of the circuitry to drive the printer was actually in the computer case, and the printer itself was very simple and the 9-pin head could only really produce rather chunky text. The printer itself was highly proprietary, so you couldn’t simply upgrade it to anything except an Amstrad daisywheel printer or Amstrad plotter. However, you could produce simple graphics with the standard printer which did lead to some basic desktop publishing (DTP) packages being developed.

A few months later the Amstrad PCW 8512 was launched with twice the RAM. In 1987 the PCW9512 and 9256 were announced, replacing the crude dot matrix printer with a daisywheel printer. In one form or another, this series of computers soldiered on into the 1990s by which time they had sold 8 million units. Not bad for something based on 1970s technology.

If you are looking at starting your own computing museum, then the Amstrad PCW is a very cheap thing to acquire, commonly available for about £10 to £15. An original 1984 Apple Macintosh will cost about fifty times as much!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

MOS Technology 6502 (1975)

Launched September 1975

Microprocessors were expensive forty years ago. Popular processors such as the Intel 8080 and Motorola 6800 would sell for hundreds of dollars, and these high prices were a significant barrier to the development of low-cost personal computers.

A group of engineers from Motorola, including the pioneering Chuck Peddle had tried to develop a simple low-cost device while at Motorola, but had been rebuffed. Instead, they left the company to join a small firm called MOS Technology, and they set upon developing the MOS Technology 6502 processor instead.

The design philosophy of the 6502 could be summed up in about three words: “keep it simple”. Instead of loading the processor down with extra features, Peddle and his team created a processor that was much less complex than rivals. This meant that it was much cheaper than rivals. And it also meant that it was much faster.

A simpler design was cheaper, because the actual silicon part of the chip was smaller, and this led to fewer flaws during manufacturing and also increased the number of chips that could be produced on one wafer. The result of this was that MOS Technology could sell the 6502 for just $25, a fraction of what rivals were charging.

At this price point, the 6502 became an obvious choice for the many of the microcomputers that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the Apple II, Commodore PET and VIC-20, Acorn Atom, BBC Micro and Electron, Atari 400 and 800 plus a variety of lesser-known or now-forgotten computers plus a wide range of embedded systems.

MOS Technology was eventually taken over by Commodore in 1976 and spun out into a separate company again in 1995, although that company was eventually liquidated in 2001.

You might think that an 8-bit processor from the 1970s has very little influence today, but there is a surprising twist to the tale. When the engineers at Acorn in the UK were designing their range of 6502-based computers, they were impressed by the simplicity and speed of the 6502 design. This directly influenced the development of the Acorn ARM processor that was used in their Archimedes computer in the 1980s. So successful was the ARM design, that variants of that processor are now used in millions of devices today. The smartphone or tablet you own today is probably based on an ARM core, which is directly influenced by this 40 year old device.

Image credits [1] [2]

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Motorola ROKR E1 - the Apple phone before the iPhone (2005)

Motorola ROKR E1
Announced September 2005

The Motorola ROKR E1 has the dubious distinction of being one of the most disastrous mobile phone releases ever. But what is it with this innocuous looking device that is so horribly wrong?

To a large extent the ROKR story starts not with Motorola, but with Apple. Ten years ago, Apple was experiencing a resurgence after a difficult time in the 1990s. Sales of desktop and laptop Macs were growing, and the iPod had been launched in late 2001 and was selling in huge numbers. Apple had played around in the PDA market with the Apple Newton in the 90s, but one market that Apple had not broken into was mobile phones.

Motorola seemed to be a good match for Apple. Both were US companies, and Motorola had wowed the market with the elegant Motorola RAZR V3. Motorola had also designed some 3G compatible smartphones such as the Symbian-based A1000. Apple had come up with a revolutionary but simple interface for the iPod, and of course they had a background in creating user-friendly software.

This combination looked like a dream team. What could go wrong?

Rumours of an "iTunes phone" started circulating in 2004, but by May 2005 it was becoming clear that the device might be disappointing, when we revealed most of the specs of what was then called the Motorola E790. Industry watchers were hoping for something better, but when the final design leaked out it was clear that this was not the state-of-the-art device people had been hoping for.

Instead of designing something new, Motorola and Apple had simply taken an existing handset - the Motorola E398 - and had changed the software, painted it white and had added an "iTunes" button. This warmed-over phone was christened the Motorola ROKR E1 and it was supported by a massive advertising campaign.
But the ROKR was an old-fashioned device. It had only 512MB of storage as standard (upgradable to 1GB), a poor camera, was stuck to 2.5G data speeds only and the slow USB 1.1 connection meant that it took ages to transfer files. Although music playback was actually pretty good, the handset had been deliberately crippled so that it could only store 100 tracks. This move was taken to make sure that the ROKR wouldn't eat into the iPod market share.

For some reason, consumers didn't fancy a warmed-over and crippled device and sales of the ROKR E1 were extremely disappointing. It didn't stay on the market for long, and it was replaced quickly with the iTunes-less ROKR E2. The ROKR turned up to be more of a FLOPR.

For Apple, the whole thing was an embarrassment and a horrible compromise. For their next phone, Apple went off and designed everything in-house to the specifications that they wanted, without compromise. That handset was rather more successful.

Today, the Motorola ROKR E1 is the phone that Apple would like you to forget. Because it sold so poorly, it it seldom on sale today.. but when it is, prices seem to be about €30 or so. If you are looking for a quirky-but-flawed piece of Apple ephemera, then perhaps the ROKR E1 is something you would like to add to your collection.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

DEC VT52 (1975)

Launched September 1975

Think of the exciting end of today’s technological spectrum. You might come up with smartwatches, 4K TV and internet-connected fridges. Now think of the other end. Perhaps you might think about UPS maintenance, Sarbanes-Oxley compliance and replacing the pickup rollers in your laser printer. Well, I am going to talk about computer terminals which most people will think belongs on the less-sexy end of the scale..

..but wait. Go back forty years to September 1975. If you were a grown-up back then, you might be lusting after one of those new-fangled digital watches. But it you were very lucky, then perhaps your employer would buy you something like a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) VT52 instead.

If you belong to the generation that puzzles over why the icon for “save” is a floppy disk but you have never seen one, then perhaps an explanation is in order. A computer terminal is a pretty simple device that connects to a bigger computer with many users, sometimes in the same building, sometimes thousands of miles away. Back in the mid-1970s, this sort of thing was the state-of-the-art. That computer would sometimes be somewhere else in the same building, or it could be hundreds or thousands of miles away. To some extent, a terminal was just the ultimate thin client.

When the VT52 was launched in September 1975, it marked a significant transition from really incredibly dumb teletypes to devices that could run something that looked rather more like a modern business application. In other words, it helped to take computing out of the realms of the geeks and put it on people’s desks in the office instead.

OK. If you are of the iPad generation then perhaps your eyes are glazing over, but before the 1970s, the most user-friendly way you could interact with a computer was by using a teletype - basically a printer with a keyboard and a computer interface on the back. Everything you typed got printed out, and every response from the computer was printed out too. These things were connected to a box of 2500 sheets of fanfold paper which would run out from time-to-time. And they were noisy. And they were slow.

Sometime in the late 1960s, somebody had the really good idea of replacing the paper with a cathode ray tube, but although they were quieter and eliminated a lot of dead trees, they were still massively dumb devices. These were called glass teletypes, and essentially they worked in the same way as paper-based ones.

But come the 1970s, not only did we have the Bay City Rollers, but also these horribly dumb devices were becoming just a bit more intelligent, which leads us to the DEC VT52. A product of the Digital Equipment Corporation (aka “Digital” or “DEC”) of Massachusetts, the VT52 and its competitors offered some revolutionary features that would help to define modern computing.

Where a glass teletype simply printed out what it received, a terminal such as the VT52 could do a lot more. The single biggest advance was that the computer could move the cursor around the screen and output whatever it wanted, wherever it wanted. And the more basic things like being able to support both uppercase and lowercase characters at the same time certainly helped.

What this all meant was the computers suddenly became much more interactive. Instead of typing something in and just getting a response, you could create forms for entering data. Or create a spreadsheet. Or edit documents. It was the VT52 and its contemporaries that helped to build recognisably modern applications. Perhaps more importantly of all, it opened the way to quite sophisticated games such as DECWAR and Rogue.

The VT52 itself came in several different versions, including one with a printer that could dump the contents of the screen onto a wet sheet of paper. Lovely. And one key design flaw with the VT52 turned out to be the relatively flat top which ended up being covered with papers and manuals.. which lead to overheating.

Typically paired with a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer, the V52 was widely adapted by other computer systems too. In 1978 the VT52 was replaced by the DEC VT100, which became the standard terminal to emulate even today. DEC was taken over by Compaq in 1998, which itself was taken over by HP in 2002. But the direct descendant of the VT52, the VT520, is still in production today.

Within a few years microcomputers such as the Apple II and Commodore PET had moved the computer away from the control of the IT department and fully onto the user's desk, and for a long time it seemed that "thin clients" would vanish. However, the emergence of the World-Wide Web in the 1990s swung the technology the other way.

These days, 1970s DEC terminals in good condition can sell for hundreds of dollars to collectors, despite being about as useful in modern computing as a chocolate teapot.

Image credits [1] [2]

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Sinclair Black Watch (1975)

Launched September 1975

These days, a modern smartwatch is a tiny miniaturised computer that keeps us entertained, in touch with contacts and connected with the outside world as well as telling us the time. But, forty years ago manufacturers were struggling even to create a basic digital watch that didn’t cost a fortune.

Forty years ago this month we saw the launch of the Sinclair Black Watch, a low-cost digital watch costing around £25 for an assembled version and £18 for a kit (around £157 / €213 and £133 / €153 at today’s prices). Digital watches were a big thing at the time (they even featured as a running joke in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), so interest in the Black Watch was high.

The Black Watch (the name was a pun on a famous Scottish regiment) was fundamentally different from a modern digital watch in that it used an LED display rather than the typical LCD display we would see today. LEDs draw a lot more power than an LCD, so it wasn’t possible to keep the display on all the time, instead the user had to press a button underneath the display to make the digits light up.

That might be seen as a minor inconvenience, but there was worse. The battery life was meant to be a year, but in practice it was only a few weeks at best or sometimes even days, and the battery was extremely difficult to replace. The watch was also sensitive to temperature (it ran a different speeds in different seasons) and was sensitive to static electricity. It also had a tendency to fall apart.

Essentially, the Black Watch was not fit to be sold, and the return rate was enormous, to the extent that it nearly bankrupted the company. In the end, Sinclair Radionics was rescued by the government and was eventually split up, although the Sinclair name lived on with Sinclair Research that pioneered low cost home computers in the 1980s.

Black Watches these days are very rare, and you can expect to pay several hundred pounds for one in good condition. In fact, this old Sinclair is about as expensive to buy as the modern all-singing-all-dancing Apple Watch. Or alternatively you can get a modern Casio digital watch for about £20 or so which will actually tell you the time in a reliable fashion.

Image credits: [1] [2]