Saturday, 4 December 2021

Renault Avantime vs Renault Vel Satis (2001)

Introduced 2001

French cars are cool. That’s a fact. Big French cars are cooler. Quirky big French cars are cooler still. And in 2001, Renault launched not one... but two quirky big French cars for our delight – the Renault Avantime and Renault Vel Satis.

The name “Avantime” is a portmanteau* of the French word “Avant” (“Before”) and the English word “Time”. It wasn’t like anything else on the market at the time – a sort of cross between a grand tourer, MPV, coupé and convertible. These days we’d think of it as a crossover, but twenty years ago customers were baffled.

Is it an MPV? Coupé? Grand Tourer? Convertible? The Avantime is a bit of all of those things.
Is it an MPV? Coupé? Grand Tourer? Convertible? The Avantime is a bit of all of those things.

Like the Vel Satis, the Avantime was designed by Renault’s legendary chief designer Patrick Le Quément. But unlike the Vel Satis, the Avantime was built by Matra who a history in aerospace, defence and motor racing and who somewhere had along the way created the magnificent Matra Rancho.

The Rancho was really just a Simca van converted into the world’s first MPV with the addition of some fibreglass, seats and plastic panels. Although it was a modest success, Matra took the idea further and created arguably the world’s first purpose-built MPV in their P18 prototype which they intended to sell to their long-time partners Chrysler-Simca. Chrysler were interested, but their business was collapsing and they were bought out by PSA (Peugeot Citroën) who weren’t interested in the concept at all.

Matra then sought out a new partner for this radical new car, and in the end Renault agreed to work with them. After some back-and-forth, the Renault Espace was launched in 1984… although the original still had many components from the Simca parts bins. Consumers did not understand the Espace at first – huge, radically shaped and quite different from anything else on European roads. However, once customers “got it” the Espace became a significant success.

Matra was a relatively small company though, and in order to build enough Espaces for Renault they had to drop their sports car line and give 100% of production over the to the new MPV. The Espace II was launched in 1991 with the same basic formula but a more Renault style, followed by the Espace III in 1996 which introduced a radical new interior.

Hundreds of thousands of Espaces were built by Matra, but Matra’s automotive division had just one customer…. Renault. And in 2002 Renault switched the production of the new Espace IV to their own factory in Sandouville. This was potentially very bad news for Matra.

Renault’s solution was to co-design a new car based on the Espace which would utilise Matra’s own engineering skills. Based on the same floorpan as the Espace, the Avantime had just four luxurious seats (squeezing in a fifth person at a pinch), two double-hinged pillarless doors, an almost completely glass roof with the largest production sunroof of the time, a cavernous boot, futuristic yet minimalistic interior all housed in a radical and coherent body based on Matra’s space frame engineering.

Typically this was all powered by a big 3 litre V6 engine and an automatic gearbox, combined with a soft ride for eating up the miles on the autoroute. One interesting feature was the “full air” mode, where at the press of a button all the windows would drop and the sunroof would open to create a sort-of-convertible. The lack of B-pillars helped the illusion of open-ness.
There was nothing else like it, and the Avantime didn’t fit into anybody’s pre-defined notion of what a car should be. Sure, it was a radical design… but so was the Espace and with that it just took a little while for consumers to understand that this was the car they needed.

So, sales of the Avantime were slow to begin with. Alas they stayed that way, with the model selling just over 8000 units worldwide rather than the 100,000 needed for profitability. Despite being critically acclaimed, it was a sales disaster. Matra’s automotive division went bankrupt, ending 40 years of innovative car designs..

..and yet, Renault consider the Avantime to be a design success even if it wasn’t a commercial one. Twenty years late, the huge bulk of the Avantime is not unlike the majority of other new cars. Even the esoteric two-door layout has found its way into other large cars. Today, the Avantime is recognised as being innovative… but nearly two decade too late to save Matra. This is a car that was ahead of its time in more ways than one.

Part of the problem with the Avantime may well have been the Renault Vel Satis. If you wanted a big, weird Renault then this was another choice you could make. A bit bigger than the Laguna, it was also designed by Patrick Le Quément but with a rather different design philosophy.

A large hatchback designed for executives and dignitaries, the Vel Satis was designed to look imposing. This was a car with presence rather than elegance, while not exactly ugly there was a hint of brutalism in the exterior design. Inside, the was comfortable and more conventional. The odd name - a bit like the Avantime's - was a combination of Velocity and Satisfaction.

Not the prettiest thing perhaps, but the Vel Satis had presence and looked like nothing else in its class.
Not the prettiest thing perhaps, but the Vel Satis had presence and looked like nothing else in its class.

It lent itself well to those who needed a car that people would notice without it looking too flashy. The President of France had one, which he loaned to Queen Elizabeth II. The French police would use them as unmarked police cars. These were serious motors.

The design never really fitted in with the rest of the Renault range of the time, with the result that it didn’t date in the same way. Although the Vel Satis is a rare site, especially in the UK, it still looks fresh.

A revision in 2005 kept the car going until 2009, although it wasn’t sold in the UK. About 64,000 were built, although just 1200 made it to the UK… even so, that was 8 times the number of Avantimes worldwide.

Both cars are uncommon these days, but it you are in the market for a big weird car with 20-year-old French electrics, then prices do vary depending on condition. The Avantime is probably the most collectable, with some prices going as high as £10,000 but mostly much cheaper. The Vel Satis can typically be picked up for a few thousand pounds, but it’s not as well-loved as the Avantime and numbers are dwindling fast.

Lovers of big weird French cars in the UK don’t have much choice. Although the fifth-gen Espace is pleasingly individual, it isn’t available in the UK. Other most other big French cars don’t have the character, with most big Renaults originating from Korea and Citroen and Peugeot producing badge-engineered Stellantis models you would be hard pushed to find anything quirky.

* literally meaning “coathanger”, a word created by merging two other words.

Image credits:
Vauxford via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Rudolf Stricker via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Saturday, 20 November 2021

Microsoft Xbox (2001)

Launched November 2001

Microsoft is a software company. It’s right there in the name. On the uncommon occasions that Microsoft has ventured into hardware, the results have been decidedly mixed from the failure of the Zune and KIN devices to the slow-burn success of the Surface to the best goddam computer mice ever made and I will die on that hill.

The Xbox line is certainly one of Microsoft’s more successful products, with a history spanning 20 years. But why does it even exist?

Original Microsoft Xbox (2001)
Original Microsoft Xbox (2001)

Back in 2001 there were three major players duking it out in the games console market. Sony’s PlayStation 2 was the boss… fighting against it was the Sege Dreamcast and Nintendo GameCube. These companies had been fighting it out for years, and although Sega had the head start with these sixth-gen consoles, it was Sony who was taking the biggest share of the market. The PS2 was more than just a simple games console, crucially it was a low-cost way of playing DVDs and music and the hardware was extremely capable. The Sega and Nintendo rivals were similarly versatile.

For Microsoft the concern was that this new generation of games console might start to compete with PCs for home users. The hardware was as good as or much better than contemporary Windows boxes, and prices in the $200 to $300 dollar range made them financially competitive too. Sure, Windows-based PCs were a popular platform for games as well, but you couldn’t always guarantee that your PC would be able to play the latest and greatest games if it was a few years old.

With the Xbox, Microsoft had the idea of taking the technologies and components that Windows already used. Underneath, the Xbox used a heavily modified version of Windows 2000 (the somewhat forgotten predecessor to Windows XP) and utilised the DirectX technology that Microsoft had built into Windows for gaming – DirectX giving the console the “X” in “Xbox”. Inside was a standard PC-style DVD drive and hard disk plus a customised version of the 733 MHz Intel Pentium III processor and an Nvidia GPU for graphics, combined with what seems today like a very modest 64MB of RAM.

The Intel CPU was a bit of a surprise for AMD who had originally been engaged to come up with a processor. In fact AMD would have to wait for the 3rd-gen Xbox – the Xbox One – before they supplied both the CPU and GPU, which they still do. The hardware overall was competitive, but the system itself was bulky because of the non-bespoke components. Even the original Xbox game controllers looked bulky and clumsy compared to the competition.

When launched, it was something of a success, helped a lot by the availability of HALO to play on it. The Xbox was also much stronger in terms on online gaming than rivals, coming in at a time when always-on broadband connections were starting to become popular. In the Microsoft-Sony-Sega-Nintendo race, the Xbox eventually came in second place in sales terms… way behind the PlayStation 2 and a little ahead of the GameCube.

Standard PC components added to the bulk
Standard PC components added to the bulk

Although it was a successful platform, Microsoft failed to make any money on the hardware – in the end they lost billions – but this was part of a bigger strategy including selling many of the games themselves and providing subscription services. In the end, games consoles didn’t take over from PCs… but to a large extent smartphones did. Probably in the end, Microsoft’s foray into gaming was unnecessary, but today’s ninth-generation consoles essentially leave just Sony and Microsoft standing.

Although obsolete by today’s standards, special edition Xboxes or ones with a large selection of games can sell for hundreds of pounds. There’s also a healthy modding scene for those who want to get more out of the hardware. Even twenty years on, the original Xbox has its fans.

Image credits:
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
Swaaya via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, 7 November 2021

Nokia 7650 (2001)

Launched November 2001

It’s easy to think that smartphones didn’t exist before the original 2007 iPhone, but they most certainly did. Nokia had launched a hybrid PDA/phone as early as 1996 with the Nokia 9000 Communicator, or there was the Ericsson R380 from 1999… or going even further back was the IBM Simon from 1994. But these were all scaled-down computers, bulky and complex. But in 2001, Nokia released the 7650 which took the form factor of a phone and squeezed as much as possible into it.

Nokia 7650
Nokia 7650

This was a much more pocket-friendly device than some of those that had gone before. A slider phone weighing 154 grams and measuring a comfortable 114 x 56 x 26mm, it felt like a normal phone… one noticeable thing was the larger-than-normal 2.1” 176 x 208 pixel display which was much bigger than the type 1.5” 128 x 128 pixel screens that other early colour phones had.

It was also Nokia’s first phone with a built-in camera, a modest (by today’s standards) 640 x 480 pixel resolution, and photos could be sent to others using MMS or email. The 7650 supported GPRS data, had a WAP browser plus a somewhat limited Bluetooth implementation. Inside was a relatively powerful 194 MHz ARM processor with 4MB of storage, modest by today’s standards but much more powerful than a standard “dumb” phone.

The heart of the phone though was the Symbian Series 60 OS, which allowed the user to install – and if they wanted, even write – native applications directly onto the phone. In fact, the 7650 was the first Nokia Symbian smartphone to market, followed by a long line of others. Symbian itself was derived from Psion’s EPOC OS which was originally designed for the PDAs that the 7650 strove to replace.

Not a bad looking device by 2001 standards
Not a bad looking device by 2001 standards

This being the golden age of smartphone design, Nokia felt free to innovate. With the slider closed, the minimalist design seemed to make the screen dominate the handset  -although in reality it was only about a quarter of the size of the footprint of the phone. The minimalist buttons were also a precursor of what was to come. Nokia didn’t stick with the slider for the successor though, instead they went for a pair of weird monoblock designs with the 6600 and the whacky 3650.

The 7650 was relatively successful… not Nokia 1100 successful, but it sold well amongst gadget fans who were impressed enough for Nokia to persist with the smartphone idea. In one form or other, Symbian dominated the smartphone market with relatively few challengers until the first iPhone and Android devices appeared. Today the 7650 is quite collectable, with prices for good ones being in excess of £100.

Image credits: Nokia

Saturday, 30 October 2021

Samsung Galaxy Note N7000 (2011)

Launched October 2011

Once upon a time, phones were tiny. The smaller the phone, the better was the mantra in the early noughties. A few years later, smartphones started to become popular… but even the iconic iPhone only had a 3.5” display, which is positively quaint by today’s standards.

Samsung had an idea that bigger was possibly better, and in 2011 they launched the original Samsung Galaxy Note N7000. Bigger than a smartphone and smaller than a tablet, the Note ended up with the rather ugly class of “phablet” being applied to it. And it was a controversial beast. Oh yes.

Samsung Galaxy Note N7000
Samsung Galaxy Note N7000

Sporting a 5.3” 800 x 1280 pixel display, the Note was huge for its day coming in at 170 grams and 147 x 83 x 9.7mm in size. Many critics thought that it was far too big, that a device of this size was going to be unusable for most consumers… that it would simply be too large to even carry around comfortably.

Although it did look like a slightly stretched Samsung Galaxy S II, the Note came with a stylus (the “S-Pen”) which was supported by a few specially written apps for the device. Hardware specs varied according to which regional model you had, but the Note was no slouch with a 1.4 or 1.5GHz dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, 16 or 32 GB of storage (plus a microSD card), and for good measure an 8 megapixel camera on the back with a 2 megapixel one on the front. This was high-end stuff.

Consumer reaction was cool, and it was only a moderate sales success. But despite the size of the thing, the Note won converts because the large screen was substantially easier to use. Standard smartphones began to creep up in size, and by 2014 the Samsung Galaxy S5 matched the screen size of the Note, even if it was more pocket-friendly. Today, the Apple iPhone 13 packs a 6.1” display in a form factor not too far from the original Note… so today, the “huge” size of the Note is pretty much what all high-end smartphones look like.

The Note didn’t die out though, the current Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still a fair bit larger than a standard smartphone, but it doesn’t feel ridiculous. Somewhere along the line, Samsung screwed up royally and the Galaxy Note 7 could accidentally burn down your house, but the line continued anyway.

These days almost every high-end phone is a similar size to the original Galaxy Note, where the current Note really does sit slightly below a 7” tablet in terms of size. The lasting legacy of the original Note was to show that consumers really wanted much bigger phones with better screens, rather than the pokey little displays of smartphones of the time. Perhaps it is under-rated in this regard, having largely been responsible for the modern phone form factor. Today a little piece of design history like this will probably set you back between £40 to £70.

Image credit: Samsung

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Nokia 5510 (2001)

Launched October 2001

At the same time that Apple launched their groundbreaking iPod digital music player, Nokia were going for the same market with their equally groundbreaking Nokia 5510. Of course, today people remember the original the original classic iPod… but the 5510 hides in obscurity filed under W for weird.

A weird looking Nokia 5510
A weird-looking Nokia 5510

The two devices were both trying to do the same thing, but both Apple and Nokia started from different origins. Where the iPod had a 5GB internal hard disk and was strictly a music-only device, the 5510 had 64MB of internal flash memory and also a full QWERTY keyboard, WAP browser, email client and of course it was a phone too.

This was Nokia’s first music capable phone, but it required a Windows PC to encode MP3s in a copy-protected format, and the 64MB of memory was about for about one album’s worth of songs (compared to the 1000 or so on the iPod). This was slow and cumbersome, and the 5510 didn’t support memory cards so you were stuck with this 64MB limit. However, the 5510 did include an FM radio which was quite a useful feature for its day.

Nokia wanted it to be more than just a music phone, so the inbuilt email client and the built-in QWERTY keyboard should have been a good match. Except of course that looking at it now, the keyboard takes up most of the device with a relatively tiny screen. But RIM hadn’t yet come up with their iconic 6230 design which was frankly a lot more usable, and which was much-copied in the years that followed its release.

Doubly weird, two Nokia 5510s
Doubly weird, two Nokia 5510s

Flawed as a music player, and flawed as a messaging device… the 5510 nonetheless foreshadowed technologies that were to come. You can’t attach any blame to Nokia for seeing what consumers wanted, giving it a go and getting it wrong. But Nokia got it wrong rather too often, whereas the iPod was right first time.

Weird Nokia phones are quite collectable, and the 5510 easily falls into this category with good examples going for about £70 or so. You might only get limited use out of it, but certainly on looks along it still has the wow factor…

Image credits:

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Apple iPod (2001)

Introduced October 2001

Last time we looked at Apple’s offerings in October 1991 with the Mac Quadra and PowerBook machines. Although they were decent systems, Apple went into decline during the 1990s and by 1997 it was a hairs breadth away from bankruptcy. But a change in leadership, including the return of Steve Jobs and fresh engineering and design talent started to turn the company around. 1998’s iMac wowed consumers, but the company wasn’t going to rely just on the Mac this time around.

By 2001, Apple had an eye on the portable music player market – devices that were tricky to use and either very limited in what they could store or were huge. But Apple didn’t have enough engineers with the rights skills to make such a device, so Apple’s head of engineering – Jon Rubinstein – contracted the work out to a former Philips engineer named Tony Fadell who had made a couple of practical if commercially unsuccessful PDAs and then formed his own company. Fadell recruited other engineers from Philips and his own firm, and then added to this was Apple engineer Michael Dhuey and Apple design Jonathan Ive. Further work on the UI was outsourced to a company called Pixo (eventually acquired by Sun Microsystems), and a deal was struck with Toshiba to supply their compact 5GB hard drive which would form the heart of the whole thing.

This music player became the Apple iPod, developed in less than a year and quite unlike anything on the market. Capable of storing 1000 songs, it came with a prominent scroll wheel, a decently sized screen with easy-to-use options all in a compact and elegantly designed case. Although it wasn’t cheap, retailing at $399, it was easily better than almost anything else on the market and was a huge hit.

Apple iPods and a Mac G5
Apple iPods and a Mac G5

The original iPod had a 5GB drive, but a 10GB one followed. One major drawback was this it could only be used with a Mac. The second-generation iPod was launched less than a year later, had more space and a touch-sensitive scroll wheel… and it could be used with a PC. Less than a year after than, the inbuilt FireWire port was supplemented with a USB for greater compatibility and these incremental improvements kept on happening, with the original-style iPods forming the “Classic” range and more company “Mini”, tiny “Nano” and display-less “Shuffle” devices following. After the launch of the original iPhone, a “Touch” range became available which was essentially an iPhone minus the Phone.

In the end, dedicated music players started to become a bit redundant. Smartphones were just as capable and the last Classic iPod (the sixth generation) went off sale in 2014. The iPod Touch remains, with the 7th generation launched in 2019 which is closely related to the iPhone 7. Although it is a bit of a niche market now, along the way Apple sold hundreds of millions of iPods making it the best-selling device of its type in the world.

The iPod also demonstrated that Apple could succeed outside of the microcomputer market. The next logical target was phones, and Apple’s long-anticipated entry into the market… well, actually the first attempt was a disaster because they made too many compromises. But eventually we’d get the iPhone (and iPad) which redefined their respective marketplaces. Although the iPod is a much less important product today, it helped to make Apple almost ubiquitous.
Image credits:
Matthew Pearce via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Sunday, 10 October 2021

Apple Macintosh Quadra and PowerBook (1991)

Introduced October 1991

We find ourselves in the early nineteen nineties. Apple is still riding the wave of the early Macintoshes, but their advantage over PCs and the new Windows 3.0 environment is waning. Apple is still innovating, but is struggling to compete in terms of cost and usability.

In October 1991, Apple launched the desktop Quadra and laptop PowerBook computers, which were either more powerful or more portable depending on which route you took.

The PowerBook was probably the most interesting device. Apple had tried to make a portable Mac years earlier with the Macintosh Portable which was a market failure despite some very promising engineering. Several years of technological advancements – especially in the PC-compatible arena – demonstrated that it was possible to come up with a compact and usable laptop computer. The PowerBook took many of these ideas and created a more elegant and usable solution, and critically one that was a Mac and not a PC.

Apple Macintosh PowerBook 100
Apple Macintosh PowerBook 100

The first generation of PowerBooks break down into two distinct models. The PowerBook 100 was actually designed and built by Sony, and took the bulky original Portable and shrunk it down to a fraction of the weight. Running the by-then elderly 68000 processor, the PowerBook was essentially a classic Mac in a laptop form. The more powerful PowerBook 140 and 170 models were Apple designs running the more powerful 68030 CPU. The 170 was faster than the 140 and had an active-matrix monochrome display compared with the passive-matrix on the cheaper model.

The PowerBook was a huge success at first, but Apple struggled to fit the more powerful 68040 processor in it due to heat dissipation problems. By the time they’d fixed that, PC manufacturers had looked at the PowerBook and improved their models too so Apple started to struggle to compete. However, the PowerBook line remained until 2006, transitioning to the much more powerful PowerPC co-developed by Apple, IBM and Motorola.

The Quadra didn’t have the same problem with heat as the PowerBook and was a more natural platform for the improved 68040. More powerful than the 68030, transition between the two was not always smooth as the code required some optimisation to run on the new platform. A more modest success than the PowerBook the Quadra spawned a variety of models into the mid-1990s when it too was replaced by the PowerPC-based Power Macintosh line.

Apple Macintosh Quadra 700
Apple Macintosh Quadra 700

Despite some initial success, these models mark the beginning of a long decline for Apple. The Motorola 68000 series was reaching the end of its life, Microsoft’s kludgy early versions of Windows became more polished and Apple’s prices remained out of reach of many.  Just a few years after the launch of the Quadra and PowerBook it seemed that Apple was doomed. But that is a different story.

Image credits:
Danamania via Wikimedia Commons - GFDL
Simon Claessen via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0