Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Asteroids (1979)

Introduced November 1979

1979 was a landmark year for Atari – the launch of the popular 400 and 800 computers, the Lunar Lander arcade game and the continued success of the VCS games console meant that Atari was very much becoming a cornerstone technology company of the late 70s and early 80s.

Asteroids Gameplay (click to enlarge)
Asteroids Cabinet
The next step in the story was the Atari Asteroids arcade game. Based on the same basic hardware as Lunar Lander, Asteroids was a much more playable game. In case you’ve never seen any of the many versions of Asteroids that followed the 1979 classic, the basic idea is to blast large chunks of rocks into smaller chunks and then destroy them completely using a small spaceship that can move about the screen. Flying saucers will also appear and attempt to shoot the player to give it an extra degree of complexity. Although not strictly following the laws of physics, the game has a fair approximation which gives it an atypical gameplay for an arcade machine.

Like Lunar Lander, this was a vector graphics games powered by a 6502 with some rudimentary sounds hard-wired in. Although the controls were different (with five buttons to rotate left and right, fire, thrust and hyperspace).

The game was an enormous success, raking in tens of millions of dollars for both Atari and the arcade operators. Demand for the games was so great that Atari cannibalised some of their Lunar Lander boxes to meet it, and it became the most popular arcade machine in the world… for a while.

Sequels, spin-offs and clones followed on just about every console and computer system known to mankind. Forty years later it is still a popular game, although the days of CRT machines with vector graphics are long gone. If you want the original thing, they are pretty hard to come by and most of those available seem to be in the US with a price of $1500 or so for the classic cabinet version and around $500 for the cocktail table variant.

Image credits:
Michael F. via Flickr
killbox via Flickr

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Atari 400 / 800 (1979)

Atari 800 (1979)
Introduced November 1979

In the late 1970s the microcomputer revolution had been kicked off by the holy trinity of the PET, Apple II and TRS-80 which all launched in 1977. Then – as now – two years is a long time in technology and even those these computers well selling well in in 1979 there were better machines coming along.

Atari was an established player in the consumer electronics market since the early 1970s, but although they were eager to capitalise on the new microprocessors launching in the later part of that decade they had taken a different path with the Atari VCS (later called the 2600) launched at the same time as rivals were launching home computers instead.

The Atari VCS was a significant hit, however Atari’s own engineers though that it would have a very limited lifespan (although in fact it was in production in one form or another for 15 years). Development of an improved version based on the VCS architecture started immediately after the product was launched.

When the Atari 400 and 800 were launched two years later it turned out that the VCS had evolved into something very much more advanced. Based on the popular 6502 processor, both the 400 and 800 were fully-featured microcomputers much like the competition, but they also came with a convenient cartridge slot like a games console… which most of the competition did not.

During the design phase it was envisaged that the 400 and 800 would be quite different computers, but in the end they were fundamentally the same. The main differences were that the 400 had 16KB of RAM, a single cartridge slot and a membrane keyboard compared to the 800’s 48KB of RAM, two cartridge slots and a traditional mechanical keyboard.
Atari 400 showing cartridge slot (1979)

At launch the 800 was priced at $1000 with the 400 coming in at $550. Because you had to add a monitor plus some sort of storage (i.e. a cassette or disk drive) then it could add up to being quite an expensive system. However, the hardware was much more sophisticated than earlier rivals.

Featuring two graphics support chips (ANTIC and CTIA) plus another I/O chip that handled sound and everything else (POKEY) plus four joystick ports and a serial expansion bus, these 8-bit Ataris were easily more capable than the first-generation of microcomputers they were up against. They made excellent games machines, but they were also capable of doing everything that any other contemporary microcomputer would do.

FCC regulations of the time basically mandated that the whole computer be hidden inside a cast aluminium block, making the Atari 400 and 800 especially sturdy. These regulations also led to the development of a novel serial bus (called SIO) that allowed components to be daisy-chained to a single interface port on the computer itself. This solution was ahead of its time and is conceptually similar to the way USB peripherals work, but it had the disadvantage of making plug-in devices much more expensive.
Atari 130XE (1985)

Still, the advanced features of the device made the Atari 400 and 800 very popular, but high production costs meant that Atari made little – if any – profit from them at the beginning. A brutal price war in the early 1980s hit hard, but Atari fought on with the cheaper but more sleek "XL" line (notably the 600XL and 800XL). The 8-bit Atari range had an unexpected boost with the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s which led to huge sales success in these emerging markets due to the low-cost nature of these computers with even cheaper “XE” machines (the 65XE, 130XE and 800XE) plus a games console based directly on the same architecture (XEGS).

In all there were three generations of the Atari 800 and its siblings, with production lasting until 1992 – the same year that Atari finally pulled the VCS games console. The popular Atari ST – based on the Motorola 68000 – was launched in 1985, giving the company a new lease of life into the 1990s.

Today the Atari 800 is more readily available than the 400 for collectors, with prices varying between tens and hundreds of pounds depending on condition and peripherals. The later 800XL is much more common and tends to be cheaper. Alternatively various emulators are available if you want to try it that way instead.

Image credits:
Bilby via Wikimedia Commons
Rama & Musée Bolo via Wikimedia Commons
Multicherry via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev (1979)

Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev, 2019
Introduced October 1979

Today we are looking at the technological marvel of the Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev. This may seem weirdly specific, but we’re not just talking about any Chicken Kiev… we are talking about a product that helped to change the way we eat.

Originally a French-inspired piece of Russian cuisine from the early 19th century the definitive recipe for the Chicken Kiev is thought to originate from the Continental Hotel in (unsurprisingly) the city of Kiev. This breadcrumb-coated chicken breast filled with garlic butter became popular throughout the former Russian empire and it eventually escaped to the west via the Yar restaurant in Chicago in the 1930s. From there it spread to other English-speaking countries and became a popular restaurant dish.

After the Second World War (which incidentally destroyed much of the Continental Hotel) the growing ownership of freezers in the US led to the growth of what would eventually be called the “TV Dinner”. Like many other things the idea of a pre-cooked frozen dinner crossed the Atlantic to the UK. But what these foods gained in convenience they tended to sacrifice in taste – and they certainly weren’t something that you would serve to guests.

By the late 1970s food technology was developing quickly. The decade had already given us the Pot Noodle a couple of years earlier, but British retailer Marks and Spencer was working on something altogether classier.

Young product developer Cathy Chapman was working with restaurateur John Docker to create a range of chilled (rather than frozen) meal based on popular restaurant choices. First out of the gate was the Chicken Kiev, modelled closely after the restaurant version including having a little bone sticking out of it.

Despite misgivings from M&S management, the Chicken Kiev was a huge success. Priced at £1.99 per portion in 1979 (nearly £10 today) it certainly wasn’t cheap, but it did have the advantage of being a very tasty and somewhat technically complicated dish that you could prepare in your own home with virtually no culinary skills whatsoever. For extra sophistication, you could wash it down with a bottle of Hirondelle.

The humble M&S Chicken Kiev marked a change in the way food was packaged and sold, and the concept soon spread to other western supermarkets. Today it’s possible to create a quite sophisticated meal even if you can’t reliably boil an egg. This change in food technology certainly broadened our horizons, but tended to come at a cost – these prepackaged foods are often designed for taste rather than healthy eating, and in their wake they tend to leave a lot of packaging which needs to be dealt with too.

You are unlikely to come across any 40-year-old vintage Chicken Kievs – and if you do, give them a wide berth – but food packaging itself it a niche collectable. Marks and Spencer sell a few different versions of Chicken Kiev today at different price points. The ones pictured were £3 for two, which is a lot cheaper than they were in 1979. I ate them for my tea. Very nice they were too.

Image credit: Shritwod via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 20 October 2019

PalmOne Treo 650 (2004)

PalmOne Treo 650
Announced October 2004

The history of the mobile phone market is a bit like the history of the world itself, with empires rising and falling and new superpowers emerging and sweeping the old orders away.

One of these old orders was Palm – which due to its Byzantine history was at the time called PalmOne. Palm pretty much owned the PDA market in the 1990s with the Palm Pilot, but they’d missed out on the emergent “wireless PDA” (or as we would call it “smartphone”) market in the early noughties. This led to Palm buying out a company called Handspring, who made wireless PDAs based on Palm’s own operating system – this enabled Palm to get into the market in 2003 with the Handspring Treo 600, followed by the improved PalmOne Treo 650 in 2004.

It seems a bit alien compared to a modern smartphone with the large keyboard and relatively small screen, plus a stick-out antenna which was old-fashioned even in 2004. The 2.4” 320 x 320 pixel TFT touchscreen display was very advanced for its time, and Palm OS 5.4 was a highly usable and sophisticated software platform which included good support for corporate email too.

Bluetooth, expandable memory and a decent multimedia player rounded off the specification, but unlike modern smartphones there was no high-speed data (it was GSM-only) and no GPS. Still, it was competitive for the time.

It was a valiant effort by Palm - but RIM, HTC and Nokia were all established in the “wireless PDA” market by the time Palm came along. Ultimately the Treo sold well to fans of existing Palm Pilots, but it only had limited success outside its existing market base. The Palm OS platform refused to go down without a fight, and it soldiered on for another three years with the Palm Centro being the last of the line.

Prices for the Treo 650 and 600 vary a lot, with decent ones starting at £50 and going up to £200 for ones in mint condition. If you collect interesting old phones you should probably have at least one running Palm OS, and the Treo 650 is certainly a good candidate.

Image credit: Palm

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2 (2009)

Announced October 2009

Although 2009 had seen the rise and rise of Android and Apple smartphones, it’s easy to forget that they were still only quite small players in that market. When it came to smartphones that were actually used as smartphones – because many of Nokia’s Symbian devices were only used as feature phones by owners – then the company to beat was Research In Motion and their line of BlackBerry devices.

The killer application on the BlackBerry platform was messaging – no other smartphone had quite the capabilities when it came to email or instant message, and for this reason BlackBerry devices were extremely popular. So when RIM announced two significant devices in October 2009 they were at the top of their game.

BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is one of the best classic BlackBerry devices ever. A useful evolution over the Bold 9000 launched the previous year, the 9700 had everything a smartphone should have, including 3.5G data, WiFi, GPS, a decent camera and good multimedia support. This classic BlackBerry had a physical QWERTY keyboard that fans loved plus the useful addition of a very usable small trackpad which made the whole user experience much better.

Both corporate and private users bought the 9700 in significant quantities, and it did seem that sticking to the classic BlackBerry formula was working well for RIM in the face of their upstart rivals.

Where the Bold 9700 built on success, the BlackBerry Storm2 was a follow-on to failure. The original BlackBerry Storm – released in 2008 – was a disaster. Poorly conceived and implements, the Storm was critically panned and unsurprisingly didn’t sell. The Storm2 fixed many of the problems of the original, including re-engineering the touchscreen display, including WiFi, fixing the software and fitting a better camera. As a result, the Storm2 was at least usable… but the specification was a year out of date when it hit the market and it was only a modest success.

In the end, the success of the Bold 9700 masked the disappointing sales of the Storm2. Although this didn’t look like a bad result, the problem was that RIM didn’t have a next-generation product that could complete with the new generation of smartphones coming out. It would take more than three years to produce a real successor to the classic BlackBerry platform, and that was a catastrophe that made even the original Storm look small in comparison.

Image Credits: RIM / BlackBerry

Videos: BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2


Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Poqet PC (1989)

Poqet PC Plus
Introduced October 1989

By the end of the 1980s it was just possible to squeeze a fully-specified personal computer into something the size of a book. Atari had done just that with the Portfolio launched in mid-1989, but that made quite a lot of compromises along the way. In October the same year, Poqet Computer Corporation launched their Poqet PC, a tiny computer which was the closest thing yet to a PC you could fit in your pocket.

A little bit heavier than the Atari, the Poqet PC had a much better specification. The screen was capable of displaying full MDA or CGA-compatible graphics, inside was 512KB or 640KB of RAM with a 7MHz 80C88 processor, there were two PCMCIA slots and the Pocket PC ran MS-DOS 3.3. Two AA batteries were enough to power the Poqet PC for weeks due to some very clever power management.

Although it wasn’t a powerful system per se, it was a pretty capable PC/XT compatible system, similar to those desktop that were still selling well in the late 1980s. At this point, most PCs ran plain old DOS programs as Windows had not yet broken through into the market.

Although it was undoubtedly a better system than the Portfolio, it was also hugely more expensive. The Atari cost around $400, the Poqet was $2000 (around $4000 today). Still, it was a niche success for people who needed full PC compatibility in an ultraportable form factor.

Poqet ended up being bought by Fujitsu who stuck with the Poqet brand for a while before folding it into their own notebook line. Today, Poqet PCs are quite collectable with prices ranging between £300 and £800 depending on features and condition.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Sharp MZ-80K (1979)

Sharp MZ-80K
Introduced October 1979

By 1979 the fledgling microcomputer market was already up and running, with the Commodore PET, Apple II and TRS-80 Model I leading the way in most markets.

Although US-based computer makers had gained the lion's share of the market, they were concerned about the rising Japanese competition. Leading the way was Sharp, who in 1979 launched the MZ-80K personal computer to a worldwide audience, having been available in kit form in Japan for about a year.

A smart-looking all-in-one unit, the MZ-80K was pitched at the upper end of the market, but it was probably the most capable computer of that particular era. Based on Sharp's own LH0080A CPU (which was Z80 compatible) there was also a large software library available. A combination of reliable Japanese technology, good packaging and relative ease of use made the MZ-80K a popular computer for its time.

There were some odd features though - most microcomputers of the time would boot up into BASIC from a ROM, the MZ-80K just started up into a simple bootloader where you could load whatever programming language you wanted from tape or floppy, which took more time but gave more flexibility.The biggest detraction was probably the keyboard, which was somehow even worse than the one on the original PET. Made up of a large grid of keys with the return key for some reason down at the bottom near the space bar and a surprising number of buttons just for the MZ-80K's rather primitive graphics.
Sharp MZ-80K keyboard detail

The improved MZ-80A followed with a more conventional keyboard, and variants of the MZ line were sold by Sharp until the mid 1980s at which point the bottom fell out of the market for 8-bit machines.

Today the MZ-80K and its descendants are pretty collectable, although the original RIFA capacitors need to be checked and replaced before using it, as they are quite likely to explode. Typical prices for a restored version in good condition are around £400 or so.

Image credits:
Wolfgang Stief via Wikimedia Commons
Marcin Wichary via Flickr