Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Nintendo Game & Watch (1980)

Nintendo Game & Watch - original "Ball" game
Launched April 1980

Legend has it that one day Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi was observing a Japanese worker playing with a pocket calculator when he suddenly had an idea to take the basic components of a calculator and turn them into a handheld game.

It wasn’t an entirely new idea. Mattel’s rudimentary Auto Race game in 1976 was arguably the first, with the Coleco Electronic Quarterback machine of 1978 also proved popular. Both of those games were bulky and used simple LED displays, however technology had moved on and by the end of the 1970s inexpensive LCD displays were appearing all over the place – including in a range of low-cost and very portable pocket calculators. There were even pocket calculator game books which – with some effort – could make these little gadgets more entertaining.

Yokoi’s design took the LCD display, but instead of having it display numbers it could display a series of predefined graphics instead. Inside was a 4-bit Sharp calculator battery, and power was provided by button cells which kept the size and weight down. This was launched as the Nintendo Game & Watch (as it also included a clock).

The first game was simply called “Ball” and it was a simple enough game where you had to throw and catch a ball, but many more followed. Each game required its own hardware, typically with “A” and “B” variants with different gameplay. At first the games had a single screen and simple control buttons, but dual screen ones followed and in 1982 a handheld version of Donkey Kong also introduced the now ubiquitous D-pad controller. Screens also got bigger and layer ones had coloured sections printed onto the display to give a bit more visual interest.
Rare Super Mario Bros Game & Watch

Dozens of different versions came to market over the next decade or so with games titles many of which featured the Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, plus a whole lot of Disney characters and ports of arcade games. Nintendo placed a lot of emphasis on gameplay because of the strictly limited hardware, which had the effect of making the games both addictive and relatively inexpensive.

Millions of Game & Watch devices were sold, but in the end technology had moved on. Yokoi had also designed the Nintendo Game Boy, using lessons learned from the Game & Watch but in a much more flexible package where new games could be loaded on with a cartridge.

In fact Gunpei Yokoi had been a prolific designer of products for Nintendo, starting with successful toys such as the Ultra Hand in the 1960s. Not all the products were successful, but his design philosophy of (roughly translated) “lateral thinking with seasoned technology” is still an important part of the way Nintendo designs products – in other words, using existing and inexpensive technologies in innovative ways rather than pursuing the highest technology available. Yokoi left Nintendo in 1996 to form his own company, but he was killed in a car accident in October 1997. However, his influential legacy lives on.

Today Game & Watch devices are very collectable, with rare items such as the yellow Super Mario Bros (YM-901) selling for thousands of pounds, with more common or later ones such as Donkey Kong 3 selling for less than £100.

Image credits:
masatsu via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Sturmjäger via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Sony PlayStation 2 (2000)

Sony PlayStation 2
Launched March 2000

Sony had been something of a late entrant into the games console, coming to market in the early 1990s in what was essentially a grudge match with Nintendo. Both companies had worked together in 1988 to make a CD-ROM add-on to the Nintendo Super NES console which fell apart spectacularly.

Sony became keen to demonstrate its expertise in consumer electronics, and this led to the original PlayStation console launched in 1994. The PlayStation was a successful fifth-generation console that beat Nintendo’s offering by a full year and a half.

Things move on of course, and in 2000 Sony announced the successor to the original PlayStation, imaginatively called the PlayStation 2 (or “PS2”). Based around a heavily customised MIPS RISC processor called the “Emotion Engine” combined with powerful graphics and audio processors, the PlayStation 2 was a massive leap forward from previous generations.

Bundled with an upgrade of the legendary DualShock controller, the PlayStation also had a wide variety of other peripherals that could be used for gameplay. One crucial feature it also came with was an integrated DVD player at a time when these were very uncommon and rather expensive.

Decent games took a little while to become available, but the PlayStation 2 maintained hardware compatibility with the original PlayStation (retconned as the “PS One”). After a few months the number of games started to increase, boosting the popularity of the PS2. The best-selling game on the platform was 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

It had its flaws – in particular online services on the PS2 were clunky and poorly though-out. But overall it was a well-executed packaging of hardware with a strong suite of software to go with it. Selling over 150 million units plus a staggering 1.5 billion games, the PS2 is – just about – the best-selling video console ever.

Later revisions of the PS2 were smaller and cheaper, but it continued to be popular even after the launch of the PlayStation 3 in 2006... in fact the last PS2 units shipped in January 2013 after being in production for more than 12 years.

The PS2 cemented Sony’s place in the console market, and it was largely responsible for the demise of Sega and a difficult period for Nintendo as well. Ultimately the only thing that really made a stand against Sony was Microsoft’s Xbox platform – between Sony and Microsoft eventually the entire old order of games consoles was swept aside.

Because of the large numbers of PS2s sold, there are quite a lot available for not very much money – usually including a collection of bundled games. There are plenty of buyers guides too if you fancy a bit of low-cost retro gaming.

Image credit: Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Squarial (1990)

A Squarial on display
Available March 1990

Direct-to-customer satellite television started in the late 1970s, but back in the early days it required a big and expensive dish to receive the broadcasts which had the effect of turning your back garden into something that looked like Jodrell Bank.

Although technology improved during the 1980s, by the end of the decade a typical satellite dish for Sky in the UK could still measure 90 centimetres across. Typically painted white, the dishes were regarded as an eyesore and when there were lots of them in an area – for example with blocks of flats and terraced houses – it made the place look like a KGB listening post.

Although Sky was popular in the UK, it gained a reputation for being rather lowbrow. A mix of imported US TV series and cheaply-made shows had a certain appeal, but neighbours might judge you harshly if you attached a massive dish to the side of your house to watch American wrestling.

It became obvious in the 1980s that the market could do with some competition, and through a complex mix of government legislation and business deals the idea of creating a company knows British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) was born.

After some delays, BSB eventually started broadcasting in March 1990. It attempted to offer a more highbrow mix of shows including original content, high-quality imports and repeats of popular BBC shows... not to mention a bit of science fiction slash soap opera.

Low-level class warfare is a thing in the UK, and indeed the BBC TV show “Keeping Up Appearances” first broadcast in 1990 satirises just that. And for many middle-class people, the idea of sticking up a huge Sky satellite dish seemed frightful. But how could you differentiate that you were a middle-class BSB customer? BSB thought it had a secret weapon… the Squarial.

A Squarial in its natural habitat

The Squarial looked quite unlike other satellite receivers. Just 38 centimetres across, the Squarial was completely flat and inside was a phased array antenna made up of a large number of tiny individual antennae working together. This different technological approach was possible because BSB’s twin Marcopolo satellites had a higher power output than the Astra 1A satellite used by Sky.

It became something of a design icon, and created a significant buzz around BSB’s launch. Squarials started to appear on hundreds of thousands of homes. It looked like a success. But it wasn’t.

The problem that both Sky and BSB were losing huge amounts of money, a staggering $1.5 billion dollars between them (equivalent to about £2.5 billion today). Subscriber numbers were nowhere near the figures that either company needed to be sustainable. So in November 1990 Sky and BSB dropped a bombshell – these two bitter rivals would merge to become British Sky Broadcasting (BskyB).

Although on paper it was a 50/50 merger, in reality Sky was the dominant partner. And although costs could be saved by rationalising the TV channels, in the end it was inevitable that BSkyB would want only one broadcasting system – and that meant using the Astra satellite and not Marcopolo.

By 1992 BSkyB shuttered the service on the Marcopolo satellites, leaving both the Squarial and attached satellite set top boxes obsolete as they were incompatible with the Astra system. Essentially, for all but the most die-hard tinkerers the Squarial and all the rather expensive equipment that came with it ended up as junk. For owners it was like being on the wrong side of the VHS-Betamax war.

But the Squarials lingered – because of the fact that they were mounted in difficult-to-access places it meant that you’d have to pay somebody to take it down. So they lingered and lingered, a testament to making the wrong technological choice and a reminder of high-profile failure. Even today it is still possible to find a forgotten Squarial on the side of a house. For a few tens of pounds you could even acquire one yourself, and see if it really is “smart to be square”.

Image credits: Alex Liivet via Flickr
CC BY 2.0
pauldriscoll via Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Kenwood Chef (1950)

Introduced March 1950

Recently we explored a whole bunch of domestic gadgets that are in common use today but actually trace their origins to the Nineteenth Century. One such gadget was the food mixer, tracing its roots back to the 1850s and with electric food mixers coming to market around the turn of the century.

The popularity of such devices grew and in 1950 the British public saw the launch of what is perhaps the most iconic mixer of its type – the Kenwood Chef. Designed (perhaps unsurprisingly) by Kenneth Wood, the original Chef (model A700) came with a variety of attachments that could mix bread, cakes, sausages and even drinks.

Kenwood Chef A700
It wasn’t cheap, the launch price was a little under £20 in 1950s money which is nearly £700 today. Still, it was immensely popular for those who could afford it and it was the sort of thing you could show off to friends and neighbours to make them envious.

Because it was stylish, well-built and versatile the popularity endured, and although over the decades the product has changed and improved in that time, the modern Kenwood Chef is still fundamentally the same as the one from 70 years ago.

Perhaps these days with the rise of pre-prepared foods and takeaways, the food mixer isn’t the must-have appliance that it once was. However, vintage Kenwood Chefs from the 1950s and 1960s have a surprising number of fans, and working ones in good condition can be had for less than £200. If you want a contemporary model then these start at £250 going up to £700 or so, with an even wider range of gadgets you can plug in.

Image credit: Science Museum

Monday, 9 March 2020

Samsung I9000 Galaxy S (2010)

Launched March 2010

Here’s a question: what is the most significant Android smartphone ever? Is it the T-Mobile G1 which was the first on the market, or one of the second-gen phones such as the Motorola DROID or Nexus One which were easily as good as the iPhone. Or perhaps it is the Samsung I9000 Galaxy S – a phone with a feature set so rich that it redefined what a smartphone should be.

The Galaxy S had pretty much every feature dialled up to 11. Starting with the huge (for the time) 4” 480 x 800 pixel AMOLED display, 512MB of RAM, a 1GHz CPU, dedicated GPU, 8 or 16GB of RAM plus a microSD slot, a stereo FM radio, 5 megapixel camera plus a secondary camera on the front… plus of course all the expected features such as 3.5G, WiFi, GPS and by then a huge variety of applications to do just about anything. In terms of features, the Galaxy S blew everything else out of the water.

Samsung I9000 Galaxy S
Sure… it was a pretty bland device in design terms and Samsung’s somewhat iPhone-like TouchWiz skin lead to years of lawsuits. It was quite expensive too… daringly so for an Android phone. Despite this, the original Samsung Galaxy S was a huge success – shipping more than 25 million units.

But there wasn’t just one model – when you took into account all the variants there were over two dozen. Some added 4G support, some replaced the FM radio with TV tuners, a couple even had physical QWERTY keyboards. Some variants replaced the 5 megapixel camera with an 8 megapixel one… or a 3 megapixel one. Screen sizes varied between 3.5 and 4.5 inches and LCD screens made a showing alongside AMOLED. Samsung was willing to customise and tweak the phone in any way the carriers wanted, which was something Apple would never do.

The rest is history – the Galaxy S in now in its 11th generation with the Samsung Galaxy S20 (confusingly the previous version was the S10). Although the Galaxy S does come in about half a dozen main variants, these days the more extreme variations come under different parts of the bewilderingly huge Samsung Galaxy range.

Perhaps the most important legacy is screen size – although tiny for a modern smartphone the 4” display of the original Galaxy S was huge compared with smartphones of the time. Manufacturers proceeded somewhat cautiously, but every time they made the panel bigger it seemed that customers approved. The current S20 has a 6.2” screen on a bezel-less display and the phone one third bigger overall than the original one.

Perhaps because of the bland styling, the Samsung Galaxy S doesn’t seem like a particularly collectable device despite its importance in the evolution of modern smartphones. There are plenty of decent examples for less than £40 and unofficial ports of the more modern Lineage and Replicant OSes exist if you want to tinker.

Image credit: Samsung Mobile

Monday, 2 March 2020

Sharp PC-1210 (1980)

Introduced 1980

These days most of us carry around a powerful little computer with us all the time, but where did it all start? To go back to the beginning of pocket computing we have to travel back 40 years to find the Sharp PC-1210.

Sharp had been making LCD calculators since the early 1970s and by the end of the decade they were competing successfully in the nascent microcomputer market. Back in those days one of the main uses of a micro was BASIC programming, and the Sharp PC-1210 was certainly capable of doing that. Well, to an extent.

Sharp PC-1210

Powered by twin 4-bit CPUs with a quite usable QWERTY and numeric keyboard, the PC-1210 also had a 24 character dot matrix display. You could also buy an optional interface for a cassette or printer, making this potentially a very versatile little thing.

Perhaps the biggest problem was memory – just 896 bytes of RAM in the original model, although carefully managed to make it usable. Later versions (the PC-1211 and PC-1212) increased this to 1920 byes which was a lot more useful.

The PC-1210 and its successors were a niche success, and over the years the range was improved and diversified into products aimed at engineers, mathematicians and scientists on one hand and people who wanted a personal organiser on the other. Somewhere in the 1990s these personal organisers fizzled out to be replaced by PDAs and then smartphones.

Today the Sharp PC-1210 series is a pretty uncommon find, and many seem to have faulty screens. However later models are available too, and prices vary from a few tens of pounds to several hundred depending on conditions and accessories. Alas, Sharp are not in the computer business anymore and have struggled to make a profit in recent years. In 2016 they were effectively taken over by Taiwanese giant Foxconn – and surprisingly both companies have recently branched out into coronavirus masks in addition to electronics.

Image credit: Armin.maas sb via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Kodak Brownie Camera (1900)

Introduced February 1900

Photography these days is commonplace – we snap a photo with our smartphones and don’t give it a second thought. But early photographs were difficult, time-consuming and above all expensive to make.

By 1900 the science (or art) or photography had been around for half a century, and although it had become progressively easier and cheaper things were about to take a big leap forward with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera.

Priced at just one dollar at launch (about $31 today), the Brownie was a leatherette-covered cardboard box with a simple lens and a roll of film in the back. Cheap, lightweight and very easy to use the “Box Brownie” camera became a huge success. The improved Brownie 2 followed the next year (priced at $2) and this too sold in huge numbers. The real value of the Brownie to Kodak was not the camera itself, but the huge profits to be made from selling film and developing the photographs.

Box Brownies went on to document everything from family gatherings to wars. Simple to use, robust and portable – what they lacked in sophistication they made up for by being there at the right moment.  The Brownie spawned a huge range of similarly low-cost Kodak cameras over the following decades, and if you’ve ever owned a camera then you’ve probably owned a Kodak at some point.

Kodak’s business model of selling cameras cheaply and making money from the film sustained it for a hundred years, but by the end of the 20th Century digital cameras were making significant inroads into the market. Kodak tried hard to compete in this market, grabbing a decent share of the market… but it lost money on almost every camera it sold. Various other strategies were tried and largely failed, and finally the rise of high quality smartphone cameras proved a fatal blow. Kodak files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012, two years after the launch of Instagram which came up with a new paradigm for sharing photographs.

Despite its woes, Kodak still exists today although much slimmed down from the giant of the past. And Kodak Box Brownie cameras are still commonly available for not much money. Although nobody makes the film for the original Brownies any more, you can adapt current film for use in them if you are after a bit of retro photography.

Image credit: Federico Leva via Wikimedia Commons