Saturday 26 March 2016

Palm Pilot 1000 and 5000 (1996)

Introduced March 1996

Before “always connected” smartphones and tablets, there were PDAs. And for a long time the name synonymous with PDAs was “Palm Pilot”. Twenty years ago this month, the first Palm Pilot devices were launched, the Pilot 1000 and Pilot 5000.

With a form factor and weight that was quite similar to a modern smartphone, the Pilot was powered by two AAA batteries that could keep the device in use for weeks. It had a 160 x 160 pixel monochrome display with an area underneath for handwriting recognition (using a stylus) plus some buttons for application control.

Inside was a Motorola 68328 “Dragonball” processor, with 128Kb of RAM for the Pilot 1000 and 512Kb for the 5000 versions. The only connectivity offered was a serial connection to a PC or Mac, allowing data to be synchronised between the two.

The built in applications were pretty basic – a calendar, address book, to-do list and memo taker, but for 1996 that was pretty impressive in a device this small. The basic Pilot 1000 model was $299 in the US, with the 5000 coming in at $369. For a pocket computer, that was pretty good value.. but for a fraction of the price you could buy a Filofax instead, and that was almost infinitely customisable.

Despite its limitations, the Pilot and it successors were a huge success in the late 1990. But rivals such as Nokia had a different vision, and devices such as the original Nokia Communicator combined PDA function with a mobile phone, although without initially gaining much success.

Palm ended up owning the market, and other models followed with improved features, including the ability to sync email which could be read and replied to offline. But it took Palm a long time to understand that people wanted more than a PDA and it wasn’t until 2003 that they released their first smartphone, the PalmOne Treo 600.. and only then because they had bought a rival company called Handspring.

Ultimately, Palm suffered the common fate of tech companies where it helped to define a market and then got left behind. The company’s byzantine history ended in 2011 as part of HP. Today, these original Palm Pilots are uncommon but inexpensive with prices as low as £35 / €32 / $35. Trying to USE one with a modern computer could be tricky, since you’d need an old-fashioned serial port too.. but it might just be worth it for the reaction when you pull one of these ancient devices out of your pocket!

Image credits: Palm

Thursday 24 March 2016

Samsung SGH-i310 (2006)

Announced March 2006

Some gadgets get it wrong. Sometimes really badly wrong, but thankfully for the companies involved most of them tend to vanish into obscurity. The Samsung SGH-i310 is one of those devices that gets everything wrong, so just for a moment we will shine a spotlight on it.

Announced ten years ago this month, the headline feature of the i310 was the amount of memory it had inside - a whopping 8GB of storage, making it the class leader of the time. But what was unusual was that this storage wasn’t flash memory, it was a tiny hard disk instead.

The list of devices that we can think of with hard disks (sometimes called “microdrives”) is very short indeed. Apart from the i310 there was its predecessor, the Samsung i300 and the slightly upgraded i300x. Nokia had the strange-but-capable N91 music phone and there was the rather obscure HTC Advantage. Other mainstream manufacturers skipped the idea completely and just used flash memory instead.

The rest of the i310’s specifications weren’t all that appealing. The operating system was the new Windows Mobile 5.0 which was pretty capable for its time, and this qualified the i310 as being a smartphone.. but the tiny 2” QVGA screen and lack of a touchscreen limited its usefulness even then. There was a basic camera, a memory slot, stereo music playback but frankly not much else. The i310 couldn’t even support 3G which was becoming standard for high-end devices.

A chunky and unappealing device, the i310 unsurprisingly crashed and burned having gotten almost every feature wrong. Less than a year later, Apple launched the iPhone and showed everybody how it should be done.

The Samsung i310 and the older i300 are marginally collectible because of the unusual storage technology, expect to pay around €50 or so for an unlocked version if you can find one. The rival N91 is more commonly available, but is much more expensive at between €80 to €350 depending on condition.

Sunday 20 March 2016

Second time around: Apple iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 and 10.1 (2011)

Announced March 2011

The second generation of Apple’s successful iPad and Samsung’s less-than-successful Galaxy Tab range were announced in March 2011, giving consumers a choice of significantly improved products over the models from the previous year.

The Apple iPad 2 stole most of the headlines. Much slimmer and lighter than the old model, the iPad 2 was also much faster and also introduced iOS 4.3 which added even more features and polish to an already pretty good device.  The iPad 2 added a couple of low-resolution cameras (enabling video calling through FaceTime), something missing completely from the original, although the 9.7” 768 x 1024 pixel display remained. The simple but effective "Smart Covers" also enhanced the usability of the new iPad.

Apple iPad 2 (2011)

Samsung’s response was to create a tablet a little larger than the iPad 2, and one a little smaller. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 had originally been announced in February, but after the iPad 2 was announced, Samsung engineers redesigned it to be thinner and lighter. The 10.1” display had a 1280 x 800 pixel resolution, better than the iPad, it had much better cameras and was just about as powerful inside. The awful version of Android from the original Galaxy Tab had been dropped and the new Android 3.0 OS had been designed especially for tablets. Launched alongside it was an 8.9” version of the tablet, identical in most respects except it was smaller.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (2011)

Out of the two, it was the Apple device that sold in huge quantities. Samsung had been stung by criticism of the original Galaxy Tab, and it was going to take some time before consumers would trust that they had a quality product. But these two Galaxy Tabs did show that Apple had some real competition.

The Apple iPad 2 is still a supported device today, supporting iOS 9.2.1. No matter if you like Apple products or not, they offer excellent support for their gadgets for many years after they were bought. Samsung on the other hand only provided updates until 2012, with a version of Android 4.0... and after that the devices rapidly became obsolete. These days a good used iPad 2 will still cost you around €140, with the Galaxy Tab 10.1 being worth just half of that.

Monday 14 March 2016

LG KG800 Chocolate (2006)

Announced March 2006

LG are not known for making iconic phones. In around a decade and a half of making GSM and 3G devices, you'd be hard pushed to find anything that had enough "wow factor" to be considered a design icon. But perhaps the most memorable handset to come out of LG is the LG Chocolate, and it was ten years ago this month that LG announced the European version of the Chocolate, the LG Chocolate KG800.

Designed from the outset to be a stylish and well-built product, the KG800 was a sleek and glossy slider phone. The keypad part had a passing resemblance to a bar of chocolate, hence the name. Apart from the navigation pad, the front buttons were touch-sensitive ones that lit up when you could press them, otherwise remaining hidden.

This stylish design certainly won some fans, and it is probably one of the best-looking phones of the pre-iPhone era, and the KG800 was even presented in a little pouch which made a good first impression.

But the KG800 had problems, and those neat touch-sensitive buttons were probably the biggest. They were notoriously sensitive and easy to press by accident, meaning the KG800 owners would occasionally randomly call people.. or an even worse problem was an easy-to-access key sequence that would delete all the contacts from the phone.

The rest of the handset was a bit disappointing. The 2.0" 176 x 220 pixel display was not all that big, even in 2006. There was only 128MB of internal memory which wasn't expandable, so although you could play MP3s on the KG800 then you couldn't store much on it. The camera was only a 1.3 megapixel unit, and the KG800 didn't support 3G or any other type of high-speed data. But at just 83 grams, the KG800 was even lighter than the rival Motorola RAZR V3i.

The Chocolate certainly showed that mobile phones could be sexy, but ultimately devices like this were soon to become a dead end with the smartphone revolution thundering over the horizon. But at the time it was a big deal. The LG KU800 added 3G and the KE800 added some features later in the year. In 2009, LG launched the BL20 and BL40 phones to try to revive the concept, but the market had moved on by then.

If you are a collector with a LG-shaped gap in your collection, then you can easily fix that for a modest outlay of £20 / €25 or so for an unlocked version of the KG800.

Sunday 6 March 2016

Nokia 9000 Communicator (1996)

Launched March 1996

Everybody knows what a smartphone is, right? A slabby thing which is basically a screen and maybe a couple of buttons on one side, and nothing much on the back other than a camera. But the vision of manufacturers twenty years ago was somewhat different, and the Nokia 9000 Communicator was an example of just how different these things were.

Originally announced in March 1996, the 9000 was a massive device even by the standards of the late 1990s. Weighing a shade under 400 grams or 14 ounces, the Communicator looked like an oversized conventional phone from the outside, but it opened up to reveal a 4.5" 640 x 200 pixel grayscale display and a full QWERTY keyboard. All the Communicator series phones had a tendency to be on the large size, giving them a nickname of "The Brick".

Underneath, the 9000 is even more strange to modern eyes. Inside is a 24MHz i386 processor with 8MB of flash storage, running the GEOS operating system. Despite being called a "Communicator", the options were strictly limited as it lacked any kind of packet data and had to rely on dial-up networking for email or very basic web browsing. There was a Telnet client and some personal information management tools, and one useful feature for any 1990s executive was the fact that the 9000 could send and receive faxes.

Various versions of the 9000 rolled out out in the next two years, making it a niche success against more mainstream rivals such as the Motorola StarTAC. In 1998, Nokia announced the much more compact 9110 Communicator and continued a line of phones that ended in 2007 with the Nokia E90.

Launched more than a decade before the iPhone defined the modern idea of a smartphone, the Communicator series was ultimately a dead end.. but it did show industry watchers that a mobile phone could offer features that rivalled full-blown computers. Thankfully though, we don't have to lug around a 400 gram brick these days..

Image Credits, Nokia and Wikimedia Commons