Sunday 25 September 2016

Ford Fiesta Mark I (1976)

Available September 1976

Forty years ago little hatchback cars were still in their infancy. Still very much the era of the saloon car, the market had been shaken up by the introduction of the Fiat 127 in 1971 followed by the Renault 5 in 1972. These two very European cars started to steal market share from traditional automobile designs, and it soon became clear to car giant Ford that this was a type of product that could not be ignored.

First shipping in Europe in September 1976 after four years of development, the Ford Fiesta was the Blue Oval's answer to those funny little cars, heralding the point when the small hatchback evolved from something quirky and continental to something very mainstream.

Unlike almost all previous Ford Europe models, the Fiesta was front wheel drive and cleanly designed with all the practicality that a hatchback could offer. Most importantly, the badge on the front was an indicator of quality and reliability shared by its bigger siblings, the Escort and Cortina.

The Fiesta was a huge sales success, and of course every other car manufacturer followed suit. These little hatchbacks proved to be inexpensive to buy, cheap to run, relatively easy to drive and had a versatile load space that was handy if you wanted to move your 8-bit micro and portable TV or something. If you've ever tried to move something bulky in the back of a saloon such as BMW 3-series you will be all too aware of the limitations of a boot, even today.

It is perhaps worth noting that a contemporary phone system that you could have installed into your Fiesta would have cost far more than the car itself, and unless you wanted to lug lead acid batteries around then the car was the best option.

The Fiesta Mark I continued in production until 1983, replaced by the lightly revised Mark II which was sold until 1989. The same basic vehicle had an impressive production run of 13 years, and of course the Fiesta is still in production today with the Mark VI.

Back in 1976 a basic 950cc Fiesta cost £1856 in the UK. Today a car from the same era with the same specification will cost between £2000 to £4000, with the rarer and much more desirable sporty XR2 version typically selling for £8000 onwards.

Image credits: davocano, nakhon100 and Niels de Wit via Flickr

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

Announced September 2011

Since 2007, Amazon had been selling the highly successful eBook reader, the Amazon Kindle. That simple device helped Amazon sell a lot of books that they might not have done otherwise, but the Kindle was a very limited device. In September 2011, Amazon therefore announced the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet running a modified version of Android, which was something that could do a lot more than just read books.

Although the Kindle Fire was a fully-featured Android device, it was designed to get all of its content from the Amazon Appstore. This meant that Amazon, and not Google, controlled what apps were available and took a cut of the profits. The Kindle Fire also had access to Amazon's music and video libraries, although you could access all of these on any regular Android device too.

One advantage the Kindle Fire had was that you had to do very little to get access to Amazon's library of digital content, and the simplicity of that had an appeal to consumers. The other advantage was that the Kindle Fire was relatively cheap, as Amazon didn't need to make a profit on the units themselves, just the content that users bought.

The original Kindle Fire tablet was a 7" device with a 600 x 1024 pixel display and just 8GB of storage. So far there have been three generations of the original tablet, plus a range of more powerful units with bigger HD screens and more memory. In 2014 Amazon tried to follow up the success of the tablet by producing a Fire smartphone, but this wasn't a success.

These days there are a range of Fire tables ("Kindle" was dropped from the name some time ago) starting at just $50 in the US or €60 or £50 in Europe. The tablet didn't kill off the original eBook reader either, which continued to evolve and kept the same epic battery life as ever.

Image credit: Amazon

Tuesday 13 September 2016

BlackBerry Pearl 8100 (2006)

BlackBerry Pearl 8100
Launched September 2006

The BlackBerry Pearl 8100 is a best-selling smartphone that you have probably forgotten. Shipping in the millions during 2006 and 2007, the Pearl was a huge sales success, even against mighty devices such as the Nokia N95 and the original Apple iPhone.

A decade ago it was email driving smartphone adoption amongst consumers rather than other factors. Web browsing sucked on 2006-era smartphones because publishers didn't make the mobile versions of websites that they do today. And although you could download applications onto your smartphone it wasn't the easiest thing to do. Facebook and Twitter were still in their infancy, so most communication was done by email. And nothing did email better than a BlackBerry.

The Pearl was very much a consumer device, ditching the QWERTY keyboard and wide body (found on the BlackBerry 8700) for a hybrid keypad and a shape much closer to a standard "candy bar" phone. It was the first BlackBerry device to feature a camera (because corporate customers didn't like cameras) and be able to play MP3s and store data on a microSD card (because corporate customers didn't think it appropriate). It was also the first BlackBerry to discontinue the traditional side-mounted jog-wheel and replace it with a trackpad.. not quite as intuitive as a touchscreen but close. It didn't have 3G or WiFi though, but email use didn't really need that.

The screen itself was probably the best in class, and on top of that there were a range of applications available, on what was for the time a highly polished and rather fun operating system. Although BlackBerry purists looked at the Pearl with distaste, it wasn't aimed at them at all.. and it successfully opened up a new market helping to create six years of rapid growth for makers Research in Motion.

Some variations followed over the years, eventually leading to the final model in the series - the Pearl 3G - in 2010. All the Pearls was successful commercial products, but in the end consumers lost interest in this type of device. Today prices for the 8100 vary hugely, ranging from a few euro each to several hundred depending on condition and colour. It seems that even a decade later, this little device still has its fans.

Image credits: BlackBerry / Research in Motion

Monday 12 September 2016

Virgin Lobster 700TV / HTC Monet S320 (2006)

Virgin Lobster 700TV (HTC Monet S320)
Announced September 2006

Sometimes you have to wonder how a product ever got to market, without being put out of its misery first. The HTC Monet (also known as the S320) which was sold in the UK as the Virgin Lobster 700TV is one of those examples. Surely somebody somewhere should have taken a look at the Monet and decided for the good of humanity that it should die. Sadly, they didn't.

Take a look. It's a big, thick and plasticky monoblock phone with a large a inexplicable lump stuck on the on the side. There's a clue as to the purpose of this bulge with a button labelled "TV" stuck onto it. Here was the handset's unique selling proposition.. you could watch TV on it. If you dared to take it out of your pocket that is.

Several handset manufacturers had tried to squeeze digital TV into their handsets at this point, notably Nokia with the N92. But almost all of these use the DVB-H standard (Digital Video Broadcasting - Handheld), derived from DVB-T (the "T" is for terrestrial) which is what you'll find in a normal digital TV. The HTC Monet used a variation of DAB, as used in digital radios, with a digital video stream piggy-backed onto the signal. This was called DAB IP. The advantage was meant to be that DAB was very widely available in 2006, where DVB-H certainly wasn't.

In the UK there was some basic content available from the main terrestrial broadcasters, but not a lot of choice. And the Monet displayed all of this on a tiny 2.2" QVGA display. In portrait. Assuming you could receive anything at all. On one of the ugliest phones ever made. You can see that the unique selling proposition was looking a bit.. well, weak.

The thing was.. it could have been so much better. Essentially the Monet was a Windows smartphone with some extra circuitry and software, so even by 2006 standards it could have been so much more. HTC had pioneered Windows touchscreen phones and a bigger display would certainly have been nice, but since the video was restricted to 240p resolution then it would never have been great.

You won't be surprised to learn that the Monet was a flop, in the UK the Virgin handset ran on the BT Movio system which was canned in 2007. But it was more than a failure of a single product, the entire idea of watching broadcast TV on your phone was a failure too. DVB-H was trialled in many countries but never got any further and was switched off, DAB-based systems performed almost as badly although there was some success in South Korea. It's not that consumers were uninterested, but they wanted better phones, more choice and greater flexibility.

Because it was never popular, this odd little phone is very rare today. Apparently it did make a very good DAB radio, although quite how well it functions with contemporary networks is questionable. If you are lucky.. or possibly unluky depending on your point of view, you might find one of these quirky devices for sale second hand.. if you look hard enough.

Image credits: Virgin Mobile

Saturday 10 September 2016

Nokia N95 - one half of the smartphone story (2006)

Launched September 2006

Ten years ago this month one of the most important mobile phones ever was launched. The Nokia N95 packed in more features than any other device and introduced technologies that everyone now considers to be standard.

Back in those days, products were launched a LONG time before they shipped - the N95 was announced in September 2006 but only shipped in March the next year. The rival iPhone was announced in January 2007 and shipped in June. Now there are usually just a few days between the product announcement and release, but a decade ago manufacturers like to make people wait.

Although it wasn't a revolutionary device, the Nokia N95 was the ultimate evolution of different technologies that Nokia had been working on until that point. A Symbian S60 smartphone, it had a 2.6" QVGA display, excellent 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics and VGA resolution video capture, 3.5G HSPA data, WiFi, GPS, TV output, video calling, a stereo FM radio, Bluetooth and expandable memory. Because it was a Symbian device then you could install a wide range of applications, and it came with most of the internet and media tools you would need pre-installed.

Nothing had come close to the N95 in terms of specifications, so it attracted a great deal of interest. But it was not without its flaws, in particular it was a somewhat clunky device that didn't have a touchscreen, and loading apps onto it was not as straightforward as it is today. But compared to the competition of the time, the N95 stood head and shoulders above everyone else.

The N95 represents Nokia at its very peak, a class-leading innovator that dominated the market and could still make waves when launching a new product. But Apple's then top secret phone would challenge Nokia where it was the weakest. The beautiful and slim design of the iPhone made the N95 look clumsy, the elegant user interface and cutting-edge capacitive touchscreen were way ahead of Nokia's offering too.

At first glance the iPhone looked like the more advanced device, but it is almost unbelievable to note that the original Apple didn't have 3G, GPS, video recording capabilities (never mind video calling) or even an app store. Where the N95 was strong, the iPhone was weak.. and vice versa. Every modern smartphone is an amalgam of these two decade-old devices, combining all the best features of the original iPhone and the N95.

Nokia responded to the launch of the iPhone with the improved N95 8GB launched a year later, with a better screen, more storage and a sleeker design, but surprisingly it took Nokia another two years to come up with a touchscreen phone with the 5800 XpressMusic.

The N95 and the N95 8GB in particular are very collectible devices, with prices ranging from about €40 to €250 for unlocked devices depending on condition. The N95 was a huge success for its time, and these are very commonly available. None of the follow-up devices such as the N96 and N97 really matched the success of the N95 though, leaving the N95 (and N95 8GB) as probably one of the best-loved phones that Nokia ever made.

Image credits: Nokia

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Samsung X830 Blush and P310 Cardphone II (2006)

Launched September 2006

Announced ten years ago this month, the Samsung X830 and P310 are two devices that clearly demonstrate the wide range of physical designs that were seen in mobile phones of that era. Compared to modern smartphones which are very difficult to tell apart, these interesting devices are extremely distinctive.

Out of the pair, the most radical looking was the Samsung X830 Blush. A rare "lipstick" style phone apparently in the style of the Nokia 7380, the Blush was actually a rotator as well with a very narrow numeric keypad hidden underneath. With its small screen and prominent circular control pad, this device looked much more like a music player than a phone. The 1GB of internal storage and USB 2.0 support for transferring large files plus the ability to playback most popular music formats, the X830 actually delivered on those promises too.

Samsung X830 Blush

We noted at the time that the X830 Blush looked rather iPod-like and suggested that the forthcoming "iPhone" from Apple might have some similar characteristics. Of course, the iPhone was nothing like this and the the launch of that device a few months later really killed off development of interesting handsets like this.

Available in a wide variety of colours, the X830 in pink became the quintessential "girlie phone" of the era, and indeed prices of "new old stock" and second hand units are buoyant, with prices ranging from about €200 for unused versions to €50 or €60 for used ones in good condition. It's certainly good enough to be a usable basic music player even today, with the added ability to make phone calls.

Launched at the same time as the X830 was the Samsung P310 Cardphone II. The replacement for the P300 launched the previous year, the P310 kept to same form factor but ditched the "love it or hate it" calculator-style keyboard.
Samsung P310 Cardphone II

Like its predecessor, the P310 was a credit card sized handset measuring just 86 x 54 x 8.9mm, or alternatively it can be seen as being about a third of the size of an Apple iPhone 6 Plus. An uncomplicated device, it did have a great deal of consumer appeal at a time when smaller phones were considered to be better. It did manage to pack a quite high resolution 1.9" QVGA display and come with a 2 megapixel camera, which was significantly better than you might expect from a small phone.

Not quite as collectable as the Blush, the Cardphone II still has its admirers with prices ranging from around €40 to €150 or so. Both these handsets belong to an era that was coming to a close in 2006, although at the time nobody knew it. The next four months would see new devices that would change the market forever.

Image credits: Samsung Mobile

Saturday 3 September 2016

Nokia 8110 (1996)

Launched September 1996

Back in 1996, most phones were quite brick-like but devices such as the Motorola StarTAC proved that these devices could also be carefully designed to be rather more fashionable. Nokia were probably the biggest adherent to clunky but usable design, so the Nokia 8110 (launched in September 1996) represented a significant change of direction.

The Nokia 8110 was striking for several reasons, firstly it was curved (giving it the rather cruel nickname of "banana phone"), and secondly it was a slider with the keys hidden when they weren't in use. Sliding the guard open would reveal them, and the curved shape of the device placed the microphone directly in front of the user's mouth. To show the 8110 off, you could charge it (and a spare battery) in a desk mount.

Physically it was a remarkable device, but the Nokia 8110 also found fame in the move The Matrix where a modified version appears in a crucial sequence. Although in reality the 8110 wasn't spring-loaded, the follow-on Nokia 7110 was.

Despite the clever design, underneath this was a very simple device by modern standards with a monochrome dot-matrix screen plus SMS and an advanced SMS-based information system that nobody ever used. With an add-on data card you could send faxes and email at a blazing 9600 bits per second.

Ultimately it was looks rather than ergonomics that made the 8110 a success, but despite several devices featuring the same lines over the years, ultimately customers seemed to prefer handsets that were flat. The Nokia 8110 (and revised 8110i) are highly collectible, with prices ranging from €25 or to up to €3000 for an unused one in mint condition. Median prices for good examples seem to be €120 to €500 or so.