Saturday 22 October 2016

Apple Macintosh Classic II (1991)

Apple Macintosh Classic II
Launched October 1991

Launched in 1984, the original Apple Macintosh was an epoch defining computer that remains as one of the most memorable product launches ever. This is not the story of that computer. Instead, a quarter of a century ago Apple was heading into a period of decline. To some extent the Macintosh Classic II, launched 25 years ago this month, reflects the doldrums the company found itself in.

The Macintosh Classic II was the last monochrome "compact" Mac, styled on the original device launched more than seven years earlier. Sporting a similar case design, the Mac Classic II may have looked cute but even in 1991 the 9" 512 x 342 pixel display looked rather stupid. Things were better inside with a 32-bit 60830 CPU clocked at 16 MHz and 2MB of RAM as standard, plus a 40 or 80MB hard disk. The Classic II shipped with the System 6 OS out-of-the-box, upgradable all the way to Mac OS 7.6.1.

The tiny screen did have the advantage that the entire main unit weight just a little over 7 kilograms (16 pounds), making it quite easy to lug about. The $1900 contemporary price also made it quite stealable. At a time when laptops were both prohibitively expensive and pretty rubbish, the Classic II did have a certain portable appeal.

Apple sold the Classic II until 1993, but after that home users had to put up with the under-designed and over-priced Performa range. The malaise continued until 1988 and the launch of the iMac G3. Today a Mac Classic II in good condition can command prices of several hundred pounds / euros / dollars or whatever, a fraction of the price of an original 128K Mac.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Porsche Design P’9981 Smartphone from BlackBerry (2011)

Tastefulness is a pretty subjective thing. One person's stylish accessory is another person's overpriced tat. The Porsche Design P’9981 is one of those devices that polarises opinion along those lines.

The full and rather clumsy name for this handset was the "Porsche Design P’9981 Smartphone from BlackBerry". Simply put, it was the Bold 9900 in a different precision engineered and very expensive body. Complementing a range of products such as watches, sunglasses and in-car entertainment systems, the P'9981 was in good company. As for exclusivity, the price tag of £1275 (around €1450) guaranteed that, being three times the price of the Bold on which it was based.

It was.. frankly.. a bit pointless. The 9900 represented BlackBerry at its peak, but the dominant position it held in the smartphone market was collapsing around it. The market was being taken over by the iPhone and a wide variety of Android devices, so it did seem that Porsche Design had chose the wrong partner. However, they stuck with it and a couple of years later we saw the P'9982 (based on the Z10) and the P'9983 (based on the Q10) coming in at an equally eye-watering price.

Although it was a more upmarket partnership than the Sagem-based P'9521 and P'9522 from 2008, it was still a pretty niche device. However, these handsets still have their fans and are available today from £500 (€550) upwards for a used one to £1500 (€1650) for a "new old stock" one. Most of the available units have an Arabic keypad, which probably indicates where these were most successful.

Certainly it is a head-turning device, and the P'9981 and its successors do manage to look different from the usual slabby smartphones we see. BlackBerry's new Android-based DTEK handset range could certainly doing with a bit of sexing up..

Image credits: BlackBerry

Monday 17 October 2016

Amstrad PC1512 (1986)

Amstrad PC1512
Launched Autumn 1986

By 1986 the IBM PC had been around for five years, and that machine and those compatible with it had largely taken over the business microcomputer market. But the home market was different, with companies such as Apple, Atari, Commodore, Acorn, Sinclair and Amstrad holding the bulk of the sales with a variety of mutually incompatible machines.

Om paper, Amstrad was the least technically innovative, but probably the most business-savvy. The Amstrad PCW had been launched the year previously, based on a combination of new and old technologies which created a very useful and exceptionally good value machine that had become a surprise hit for home users.

After the PCW, Amstrad turned its eye to IBM PC compatibles. But instead of looking at business users, Amstrad was interested in tapping into the home market. It seems obvious today that you can play games and do work on the same computer, but home ownership of PCs worldwide was still very low. Perhaps the time was right for Amstrad to change that.

Launching in the autumn of 1986, the Amstrad PC1512 immediately caused a shockwave in the markets that it was launched in. Following the example of the PCW, the PC1512 combined new and old elements and packaged it up in a smart box with a rock-bottom price. The most basic PC1512 (monochrome display with a single floppy disk) cost juts £399 plus VAT (sales tax). Various options were available, and at the top of the range a colour version with a hard disk cost £949 plus tax. That was still a lot of money in 1986, but even the most basic IBM PC XT would set you back at least £1500.

Inside was an Intel 8086 (launched in 1978) clocked at 8 MHz, nearly twice that of the IBM version. 512KB of RAM was standard (expandable to 640KB via an expansion card) plus a tweaked CGA adapter. Cleverly the power supply for the PC was actually in the monitor which handled the necessary conversion from AC to DC and saved on the cost. This also meant that the PC didn't need a fan anywhere as the monitor cooled by convection and the heat dissipation from the main board was minimal.. but it also meant that you always had to use an Amstrad monitor. The PC1512 could output greyscales on a monochrome monitor which was useful for those on a budget.

A set of brightly-coloured floppy disks came with MS-DOS 3.2 plus GEM and GEMpaint from Digital Research, along with Locomotive Basic (an Amstrad favourite). GEM was the most-used application after DOS, providing a rudimentary but useable graphical environment. GEM could be used with the rather rat-like proprietary Amstrad mouse which was included in the bundle.

In the back were three expansion slots that could be easily accessed via a slide-off cover rather than by using a screwdriver. A joystick could be plugged into the proprietary keyboard and - perhaps as a nod to Amstrad's roots in audio equipment - there was a volume control knob for the internal speaker. Despite the proprietary nature of some of the components, the PC1512 also came with a standard serial and parallel port.

The PC1512 was a huge sales success for Amstrad, topped only by the PC1640 launched in 1987 which has 640Kb RAM as standard and upgraded EGA graphics, but this lost the useful greyscale capabilities of the PC1512. The PC1640 addressed most of the shortcomings of the older version and was an even bigger success, and it managed to break out of the home market into schools, colleges and small businesses. The PC1512 and PC1640 sold in the millions.

Amstrad PC1640 with 20MB hard disk
Part of the sales success wasn't just that it was cheap, but it was also very well built and extremely reliable.. despite rumours circulating otherwise (possibly put out by competitors). The PC1640 represents Amstrad's computer business at its peak, but unfortunately this success was not to last.

Even though it was cleverly packaged, there was no doubt that the PC1512 and PC1640 were pretty old hat. Amstrad then set to work on the PC2000 Series, comprising of a low-end 8086-based machine, a midrange 80286 and a high-end 8086. Launched in 1988, this was a much more modern design, and these should also have been a huge success.. but they had a fatal flaw.

The problem was the hard disks - a batch of faulty Seagate drives led to an unacceptably high failure rate followed by a product recall that seriously damaged Amstrad's reputation. Amstrad later sued Seagate and won millions of pound worth of damages, but Amstrad's reputation never fully recovered. Amstrad kept going in the PC market, launching the PC3000 through to PC7000 ranges until the early 1990s along with some portable PCs. Amstrad's final PC product was the unusual Amstrad Mega PC which also had a Sega Megadrive built in.

Today the Amstrad PC1512 and PC1640 are quite collectible, with prices going up to £650 (€720) or so for a top-of-the-range unit in good condition. Old computers take up a lot of space, so survivors are uncommon. Of course, you can get a pretty decently specified modern PC for that sort of money too.. but nothing else quite has the same retro appeal of Amstrad's finest.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Motorola RAZR XT910 (2011)

Motorola RAZR XT910
Launched October 2011

Having endured some years of declining sales and frankly pretty awful products, Motorola had shifted its emphasis to Android smartphones and launched their first Android device in 2009. By 2011 they were getting pretty good at it, and the high-end Motorola RAZR XT910 formed part of what looked like a renaissance for the world's oldest mobile phone manufacturer.

Borrowing a name from the iconic 2004 RAZR V3 and its successors, the RAZR XT910 was an ultra-thin device coming in at just 7mm thick (apart from the camera bump). The 4.3" 540 x 960 pixel AMOLED display was better than most of the competition, and combined with a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU with 1GB of RAM it was fast too. On the back was an 8 megapixel camera, and there was a 16GB of flash memory inside plus a microSD lot.

It didn't look like other Android smartphones, and not just because of how thin it was. The kevlar back gave the device a unique feel for the time, and the sawn-off corners and distinctive back bump really did make it stand out. Initially shipping with Android 2.3.5 an upgrade to Android 4.0 followed not long afterwards.

Sold in the US as the DROID RAZR with 4G LTE support, the XT910 met with a cool reception from European carriers who expressed very little interest in the device. However, it sold quite well as a SIM-free device for those looking for something a bit special. You could even convert the RAZR into a sort-of-laptop with the Lapdock 100 and 500 add-ons.

The slim form factor of the RAZR came at a price - the battery life. A few months later, Motorola launched the RAZR MAXX (again recycling an old name) with a battery twice the size while increasing the thickness to just 9mm. It was a good trade-off, and the RAZR MAXX again proved to be a niche success.

At the time Motorola was in the process of being acquired by Google, and this iteration of Moto Android device didn't mess around too much with the OS, but it did come with the very useful addition of SmartActions which could be programmed to do certain things at certain times or places.

Motorola eventually gave up competing at the high-end and shifted downmarket to value devices instead. Motorola's ownership did not last long, and in early 2014 it announced that it was going to sell Motorola, minus its key patents, to Chinese firm Lenovo. However, Motorola continues to produce a wide variety Android devices that have proven to be very successful in certain markets.

On the second-hand market, the XT910 commands prices of about €80 and upwards, the latest version of Android available is 4.3. However, the Motorola Lapdocks can command even more especially as it is possible to connect the Lapdock with a Raspberry Pi to make a sort of homebrew Linux laptop.

Palm Treo 680 (2006)

Launched October 2006

It's hard to look back at smartphones launched a decade ago without the hindsight that the game-changing iPhone would redefine the market utterly. But ten years ago this month, Palm came up with the Palm Treo 680 which looked interesting at the time... but a few months later it would look like a relic of times past.

Palm Treo 680

The story of Palm is one of the more complicated ones in tech history. Having defined the PDA market a decade previously, Palm completely failed to realise that the standalone PDA was on the way out in the early 2000s. However, some Palm employees had broken away to form a company called Handspring which decided to make a PalmOS-based smartphone called the Treo, and in 2003 Palm liked the idea so much that they bought the company.
Treo 680 running Google Maps

But by 2006 Palm was an also-ran. Windows and Symbian were battling it out to be king of the smartphone market, and BlackBerry was rapidly growing in strength with increasingly attractive and capable devices. Palm's previous smartphone, the Treo 650, had come out two years previously and looked almost ridiculously old-fashioned.

The Treo 680 looked a bit more contemporary, with the antenna tucked inside the case and a more modern design. The 2.5" 360 x 360 pixel display was large for its time, but it was a 2G-only affair and the increasingly geriatric look of the PalmOS platform meant that it really appealed to Palm fans only, and not anyone else.

Still, it was successful enough for Palm to soldier on until 2010 when it was bought by HP... which proved to be the kiss of death. PalmOS was dying too, the Treo 680 was the penultimate PalmOS device from Palm with the Centro being the very last in 2007.

Treo 680s are not commonly available on the second-hand market, but the older 650 is available in small numbers for around €50 and upwards for an unlocked model.

Friday 14 October 2016

Nokia 330 Auto Navigation (2006)

Launched October 2006

It is five years since the launch of Nokia's first Windows-based Lumia phone, but that wasn't Nokia's first foray into mobile Windows devices. Five years before that - a decade ago this month - the Finnish giant announced the Nokia 330 Auto Navigation system.

The Nokia 330 ran Windows CE 4.2 and sported a 3.5" touchscreen with 320 x 240 pixels, quite unlike anything else in Nokia's line-up of the time. In addition to the pre-installed maps, you could install your own media files on it so if you wanted you could use it as an in-car MP3 player. The Navigation system was a customised version of Route 66.

Standalone GPS devices were a big deal at the time, with market leader TomTom shipping their improved TomTom GO range. However, the Nokia device offered good value and many people were tempted to try it, convinced by the name on the front that the would be buying a good product. They were wrong.

The problem was map updates, which to be fair is always a problem with standalone navigation units. Normally you have to connect the satnav to a PC and load new maps on that way, and sometimes the maps can be expensive. But it seems that Nokia never made map updates available, and because it wasn't the standard version of Route 66 then you couldn't get updates from there either. The Nokia 330 (which retailed for over €400) rapidly ended up being as useful as a paperweight.

Nokia never made another standalone satnav device, but in 2007 they acquired digital mapping firm Navteq for an eye-watering $8.1 billion. Nokia then successfully added mapping technology to their own devices and also sold mapping data to others. Eventually the old Navteq business became HERE which remained with Nokia until December 2015 when it was sold to BMW, Mercedes and Audi for €2.8 billion.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Samsung Galaxy Nexus (2011)

Launched October 2011

There were a lot of significant new mobile phones released five years ago this October, one of those that has faded a bit into obscurity is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the third generation of the "pure Android" Nexus smartphones and the second one to be made by Samsung. Perhaps more significantly, the Galaxy Nexus was the first device in the world to ship with the Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" operating system.

Compared with most other phones of the time, the Galaxy Nexus was a monster with a 4.7" 720 x 1280 pixel panel on the front. Inside was a dual core 1.2GHz CPU with 1GB of RAM and 16 or 32GB of storage. There was a 5 megapixel camera on the back plus a 1.3 megapixel one on the front. LTE and NFC were available in some models too.

Performance tests showed the the Galaxy Nexus was blazingly fast, and the quality of the camera and display were noted. However, the new operating system probably got the most attention, being the third major iteration of Android for smartphones (Android 3 was for tablets only) and coming with a hugely improved user interface and better performance and power management.

Compared with the titchy 3.5" panel on the iPhone 4S, the Galaxy Nexus was enormous, and it helped to set a trend for bigger and bigger screens... although it took several years to Apple to catch up. Support for the Galaxy Nexus from Google and Samsung was quite short, just two years ending with an upgrade to Android 4.3. You would expect about twice that from an Apple product, which is one reason why Apple customers tend to remain customers. "New old" stock of the Galaxy Nexus is still available for around €90 or so.

Image source: Samsung Mobile

Futureretro: Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (2016)

Released September 2016

Product failures are often the collectible phones of the future, devices that failed spectacularly despite high hopes often come with a cautionary tale about how the the thing crashed and burned when it came to market. For most failed devices we can use the word "burned" in a strictly metaphorical sense. But with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, we also mean "burned" in a strictly literal sense too.

The original Galaxy Note was launched five years ago, with a then huge 5.3" display that seemed more like a small tablet than a smartphone, plus the addition of a stylus. It was a bit of a gamble by Samsung, but consumers really took to it and it was an unexpected hit.

Despite the name, the Galaxy Note 7 is actually the sixth generation Note device, launched in September 2016 (the version number brings it into line with the popular Galaxy S). But so far the launch has been a complete disaster, with reports of the handset catching fire as soon as it was launched. A product recall then followed with replacement devices being sent out, but some of those also caught fire.

Airlines have been banning them from flights, and postal services and couriers are refusing to ship them back for returns because of the potential danger. To counter this, Samsung are shipping special flame resistant packaging and gloves so that units can be returned. Which is a bit humiliating.

In many places you can't even return your Note 7 because of the fire risk, and you probably don't want to keep it in the house with its combustible reputation. You can't easily take the battery out. So what is the solution? Bury it in the garden? Probably not the safest idea in the long run..

So here's a product release that maybe goes down in the record books along with Dasani launch in the UK as being one of the most disastrous ever. So under normal circumstances this would make the Galaxy Note 7 an interesting Futureretro device... but who would want to keep an exploding phone in their collection?

If you want to risk a potentially exploding model, they are still available for around €1000. Or you can get a much safer dummy model for about €20. The latter option is probably the safest. We give the Galaxy Note 7 a Futureretro score of 7/10, assuming you want to take the risk.
Image credits: Samsung Mobile

Saturday 8 October 2016

Nokia Lumia 800 (2011)

Launched October 2011

If you wanted to sum up the demise of Nokia in one object, the Nokia Lumia 800 is probably it. Announced five years ago this month, the Lumia 800 represented a change in direction for the Finnish giant which ultimately ended in failure.

A potted recap - faced with sliding sales (primarily against Android devices), incoming Nokia CEO Stephen Elop switched Nokia's smartphone platform to Windows, effectively killing off Symbian and the stalled MeeGo project. Just five years previously, the Nokia-led Symbian OS and Microsoft's Windows were the two dominant smartphone platforms, but Microsoft had suffered badly (mostly at the hands of Apple), with Nokia starting to see the same sort of decline in competition with Google.

The fruits of the new Nokia/Microsoft partnership were announced in October 2011. The Nokia Lumia 800 had a lot going for it, the physical design was beautiful and the new Windows 7 operating system made everything else look very old fashioned. The price was extremely competitive too, and the whole launch was accompanied by a ton of media coverage because in tech terms this was a Very Big Thing.

There were some drawbacks, and the main one was a lack of downloadable applications compared to the vast array available for iOS and Android. On the other hand, there was quite a rich feature set included in the maturing Windows 7.5 OS. The user interface took a bit of getting used to, being stripped down and very modern-looking, it was certainly very different from rivals and predecessors. Cortana, arguably the best feature with modern Windows phones, would not become available for three years.

As for the hardware itself, the Lumia 800 had a first-rate 3.7" WVGA AMOLED screen, an 8 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, a 1.4GHz CPU with 512MB of RAM and 16GB of storage, plus all the usual smartphone features. The brightly-coloured plastic cases were also distinctive and had been lifted from the MeeGo-based N9.

The Lumia 800 wasn't a sale success, nor was it a complete disaster. Nokia made several successors including the superlative Lumia 1020, but Nokia continued to fade, selling the whole phone business to Microsoft in 2014 but they couldn't turn it around either, essentially shuttering the operation in mid 2016. The final Lumia device was the 650, released in February 2016.

It is perhaps one of the more intriguing "what ifs" of tech history to ask, "what if Nokia had gone for Android rather than Windows"? Elop's fear was that Nokia would just end up as a "me too" manufacturer if it went down the Android path, but if it could succeed with Windows then it would dominate a true alternative platform to Android and iOS. Elop chose the path with the highest risk and potential reward, but of course it failed. The alternative would have been a company probably playing second fiddle to Samsung, which would still not be like the Nokia of old. It is probably the case that Nokia was in a no-win situation back in 2011 and was largely doomed whichever way it moved.

Although the Lumia 800 is an old device from a technological perspective, it doesn't FEEL like an old device. Unlocked Lumia 800s in good condition sell for around €50, with "new old" stock commanding prices of €200 or even more. However, just €120 will buy you a brand new Lumia 650 instead. Although the Lumia brand is effectively dead, Microsoft are rumoured to be looking at producing handsets branded with the more success "Surface" name instead.

Apple iPhone 4S (2011)

Launched October 2011

These days we're used to Apple's cycle of iPhone releases - a new product every two years with a upgrade of the existing handset in between. Five years ago this pattern was not established, and despite great anticipation, the iPhone 4S ended up as a disappointment [1] [2] [3].

There were several improvements over the older model, the 4S was faster, had a better camera and fixed the antenna problems that had plagued the iPhone 4. The software was much improved, and iOS 5 introduced the Siri voice assistant.

But probably the most disappointing thing was the display. Apple had been using a 3.5" panel for nearly five years, but rival high-end Android phones had 4.3" or 4.7" panels, many with a higher pixel count. The iPhone was beginning to look dated, a problem that wasn't really fixed until the iPhone 6 in 2014.

But then Apple suffered a second blow, and a much bigger one. In August, Steve Jobs stood down as CEO of Apple, handing over the reins to Tim Cook. Less than a month later - and the day after the iPhone 4S launch - Jobs was dead. Jobs role in the creation and re-creation of Apple is well known, but some people say it was Jobs himself who wanted the iPhone 4S to be the same form factor as its predecessor.

In retrospect the 4S might not have been Apple's finest hour, but it certainly wasn't bad and it still sold in vast numbers. Although the iPhone 4S is not longer on sale, it is still supported by Apple with current software updates to iOS 9 available. Although it's hardly one of the more collectible iPhones, unlocked models in good condition are available second  hand for around €70.

Image source: Apple

Saturday 1 October 2016

Ericofon (1956)

General launch 1956

Launched to the general public 60 years ago, the iconic Ericofon telephone was symbolic of an era of growing prosperity and hope. Decades of economic hardship, starting with the Great Depression followed by World War II had left much of the world severely disrupted. In the mid-1950s, Europe was still rebuilding itself and food rationing in the UK didn't even end until 1954. But things were beginning to get better, and consumer goods were becoming much less utilitarian.

The Ericofon was a complete re-think about the industrial design of a telephone handset, which had pretty much settled into a two-piece affair with a handset sitting on a cradle, with the dialler, bell and everything else housed underneath. The snake-like design earned the Ericofon the nickname "Cobra" in some markets, but if that wasn't striking enough then the wide variety of bright colours (18 initially) that the device came in were certainly eye-catching.

One thing that made the Ericofon particularly desirable was that in many markets you were not allowed one. Monolithic old telephone carriers such as GPO in the UK and AT&T in the US simply didn't allow equipment to be connected to the network that didn't come from themselves.

Elegant design and exclusivity is often a recipe for success, and it seemed to be true for the Ericofon.

Variants of the phone were made for several different markets with two main types of case, and the phone's radical looks made it a favourite in movies and TV shows over the years. Between 1956 and 1982 some 2.5 million Ericofon handsets made in Sweden were sold around the world, with licensees and contractors making many more.

Modern reproductions of the Ericofon are available, but if you want an original one then prices vary from €50 or even less up to several hundred euro depending on type and condition. Ericsson went on to produce mobile phones such as the iconic R380, a business that was merged with Sony's to form Sony Ericsson in 2001 (the T610 being an example product), and which was finally bought out by Sony in 2012 when Ericsson left the consumer market behind for good.

Image credit: mollybob via Flickr