Monday, 24 September 2018

Nokia 7600 (2003)

Launched September 2003

Fifteen years ago the mobile phone market was still new and exciting. New technologies and features were being squeezed into handsets, and those handsets themselves came in a variety of different designs. And the Nokia 7600 was certainly different. In fact, the 7600 is probably one of the weirdest looking phones ever made.

Let’s ignore the shape for the moment – the 7600 squeezed in some very advanced features for its time. It had a 2” colour display, a VGA resolution camera that could also take really basic low-res videos, Bluetooth, an MP3 player, Java, a stonking 29MB of internal storage, email support, a WAP browser and most importantly of all the Nokia 7600 was a very early 3G phone capable of an awesome download speed of 384 kbps.

Nokia 7600. There's a reason phones don't look like this.

It’s easy to be dismissive of these specifications, but the 7600 really was something very advanced for its time. On paper it should have been a success – but for some unfathomable reason they packaged it in about the maddest way possible.

Instead of putting the keypad at the bottom, Nokia decided to put the numbers on either side of the screen with the call control buttons and selector pad at the bottom. This meant that you’d have to re-learn texting completely to use it and you would also have to hold in in two hands. Worse, the buttons were different sizes with the “6” key being particularly tiny.

Oh yes, the Nokia 7600 looked immensely cool. The unique shape (curved lozenge? asymmetric rounded rectangle?) looked amazing with swooping intersecting lines and a variety of plastics that contrasted not only in colour but also in texture. It’s just that somewhere along the way Nokia forgot about usability completely and came up with some ill-thought-out but very high-tech fashion accessory.

You might guess that the 7600 didn’t sell all that well. Although it had killer specs, the weird design didn’t help its appeal… but also consumers were proving pretty cool when it can to the idea of 3G phones. There wasn’t a lot you could actually do with so-called high-speed data on a tiny 128 x 160 pixel screen.

Nokia's "7000" series always had a tendency to be a bit "out there" when it came to styling, but this is one of those designs to file under “W for Weird”. As with a lot of odd-looking Nokias it is somewhat collectible with prices for really good ones being £200 or more, however prices vary a lot depending on condition and accessories.

Image credit: Nokia

Monday, 17 September 2018

Apple iPhone 5S and 5C (2013)

Apple iPhone 5S. Sleek. Sexy. Successful.
Launched September 2013

A few days ago we saw Apple’s annual launch event of new iPhones with the XS, XS Max and cheaper XR devices. The XR is designed to bring iPhone features in at a lower price point by replacing some of the more expensive features with something a bit cheaper. This isn’t the first time that Apple have tried a marketing approach like this. Five years ago this month they launched the iPhone 5S annd iPhone 5C at the same time, with mixed results.

As with the XS, the iPhone 5S was an upgrade of the previous year’s model – the iPhone 5. Keeping the same smallish 5” display of the 5, the 5S added a fingerprint scanner and had a more powerful 64-bit processor, housed in a variety of high-end metallic-and-glass cases.

The iPhone 5C was the cheaper model, similar in concept to the new XR. The 5C was essentially a reskin of the old 5, replacing the case with a brightly-coloured polycarbonate affair. This was essentially copying Nokia who had won praise for the cheerful design of their Windows-powered Nokia Lumia range. It wasn’t just the hardware that look a bit like Nokia, the new version of the operating system – iOS 7 – introduced a simpler, flatter interface which was a little more like Windows than the skeuomorphic feel with older versions of iOS.

The new design of iOS was well-received, shipping with both the 5S and the 5C and pushed out over-the-air to everything back to the iPhone 4. On top of that, the iPhone 5S sold very well – as most new iPhones do – but the 5C was more of a problem.

Apple iPhone 5C. Cheapskate.
Ever since Apple had launched their second iPhone, there was always a lower-cost option available… the previous year’s model (or in some cases the model before that too). Cheaper they may have been, but it wasn’t obvious that the owner had got something out of the bargain bin. The 5C was different – it wasn’t just priced more cheaply, it was constructed out of cheaper materials and because it looked very different from other iPhones it was immediately obvious that the owner had gone for the cheaper option. That might have been acceptable if the 5C really was cheap, but in reality the 5S didn’t cost a lot more. So, buy a 5C you might look like a skinflint even though you’d forked out a substantial wad of cash.

Sales of the 5C were nowhere near the levels that Apple was expecting, and the 5S outsold it three-to-one. This led to a shortage of 5S devices in the supply chain and a surplus of 5Cs. It seemed clear that consumers preferred the premium product to the better value proposition, which was probably not lost on Apple when they launched their top-of-the-range grand-and-a-half iPhone XS Max this week.

The iPhone 5S is still supported by Apple and is due to have the new iOS 12 OS available for it, support for the 5C ended in mid-2017. Yes, you could have saved $100 by buying the 5C instead of the 5S, but it wouldn’t have had the life-span. And everyone would have thought you were a cheapskate.

Image credits: Apple

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Morris Minor, Hindustan Ambassador, Rover P5, Citroën Visa, Fiat Strada (1948-1978)

What do the Morris Minor, Rover P5, Hindustan Ambassador, Citroën Visa and Fiat Strada have in common? Well, they were all launched in September 1948, 1958 or 1978… but let’s see if we can make a tenuous connection between them all.

Morris Minor (1948)

Late model Morris Minor Traveller
Perhaps – after the classic Mini – the post-war Morris Minor is the most quintessential British car. Manufactured between 1948 and 1971, over 1.3 million of these cars were produced. This made it the first British car to ship over a million vehicles.

Much of the inspiration behind the Morris Minor can be attributed to legendary car designer Alec Issigonis. Work on the Minor began under the codename “Morris Mosquito” during the Second World War, work that had to be carried out in secret because Morris Motors was meant to be concentrating on war production.

The Mosquito was technically a radical design for its time…  a bit TOO radical it turned out. But most of the ideas behind it found themselves productionised into the new car. The Minor came with rack and pinion steering, independent torsion bar front suspension that allowed the engine to be placed nearer the front and lower down giving better handling characteristics and optimised internal space by having small wheels near each corner. Taking inspiration from American cars of the time, the original Minor had low-set headlights, although these were moved to the more familiar position on top of the wings later.

Work was already being finalised on the Minor when a last-minute decision was made to widen the car by four inches. Although this made for a bigger cabin and better handling, many of the panel pressings had already been finalised. As a result, the bonnet had to be widened by adding a strip in the middle, which actually looked rather pleasing. However, on the original models the bumpers also had an unsightly gap as a result.

There were three main versions of the car over 23 years of production, including two and four-door saloons, an attractive convertible, a popular estate version called the Traveller with exposes wooden beams plus vans and pickups. Many engines were shoe-horned into the Minor over the years, and there was a process of continuous improvement… although by 1971 it was looking extremely dated.

The Morris Minor remains a popular classic car today, with over 13,000 still on the road in the UK. Issigonis went on to design several other cars for Morris and its successor British Leyland, one of which was the Morris Oxford...

Hindustan Ambassador (1958)

Rare example of an Ambassador exported to the UK
The next part of our story takes us to the Issigonis-designed Morris Oxford Series III, which was introduced in 1956 and was a fairly traditional saloon. Morris had a long history of cooperation with Hindustan Motors of India, and in 1958 they made their own version of the Oxford – the Hindustan Ambassador.

Although the Oxford Series III was in production for just three years, the Ambassador was in production for a remarkable 56 years. Although there were technically several generations of Ambassador, they all retained the basic body shape of the 1950s Morris and most of the changes were to the engine with some creature comforts added in over the years.

A huge success among the growing middle class in India, the Ambassador also fulfilled roles as a car for government officials and was a popular taxi too.

The Ambassador soldiered on in production until 2014, but it was always an oddity compared to the modern cars that the rest of the Indian automotive industry made. There are countless Ambassadors still on the road of India though, and there are rumours that the Ambassador may yet be reborn in partnership with PSA of France.

Rover P5 (1958)

Rover P5
Meanwhile, back in England the Rover Car Company released its new saloon, much more upmarket than anything in the Morris catalogue. The Rover P5 was designed to be impressive to look at and well-built, and it succeeded decisively over the 15 years it was in production.

The P5 was a favourite of senior management, politicians and the police… and even royalty. The plush interior with the stylish exterior made this an attractive car, and it was certainly screwed together with an air of quality. The main problem was the power plant.

Weighing approximately 1.6 tonnes, the P5 was a heavy car for its time. The original straight-six 3 litre engine produced 115 horse power which was good for the time, but it made the P5 a bit of a slouch. Tweaks to the engine for the 1962 Mark II upped to power to 129 HP, the 1965 Mark III squeezed 134 HP out of the same unit. This was better, but it hardly made the P5 fast.

In 1967 the final version of the P5 was introduced – the P5B. “B” in this case stood for “Buick” and referred to the American-designed V8 engine that Rover had acquired the rights to. This 3.5 litre engine produced 158 HP which was finally enough to make the Rover impressively fast with a top speed of 110 mph and a 0-60 time of 11.7 seconds.

Later P5s were available in a standard and rather stately saloon version, or a rather more rakish four-door coupé. The British government liked the P5B so much that it stockpiled a decade’s worth of cars for Prime Ministers and other important officials.

Most of the design of the P5 was done by David Bache, along with Spen King and Gordon Bashford. Between them, this trio also produced the Rover P6, Rover SD1 and the original Range Rover.

Although Rover and Morris were competing companies in 1958, in 1968 Rover was merged into British Leyland… where Bache, King and Bashford were employed alongside Alec Issigonis.

Citroën Visa (1978)

Issigonis had recognised the practicalities of the small hatchback car back in 1967 with the 9X prototype, which to our eyes is a recognisably modern layout, but his employers didn’t pick up on the idea. A decade-and-a-bit later, the small hatchback was all the rage and it was clear that Austin-Morris had missed the boat.

Citroën had been looking for something new to at least partly replace its extremely ancient range, including the then-30-year-old 2CV. The company had been struggling financially, and the oil crises of the 1970s had hit sales of their bigger cars hard. In 1976, Peugeot had taken over Citroën to form the PSA Group. Under this new ownership, Citroën had produced a small hatchback called the LN which was basically a frumpy-looking version of the Peugeot 104 with a 2CV engine. Hardly inspiring stuff.

A whole bunch of Visas in hatchback, van and even pickup configurations
Starting with the same 104 underpinnings, another renowned designer Robert Opron was working on something rather better and more in keeping with Citroën’s design philosophy which concentrated on sleek aerodynamics and comfort - the Citroën Visa. Up until then, hatchbacks (such as the Fiesta) had been rather boxy.

Over the years the original 625cc engine was upgraded, leading eventually to a 1.6L 115 HP unit in the Visa GTi – a car weighing just 870 kg, which was seriously fun to drive as a result. Production of the Visa ended in 1988, but it set new standards for design and also showed that platform sharing between cars wasn’t simply a case of badge engineering.

Fiat Ritmo / Strada (1978)

Fiat Strada
Launched in the spring but coming to market in September, Fiat launched a somewhat larger hatchback called the Fiat Ritmo (or the Fiat Strada in the UK). Fiat had pioneered the hatchback market with the 127, but the Ritmo was a replacement for the larger Fiat 128 instead.

Two things made the Ritmo stand out – firstly there was Sergio Sartorelli’s smart and contemporary styling, but secondly the body was assembled and painted by robots, which led to a memorable advertisement screened in the UK.

The advertisement was so well-known that it spawned a parody, filmed on the production lines of the British Leyland Ambassador (not the Hindustan Ambassador!). THAT car – to carry on our tenuous link – was designed by Harris Mann, who can be considered Issigonis’s successor in the Morris / BMC / BL story.

The Ritmo / Strada carried on in production until 1988, with a “facelifted” version that actually toned down Sartorelli’s original design. The 1983 Abarth model introduced the obligatory 80’s hot hatch with a 130 HP two litre version.

Today the robotic automation used in assembling the Ritmo is commonplace in the car industry, but back in 1978 it made the Rtimo / Strada stand out from other rival hatchbacks and helped to cement Fiat as a successful Europe-wide automaker.

From a pair of quintessential British and Indian cars of the 1940s and 1950s to a pair of quintessential French and Italian cars of the 1970s, all of these vehicles managed to do something significant. And curiously enough, out of all those cars – on British roads at least – the oldest one is the most common, with thousands of Morris Minors still roadworthy compared to only a few dozen Visas and Stradas from 30 years later..

Image credits:
Loco Steve via Flickr
Ron Fisher via Flickr
pyntofmyld via Flickr
Klaus Nahr via Flickr
CarbonCaribou via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

T-Mobile G1 / HTC Dream (2008)

T-Mobile G1
Launched September 2008

Ten years ago we saw a significant shift in the mobile phone market. The “golden age” of traditional mobile phones was ending, where every phone had a different design and features and in its place the era of the modern smartphone was beginning, ushered in with the feature-rich Nokia N95 in 2006, the ground-breaking Apple iPhone touchscreen device in 2007 and finally the HTC Dream in 2008, mostly found under the name “T-Mobile G1”.

The G1 was the world’s first consumer Android handset, manufactured by smartphone pioneers HTC who had previously been a major partner in developing high-end Windows phones. T-Mobile and HTC had a long partnership with the MDA series of smart devices, and it was a natural extension of this to come up this.

Where the iPhone was sleek and with a minimum of control buttons, the G1 had a whole bunch of them, including a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. In addition to the 3.2” HVGA touchscreen there was a little trackball, plus buttons for call control, the home screen and the menu.

The QWERTY keyboard was completely necessary because originally Android did not support on-screen keyboards at all (a feature that was added more than half a year after the G1 was launched). Indeed the whole device was very much a “version 1.0” smartphone at launch, and although it featured full integration with Google’s suite of applications including Gmail and Google Maps a lot of the software features were clunky and not very feature-rich. Rivals Apple had already moved on to their second-generation iPhone and the G1 did not seem as accomplished.

On the back was a 3.2 megapixel camera (capable of taking videos, unlike the iPhone), the G1 supported HSPA 3.5G data, WiFi, GPS, microSD expandable memory and pretty much all the features you would expect from a modern smartphone with the notable omission of a front-facing camera.

HTC Dream
The first Android phone had been keenly anticipated, with the official launch of the project in later 2007 (although it had leaked out earlier that year). The G1 gathered masses of press coverage too, but consumer reactions were rather cooler to begin with, especially because in most regions you would have to be a T-Mobile customer to get your hands on one.

The T-Mobile G1 wasn’t only the first Android phone to market, for a long time it was the ONLY Android phone on the market. A few months later Australian retail electronics giant Kogan announced the Agora smartphone which was subsequently cancelled. In early 2009 HTC came out with a keyboardless version of the Dream known as the HTC Magic, but it took until April 2009 for the launch of the original Samsung Galaxy which was the first true rival to HTC.

A little more than a year later, Motorola launched the world’s first Android 2.0 handset – the Motorola DROID (sold internationally as the Milestone). This offered a significantly better user experience, and sales of Android devices skyrocketed – at the expense of Nokia’s Symbian range. Today Android holds almost 80% of the share of the smartphone market, with Apple’s handsets accounting for almost everything else.

A modern Android phone bears only a passing resemblance to the G1 – apart from BlackBerry, nobody makes an Android with a physical keyboard. But it’s still an important device, and unusual enough to be collectable. Typical prices for an unlocked G1 or Dream seem to be in the region of £150 or so.

 Image credits: T-Mobile and HTC

Saturday, 18 August 2018

ABC 80 (1978)

Released August 1978

1978 was still very early on in the microcomputer revolution which was arguably only a year into its stride. The year saw the launch of some less-well-known but interesting machines, including the Swedish ABC 80.

The ABC 80 was designed by Dataindustrier AB in partnership with Luxor, and it was sold throughout Scandinavia and other parts of Europe under the Luxor or Metric brands. The ABC 80 would come as a complete system including a modified TV for output and a cassette recorder for storing data, and along with comprehensive documentation the ABC 80 really did come with everything you needed to get started.

Dataindustrier were also involved in industrial control systems, and their expertise in this meant that the ABC 80 was fast, reliable and flexible system with an expansion bus that could be used for all sorts of peripherals. Inside was a 3MHz Zilog Z80 CPU, monochrome graphics (including a Teletext mode), 16 to 32Kb of RAM and a Texas Instruments SN76477 sound chip which was the same one found in Space Invaders machines.

The ABC 80 was quite a success in its home markets, in part because of the availability of programs in local languages, and it gave rise to the ABC 800 business computer in 1981 which met with limited success against the IBM PC.  In 1985 the ABC 1600 was launched, running a Unix-like operating system on a Motorola 68008 processor, but while this was technically interesting it wasn’t really a success either.

In the end, the influence of the ABC 80 was fairly indirect – giving Scandinavian youngsters their first taste of computing on something locally produced no doubt inspired a generation to take up technology careers later on. Finding one for sale in fully working condition is tricky, but prices in the range of 1500 to 2000 Swedish Krona seem typical, but there are many emulators also available for a variety of platforms if you don’t fancy sourcing the real thing.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Apple iMac G3 (1998)

Apple iMac G3 in Blueberry
Launched August 1998

The late 1990s was a desperate time for Apple. After losing nearly two billion dollars during 1996 and 1997, many people assumed that the company was doomed. Apple desktop and laptop computers had their fans, but they were struggling to compete against cheaper and ever-improving Windows PCs.

When Steve Jobs returned to run Apple in 1997 he trimmed down the product line – including canning the pioneering MessagePad – and launched a programme of reimaging Apple’s product line. The original Apple iMac (dibbed the iMac G3), launched in August 1998, is one of the more famous examples of this process.

When launched, the iMac came with an enormous amount of press coverage. It looked like nothing else on the market: simple and elegant with a shape a little like an egg, the casing was construction of translucent plastic with a large “Bondi Blue” panel on the top. The eye-catching looks were largely due to the work of Apple’s Jonathan Ive.

The iMac also ditched the floppy disk and legacy ports of earlier Macs and instead it came with a CD and USB ports. Mac purists may have recoiled at the technical changes, but in many ways the iMac was a very contemporary reworking of the original classic Mac from 1984. Only this time, the iMac sported a 15” 1024 x 768 display and a speedy 233 MHz PowerPC processor with 32MB of RAM.

The iMac was a significant sales success, but crucially it was a design success too. Even people who would never want to buy a Mac liked the way that it looked, and it helped to re-establish Apple’s coolness in the eyes of consumers. This was a significant help when it came to subsequent products such as the iPad, iPhone and iPad – devices that sold much more widely than the iMac itself. The iMac G3 was crucially to the process of Apple reinventing itself.

There were several revisions to the iMac in the four years it was in production, most obviously with different coloured cases. The iMac also became more powerful and a little sleeker along the way. Although the original operating system was MacOS 8, the iMacs can also run the more modern OS X operating system.

The remarkable looks of the iMac G3 - with the case wrapped around the shape of the CRT – would not last as this type of display technology was in its final generation. Subsequent iMacs would use flat panels instead, giving a very different design aesthetic.

As a footnote though, when some people saw the radical design of the iMac at launch it looked rather familiar. As we have noted previously, 22 years before the iMac there was another curvy design in brightly-coloured plastic – the Lear Siegler ADM-3A. Although it’s a different technology for a different time, there are certainly some uncanny similarities.

Image credits: Apple

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Digital (DEC) VT100 (1978)

Launched August 1978

Although the late 1970s saw the birth of the microcomputer revolution, most people in businesses and academia still used a big mainframe computer or minicomputer (such as a DEC VAX) connected to a dumb terminal, for example the DEC VT52 or Lear-Siegler ADM3A.

Early terminals were nothing more than glass teletypes – essentially replacing a box of fanfold paper with a screen. The next big advance was to make the cursor addressable, in other words to be able to place text wherever you wanted on the screen. And it was the VT52 (launched in 1975) which introduced a lot of these features to customers for the first time.

The Digital Equipment Corporation (known as DEC or just Digital for short) wanted to develop the dumb terminal further, and in August 1978 they launched the DEC VT100 which pushed the boundaries ever further with support for ANSI X3.64 codes which pretty much allowed you to do anything you liked text-wise, plus it came with some rudimentary block graphics which were very handy for designing on-screen forms.

This was sophisticated stuff for the late 1970s, and the key breakthrough here was the use of an Intel 8080 (or later the 8085) microprocessor to do the hard work. Depending on variant, the 12” display could show 80 x 24 characters or up to 132 x 24 characters for a top-of-the-range version. The relatively fast 19200 baud serial interface was enough to display a full screen of 80 column text in just a second. And unlike many earlier terminals, the keyboard was attached to the main unit with a curly cable, so you could move it about to whatever position you found comfortable.

As with the VT52, the VT100 came in quite a big case which could allow extra boards to be added, turning the platform into a graphics terminal (with the VT125) or even a full-blown microcomputer with the VT180. Printers could even be attached to the back of the terminal, so you could easily have your own printer rather than sharing with the rest of the office.

The V100 family was a significant success at the time, and it and its successors sold six million units worldwide, until finally going out of production in 2017 with the VT520. One of the reasons that the VT terminal survived so long against more capable PCs was the low running cost – there was very little to go wrong, no moving parts and VT terminals were immune to things like computer viruses. VT terminals are still in use worldwide in locations where these things are important, such as warehouses.

But perhaps more commonly these days, pretty much any terminal program emulates a VT100 by default, including the command line interface on Macs and Linux systems. Perhaps more importantly, the VT100 paved the way for modern computer applications. Connecting one to a modern computer system is a bit tricky as VT terminals primarily use a serial interface, but if you get your hands on a terminal server or media converter you might be able to make it run on Ethernet, if you are up for the challenge..

Image credit: Wolfgang Stief via Flickr

Monday, 23 July 2018

Samsung i8510 INNOV8 (2008)

Samsung i8510 INNOV8
Launched July 2008

Ten years ago – despite the iPhone being in its second generation – the most popular type of smartphone was Symbian running on a traditional “candy bar” device, much like the Nokia N95. And of course it’s Nokia that most people would immediately associate with this type of handset, but they weren’t the only players in this particular game.

Launched ten years ago this month, the Samsung i8510 (marketed under the name INNOV8) was very much a smartphone in the Nokia tradition... except of course this was not a Nokia. It was something better.

If you were a fan of the Nokia N95 and N95 8GB (and there were many of those) then you might have thought that the replacement N96 had taken a bit of a wrong turn with its emphasis on the integrated DVB-H TV receiver. The Samsung i8510 INNOV8 sat in the same segment, but instead of a TV receiver it packed in a class-leading 8 megapixel camera instead (giving the phone the “8” in “INNOV8”). It packed WiFi, GPS and 3.5G support along with an FM radio and expandable memory, plus a front-facing video calling camera.

Giving the high-end Nokia N-Series phones a run for their money, the i8510 INNOV8 was a well-built and elegant device which certainly attracted its fans. But even though Samsung could prove that they could out-Nokia Nokia, the fact remained that most Symbian fans would simply prefer a Nokia instead. It wasn’t quite the success that Samsung were looking for, and it turned out to be Samsung’s penultimate Symbian smartphone with the Omnia HD in 2009.

For collectors of esoteric Symbian devices, the i8510 isn’t very common today but typical prices seem to be £40 or so.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Nokia Lumia 1020 (2013)

Nokia Lumia 1020. Check out those megapixels.
Introduced July 2013

Let’s say that you are one of the world’s most famous brands, and you make a smartphone which easily has the best camera that any smartphone in the world has ever had, and then you add all the modern features that all the rivals have on top of it. Sounds like a recipe for success, yes? Well, in the case of the Nokia Lumia 1020… it wasn’t.

The headline feature of the Lumia 1020 was definitely the camera. Featuring a stonking 41 megapixels combined with optical image stabilisation (OIS) and a large sensor, this smartphone’s camera completely stomped on its rivals.

This remarkable “PureView” camera had first been seen in the Nokia 808 – Nokia’s very last Symbian smartphone – a bit over a year earlier. The clever folk at Nokia had tweaked it a bit in the meantime, and crucially had added OIS to make pictures even sharper. By default, the 1020 actually took 5 megapixel cameras that were vivid and sharp by using oversampling, but you could also use a Pro Camera app that could save both a 5 megapixel picture and one up to 38 megapixels at the same time. If you wanted to edit the photo and zoom into some detail later, then the higher resolution was probably for you. The Lumia 1020 could also effectively emulate an optical zoom by providing 4X near-lossless zoom with the huge megapixel count.

The rest of the hardware was no slouch either – a 4.5” 768 x 1280 pixel display, 1.5 GHz dual-core CPU, 2GB of RAM, 32 or 64GB of internal storage, NFC, 4G support and even an FM radio plus all the things that every other smartphone had. The camera could also take 1080p HD video and there was a 1.2 megapixel selfie camera on the front too. It was a bit of a big beast and it certainly wasn’t cheap, but what was there not to like?

The catch was… this was a Windows phone. Nokia had been punting Windows devices for a year and a half, and despite being critically acclaimed it turned out that consumers weren’t really that interested. The Windows 8 OS shipped with the Lumia 1020 was elegant and complemented the hardware precisely, but it simply did have whatever it needed to have to steal customers from Android and iOS. The seamless support for Office 365 did appeal to corporate customers though, and quite a few did start to migrate from BlackBerry to Windows. But it wasn’t enough.

Nokia did start on the path to produce a successor – the Lumia 1030. But by then Microsoft were in charge and they tried to drive Windows Phone sales by pursuing the value end of the market instead. Although 2015’s Lumia 950 did revisit the PureView camera with a decent enough 20 megapixel unit, Windows Phone was largely irrelevant by that point.

Today an unlocked Lumia 1020 in good condition can cost you less than £40, where the earlier Nokia 808 will cost you several times more. Today, Android devices such as the Huawei P20 Pro come close in terms of camera specifications, but no mainstream camera phone to date has topped the Lumia 1020’s 41 megapixel camera.

Image credit: Nokia

Nokia Lumia 1020: Video

Check out some more shots of this epic cameraphone in the video we made to cover its launch five years ago.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Sliced bread (1928)

Lightly toasted sliced bread circa 2009
Introduced June 1928

There’s a common phrase “the best thing since sliced bread”. But have you ever considered exactly what time period that refers to? Yes? Well, wonder no more… because sliced bread is ninety years old this month. Apparently.

It’s a product you are possibly familiar with, having been around for thousands of years, presumably with a great deal of uneven sawing and cursing along the way. Having the bread pre-sliced not only made it easier, but it made bread more popular too.

All this convenience has to be a good thing, right? No downsides and all that? Well, bizarrely in 1943 the United States made sliced bread illegal.

Of course if you eat sliced and unsliced bread you might have spotted one downside with the sliced version – it dries out more quickly. Unsliced bread is protected by the dry crust, but when you slice it you expose the moister interior to the atmosphere. To protect sliced bread from drying out, it needs to be wrapped and in 1943 that meant using waxed paper.

They take this very seriously in Chillicothe, Missouri
Claude R Wickard - head of the War Food Administration – decided that the waxed paper could be better used for something else. Aircraft carriers, tanks and atom bombs perhaps. In New York, local bigwig John F Conaboy tried to clamp down on illegal sliced bread sellers even harder. You might suspect that neither Mr Wickard nor Mr Conaboy prepared much in the way of food in their households. The ban was finally lifted in March 1943, presumably after the Manhattan Project said they were more concerned about wonky sandwiches than saving waxed paper.

The city of Chillicothe, Missouri has a website dedicated to the product launched in their town, which also appears to have been created in 1928. Today both sliced and unsliced bread are commonly available in most food stores.

A few years after the ill-advised ban on sliced bread, the Second World War also produced another kitchen helper – the microwave oven. As far as many households were concerned, that really was the best thing since sliced bread.

Image credits:

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Nokia 6600 (2003)

Nokia 6600
Launched June 2003

Although Apple might like you to think that they invented the smartphone, in truth they’d been around for a decade or so before the ubiquitous iPhone. One successful early example is the Nokia 6600, barely recognisable as a smartphone today… but it certainly ticked all the boxes fifteen years ago.

The Nokia 6600 took a lot of technologies that were quite new and put them all in a single high-end device. Firstly though this ran the Symbian operating system which meant that users could install native applications on it (using a PC and a cable). It came with a relatively large 2.2” 176 x 208 pixel display, had a highly noticeable VGA resolution camera on the back (capable of taking video clips), it came with a multimedia player, MMC expandable memory, Bluetooth and it supported GPRS data.

You could read email and browse the web (slowly) and Symbian at the time had all sorts of applications available for it. For the time, the Nokia 6600 was an advanced piece of kit, and it was quite successful in sales terms, shipping 2 million units. Today it is largely forgotten, but good examples start at just £30 or so for collectors.

Image credit: Nokia

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Porsche 356 (1948)

Porsche 356, circa 1950
Introduced June 1948

Just three years after the end of the Second World War, the (then) Austrian firm Porsche came up with a little two-sweater sports car called the Porsche 356. Arguably the first modern sports car, the 356 created a template for a lightweight but relatively powerful vehicle that many others copied.

Although sales were slow to begin with, after a few years this sleek sports car started to pick up sales and became available as a coupé, convertible or roadster. Various engines became available, with a typical unit being the 59 HP 4 cylinder 1.6 litre air-cooled engine. Not a lot by modern standards, but with an aerodynamic car weighing as little as 771 kg it didn’t need to be a fire-breathing monster.

The engine was in the back above the drive wheels, a configuration which gives the fun of driving a rear-wheel drive car with the advantage that most of the weight was above the drive wheels which led to better handling. The 356 found success in motor racing, but it was equally at home pottering around the restaurants of the Côte d'Azur instead.

The production run was from 1948 to 1965, with four models and a pretty slow evolution of specifications and design over that period. The Porsche 911 was introduced to replace it in 1963, but 356 production continued a little while after that.

76,000 356s were built, with around half still existing. Prices for a used one seem to range from around £70,000 to over £250,000 depending on condition and exact model, although it’s of note that Porsche will still look after the car for you. Several companies (such as Chesil) make modern reproductions at a fraction of the cost.

Image credit: Matthew P.L. Stevens via Flickr

Monday, 25 June 2018

Space Invaders (1978)

Space Invaders (Midway version)
Launched June 1978

Forty years ago this month, Japan saw the launch of a simple little arcade game called Space Invaders. The premise was simple – five rows of pixelated aliens marched slowly across the screen while a laser cannon at the bottom tries to pick them off, accompanied with a basic four-note soundtrack and some sound effects. Simple it may have been, but Space Invaders became an enormous success.

The game came at a point when the technology was just becoming good enough to produce a compelling game. The Space Invaders machine itself ran an Intel 8080 CPU (a predecessor of the 8086) with a Texas Instruments chip producing the sounds (this in the same month as the launch of the Speak & Spell). A monochrome monitor in portrait mode gave a graphics resolution of 224 x 256 pixels, and in some versions of the game coloured strips across the screen gave the impression of a colour display when it wasn’t.

As with many classic games of the era, Space Invaders embraced the technical limitations of the hardware. The blocky aliens became a design icon, the simple but hypnotic soundtrack attracted curious onlookers. The fact that the very last invader raced across the screen in an adrenaline-fueled finale was simply a side-effect of the processor having less work to do.

The gameplay was simple enough but compelling, and Space Invaders machine soon started to rake in the money. A lot of money. A machine could pay for itself in a month or even less, and they soon started to pop up in all sort of places worldwide that hadn’t previously dabbled in arcade games, such as supermarkets.

There were two basic formats – creator Taito turned the game into a table-top format and cabinet with a joystick, while US licensee Midway used a cabinet with buttons replacing the joystick. Between them, the arcade versions raked in hundreds of millions of dollars of profit… and from then on there were adaptations for games consoles, home computers and a raft of sequels and spin-offs spanning generations.

Today prices for reconditioned original Space Invader machines can be £4000 or more. Alternatively for a few pounds you can buy an authentic reproduction of the original to play on your smartphone.

Image credit: Wally Gobetz via Flickr

Video: Reconditioned Taito Space Invaders machine

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Science of Cambridge MK14 (1978)

Science of Cambridge MK14
Launched June 1978

Before the Sinclair ZX80 – and before Sinclair even was Sinclair – came the Science of Cambridge MK14. A low-cost kit computer, the MK14 was similar to the successful MOS KIM-1 and a number of other kits launched in the late 1970s.

Instead of going with the 6502 or Z80, Clive Sinclair’s firm instead decided to go with the esoteric National Semiconductor SC/MP INS8060 CPU. This 8-bit CPU never really became popular, except for finding a niche in embedded systems of the era. The MK14 had just 256 bytes of RAM, expandable to 2170 bytes. Input was a 20 key keypad, and output was via a calculator-style display although it was possible to output basic text and graphics to a VDU. The architecture of the MK14 also allowed easy modification and the addition of peripherals such as a cassette interface.

Even for four decades ago, the MK14 was very basic. But at just £30 (equivalent to around £240 today) it was also very cheap – much cheaper than anything similar on the market. Science of Cambridge went on to sell tens of thousands of these, providing enough money for Clive Sinclair to launch the ZX80 a couple of years later. But it also provided a launch pad for the career of Chris Curry, who went on to become one of the founders of Acorn Computers  who eventually went on to change the world.

Despite selling in the thousands, MK14s are rare today and one in working condition might set you back £800 or so. Alternatively you can play with a MK14 emulator for free.

Image credit: Alessandro Grussu via Flickr

Monday, 18 June 2018

Apple iPhone 3G (2008)

Apple iPhone 3G (2008)
Launched June 2008

Launched ten years ago this month, the Apple iPhone 3G was Apple’s first smartphone.

But wait,” you say “obviously it wasn’t. The original iPhone was Apple’s first smartphone!

The original iPhone - launched in January 2007 – had plenty of potential and a lot of “wow” factor. But by modern standards, it wasn’t a smartphone at all. You couldn’t download applications to it, it didn’t have GPS or high-speed cellular data, it couldn’t record video and it only had one pretty basic camera on the back, so no selfies for YOU.

Added to that, the original iPhone was slow and very expensive and it didn’t sell in particularly big numbers. It really was a very elegant but extremely overpriced feature phone.

The iPhone 3G was a game-changer. Despite looking almost identical to the original and with a name that indicated that the main feature was 3G data support, the iPhone 3G was the first iPhone to come with the App Store through the new iPhone OS 2.0 operating system. Not only did this give the iPhone 3G a huge base of different apps to run, it also made adding those apps easy.

On top of that, the inclusion of 3G (and 3.5G) data meant that it was usable on the move. The new iPhone not only had GPS but also a mapping application and turn-by-turn navigation. It still couldn’t record video though and it only had the single basic camera, but it was faster and crucially cheaper too. It was a significant step in the right direction.

It was clearly a much better device than the original (even though that iPhone also got the App Store) and it was the iPhone 3G - not the original iPhone – that actually gave consumers what they wanted (apart from the ability to record video). The 3G was a proper smartphone in the modern sense, and it was this smartphone that drove nearly 7 million units worth of sales in the last quarter of 2008, finally giving Apple the sales breakthrough it was looking for.

Image credit: Apple, Inc

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Texas Instruments Speak & Spell (1978)

Speak & Spell circa 1978
Launched June 1978

If you were a child of the late 1970s or early 1980s, then the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell was one of those “must have” toys that every child wanted, even if they didn’t get it. Designed as a fun way to learn spelling, it also came with different cartridges for word games and it was available in several different languages.

Originally introduced in June 1978, the Speak & Spell is possibly primarily remembered for the somewhat tinny synthesised voice, but the Speak & Spell was actually a marvel of innovation in a number of ways and it stayed in production in one form or another until the early 1990s.

What made the Speak & Spell work was TI’s new speech synthesiser chip, the TMC0280 (alternatively named the TMS5100). Using a system called linear predictivecoding, TI managed to create a speech synthesis IC that was practical to roll out in low-cost applications running on contemporary 1970s hardware.

Outside, the Speak & Spell was about the size of an A4 pad, although it was fairly heavy at 474 grams (a little over a pound). Early versions had raised keys and a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) with a handy carrying handle on the top. Power was supplied by 4 C-cells or an A/C adapter. On the top was a carrying handle, and the whole thing was finished off in brightly coloured plastic.

It wasn’t the only product that TI made based on the same technology, the Speak & Read and Speak & Math also came in a similar package. Over the years the keyboard was replaced with a more childproof membrane keyboard which eventually changed from an alphabetic to QWERTY layout, the VFD display was replaced with an LCD and the handle moved from the top to the bottom to the top again. The last versions of the Speak & Spell were introduced in 1992.

Circuit Bent Speak & Spell
That really should have been the end of the story, but the Speak & Spell ended up having a weird afterlife. It turned out that the electronics in the device were easy to modify, and “circuit bent” versions appeared that could make new and interesting sounds, and the Speak & Spell found a home in electronic music in both modified and unmodified forms.

Prices vary depending on age and condition, but a good early one could set you back £100 or so. There are usually much cheaper, later ones too. Overall the Speak & Spell was a real technological marvel, and somehow we didn’t end up all speaking like robots. Whether or not it help to improve spelling overall is a matter for debbate.

Image credits:
Christian Riise Wagner via Flickr