Saturday 17 March 2018

Samsung Galaxy S4 (2013)

Samsung Galaxy S4
Announced March 2013

After three years and four versions, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S range had become firmly established as the Android device that all other manufacturers had to beat. Launched in March 2013, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is perhaps as close as you can get to an archetypical Samsung smartphone.

Launched in March 2013, the hardware was first class and was easily better than the rival iPhone 5 in every respect. The Galaxy S4 a 5” full HD display, 13 megapixel primary camera, quad or octa-core CPU with 2GB of RAM, expandable memory, 4G LTE support, wireless charging and a whole raft of sensors including a barometer and humidity sensor. Nothing else came close, and the iPhone 5 looked like it was a couple of generations behind.

The operating system was Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) out of the box, but Samsung did their usual thing of adding a whole bunch of their own software on top, not all of which was terribly useful. This “bloatware” was annoying to many customers at the time, and it is still annoying for Samsung customers five years later.

So the hardware was good, the software bloat was bad… but there was an ugly side to the Galaxy S4 too. No, not its conservative slab-like design (also a feature of Samsung smartphones) but its apparent propensity for catching fire, made worse by apparent attempts to cover the problem up. These problems didn’t go away either, eventually leading to the catastrophic launch of the Galaxy Note 7 in 2016.

In terms of industrial design the Galaxy S4 has all the charm of a microwave oven, but even five years on the hardware is still pretty powerful. Smartphone tinkerers can pick up a decent used one for about €100 and then upgrade it to the more modern LineageOS 14.1 (based on Android 7.1.2)


We made a video when the Galaxy S4 launched exploring some more of its features and comparing it to the previous models, if you want a further trip down memory lane.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Toyota Hilux (1968)

Toyota Hilux N10 circa 1968
Introduced March 1968

The idea of creating a car-like light truck with a flatbed loading area been around for more than 100 years. Eventually termed “pickup trucks”, these vehicles were at first popular workhorses but eventually they also became “lifestyle vehicles” as well.

Although the Ford F-Series is probably the most famous range of pickups in the US (and sales are protected through the curiously named “Chicken Tax”), the Toyota Hilux – introduced in March 1968 – is probably the most famous worldwide. Now in its eighth generation, the Hilux can be found all over the world performing a huge variety of tasks. And somewhere along the way, the Hilux became a bit of a legend.

Back in 1968 Toyota’s main pickup offering had the rather unexciting name of the “Stout”. As the name implies the Stout was rather utilitarian inside, so making a more luxurious sibling wasn’t hard. Even so, calling it “Hi-Lux” was a bit cheeky.

The Hilux was a huge success and became Toyota’s main pickup offering (the Stout ceased production in 1989). Fifty years later and the Hilux is in its eighth generation and has a reputation for reliability and versatility which sees it everywhere from being a dependable workhorse for all sorts of enterprises to a popular choice for armed insurgents in the guise of the “Technical”.

Prices for classic Toyotas are strong, but finding a vintage Hilux is hard. A modern one will cost you upwards of £20,000 new – if you can find an original 1968 Hilux N10 then expect to pay much more.


Saturday 3 March 2018

Orac (1978)

Introduced March 1978

Forty years ago this month the British public got their first glimpse of a computer system so advanced that it put everything else to shame. Invented by a brilliant computer scientist called Ensor, Orac was a sophisticated artificial intelligence system which was adept at both speech synthesis and speech recognition, could control any other computer, and it all came in handily transportable transparent box.

You might think that this sounded a bit more complex than (say) a contemporary RM 380Z, and you would be right. Orac was in fact a fictional computer from the cult BBC TV Show Blake’s 7, and was clearly just a Perspex box with some flashing lights and odds and ends inside it.

Debuting in the final episode of the first series, Orac became a key member of the cast. Short tempered, irascible and often unpleasant to deal with, Orac was probably marginally nicer to use that Windows 8. But not much.

Blake’s 7 itself was a low budget but thoughtful space opera, featuring a dysfunctional group of resistance fighters battling against a powerful and corrupt Federation, using a salvaged alien spaceship with a grumpy computer of its very own – by the name of Zen.

Inspired by the show and the advanced but oddly uncooperative technology, the names “Orac” and “Zen” were adopted by a generation of computer scientists who would apply these liberally to computer systems of the time.

These days of course voice-controlled and somewhat unhelpful computer systems are commonplace, but in 1978 they seemed to be very futuristic. Just not a future many of us would like to be living in. The closest modern equivalent to Orac might be the Amazon Echo, however for a bit more you could buy yourself a Baby Orac replica instead… and although it might not do as much, it is probably much cooler.