Saturday 28 December 2019

2019: things that didn’t quite make the cut

This year we’ve covered products debuting in 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014. Here are a few of the things we missed.

It being Christmas and all a good place to start would be the Honeywell Kitchen Computer from 1969. Appearing in the Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalog of the same year, the so-called Kitchen Computer actually a Honeywell 316 minicomputer in a desktop case which was designed for laboratory environments, however the imaginative folks at Neiman Marcus thought the pedestal would make a great chopping board while the wife of the household used it to retrieve recipes. A great idea, but the Honeywell 316 was totally unsuited to that role and total sales of the Kitchen Computer were approximately nil, but the myth still persists even to this day.

Although a kitchen is a difficult and unwelcoming environment for a computer, GRiD Systems Corporation made computers that travelled into space. In 1989 they launched the GRiDPAD, the world’s first tablet computer. While not as friendly as a modern tablet, this MS-DOS machine sold relatively high numbers with a price ticket of about $3000 for one with software.

Honeywell 316 aka "Kitchen Computer" (1969) and GRiDPAD (1989)

Atari too were experimenting with portable computing, and in 1989 they launched the Portfolio (that we already covered) plus the Atari Stacy and Atari Lynx. The Stacy (styled STacy by Atari) was a portable version of the Atari ST which had proved a hit in the mid-80s but was now fading. However, the Stacy found a successful niche with musicians who liked the portability and the excellent MIDI support, even though Atari gave up on making it battery powered quite late into development and ended up gluing the battery compartment shut. At the other end of the scale was the Atari Lynx was a handheld gaming platform that was advanced for its day but struggled against the Nintendo Gameboy... however even today the Lynx has its fans and now and again new games appear for it.

Atari Stacy (1989) and Atari Lynx (1989)
Like Atari, Zenith Data Systems had been a pioneer of early microcomputers and they too were keen to jump on board the portable computer bandwagon. The Zenith MinisPORT (launched in 1989) was one of the smallest DOS-compatible computers made to that date, and it featured a highly unusual 2” floppy disk drive in order to keep the size down.

Zenith MiniSPORT (1989)
Sega was another stalwart of the gaming industry, in 1989 they launched the Sega Mega Drive (also known as the Genesis) that proved to be a massive hit in Europe and North and South America – although officially replaced by the Sega Saturn in 1995 the popularity of the Mega Drive continued. 30 years later and Sega revisited the platform with the Sega Mega Drive Mini. Skip another generation from the Saturn and you get the 1999 Sega Dreamcast. The Dreamcast was an advanced machine with excellent 3D support, but it couldn’t compete against Sony’s Playstation 2 and it was Sega’s last mainstream games console.

Saga Mega Drive aka Genesis (1989) and Dreamcast (1989)

Back to 1989 again and we find a computing oddity in the SAM Coupé – an unusual machine that was compatible with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum with various enhancements such as a proper keyboard, floppy disk and more memory. It was a niche success against 16 and 32-bit rivals and it still has a dedicated following today. Don’t confuse the SAM Coupé with the Cozy Coupe though, this little plastic car for children was launched in 1979 and it would technically be one of the world’s best-selling cars if it was actually a real car.
SAM Coupé (1989) and Cozy Coupe (1979)

Looping round one last time to 1989, and Motorola launched their iconic MicroTAC series of phones. This flip-phone design was much more compact than the DynaTAC that preceded it, and many versions of the MicroTAC were made for all the disparate analogue and digital networks of the early 1990s. The design evolved over the years, and versions of the MicroTAC stayed in production until 1996. One of the MicroTAC’s spiritual successors might be the tiny Ericsson T28, the world’s smallest mobile phone when it was launched in 1999 weighing just 83 grams. Ultimately both the MicroTAC and T28 started a trend for mobile phones to be smaller and lighter, which is something we seem to have lost along the way..

Motorola MicroTAC (1989) and Ericsson T28 (1999)

That’s it for 2019. Next year we look to cover diverse topics such as the Acorn Atom, Epson MX-80, Squarial and Pac-Man plus many other things. See you on the other side!

Image credits

Honeywell 316: Scott Beale via Flickr
GRiDPAD: Association WDA via Flickr
Atari Stacy: Perfect Circuit Audio via Wikimedia Commons
Atari Lynx: Pete Slater via Flickr
Zenith MiniSPORT: Kris Davies via Wikimedia Commons
Sega Mega Drive: Barité Videojuegos via Flickr
Sega Dreamcast: Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons
SAM Coupé: Simon Owen via Wikimedia Commons
Cozy Coupe: Nick via Flickr
Motorola MicroTAC: Redrum0486 via Wikimedia Commons
Ericsson T28: The Norwegian Telecom Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Tangerine Microtan 65 (1979)

Tangerine Microtan 65
Introduced December 1979

As the 1970s drew to a close US computer manufacturers were dominating the market with fully-featured but expensive systems such as the Apple II and Atari 800. Where these systems were popular in the US market, British consumers had rather less to spend on these new-fangled machines and many hobbyists were tinkering with simple board computers such as the Acorn System 1 instead.

Although board computers were inexpensive, they were also very limited. Although it was usually possible to add a few peripherals, they still couldn’t do the sorts of things that the new American microcomputers could.

Into this market stepped the British-based Tangerine Computer Systems with the Microtan 65. This was a 6502-based single board computer with just 1Kb of RAM, 1Kb of ROM with a simple OS called the monitor, a video output and a hexadecimal keypad. But the system itself was highly expandable, with the first step being the TANEX expansion board that added a cassette and serial interface, plus the option of more RAM and up to five EPROMs.

However, expansion could go on and on with more boards for more memory, disk controllers, printers, better graphics and more. All of these could be slotted into a 19” rack-mountable case to make a microcomputer that could be used for business, home or scientific or engineering purposes. And although the price of all these components added up, you only needed to buy what you were going to use.

The result was a technically capable and scalable system that was successful enough for Tangerine to look at creating a follow-on model. Initially they looked at creating a CP/M compatible Z80-based machine that was developed for HH Electronics, named the HH Tiger. Despite an elegant design, the Tiger was not a success and is largely forgotten if it was even noticed at all.

Tangerine’s next hit was the Oric-1, another 6502 machine made very much in the mould of the very popular Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This machine and its successor – the Oric Atmos – proved very popular in the UK and some other European markets. But that is a story for another time.

Ultimately the Microtan 65 could have been the start of a huge revolution in personal computing, but it didn’t quite make it. Forty years later the Microtan 65 is a hard thing to find for collectors, but our research indicates that a well-specified system might cost you something in the region of £1500.

Image credit: Ian Dunster via Wikimedia Commons

Monday 25 November 2019

Galaxian (1979)

Introduced November 1979

Galaxian was launched at a time when arcade games were becoming really popular – and profitable. Following the trail laid by 1978’s Space Invaders was Namco’s Galaxian. Despite there only being about a year and a half between these two products, Galaxian was a huge improvement.

Fundamentally the concept of the game was pretty similar to Space Invaders – the player controlled a spaceship at the bottom of the screen which could move left or right and fire. Arranged in neat rows at the top were hostile aliens that the player had to wipe out. But Galaxian was a much richer gaming experience.

The most obvious improvement that this game was in colour, unlike the monochrome Space Invaders that used plastic strips to give the *illusion* of colour. And instead of the aliens slowly shuffling their way across and down the screen, the enemies in Galaxian swooped down shooting, either singly or in a group. Combine that with simple but well-polished sound effects and it all added up to a game that made Space Invaders look primitive.

Inside was a Zilog Z80 processor which really was next-generation stuff compared to the old Intel 8080 in Space Invaders, plus of course electronics components were improving all the time which helped enormously. It wasn’t just hardware though, Galaxian was also efficiently coded to squeeze as much out of the hardware as it could.

Namco found that it had a huge hit on its hands, first in Japan and then in North America after partnering with Midway (who had previously partnered with Taito on Space Invaders). Galaxian went on to be one of the definitive arcade games of the early 1980s and it was eventually ported to many other platforms. The official follow-on – Galaga – was an even bigger hit, and Namco themselves continue on to this day having merged with Bandai in 2006 to create Bandai Namco.

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Asteroids (1979)

Introduced November 1979

1979 was a landmark year for Atari – the launch of the popular 400 and 800 computers, the Lunar Lander arcade game and the continued success of the VCS games console meant that Atari was very much becoming a cornerstone technology company of the late 70s and early 80s.

Asteroids Gameplay (click to enlarge)
Asteroids Cabinet
The next step in the story was the Atari Asteroids arcade game. Based on the same basic hardware as Lunar Lander, Asteroids was a much more playable game. In case you’ve never seen any of the many versions of Asteroids that followed the 1979 classic, the basic idea is to blast large chunks of rocks into smaller chunks and then destroy them completely using a small spaceship that can move about the screen. Flying saucers will also appear and attempt to shoot the player to give it an extra degree of complexity. Although not strictly following the laws of physics, the game has a fair approximation which gives it an atypical gameplay for an arcade machine.

Like Lunar Lander, this was a vector graphics games powered by a 6502 with some rudimentary sounds hard-wired in. Although the controls were different (with five buttons to rotate left and right, fire, thrust and hyperspace).

The game was an enormous success, raking in tens of millions of dollars for both Atari and the arcade operators. Demand for the games was so great that Atari cannibalised some of their Lunar Lander boxes to meet it, and it became the most popular arcade machine in the world… for a while.

Sequels, spin-offs and clones followed on just about every console and computer system known to mankind. Forty years later it is still a popular game, although the days of CRT machines with vector graphics are long gone. If you want the original thing, they are pretty hard to come by and most of those available seem to be in the US with a price of $1500 or so for the classic cabinet version and around $500 for the cocktail table variant.

Image credits:
Michael F. via Flickr
killbox via Flickr

Sunday 3 November 2019

Atari 400 / 800 (1979)

Atari 800 (1979)
Introduced November 1979

In the late 1970s the microcomputer revolution had been kicked off by the holy trinity of the PET, Apple II and TRS-80 which all launched in 1977. Then – as now – two years is a long time in technology and even those these computers well selling well in in 1979 there were better machines coming along.

Atari was an established player in the consumer electronics market since the early 1970s, but although they were eager to capitalise on the new microprocessors launching in the later part of that decade they had taken a different path with the Atari VCS (later called the 2600) launched at the same time as rivals were launching home computers instead.

The Atari VCS was a significant hit, however Atari’s own engineers though that it would have a very limited lifespan (although in fact it was in production in one form or another for 15 years). Development of an improved version based on the VCS architecture started immediately after the product was launched.

When the Atari 400 and 800 were launched two years later it turned out that the VCS had evolved into something very much more advanced. Based on the popular 6502 processor, both the 400 and 800 were fully-featured microcomputers much like the competition, but they also came with a convenient cartridge slot like a games console… which most of the competition did not.

During the design phase it was envisaged that the 400 and 800 would be quite different computers, but in the end they were fundamentally the same. The main differences were that the 400 had 16KB of RAM, a single cartridge slot and a membrane keyboard compared to the 800’s 48KB of RAM, two cartridge slots and a traditional mechanical keyboard.
Atari 400 showing cartridge slot (1979)

At launch the 800 was priced at $1000 with the 400 coming in at $550. Because you had to add a monitor plus some sort of storage (i.e. a cassette or disk drive) then it could add up to being quite an expensive system. However, the hardware was much more sophisticated than earlier rivals.

Featuring two graphics support chips (ANTIC and CTIA) plus another I/O chip that handled sound and everything else (POKEY) plus four joystick ports and a serial expansion bus, these 8-bit Ataris were easily more capable than the first-generation of microcomputers they were up against. They made excellent games machines, but they were also capable of doing everything that any other contemporary microcomputer would do.

FCC regulations of the time basically mandated that the whole computer be hidden inside a cast aluminium block, making the Atari 400 and 800 especially sturdy. These regulations also led to the development of a novel serial bus (called SIO) that allowed components to be daisy-chained to a single interface port on the computer itself. This solution was ahead of its time and is conceptually similar to the way USB peripherals work, but it had the disadvantage of making plug-in devices much more expensive.
Atari 130XE (1985)

Still, the advanced features of the device made the Atari 400 and 800 very popular, but high production costs meant that Atari made little – if any – profit from them at the beginning. A brutal price war in the early 1980s hit hard, but Atari fought on with the cheaper but more sleek "XL" line (notably the 600XL and 800XL). The 8-bit Atari range had an unexpected boost with the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s which led to huge sales success in these emerging markets due to the low-cost nature of these computers with even cheaper “XE” machines (the 65XE, 130XE and 800XE) plus a games console based directly on the same architecture (XEGS).

In all there were three generations of the Atari 800 and its siblings, with production lasting until 1992 – the same year that Atari finally pulled the VCS games console. The popular Atari ST – based on the Motorola 68000 – was launched in 1985, giving the company a new lease of life into the 1990s.

Today the Atari 800 is more readily available than the 400 for collectors, with prices varying between tens and hundreds of pounds depending on condition and peripherals. The later 800XL is much more common and tends to be cheaper. Alternatively various emulators are available if you want to try it that way instead.

Image credits:
Bilby via Wikimedia Commons
Rama & Musée Bolo via Wikimedia Commons
Multicherry via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev (1979)

Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev, 2019
Introduced October 1979

Today we are looking at the technological marvel of the Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev. This may seem weirdly specific, but we’re not just talking about any Chicken Kiev… we are talking about a product that helped to change the way we eat.

Originally a French-inspired piece of Russian cuisine from the early 19th century the definitive recipe for the Chicken Kiev is thought to originate from the Continental Hotel in (unsurprisingly) the city of Kiev. This breadcrumb-coated chicken breast filled with garlic butter became popular throughout the former Russian empire and it eventually escaped to the west via the Yar restaurant in Chicago in the 1930s. From there it spread to other English-speaking countries and became a popular restaurant dish.

After the Second World War (which incidentally destroyed much of the Continental Hotel) the growing ownership of freezers in the US led to the growth of what would eventually be called the “TV Dinner”. Like many other things the idea of a pre-cooked frozen dinner crossed the Atlantic to the UK. But what these foods gained in convenience they tended to sacrifice in taste – and they certainly weren’t something that you would serve to guests.

By the late 1970s food technology was developing quickly. The decade had already given us the Pot Noodle a couple of years earlier, but British retailer Marks and Spencer was working on something altogether classier.

Young product developer Cathy Chapman was working with restaurateur John Docker to create a range of chilled (rather than frozen) meal based on popular restaurant choices. First out of the gate was the Chicken Kiev, modelled closely after the restaurant version including having a little bone sticking out of it.

Despite misgivings from M&S management, the Chicken Kiev was a huge success. Priced at £1.99 per portion in 1979 (nearly £10 today) it certainly wasn’t cheap, but it did have the advantage of being a very tasty and somewhat technically complicated dish that you could prepare in your own home with virtually no culinary skills whatsoever. For extra sophistication, you could wash it down with a bottle of Hirondelle.

The humble M&S Chicken Kiev marked a change in the way food was packaged and sold, and the concept soon spread to other western supermarkets. Today it’s possible to create a quite sophisticated meal even if you can’t reliably boil an egg. This change in food technology certainly broadened our horizons, but tended to come at a cost – these prepackaged foods are often designed for taste rather than healthy eating, and in their wake they tend to leave a lot of packaging which needs to be dealt with too.

You are unlikely to come across any 40-year-old vintage Chicken Kievs – and if you do, give them a wide berth – but food packaging itself it a niche collectable. Marks and Spencer sell a few different versions of Chicken Kiev today at different price points. The ones pictured were £3 for two, which is a lot cheaper than they were in 1979. I ate them for my tea. Very nice they were too.

Image credit: Shritwod via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday 20 October 2019

PalmOne Treo 650 (2004)

PalmOne Treo 650
Announced October 2004

The history of the mobile phone market is a bit like the history of the world itself, with empires rising and falling and new superpowers emerging and sweeping the old orders away.

One of these old orders was Palm – which due to its Byzantine history was at the time called PalmOne. Palm pretty much owned the PDA market in the 1990s with the Palm Pilot, but they’d missed out on the emergent “wireless PDA” (or as we would call it “smartphone”) market in the early noughties. This led to Palm buying out a company called Handspring, who made wireless PDAs based on Palm’s own operating system – this enabled Palm to get into the market in 2003 with the Handspring Treo 600, followed by the improved PalmOne Treo 650 in 2004.

It seems a bit alien compared to a modern smartphone with the large keyboard and relatively small screen, plus a stick-out antenna which was old-fashioned even in 2004. The 2.4” 320 x 320 pixel TFT touchscreen display was very advanced for its time, and Palm OS 5.4 was a highly usable and sophisticated software platform which included good support for corporate email too.

Bluetooth, expandable memory and a decent multimedia player rounded off the specification, but unlike modern smartphones there was no high-speed data (it was GSM-only) and no GPS. Still, it was competitive for the time.

It was a valiant effort by Palm - but RIM, HTC and Nokia were all established in the “wireless PDA” market by the time Palm came along. Ultimately the Treo sold well to fans of existing Palm Pilots, but it only had limited success outside its existing market base. The Palm OS platform refused to go down without a fight, and it soldiered on for another three years with the Palm Centro being the last of the line.

Prices for the Treo 650 and 600 vary a lot, with decent ones starting at £50 and going up to £200 for ones in mint condition. If you collect interesting old phones you should probably have at least one running Palm OS, and the Treo 650 is certainly a good candidate.

Image credit: Palm

Tuesday 15 October 2019

BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2 (2009)

Announced October 2009

Although 2009 had seen the rise and rise of Android and Apple smartphones, it’s easy to forget that they were still only quite small players in that market. When it came to smartphones that were actually used as smartphones – because many of Nokia’s Symbian devices were only used as feature phones by owners – then the company to beat was Research In Motion and their line of BlackBerry devices.

The killer application on the BlackBerry platform was messaging – no other smartphone had quite the capabilities when it came to email or instant message, and for this reason BlackBerry devices were extremely popular. So when RIM announced two significant devices in October 2009 they were at the top of their game.

BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is one of the best classic BlackBerry devices ever. A useful evolution over the Bold 9000 launched the previous year, the 9700 had everything a smartphone should have, including 3.5G data, WiFi, GPS, a decent camera and good multimedia support. This classic BlackBerry had a physical QWERTY keyboard that fans loved plus the useful addition of a very usable small trackpad which made the whole user experience much better.

Both corporate and private users bought the 9700 in significant quantities, and it did seem that sticking to the classic BlackBerry formula was working well for RIM in the face of their upstart rivals.

Where the Bold 9700 built on success, the BlackBerry Storm2 was a follow-on to failure. The original BlackBerry Storm – released in 2008 – was a disaster. Poorly conceived and implements, the Storm was critically panned and unsurprisingly didn’t sell. The Storm2 fixed many of the problems of the original, including re-engineering the touchscreen display, including WiFi, fixing the software and fitting a better camera. As a result, the Storm2 was at least usable… but the specification was a year out of date when it hit the market and it was only a modest success.

In the end, the success of the Bold 9700 masked the disappointing sales of the Storm2. Although this didn’t look like a bad result, the problem was that RIM didn’t have a next-generation product that could complete with the new generation of smartphones coming out. It would take more than three years to produce a real successor to the classic BlackBerry platform, and that was a catastrophe that made even the original Storm look small in comparison.

Image Credits: RIM / BlackBerry

Videos: BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2


Wednesday 9 October 2019

Poqet PC (1989)

Poqet PC Plus
Introduced October 1989

By the end of the 1980s it was just possible to squeeze a fully-specified personal computer into something the size of a book. Atari had done just that with the Portfolio launched in mid-1989, but that made quite a lot of compromises along the way. In October the same year, Poqet Computer Corporation launched their Poqet PC, a tiny computer which was the closest thing yet to a PC you could fit in your pocket.

A little bit heavier than the Atari, the Poqet PC had a much better specification. The screen was capable of displaying full MDA or CGA-compatible graphics, inside was 512KB or 640KB of RAM with a 7MHz 80C88 processor, there were two PCMCIA slots and the Pocket PC ran MS-DOS 3.3. Two AA batteries were enough to power the Poqet PC for weeks due to some very clever power management.

Although it wasn’t a powerful system per se, it was a pretty capable PC/XT compatible system, similar to those desktop that were still selling well in the late 1980s. At this point, most PCs ran plain old DOS programs as Windows had not yet broken through into the market.

Although it was undoubtedly a better system than the Portfolio, it was also hugely more expensive. The Atari cost around $400, the Poqet was $2000 (around $4000 today). Still, it was a niche success for people who needed full PC compatibility in an ultraportable form factor.

Poqet ended up being bought by Fujitsu who stuck with the Poqet brand for a while before folding it into their own notebook line. Today, Poqet PCs are quite collectable with prices ranging between £300 and £800 depending on features and condition.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday 6 October 2019

Sharp MZ-80K (1979)

Sharp MZ-80K
Introduced October 1979

By 1979 the fledgling microcomputer market was already up and running, with the Commodore PET, Apple II and TRS-80 Model I leading the way in most markets.

Although US-based computer makers had gained the lion's share of the market, they were concerned about the rising Japanese competition. Leading the way was Sharp, who in 1979 launched the MZ-80K personal computer to a worldwide audience, having been available in kit form in Japan for about a year.

A smart-looking all-in-one unit, the MZ-80K was pitched at the upper end of the market, but it was probably the most capable computer of that particular era. Based on Sharp's own LH0080A CPU (which was Z80 compatible) there was also a large software library available. A combination of reliable Japanese technology, good packaging and relative ease of use made the MZ-80K a popular computer for its time.

There were some odd features though - most microcomputers of the time would boot up into BASIC from a ROM, the MZ-80K just started up into a simple bootloader where you could load whatever programming language you wanted from tape or floppy, which took more time but gave more flexibility.The biggest detraction was probably the keyboard, which was somehow even worse than the one on the original PET. Made up of a large grid of keys with the return key for some reason down at the bottom near the space bar and a surprising number of buttons just for the MZ-80K's rather primitive graphics.
Sharp MZ-80K keyboard detail

The improved MZ-80A followed with a more conventional keyboard, and variants of the MZ line were sold by Sharp until the mid 1980s at which point the bottom fell out of the market for 8-bit machines.

Today the MZ-80K and its descendants are pretty collectable, although the original RIFA capacitors need to be checked and replaced before using it, as they are quite likely to explode. Typical prices for a restored version in good condition are around £400 or so.

Image credits:
Wolfgang Stief via Wikimedia Commons
Marcin Wichary via Flickr

Friday 4 October 2019

Motorola DROID / Milestone (2009)

Motorola DROID
Launched October 2009

By October 2009 the Android operating system had been around for just over a year, and devices were beginning to get more common. However, version one of Android had quite a few rough edges both in terms of the user interface and the hardware it could support.

But Google and Motorola were working on a significant improvement, and the Motorola DROID was the world’s first Android 2.0 handset to market exclusively on the Verizon CDMA network, followed rapidly by a worldwide GSM version called the Motorola Milestone. A huge improvement over every rival Android smartphone, the DROID / Milestone showed the Motorola was a force to be reckoned with.

Compared with the rival iPhone 3GS, the Motorola had a much better screen and camera, turn-by-turn navigation, expandable memory, support for Adobe Flash and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard which was certainly useful but did add to the bulk.

The DROID / Milestone was almost definitely the most capable smartphone of any type on the market at the time. But in terms of sales, the device only made a modest impact. In the US the DROID was exclusive to the Verizon network, and went head-to-head with the iPhone on AT&T… in other words, to use the DROID you either had to be an existing Verizon customer or you had to switch networks.

Elsewhere in the world, Motorola had a more serious problem. Years of decline and unappealing handsets meant that many carriers no longer had a relationship with Motorola to speak of – this meant that Moto had an uphill struggle to get any carriers at all to pick it up. As a result most of the worldwide sales were for SIM-free units – a niche market at best, given a price tag of about €500.

Motorola Milestone
Although it was a major critical and design success, it was only a modest sales success. But it was enough to (just about) save Motorola who just two years previously looked doomed. There would still be turbulent times ahead for Moto.

Today the Motorola Milestone (A853) is a very rare thing to find, the Motorola DROID (A855) is much more common and is very cheap. As far as Motorola smartphones go, this is probably one of the most collectable and technologically it is certainly one of the most significant early Android devices.

Image credits: Motorola and Retromobe

Motorola DROID video

Wednesday 25 September 2019

Xerox 914 (1959)

Xerox 914 plus contemporary advertising
Launched September 1959

Pretty much ever since human beings invented paper, they’ve wanted an easy way to copy what was written, printed or drawn on that paper. One Wednesday in September 1958 – about 2000 years after paper was invented – there was finally a solution.

The Xerox 914 was the fruit of a two-decade development of a dry copy processes called xerography, a technology that had been acquired by the Haloid Company of New York. Able to copy full-sized documents onto plain paper, the 914 was a significant technological advance over the slower, messier methods that had gone before.

Weighing nearly 300 kilograms and with a large footprint as well, the 914 was pretty big but still quite usable as a departmental copier. With an ability to copy 100,000 pages per month at 7 sheets per minute, the 914 is still pretty competitive by modern standards.

If you wanted to buy one it was phenomenally expensive at $27,500 (roughly equivalent to a quarter of a million dollars today) or apparently you could rent one for just $95 a month plus a charge for each copy made.

It has its problems though, notably paper jams could result in a small fire which later models of 914 dealt with by including a small fire extinguishers euphemistically called a “scorch guard”.  Despite this the Xerox 914 was a huge success, shipping 200,000 units until the end of production in 1976. Haloid even changed its name to Xerox after its best-known line of products.

A behemoth such as the Xerox 914 is hardly a collectable item, and given that probably most of them were rented you are probably unlikely to stumble across one. But perhaps there are still a few gathering dust in basements and store rooms…

Image credit: Xerox

Monday 23 September 2019

Apple Macintosh Portable (1989)

Apple Macintosh Portable
Launched September 1989

Launched five years after the original Macintosh, the Apple Macintosh Portable was the first truly portable Mac, a device that prioritised performance over everything else and ended up as a notable but rather heroic failure for Apple.

Here was an extremely elegant all-in-one device, although the sheer bulk of the thing and the hefty 7.2 kilogram weight pushed the definition of “portable” even thirty years ago. Once opened up the central feature was the 9.8” active matrix display – a very rare technology at the time – giving a pin-sharp and very usable 640 x 480 pixel monochrome display. Below was a decently-sized keyboard and a trackball that could be swapped around according to the user’s preferences.

Inside was a venerable Motorola 68000 processor running at 16MHz with up to 9GB of SRAM which made the Macintosh Portable a very fast Mac indeed for its day. Typically the Macintosh Portable would have a 40MB hard disk and possibly a modem. A 3.5” floppy disk drive was included as standard.

The Macintosh Portable could run on either AC power or the internal lead acid batteries which could give an astonishing 10 hours of runtime. These batteries were one of the main contributors to the size and weight of the thing, and indeed they were the Mac Portable’s biggest flaw.

Unlike a modern laptop, the battery was wired in series to the AC supply which meant that if the battery was discharged, the unit wouldn’t power up… even if connected to the mains. In the longer term it meant that Mac Portables with defective batteries couldn’t be used at all. Complicated workarounds exist to bypass or replace the batteries which have not been available as a replacement part for years.

It was an impressive piece of equipment, but the price was pretty eye-watering. A hard disk model cost about $7300 (equivalent to $15,000 or £12,000 today) and the original flat panel display on the M5120 model lacked a backlight which was fixed in the later M5126 at the expense of battery life.

It didn’t sell particularly well despite having a huge amount of press coverage, probably down to being just too expensive, just too bulky and just too flawed to make it desirable. The Macintosh Portable line spent just two years on the market before being replaced by the PowerBook 100 which was designed in partnership with Sony which was half the weight and one third of the price.

Although it was deemed a failure, the Macintosh Portable’s uncompromising design introduced advanced features that proved to be something to be aspired to. Today these Macs are rather rare and very collectable if in working condition, with typical prices starting at £1000. Even so, working around the battery issue is a major headache in any Mac Portable restoration and is best done by someone with the appropriate skill and lots of patience.

Image credit: Credit: Benoît Prieur - CC-BY-SA

Sunday 22 September 2019

Motorola 68000 (1979)

Launched September 1979

Motorola had been one of the early pioneers of microprocessors with the 8-bit Motorola 6800 launched in 1974. Launched a few years before there was really a big market for it, the 6800 was nonetheless successful and it inspired other 8-bit rivals such as the MOS Technology 6502 and Zilog Z80.

These rivals took a big chunk of the market that Motorola helped to create, but since Motorola were a forward-looking company they were looking ahead to devices that would be in a different and more powerful class to the 8-bit masses. Skipping the obvious step of making a purely 16-bit CPU, Motorola pressed ahead to create the (mostly) 32-bit Motorola 68000.

Motorola 68000

Introduced in September 1979, the 68000 was less like the cheap and cheerful 8-bit CPUs finding their way into home computers such as the PET and Apple II and was rather more like the powerful processors found in minicomputers such as the DEC VAX.

Although the 68000 started in high-end devices such as the Sun-1 workstation, it progressively got cheaper and found its way into a new generation of powerful home computers such as the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST and Commodore Amiga and even Apple laser printers. Games consoles soon took on the 68000 and eventually derivatives of it ended up as embedded systems which are still in use to this day (the NXP ColdFire for example).

During the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s the 68000 series of processors was the only real rival to Intel in terms of volume. By 1994 the line had really been upgraded as much as it could, and Motorola then teamed up with IBM and Apple to create the PowerPC processor which was used mostly in the Power Macintosh line until 2006.

Processors are a pretty niche thing to collect, but early examples of the 68000 are pretty common to find. Much more collectable – and usable – are the 1980s computer systems that use the 68000, especially those from Commodore and Atari.

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Sharp 902 (2004)

Sharp 902
Launched September 2004

By 2004 3G networks were becoming quite widely rolled out with most major carriers offering pretty good 3G coverage. There weren’t a lot of handsets though, and few of them really offered anything other than the high-speed data connection itself.

Vodafone had something up its sleeve though because of their Japanese subsidiary Vodafone K.K. 3G networks had been available for a little while in Japan, and Japanese domestic phone makers had come up with several interesting handsets that were quite unlike those being designed in Europe and the United States.

Sharp was key player in Japan, and they partnered with Vodafone to make what was quite possibly the best phone of its time – the Sharp 902.

Essentially this was just a big 3G clamshell phone, however the 902 exceeded rivals in almost every specification. One key feature was the camera – the first two megapixel unit on the market, it also featured a 2X optical zoom (rather than a digital one). The camera had a multi-coloured LED flash and built-in image-to-text conversion as well.

Inside the 2.4” display panel featured Sharp’s continuous grain silicon (CG Silicon) technology in a 240 x 320 pixel screen that was so much clearer than rivals it simply knocked them out of the park. The screen itself could rotate 180 degrees, so you could flip it back to front if you wanted and use it that way round. Nothing else on the market in Europe could do that.

Add to this a full-sized SD/MMC card slot, video calling, Bluetooth, streaming media support, an MP3 player and a whole bunch of other features – in most respects the 902 made other 3G rivals look primitive. In addition to the standard model, a striking red Ferrari edition came out which boosted the profile of the phone further.
Sharp 902 Ferrari Edition

It should have been a game-changer, but it wasn’t. It turns out that the much-vaunted 2 megapixel camera really wasn’t as good as people were expecting, the user interface was nowhere as good as Nokia’s and the handset was a Vodafone exclusive and couldn’t be unlocked. And although the Sharp 902 was undoubtedly an attractive device to look at, perhaps it was a bit too Japanese for conservative European customers.

Most importantly, your average mobile customer in 2004 wasn’t really that interested in 3G anyway. Most web pages were not optimised for running on mobile phones, streaming content and downloads were expensive and the sort of social media apps we see today simply didn’t exist.

The Sharp 902 ended up as a niche success, but it wasn’t enough to make Sharp one of the big handset sellers in Europe. Less than two years later, Vodafone sold its Japanese operations to Softbank which effectively stopped the flow of Japanese 3G phones into Europe. Today the Sharp 902 is pretty uncommon to find with prices starting at around £20 or so with the rare Ferrari edition being very much more expensive.

Image credits: Sharp and Vodafone

Thursday 12 September 2019

Nokia 7260, 7270 and 7280 (2004)

Launched September 2004

Fifteen years ago we were in the golden age of mobile phone design. Although technologically limited compared to the powerful smartphones of today, manufacturers were not constrained by what they could design physically and all sorts of bold designs emerged as a result.

A trio of fashion phones, the Nokia 7260, 7270 and the 7280 certainly took boldness to a new level. Noted usually for their understated design, Nokia ripped up their rule book in this case and came up with something which was certainly a lot more eye-catching.

For most people the phone of choice would be the cheapest – the Nokia 7260. At the time we called the design “a complete mess” but in retrospect this bold art deco look is refreshing. Blending the keypad itself into the decoration, the 7260 also had a slightly asymmetric shape to set it apart from normal brick phones.

Underneath the startling exterior was a different story. A small screen, very basic camera and a couple of games were included with the only real concession to fun being the inbuilt FM radio. Even by 2004 standard this was a bit crude, with no music player or Bluetooth for example. Yet it sold in huge quantities, presumably based on looks alone.

Nokia 7260

One step up, the Nokia 7270 clamshell had a much better screen and slightly toned-down the looks. The 7270 featured changeable textile covers and was a more practical alternative although in the end it didn’t sell as well as the cheaper 7260.

Nokia 7270

But the phone that got everyone talking was the Nokia 7280. This “lipstick phone” didn’t have a conventional keypad at all but instead features an iPhone-style rotator. The little screen had a mirror finish, so you could preen yourself when not using it. Surprising it was taller than the 7260 but much narrower. The detailing was an intricate pattern of black and white, revealing a flash of red when the camera was expose. On of the details that owners liked most of all was the little fabric NOKIA label on the side.

Nokia 7280

Sorely lacking in practicality but making up for it in sheer “wow factor” the 7280 was surprisingly successful and many people used it as a second phone. Even fifteen years on, this phone would probably attract a lot of attention.

The 7280 is the most collectable with prices ranging between about £100 to £300 depending on condition. Prices for the 7270 and 7260 vary between about £50 to £250. So it’s quite possible that all three in really decent condition could set you back nearly a grand. Tempted?

Image credits: Nokia

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Motorola CLIQ / DEXT (2009)

Motorola CLIQ / DEXT
Announced September 2009

September 2009 marked the first anniversary of the launch of the first consumer Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 also known as the HTC Dream. The following 12 months had seen a handful of other devices from HTC and Samsung but there still wasn’t much choice on this supposedly open platform.

Motorola’s entry into the Android arena had been long anticipated. The struggling mobile maker had bet the barn on Google’s new operating system and had cancelled all the other varied smartphone platforms it was involved in.

As with some other early Android devices, the Motorola CLIQ or DEXT (depending on market) had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard but the relatively small 3.1” 320 x 480 pixel display was unimpressive compared to better-equipped rivals.

Android had improved a lot over the previous year, and Motorola had loaded a whole bunch of their MOTOBLUR social networking applications on top. It looked pretty decent overall, but it was also something of a red herring as Nokia also had the significantly better Motorola DROID under wraps which would be announced the following month.

It wasn’t a massive success, but the CLIQ / DEXT was the point where Motorola just about saved itself from oblivion. There were still going to be turbulent times ahead, but Motorola ended up raising the bar significantly in early Android phones. This isn’t a particularly collectable device, but it is quite rare with prices being around £40 or so.

Image credit: Motorola

Video: Motorola CLIQ / DEXT

Friday 6 September 2019

BlackBerry Passport (2014)

Launched September 2014

By 2014 the once-giant BlackBerry had more-or-less faded into insignificance following the disastrous launch of the Z10 and Q10 running the powerful but unpopular BlackBerry 10 operating system. A history of bad decisions by management had sidelined the company, but it turned out that they still had some fight in them.

The BlackBerry Passport is certainly one of the oddest-looking devices that we’ve seen in the past half-decade, but it was BlackBerry’s attempt to build a BlackBerry 10 device that would appeal to the corporate consumers that had stuck by it all these years. And although ultimately it wasn’t the success that BlackBerry hoped it would be, it had some novel features that set it apart from the devices we see today.

When the Z10 and Q10 were launched in January 2013 after an incredibly long time in development it soon became obvious that BlackBerry had made a huge strategic error. People who wanted an all-touch device such as the Z10 had defected to the iPhone or Android long before, but BlackBerry still prioritised the Z10 over the Q10 with its physical keyboard. And it was the Q10 that BlackBerry loyalists wanted. The upshot was that the Z10 flopped and BlackBerry ended up writing off a billion dollars to cover the fiasco.

BlackBerry ditched their top management and had a good rethink about the sort of device their customers wanted. And as a result, they came up with the rather brave BlackBerry Passport.

The Passport was like no other smartphone. Featuring a large 4.5” 1140 x 1140 pixel panel – which was square – and a three row physical keyboard on the bottom, the Passport had about the same footprint as.. well, a passport. Bigger than most other phones on the market, the solid construction also meant that it was pretty heavy too.

The unusual form factor was optimised for reading emails and documents rather than for playing games or web browsing. In this they had judged their core customer base pretty well, but the sheer bulk of the thing made it a little tricky to handle, the keyboard wasn’t like a classic BlackBerry and the whole thing felt a bit sluggish despite impressive hardware specifications.

The BlackBerry 10 operating system was much improved over earlier versions, and users could now download Android apps (albeit from Amazon and not Google) on top of BlackBerry’s class-leading enterprise software.

The Passport was well received, and sold pretty well – reportedly shipping hundreds of thousands of units in a relatively short time. But ultimately it was a bit too big, the operating system was unpopular and the device was simply too late to be the turnaround phone that BlackBerry needed.

The BlackBerry 10 OS made it into a couple of other smartphones before BlackBerry outsourced the manufacture of their smartphones and switched over to Android. Today the Passport represents an interesting part of the BlackBerry story and should be fairly collectable for those who like unusual devices. Typical prices for unlocked models seems to be between £50 to £100.

Image credit: BlackBerry

BlackBerry Passport - Video

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (2014)

Apple  iPhone 6 and 6 Plus
Launched September 2014

By 2014 the iPhone had been around for 7 years and although each generation of the device had added new features, increasingly the iPhone was lagging behind on screen size. 2013’s iPhone 5S was particularly weak in this respect, but the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launched the following year broke the mould of old iPhones and created a completely new one.

The standard iPhone 6 came with a 4.7” 750 x 1334 pixel display, a useful improvement over the 4.0” 620 x 1136 pixel panel in the older one. But it was the 6 Plus with a 5.5” full HD 1080 x 1920 pixel panel that propelled the iPhone into the era of the modern high-end smartphone. The iPhone also came with Apple Pay, kick-starting the concept of mobile payments.

The 6 Plus is perhaps the pinnacle of Apple’s iPhone design. The convenient front-mounted fingerprint sensor, the notchless screen and the 3.5mm audio jack are all the sorts of things that we miss. At this time Apple’s design was led by what customers wanted, not what designers wanted.

On the negative side, both iPhones were prone to bending and a widespread fault with the screen called “touch disease” proved an annoyance. There were other more minor faults and niggles too. Despite this, 220 million iPhone 6 devices were sold over its lifetime.

Perhaps not an iconic design, the iPhone 6 was one of those moments where a number of relatively small improvements all came together at once to make a truly satisfying product. Indeed, the same basic design is still available in today’s iPhone 8 and 8 Plus for those who think the all-screen iPhone XS is going a bit far.

Image credit: Apple

Apple iPhone 6 and 6s video

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Atari Lunar Lander (1979)

Atari Lunar Lander (Right) next to an Atari Space War machine
Launched August 1979

It is 1979 and the dawn of the Golden Age of Arcade Games. The same technology that was bringing microcomputers such as the Apple II into homes and businesses was also revolutionising the Arcade with sophisticated machines that could prove very popular… and profitable.

Taito and Midway had launched the highly successful Space Invaders game a year previously, and now it was Atari’s turn. Based on the inexpensive but versatile 6502 processor, Lunar Lander was quite a different game.

The basic idea was simple enough – the player had to place a lunar lander module on a flat part of surface of the moon without running out of fuel or crashing out of control. In practice it was pretty tricky.

The idea wasn’t a totally new one as versions of the game had been around for a decade or so. Earlier versions of the game were mostly text-based and concentrated on balancing fuel and thrust. In 1973 DEC produced a graphical version running on a PDP minicomputer hooked up to a GT40 video terminal. Atari took the concept one stage further with an arcade version based on similar principles.

Lunar Lander Screenshot
In addition to the 6502, the Atari version of the game – like the DEC version before it – used vector graphics rather than raster graphics. Without going into detail, an old-fashioned cathode ray tube can work in two ways: when used as a raster device it can make a picture by drawing hundreds of individual lines, commonly used in TV sets. But instead of drawing hundreds of lines, the electron beam can actually be directed anywhere on the CRT with the right hardware to draw a pin-sharp line between two locations, something you might see in an old-fashioned laboratory oscilloscope. Vector graphics can be appealing if you have limited hardware to run on, but they also look rather good and space-age which is especially appealing in a game like this.

It looked brilliant, the game-play was compelling and addictive and it is probably no surprise that Atari had a hit on its hands. However, it was soon eclipsed by a new Atari came based on similar hardware called Asteroids. Asteroids knocked Lunar Lander out of the park when it came to sales figures, shipping nearly fifteen times the number of cabinets.

There are plenty of versions of Lunar Lander around today, original cabinet versions are pretty hard to come by with prices of $4000 being typical. Or you can play a free version in your browser right here.

Image credits:
Marcin Wichary via Flickr

Thursday 22 August 2019

Nokia Booklet 3G (2009)

Nokia Booklet 3G
Launched August 2009

By the summer of 2009 the technology used in smartphones was racing ahead. The third generation iPhone offered a beautifully seamless experience, Google's Android platform was catching up fast, Nokia’s market-leading Symbian OS had made a successful leap to touchscreens and the Linux-based Nokia N900 had been announced too and showed plenty of promise.

Great although these device were, they were all a bit small. Generally speaking, if you wanted something bigger then you’d be looking at a full-blown laptop or perhaps a smaller and cheaper netbook. And although a netbook was a practical thing with a variety of uses, they were very fiddly to use while out and about and lacked the “work anywhere” capabilities of a smartphone.

Nokia’s solution to this was the Booklet 3G, a high-quality lightweight device in an elegant aluminium case and with a high-resolution 10.1 inch screen. Powered by a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU with 1GB of RAM and a 120 GB hard disk, the Booklet 3G was designed to run Microsoft’s new Windows 7 OS.

In addition to WiFi, the Booklet 3G also came with a SIM card slot (as you might guess by the name) providing the potential for always-on connectivity through its 3.5G HSPA connection. Assuming you had a decent data plan, you could use the Booklet 3G seamlessly almost anywhere.

Nokia certainly showed everybody else how this sort of device should be done, but of course you might notice that we’re not all sitting around using Nokia Booklet 5Gs today. The problem was that just a few months after Nokia announced the Booklet 3G, Apple came out with the iPad. With a similar-sized screen to the Nokia, the iPad essentially upscaled the iPhone. And in this particular battle, it was the iPad that won.

Nokia had access to pretty much the same technology and resources as Apple, but Apple but it all together in a different and much more compelling way. Nokia didn’t make a direct successor to the Booklet 3G, however they did venture into a similar market with the excellent but ultimately unsuccessful Nokia Lumia 2520 in 2013. Meanwhile, Apple have a 38.1% share of the tablet market, but interestingly that market has been in decline for a while now.

Today, the Nokia Booklet 3G is a pretty uncommon find for collectors, with prices for decent examples being £150 or so. The problem with the Booklet is that Windows 7 goes end-of-life in January 2020, and although it does seem technically possible to install Windows 10 it does not seem to be a straightforward proposition. Still, for collectors of esoteric Nokia products the Booklet does seem tempting.

Image credits: Nokia