Saturday 30 March 2019

Acorn System 1 (1979)

Acorn System 1
Launched March 1979

British company Acorn had a history of innovation during the 1980s, with commercial offerings starting with the popular 6502 CPU and eventually ending up with the all-conquering ARM processor which you probably have in your smartphone today.

In March 1979, Acorn launched what was essentially the precursor for their consumer microcomputer range – the Acorn System 1. Following a similar pattern to the KIM-1 and Apple I, the System 1 was a board computer rather like a modern Raspberry Pi. Instead of a single-board design, the System 1 was two boards connected together with a ribbon cable.

At its heart was the ubiquitous 6502 CPU clocked at 1 MHz with just over 1K of RAM. Input was via a 25 key keypad and the System 1 outputted to a small LED display. Data could be saved to a cassette, and it was possible to add expansion hardware too. Aimed primarily at scientists and engineers, the relatively low price of the System 1 also appealed to tech enthusiasts.

The System 1 evolved into the Eurocard-based Systems 2, 3, 4 and 5. Acorn adapted the System 3 into Acorn’s first home system, the Atom. In turn, the Atom was developed into what is probably the definitive Acorn microcomputer, the BBC Micro. And in turn, this led us to the ARM-based Archimedes with the processor that changed the world.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an original Acorn System 1 today, but replica boards and components are available if you want to build one yourself, or alternatively an emulator is available.

Image credit: Flibble via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday 28 March 2019

Nokia 3210 (1999)

Nokia 3210
Launched March 1999

Launched twenty years ago, the Nokia 3210 was a hugely popular mobile phone that helped to define what consumers expected from such a thing. Easy to use, cute to look at and quite a lot of fun as well, the 3210 came at a time when the mobile market was really beginning to take off.

One of the most notable features of the 3210 was that it had an internal antenna – one of the very first phones on the market to offer this. This lead to a more elegant design, and it had the practical advantage of not snagging on things like phones with a stick-out bit did.

Although the phone only had a quite small monochrome display, you could easily brighten the 3210 up with changeable covers. There were three pre-installed games including the legendary Snake. There was a ringtone composer for making simple monophonic tunes, and the SMS functionality had a few graphics thrown in for good measure.

On top of that, the 3210 was robust and a single charge could give it enough power for more than a week’s standby time and hours of talktime. A year later the Nokia 3310 tweaked the formula with a more compact design, which was also a huge success.

Both the 3210 and 3310 ended up as iconic devices for the growing consumer market, and today an unlocked 3210 in good condition can cost you about £35 or so.

Image credit: Nokia

Monday 25 March 2019

TAG Heuer MERIDIIST (2009)

Launched March 2009

A luxury watch can easily cost thousands of pounds, but a good quality luxury watch is a bit of an investment – with a bit of care it should last for decades and be every bit as useful as it was the day you bought it.

Alternatively, you could spend that sort of money on something else. And a decade ago, luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer came up with the idea that you might want to spend a similar amount of cash on a mobile. And because TAG Heuer can also make a pretty decent watch, they decided to use some of that expertise to come up with a phone.

So, starting at about £5600 in today’s money and going up to the equivalent of about £30,000 you could buy yourself a TAG Heuer MERIDIIST. A beautifully engineered and very striking device that also had the unfortunate problem that it was a pile of crap.

OK, we are probably being harsh. It was a beautiful pile of crap. Even a diamond-and-leather encrusted pile of crap. It was, in effect, an exquisitely designed device that gave about as much functionality as a £100 feature phone.

Even for a decade ago, the MERIDIIST looked obsolete. For a fraction of the cost you could have bought an iPhone 3G. With the money you saved... well, you could buy yourself a nice watch. A really nice watch.

Despite it being almost entirely useless, the MERIDIIST did seem to find a market with people who perhaps had more money than sense. These days you can pick one up second-hand for about £600 or so, which is still an expensive way to get hold of a pretty basic feature phone.

Image credits: TAG Heuer

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Motorola E1000, E680 and E398 (2004)

Launched March 2004

Back in the early 2004, Motorola was on a roll. Their product line was expanding in diversity with a range of promising handsets that marked Moto out as a serious challenger to Nokia’s dominance, and in March 2004 they launched a trio of “E” series handsets focussed on entertainment.

The Motorola E1000 was perhaps the one that had the most market appeal – one of the few 3G phones on the market, the E1000 also came with a 2.3” QVGA display, 1.2 megapixel camera, video calling, expandable memory, multimedia playback, stereo speakers, Bluetooth and even GPS.

Offering almost everything tech-savvy consumers could want the real problem it had was the lack of take-up of 3G devices at all, combined with restrictive practices such as Three’s “walled garden”. But even though the button-up-the side design was just a little bit weird, you have to remember that Nokia’s first widespread attempt at a 3G phone was the completely insane Nokia 7600.

Motorola E1000, E680 and E398

Capable though the E1000 was, one thing it wasn’t was a smartphone. One of Motorola’s other offering at the time was the Motorola E680. This was a Linux-based touchscreen phone which fundamentally is what most people use 15 years later, except that the E680 had a 2.5” QVGA screen (tiny by modern standards) and no high-speed data of any sort. Despite having pretty strong gaming and multimedia capabilities, it was not a success. But then again, Nokia were also struggling to create the future with the Nokia 7700… which was also another weird device.

Although the E680 and E1000 were high-end devices, the funky-looking Motorola E398 was more affordable and was designed to be a capable phone for music and games. Let down by a lacklustre camera and Motorola’s fiddly software the E398 is perhaps best remembered as being the basis for the notorious ROKR E1 launched a year later. And frankly not even Nokia could outdo the disaster that the ROKR became…

Image credits: Motorola and T-Mobile

Sunday 3 March 2019

Nokia 7610 (2004)

Announced March 2004

The Nokia 7610 was a phone with a rather obvious elephant in the room. Sure, this was a capable Symbian smartphone with a decently-sized 2.1” 176 x 208 pixel display with expandable memory, Bluetooth and a 1 megapixel camera. It had impressive multimedia capabilities, a large library of applications and you could even swap out the covers if you wanted a new look.

But it didn’t really matter how good the phone looked when it came to technical specifications but the 7610’s particular elephant was the keypad. One of the maddest keypads ever to be fitted to a Nokia phone.

Nokia 7610
Sure, Nokia could have arranged the keys in a traditional grid, but that would have been too easy. Clearly influence in part by the batshit insane Nokia 7600 from a few months earlier, the 7610 was all about curves. The asymmetric design of the phone had curves on opposite corners, and this was strongly reinforced by the curvy design of the keyboard.

The keys were all different sizes and laid out in a striking but not particularly obvious way. Presumably designed to be used with a thumb – it was unclear which thumb – the result was an impressive looking mess. Users either loved it or hated it, and it seemed that there was no middle ground. Compared with the preceding and pleasingly chubby Nokia 6600, the 7610 was a bit too radical for its own good.

For years and years, Nokia had a philosophy of not putting all the features they could in any single phone, so although the 7610 was a decently capable smartphone, it didn’t come with 3G support whereas it’s non-smartphone stablemate the 7600 did.

Nokia did address the controversial keypad later in 2004 with the release of the otherwise almost identical Nokia 6670, but somehow they managed to come up with something even uglier than the 7610. Eventually they started to get their act together with the 6680 launched in early 2005 which then morphed into the rather nice Nokia N70 in April 2005. Today a 7610 is a somewhat collectable device, with typical prices for an unlocked one in good condition being about £40 or so.

Image credits: Nokia