Monday 29 April 2019

Sun SPARCstation (1989)

SPARCstation 10 (1992)
Introduced April 1989

If you wanted to do serious computing on your desktop 30 years ago, your choices were a bit limited. The state-of-the-art in the PC world was Windows/386 running on a PC with an 80386 processor. It was pretty rubbish. Apple had it a bit more together with devices such as the Macintosh II line, but although Mac OS was pretty to look at it was also pretty basic underneath.

In universities and other research facilities, minicomputers and mainframes provided the speed and sophistication needed to get things done. But you had to share these systems with others, and plugging away at a dumb terminal could be pretty unrewarding.

What if you could have all that power on your desk? Something as capable as a big departmental computer all to yourself? With a graphical interface? And something that you could still work collaboratively on?

Welcome to the world of the Unix workstation. This particular market was dominated by Sun Microsystems who had grown throughout the 1980s to become the company to beat. Starting off with systems based on the Motorola 68000 series of processors (as used in the Mac) they eventually designed their own high-speed RISC processor, the SPARC.

In 1989 Sun introduced their SPARCstation line of Unix workstations and servers. Initially featuring a SPARC running at a leisurely 20 or 25 MHz with up to 64MB of AM, the SPARC was nonetheless faster and more powerful than pretty much anything you could put on your desk.

But it wasn’t just what was inside the box that was important, it was how it looked. House in a wide but flat “pizza box” case with a large monitor on top, a typical SPARCstation install looked both serious and elegant at the same time. The “pizza box” case itself could either be placed on a desk or rack-mounted, depending on what you wanted to do with it.

The SPARCstation evolved over six years it was in production until replaced by the Sun Ultra series. SPARCstations rarely make it onto eBay – probably because they tended to be bought by large organisations – but can command fairly decent prices. For example, a fully-equipped SPARCstation 5 can be £1000 or more.

Image credit: Thomas Kaiser via Wikimedia Commons

Monday 22 April 2019

Intel 80486 (1989)

Intel 80486DX-25
Announced April 1989

Early PCs were slow. Really slow. Even in the late 1980s, many were still based on the decade-old Intel 8086. Successive generations of CPU were better, the 80286 was faster, the 80386 helped to bring in multitasking but it wasn’t until 1989 that Intel finally came out with a processor that could considered as fast – the Intel 80486.

The 80486 (often known as the “486”) built on the architecture of the 80386, combining it with an 80387 maths co-processor, 80385 cache controller plus a whole lot of other optimisations to come up with something that was twice as fast as the 80386 for any given clock speed. Initially launched running at 20 and 25MHz, by 1994 the clock rate was pushed up to 100MHz in the IntelDX2. For users on a budget, the maths co-processor was removed to create the 486SX.

Hand-in-hand with the 486 was the VESA Local Bus (VL-Bus) which was used primarily with graphics cards to bypass the bottlenecks in the old 16-bit ISA bus that most PCs had. This made 486 PCs significantly better for games and other graphically-intensive work, although the VL-Bus itself was very much tied to the 486 architecture and effectively became extinct when the Pentium first came out.

It took until 1990 until the 486 was available in quantity, however the first 486-based computer was the British Apricot VX FT server, launched in September 1989. The 486’s architecture helped to introduce plug-and-play into Windows, and it remained competitive even when its successor was launched, with the cheaper 100 MHz 486 outpacing the expensive 60 MHz Pentium. But of course times would change. Intel kept various models of the 486 in production until 2007. Rival companies also made 486s, some under licence and others reverse-engineered in some way.

It turns out that old processors are somewhat collectable, but generally these tend to be 1970s CPUs rather than later ones. Still, if you find yourself in need of a particular 486 for some reason, you can probably find one on eBay.

As for the name… the 80486 was the last processor of its type to be named with a number, following on from the 8086 launched 11 years earlier. The reason for this was that numbers cannot be trademarked in many jurisdictions, so the next generation was named the “Pentium” which was a nod to the “5” in 80586 if Intel had continued with their naming pattern.

Image credit: Andrzej w k 2 via Wikimedia Commons

Friday 12 April 2019

T-Mobile Sidekick LX 2009 (2009)

T-Mobile Sidekick LX 2009
Launched April 2009

For the best part of the decade one of the most popular smartphones in the US was the T-Mobile Sidekick range. A versatile and easy-to-use platform, the Sidekick appealed especially to younger users… but it also turned out to be a great messaging device for hearing-impaired customers too.

The Sidekick was actually a T-Mobile branded Danger Hiptop device. Originally launched in 2002, the platform evolved over the years to become the catchily-named T-Mobile Sidekick LX 2009.

Like most other Sidekicks, this had a decently-sized display that slid back to reveal a relatively large QWERTY keyboard underneath. The LX 2009 was the first one in the range with 3G support and GPS, on top of which it had Bluetooth and a 3.2 megapixel camera.

But what the Sidekick really excelled at was apps, in particular messaging. If combined with a data-only plan, it was possible for users to keep in touch with their friends either through the built-in messaging app or the integrated social networking support. This also appealed to deaf users because of its convenience, ease-of-use and relatively low cost. All data was backed up to what we would call a “cloud” today, so it didn’t matter if you lost your device… you could simply get another one.

The Sidekick wasn’t just limited to the US, T-Mobile carried it in other countries too and other carriers branded variants of the Danger Hiptop devices with their own names. But the US was the biggest market, and T-Mobile was the exclusive carrier there.

It looked like the Sidekick had carved out an important market niche, and even upcoming smartphones such as the iPhone and Androids didn’t really look like they compete with what the Sidekick excelled at.

But there was trouble brewing. In 2008, Danger was bought by Microsoft who then promptly started to leach people and resources out of the company to work on Microsoft’s own projects. A catastrophic failure of Danger’s own servers in late 2009 led to an embarrassing data loss which it took months to recover from, and even then it didn’t get back everything. It was a devastating blow for T-Mobile Sidekick brand.

T-Mobile dropped the Sidekick platform in 2010, and although it laboured on with different carriers for a while, by 2011 the service was discontinued completely.

And what did Microsoft do with all the employees they took from Danger? They developed the Microsoft KIN, which turned into one of the biggest handset disasters of all time. Two catastrophes for the price of one.

In mid-2011, T-Mobile tried to revive the Sidekick concept with a Samsung-designed Android phone. Although it was a decent facsimile of what a Sidekick could be, T-Mobile were really trying to flog a dead horse and it was not a success.

Today there are quite a few Sidekicks about on the second-hand market, mostly from the US. Because Danger’s cloud service shut down long ago, they are not really very useful for much except as an example of what might have been had Danger not messed up.

Image credit: T-Mobile

Sunday 7 April 2019

OnePlus One (2014)

OnePlus One
Launched April 2014
Five years after the launch of the first generation of Android phones we saw Samsung firmly established as the market leader, with the Samsung Galaxy S5 being the one to beat. Challengers such as HTC were putting up a good fight, and overall the technological features that were on offer with these high-end devices were really impressive. But the problem was that they came at quite a price.

If you wanted a SIM-free Galaxy S5 then you would be looking at shelling out £600 or more. Five years ago that was a lot of money (although you can easily spend even more today). But was it really necessary to charge that much?

Chinese startup OnePlus didn’t think so and set out to make a flagship device that could challenge the market leaders, but make it much cheaper. With the OnePlus One - announced in April 2014 – they succeeded.

OnePlus was set up as part of the giant BBK Electronics in China, who already had the OPPO smartphone brand. While OPPO phones were mostly sold in Asia, the idea with OnePlus was to come up with a different sort of product that could be sold worldwide. But it’s difficult to set up a new brand from scratch, and there’s always the risk that it could crash and burn… taking a huge pile of cash with it.

The OnePlus One itself was impressive. A 5.5” 1080p display, 13 megapixel camera, quad core CPU, 3GB of RAM and 16 or 64GB of internal memory. LTE and NFC support were included. The operating system was interesting: Cyanogen OS was a commercial version of the Android-based CyanogenMod and it was a clean, responsive and elegant platform that won fans in its own right. The packaging showed real attention to detail, and you could customise your One with all sorts of unusual materials including wood and fabric backs.

The price for all this? It was half the price of the Samsung, for arguably a better specification.

So, you might reasonably get excited by all this and want to rush out and buy one.

Not so fast.

You couldn’t actually just go and buy one of the things, you had to be invited to buy one. Because OnePlus didn’t want to build loads of these only to find out that they couldn’t sell them, the invite system allowed them to ramp up production in a steady way. And to begin with, getting an invite involved jumping through all sorts of hoops including following OnePlus on social media… just to join the waiting list for an invite. Eventually invites got more and more common, and OnePlus One owners could send them out to their friends.

OnePlus One optional covers
This turned out to be marketing genius. One way to make a product desirable is to restrict availability, and either deliberately or accidentally this helped build up the hype. When customers finally did receive their OnePlus One devices, they were beautifully packaged and just as good and they’d hoped.

There were a few problems, notably an issue with the displays turning yellow at the bottom due to a rushed manufacturing process. Customer service wasn’t brilliant. The Cyanogen OS eventually crashed and burned, leaving the One pretty much orphaned. Still, even flagship phones costing more than twice as much can have worse problems and the One was certainly good enough for OnePlus to get a significant fan base.

The (mostly) improved OnePlus 2 was launched the following year, still using the invite system. But this was eventually dropped and successive OnePlus devices launched every six months or so keep improving the line-up… but as the company has matured, the price of the products has also risen considerably.

Prices vary, but a OnePlus One in excellent condition can be around £100 or so. Tinkerers can update the built-in OS to the latest version of Android using LineageOS – a descendant of the Cyanogen OS the One originally shipped with. It seems there’s plenty of life left in the One yet.

Image credits: OnePlus

OnePlus One: Video

Thursday 4 April 2019

Samsung I7500 Galaxy (2009)

Samsung I7500 Galaxy
Announced March 2009

Pretty much anyone who has been interested in consumer technology for 12 years or more will remember the launch of the original iPhone. A hugely significant device, it shifted the market and it started Apple’s impressive dynasty of smart devices.

A little over two years later another smartphone was launched by a rival company, perhaps one that was just as influential or arguably even more so. That company was Samsung, and the smartphone was the Samsung I7500 Galaxy.

This is the original Galaxy smartphone. No letters or numbers after its name, the “Galaxy” tag seemed a bit of an afterthought after the “I7500”. There was some excitement over the launch of the I7500, mostly because Android handsets were a bit thin on the ground with a couple of handsets from HTC and nothing else.

It was hardly an iconic design, with the 3.2” QVGA screen taking up less than half the front and with some buttons seemingly from some Samsung feature phone being quite prominent underneath. But it was what it could *do* rather than the way it looked that attracted attention. With 3.5G data support, WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, expandable memory and of course a whole bunch of applications you could download, the I7500 was a capable modern smartphone.

Crucially, both Apple and HTC had entered into carrier-exclusive deals in many markets, meaning that you might have to swap your mobile phone company to get one. The I7500 was much more widely available and it was instrumental in bringing this new generation of technology to a wider audience.

It also launched the Galaxy range, including the range-topping Galaxy S a year later. According to GSMArena, in the space of a decade there have been 442 devices launched under the “Samsung Galaxy” name, twenty times the number of Apple iPhone models. There’s no doubt that despite the odd hiccup, the Galaxy range has been a huge success.

The I7500 isn’t particularly common today with prices appearing to be £100 and upwards. Despite its rather un-iconic styling, it might just be important enough to add to your collection.

Image credits: Samsung

Video: Samsung I7500 Galaxy