Tuesday 23 June 2020

Nokia 6111 vs Samsung E530 (2005)

Nokia 6111
Introduced June 2005

A long time ago we weren’t so bothered about the technical specifications of our phones… how they were designed – the look and feel of the things – was often more important. One common design feature was to make phones small and curvy, and the rival Nokia 6111 and Samsung E530 phones were certainly that.

The Nokia 6111 was the best known of the pair, one of a small number of slider phones from Nokia. With a diminutive size and heavily curved corners there was no doubt that the 6111 was a looker. When closed it measures 84 x 47 x 23mm and at 92 grams it was lightweight as well. On the back was a competitive 1 megapixel camera with an LED flash and rudimentary video capabilities. The 1.8” 128 x 160 pixel screen wasn’t all that great but as with all Nokias of this type it was incredibly easy to use. The was an FM radio built in plus a few games (more could be downloaded) and it supported Bluetooth too.

Although this was a GPRS-only phone, it did include a version of the capable Opera web browser.
The most popular silver and white version looked a bit “girlie” but there were darker colour combinations too which looked less so. Launched at the height of the slider phone craze in the mid-noughties, the Nokia 6111 was quite a success.

Although Samsung were the king of the slider market in 2005, for the Samsung SGH-E530 they returned to their rather more traditional clamshell market. The E530 was all about curves, from the gentle curve of the clamshell case to the gentle contours of the keypad inside.

Available in a much wider variety of colours than the 6111 – including pink, orange, white, purple, blue and silver – the E530 did lean more definitely to the “girlie” end of the market. The built-in apps reinforced this with a calorie counter, fragrance chooser, biorhythm calculator and shopping list.

Samsung E530
In hardware terms the E530 beat the 6111 in a lot of respects. Although it still had a 1.8” display the Samsung was a much sharper 176 x 220 pixels, plus there was a smaller external display too next to the camera which could be used for selfies. The 6111 had a crude LED flash where the E530 didn’t, but the E530 had better battery life.

In software terms, the Samsung wasn’t quite as polished as the Nokia but it was certainly very usable.  You could use the Samsung as an MP3 player, even though like the Nokia, the Samsung lacked expandable memory but the E530’s internal 80Mb was much more useful than the paltry 23Mb in the 6111. Both came with four games included with other Java games available for download.

If you quite fancied the technical specs of the E530 but wanted something a bit less feminine then the Samsung E720 offered almost identical features but in a different package. Offering many variations on fundamentally similar handsets is something that Samsung still do today (with more than 500 “Galaxy” devices launched to date).

The Samsung E530 had better technical specifications and a more detailed design, but it was the Nokia 6111 that sold. Today the 6111 is commonly available for about £10 to £30 but with the rarer Cath Kidston versions coming in at rather more. The Samsung E530 is much rare and tends to range in price from £50 to £100. Either phone is a refreshing change from today’s identical-looking slabby smartphones however, and whatever you might think of the gender stereotyping they are both good looking devices.

Image credits: Nokia and Samsung

Tuesday 16 June 2020

Range Rover (1970)

1973 Range Rover
Introduced June 1970

The development of the Range Rover is a very long and quite interesting story which you can read about if you want. But the very short version is that the Rover Company wanted something to follow-on from their successful Land Rover utility vehicle. This search started in the 1950s and surprisingly it took nearly two decades to come up with something that they thought was good enough to bear the “Land Rover” name… and more crucially something that might sell.

The original Land Rover was strictly an off-roader. On road it was awful to drive, slow and Spartan on the inside. Attempts to convert it into a Station Wagon over the years had not met with sales success. But in the US, cars like the International Harvester Scout and the Ford Bronco showed that there was indeed a market for utility vehicles that could be used as an everyday car.

Development of the Range Rover (codenamed “Velar”) started in the mid-1960s, and it combined lessons from the Land Rover’s impressive off-road manners with Rover’s ability to make a quite luxurious and usable car, but perhaps the key added ingredient was the legendary Rover V8 engine. The Rover V8 a powerful and lightweight engine that had originally been developed and abandoned by Buick. Buick’s loss was definitely Rover’s gain and the V8 engine spent 46 year in production (ending only when Rover collapsed).

In the Range Rover, the V8 gave the car the power it needed to shift its substantial weight in a fairly speedy manner. Inside were things like (gasp) comfy seats and carpets. Peculiarly it was designed as a two-door car, although coachbuilders such as Monteverdi would sell you a four-door conversion. It took until 1981 for a factory-built four-door Range Rover to become available and in 1992 a long wheelbase version cemented the idea of it being a luxury car and was probably the best-looking of all the original Range Rover models.

Late model four-door long wheelbase Range Rover LSE
It had idiosyncrasies. The split tailgate wasn’t to everyone’s taste and it had the turning circle of a bus. But it stayed in production (as the Range Rover Classic) until 1996, two years after the launch of the P38 which replaced it and an astonishing 26 years on the market during which it was continually developed as a product.

Today the Range Rover is very much a luxury car, but one that has lost none of it’s off-road capabilities. A 1970 Range Rover could cost you a shade under £2000 (about £32,000 today) where today a base model will cost around £81,000 with typical prices being £100,000 or more. An original Range Rover Classic in fair condition can cost between £15,000 to £25,000 with really good ones nudging the price of a new one. Even though the timeless design doesn’t really look 50 years old, buying and maintaining one of these might well be a labour of love.

As a car, the Range Rover really launched the idea of a luxury SUV in Europe and fifty years later the things are all over the place, love them or loathe them. Today more than a third of new car sales in Europe are of SUVs like the Range Rover, and in the US the figure is about than half the market. The rise of car leasing also means that people don’t have to spend so much at once to get one of these huge beasts. Far from being a niche, the SUV is now becoming the mainstream choice.

Image credits:
Vauxford via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 4.0
nakhon100 via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0

Sunday 14 June 2020

Hollerith Tabulating Machine (1890)

1890 Hollerith Tabulating Machine
Introduced June 1890

The United States has a census every ten years, an essential act of counting all the population of the country and working out their demographics. But as the population grew in the 19th century, so it took longer and longer to take the census and process all the information. By 1880 the whole process took eight years, nearly long enough to clash with the 1890 census. Something had to be done.

The key part to processing the census more quickly (and cheaply) was the punched card. First introduced in 1804 (more than two centuries ago!) with the semi-automated Jacquard Loom, punched cards allowed binary data to be stored and read by simple mechanical and later electro-mechanical devices. It seemed to American inventor Herman Hollerith that this could be a key part of the solution to the census problem.

For the new census, data was still collected on paper but it was then transcribed to a punched card with 12 rows and 12 columns of binary data, marked by the presence or absence of a hole. The key element was Hollerith's Tabulating Machine. An electromechanical sensor combined with a simple counting dial could then add up the data in a variety of ways, which allowed for all sorts of data analysis.

100 million cards were made, and each was processed just four times to come up with the variety of statistics that the census office wanted. It took two years off the time it took to process the data, but the lasting legacy of the tabulating machine was much deeper. For the first time it showed that automation could be used to process data on a large scale. And remember… this was 1890.

Hollerith’s business grew and in 1896 he create the Tabulating Machine Company, which then in 1911 merged with some other businesses to become the awkwardly named Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. In 1924 this company renamed itself to International Business Machines (IBM). And a century after the Tabulating Machine’s success in the 1890 Census IBM gave us... errr… the PS/1.

Punched card from a Hollerith Machine
As it happens, the Hollerith Machine could be used for evil as well as good. The Nazi regime used demographic data collected on punched cards extensively with horrifying consequences.

Hollerith’s tabulating machine popularised the punched card, something still seen today sometimes in voting machines but which generally fell out of use in the 1980s. Today punched cards can be quite collectable, especially for more obscure systems or ones with some historical interest. However, most people who actually did use them don’t miss them at all... especially if you’ve ever dropped a big pile on the floor and have then had to sort them back into order by hand.

Image credits:
Diane Maine via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0
Marcin Wichary via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Sunday 7 June 2020

IBM PS/1 (1990)

IBM PS/1 Model 2011
Introduced June 1990

By 1990 the PC-compatible marketplace had changed a lot since the launch of the original IBM PC (model 5150) in 1981. No longer just the choice of businesses, PCs had largely replaced an eclectic range of incompatible home microcomputers that had dominated the earlier 1980s. It was increasingly common to see PCs in the home, but they weren’t generally IBM PCs despite IBM inventing the platform.

IBM had tried to break into the home computing market in 1984 with the IBM PCjr, a short-lived crippled version of the PC that was a sales catastrophe. Apparently unperturbed by this, in 1990 IBM tried to break into the same market again… and they repeated many of the same mistakes they had done years earlier.

Worse still, IBM’s attempt to redefine the business PC market with the IBM PS/2 launched a few years earlier was floundering. Instead of moving the market from DOS and the old ISA hardware architecture to OS/2 and Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) it seemed that IBM just split the market between themselves and competitors such as Compaq who were improving the old platforms instead.

In 1990 IBM tried a shift in direction with the new IBM PS/1. Rather more based on traditional PC architecture than the PS/2, it was designed for home users who wanted to be able to unpack something from the box and get working in minutes Models such as the 2011 made this really easy, and when assembled they booted into a friendly screen allowing easy access to DOS, Microsoft Works on online services if they had been included.

IBM PS/1 Model 2133
A Mac-like simplicity to the hardware had some drawbacks – it wasn’t really expandable and the non-standard power arrangement where the computer was powered by the monitor (like the Amstrad PC1512) meant that you were stuck with using the IBM PS/1 monitor for ever.

The hardware was excellent though, and it wasn’t stupidly expensive (competing with Compaq on the likes of price), but consumers were not that interested. It didn’t help that IBM had to create a completely new sales channel for the things as traditional IBM dealers didn’t sell to consumers, but in the US large-deal with Sears who bundled access to Prodigy with the computers. On early models DOS was included in ROM, which made the machines very quick to boot up.

Consumers were cool about the PS/1 though, preferring other brands where they were available. IBM was still seen as a business PC, and the incompatibilities of the PS/2 range rubbed off on the PS/1 even though it was a different hardware platform. IBM stuck with the range though, making the machines more expandable and more standard in terms of hardware and software.

The range lasted until 1994 when IBM replaced the PS/1 range with the architecturally similar but more appealing IBM Aptiva range which continued until IBM’s exit from the home PC market in 2001. Today the PS/1 is an uncommon beast but it commands decent prices of about £500 to £700 or depending on model.

Image credits:
Kungfoocow369 via Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain
Science Museum, London – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Wednesday 3 June 2020

Digital VT05 and VT420 (1970 and 1990)

The video terminal is the unsung hero of the computing world. Often toiling aware in warehouse, factories, colleges, shops and other places out of the public eye, the video terminal was a dependable workhorse for decades… well into the era of the PC.

Arguably the king of the terminal market was Digital Equipment Corporation (“DEC” or just “Digital”) who made terminals that were attached to minicomputers or mainframes, where they could run a wide variety of centralised applications that typically ran on Unix or VMS boxes.

They comprised of not much more than a display, keyboard and serial interface – and although they were not always cheap to buy, they were certainly cheap to run with no moving parts and complete immunity to computer viruses and other malfeasance. You could plug one in and forget about it for years, and it would keep doing its job.

The DEC VT05 was introduced in 1970 and was Digital’s first standalone raster video terminal. Sure, I could tell you that it was a bit of an upgrade from the glass teletype concept with a bit of cursor control thrown in but probably the thing about the VT05 that most people will notice is how it looks. Digital’s radical space-age design made it look like the terminal was leaping out of the work surface. Inside the system boards were slanted behind the CRT rather than subsequent models which were more conventional inside. It looked fantastic, but the downside was that the VT05 was 30 inches (76 centimetres) deep which meant that you’d likely have to re-engineer your working environment to put one in. At 55 pounds (25 kilograms) it was hardly a lightweight device, so you wouldn’t want to move it anyway.

It could only display uppercase characters, but the keyboard could enter both upper and lowercase. Quite how you were meant to tell what you were typing is a mystery. Maximum data transfer rate was 2400 baud. The VT05 had a video input so you could display other things on the monitor, and mix them together with the text. The VT05 was around for five years until the much more capable – and conventional – VT52 was launched.

Fast forward twenty years and the direct descendant of the VT05 – the VT420 – is launched. Don’t expect two decade of development to count for all that much though, the VT420 was still conceptually the same thing. Unlike the VT05, the VT420 was a practical design with a separate keyboard and a monitor on a tilt-and-swivel stand that was supplied as standard (unlike previous versions). It weighed just 8kg so wasn’t a problem to move about a bit, and the ANSI character set that it supported allowed full cursor addressability and enough predefined graphics to make a nice user interface.

The VT420 also supported dual sessions, typically by using the two serial ports on the back. Not only could you interact with two utterly different systems, but you could also copy-and-paste between them. That might not seem like a big deal now, but back in 1990 most people still couldn’t paste data between applications on their PCs so it was kind of a big deal.

The data transfer rate was a speedy 38,400 baud using the compact phone-like MMJ sockets, the screen had a maximum capacity of 132 x 48 lines of text and the latest revision of DEC’s legendary keyboard – the LK401 – was almost perfect in every way except for the annoying lack of an Escape key.

Where the VT05 marked a point near the beginning of DEC’s journey, the VT420 marked a point near the end. The days of centralised minicomputers were starting to fade and throughout the 1990s PCs and Macs became more capable professional computing environments. The VT420 was a success but it lasted just three years before being replaced by the VT520 which was almost identical. DEC sold the entire terminal division in 1995 and they themselves were taken over by Compaq in 1998, who were then taken over by HP in 2002.

The VT range soldiered on with Boundless Technologies until 2003, and other manufacturers either closed down or shuttered production in the following years, including Wyse and Qume until there were none left.

Even though the manufacturing of terminals dried up, the computer systems that relied on them still exist. VT terminals are still in use around the world, but newer installations will typically rely on a PC with some terminal emulation software – a more complex and less reliable solution.

Today a DEC VT420 in good condition second-hand can cost a couple of hundred pounds, and maybe budget a thousand or so if you want to acquire a VT05. Of course terminal emulators can be had for less, a client such as PuTTY is free or Reflection is a more commercial offering.

Image credits:
Matthew Ratzloff via Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Adamantios via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0