Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Old Tech = Useless Tech??? Part 2

Following on from my last post, it's time to bring out the second piece of tech that I bought from E-bay: The Hewlett Packard HP 360LX.
Now, I would not be surprised if you hadn't heard of this one as it was an early device in a niche that produced much more advanced models before the niche itself died off. That's not to say it was bad, per se, just that the march of technology and public reaction to it meant that this model didn't have the staying power as originally intended.
Closed, in good condition

Open, the keyboard is clean and well defined

So, the HP 360LX, a palmtop computer with a built in keyboard, packing a 4 greyscale screen (640x240 resolution) with backlight, 8Mb (!) of RAM and a decent (for the time and form factor) array of expansion options (PC Card slot for networking, Compact Flash for storage). The keyboard is very much like a calculator, with hard plastic keys with only a modicum of travel. The machine runs Windows CE Handhled PC edition that rocks the Windows 95 vibe like a champ. Even this hinge is quite sturdy, clicking open with a satisfying snap, though it does feel a little loose during travel, which I am putting down to t he age of the machine.

This was supposed to offer a desktop style experience in  the palm of your hand, and in true Microsoft style, form dictated function meaning that the usability of the device is vastly impaired by the operating system choices. The relatively slow processor and greyscale screen mean that you get to see plenty of the egg-timer icon and even then, the image is washed out and ghosts horribly, meaning you'll need to use the backlight continuously just to see what you are doing.
It lives, but a smidge dark...

Let there be (back)light!
Stylus to bottom left, CF slot on the left, battery compartment, PC Card on the right, battery back-up in the middle

The screen is touch enabled but, with its age, it's a resistive one, not capacitive. Basically, that means you need to use the included style as your fingers won't do. Using this really does prove that screen, and in particular, touchscreen tech has moved on a hell of a lot in the past twenty years.
Once more, into the Darkness...

Lighting it up like it's 1997!

Software wise, the 360LX comes with the default Pocket PC set up, so pocket versions of the MS Office apps and various utilities. There is also Internet Explorer but as the only connection option available is infra-red and I do not have an Ethernet PC Card, I am unable to demo this. 
So what use is it in 2017?

Well, it has Word and the Compact Flash slot, so a quick trip to Amazon gained me a 1GB CF card (the maximum the 360LX can handle is 2GB which was a sizable piece of storage back then) and I was in business. Files on the card are recognised on a modern day Win 10 machine (remembering to save as .txt or .rtf format first) and copying them over was quick and easy. This means the 360LX can act as a back up portable device if I am looking for something smaller than the AlphaSmart. This is good thing.
Word, with backlight.

Word without backlight.

Another positive: the batteries - the machine takes two AA batteries for about 10 hours of use (7 if you have the backlight on) but that still worked out as about a week of semi-regular usage. Ok, the cost of buying batteries might be an issue but means that the device can still be used today. Later models (labelled the Jornada range) offered traditional style keyboards and colour displays but swapped the AA's for built in
rechargeable cells which might not be in the best condition today and will cost more to replace. That is something that people have become used to now, non-replaceable batteries, meaning once the cell has gone, you either replace it or, given the time you have had the machine, replace it with a newer model even though, battery life aside, there was nothing else wrong with your machine. A fine example of built in obsolescence.

This will make a fine back up device and one that will easily fit in a rucksack or satchel (the AlphaSmart is a tad too large for my day-to-day bag). The device format itself died off as laptops became smaller and cheaper, there was just no need to carry something like the 360LX/Jornada range when a much more capable and versatile laptop would do the same but, nonetheless, I have always liked the idea of a handheld device that you can type on.

If I was after something like this with a more modern spin, then it would either one of the GPD handheld PC's here (which are fully fledged Windows PC's with severe constraints on battery life and keyboards, plus there is the cost issue!!!) or the Gemini PDA (Indiegogo link here and company website here) which although looking good, is crowd funded and not yet live hardware until next year and there is a cost issue with that device as well).

Having said all of  that, it is true that there is still some use in older technology if you are prepared to put a bit of thought into it and I can't see any reason apart from complete failure that either the 360LX or the AlphaSmart 3000 cannot be used for a good few years yet.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Old Tech = Useless Tech???

During my recent post about computers I wanted to own when I was younger, I spent a modicum of time on e-Bay, searching for those bits of old kit and seeing how much they were going for. As well as being a bit of an eye opener, it also dropped a couple of old pieces of tech that, whilst they fell out of the purview of that post, were interesting when they were released and might still have a use today. Since the prices weren't silly, I ended up buying two pieces of portable tech that I think still have a use. Today, I'm stalking about the AlphaSmart 3000.

The AlphaSmart 3000 was part of a range of battery powered word processors released by NEO Direct Inc. and the range was on sale from 1993 (the original AlphaSmart) until 2013 when the Neo model was discontinued. There were several models throughout the years but the one I bought appeared around the middle of the lines existence in 2000 and was discontinued in 2006.
Includes carry case, quick start sheet and manual
The 3000 I bought is in good condition and cost £40. I have seen them for a tad less but the condition, case and accessories made the price quite decent anyway.
Remember the Bondi Blue iMac? This was inspired by that due to the inclusion of USB connectivity.
The monochrome display shows four lines of text, the memory holds eight files of approximately 12.5 pages of text and connectivity is either by a USB port or 8-pin serial.
USB to the left, Serial to the right...
Power is provided by three AA batteries which have a life of around 700 hours(!). As a practical guide, I have had the AlphaSmart for two months and the first set of cells are still going strong. Whilst it would be nice to have a backlit display, I can certainly understand why one isn't present and with the use intended, it isn't needed. This also helps battery life.
The screen is very clear, but not backlit.
As designed, the AlphaSmart was meant for children in a classroom environment. The light, compact design and plastic case make it easily portable and quite durable. The keyboard is a tad on  the small side for an adult but still very useable, indeed, most of this was typed on the 3000 and transferred over to a Chromebook for posting and images. The keys are a bit clacky and lightweight but they do have a decent amount of travel and I have used far worse in my time.

Operation is simple, the functions keys are pretty straight forward and there is even a cheat sheet of key commands on the back of the device.
Handy help guide on the base of the device
Whilst earlier models used infra-red to transfer files, and later devices had memory card slots, it was either USB or serial port for this one and as a cable wasn't included with mine, I did wonder how I would transfer text over. I needn't have worried. You see, the USB port is of the kind found on most printers so that solved the cable issues. As for compatibility issues, not a bother. Once plugged into my desktop, the 3000 detected the connection and asked me if I wanted to send a file over (file 1 by default but you can change that with a couple of key presses). I opened Google Docs in a browser window and hit the Send key on the 3000. Within a few seconds, the test had appeared line by line in the document. It was that easy. Talk about user friendly. Incidentally, once connected, the AlphaSmart goes into keyboard mode and you can use it as a regular keyboard. Just watch out for the swap between " and @. That caught me out the first time.

So what do I use it for? Well, it's a text entry device, so typing on the go. The 3000 has been to Amsterdam twice and proved a boon each time. Okay, it's not as compact as a laptop and it's a one purpose device, but what more do I need? The battery life is not an issue, the storage is more than enough and the keyboard is far more comfortable to use than my Chromebook. It does for me very nicely.

That it's not sold today is a reflection of changes to the market. Ever since cheap (under £200) laptops became available, educational buyers have flocked to the more versatile option. That this plays to the big businesses like Google and Microsoft misses the point of having such devices. If all you want is text entry for classroom and homework use, then additional features just get in the way, but since the big corporations want you to use more of their features, of course they are going to up-sell. 

Is there still a market for text entry devices like this in the age of cheap Windows/Chromebook laptops? Well, kinda. You see, if you want a no frills portable electronic typewriter, you are limited to the second hand AlphaSmart market or the Astrohaus Freewrite. This started as a crowd funded electronic typewriter called the Hemmingwrite, based on the practice Hemmingway used to write on the fly and not edit. The Freewrite is a far bigger device but with a proper Cherry-switched keyboard and an e-ink display. The battery life is far shorter and whilst you can connect via USB, they promote cloud services to send the files you create to your service of choice. It only holds three files but storage is much larger than the 3000. To be honest, it looks okay, the major problem being the price: £383 as of the last time I checked. That is a serious wodge of cash and for a one task only device, that is not justifiable to me. Yes, it gives you distraction free writing that a traditional laptop doesn't but at a price. Plus, its portability is suspect. 

For me, and maybe others, since the AlphaSmarts on e-Bay always sell, these devices are certainly useful today and prove that just because the tech is old doesn't mean to say it no longer has a use. Yeah, it's a niche use, but compared to the Chromebook I have used for the last four years, the 3000 is much better at text entry and will continue to be used for as long as it lasts. After that, maybe another trip to e-Bay.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Films and thoughts

With a smidge of spare time recently, I have managed to catch up with a few of films that I didn't get to see whilst they had a cinema release (or didn't get a cinema release at all). Whilst they differ in genre and tone, they each highlight a different section of modern day film making that made me think.

The Mummy (2017)

First up, The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and intending to launch the Universal Dark Universe franchise (Well, kinda, Dracula Untold in 2014 was supposed to launch the series but that was savaged upon release). Now, you'd expect the usual Tom Cruise affair here, toothy smile, charming wit, a relatable character. Well, no, you don't get any of those. As this is supposed to be a horror film, Cruise's character is a rough diamond, except he's not likeable at all. In fact, he's a bit of a dick. Even though there is an attempt to build a buddy comedy vibe at the beginning of the film, this falls incredibly flat, even with the final reveal at the end.
The rest of the cast is ok, if not forgettable with the exception of Russell Crowe. Oscar winner, all round good actor, this film gives him Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to play with and Jesus wept, it's bad. Not the Jekyll sections, he's passable, it's the Hyde appearance and the 'mockney' accent served with enough ham to start a deli counter that really stomp on any pretensions the film has.
Coupled with an overuse of CGI (which is a fault of many films these days) and a story/script that credits six individuals(!), The Mummy is a disappointing film that feels very much like a committee designed film with it's eyes focused on the Dark Universe series rather than telling a good tale on its own. That attitude seems to encompass a lot of films (and the series they are in/trying to start these days - the DC Universe suffers badly form this yet the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems so far to have avoided that trap, even after 17 ish films and counting.) which then leads to the next film I want to talk about.

Transformers: The Last Knight

Number five (5!) in the Transformers franchise, The Last Knight is a prime example of trying to keep a money making franchise going long after it should have been put down. However, when your series hits $1 billion is earnings each for films 3 and 4, the money men and the studio know that there be gold in them there hills. Or so you would think...
The Transformers series started off with a decent first film, successful enough to get a sequel. The following three earned more each time but were (to kindly put it) critically mauled. That didn't, however, hurt the box office takings and it was decided to have number 5 re-boot the series mythology. This would allow spin off films (Bumblebee is due next year) and also provide a foundation for several future films. All to enhance the bottom line of the studio and the toy company.
That didn't work with this film. In fact, The Last Knight seems to have proved that if you shovel enough crap at people, no matter how shiny it looks, they will get sick of it in the end.
Whilst I have seen films one to four, I had put off watching five as it just didn't interest me. But then one night, flicking through what to watch, there it was and I decided to give it a go. Hmmm...
Firstly, the negatives: the story is convoluted, boring and the film is far, fat too long, by atleast 40 minutes. Again, it's the mythology set up, because as they were trying to start it off again, they not only referenced the previous films, but then added new layers that didn't gel but had to be in there to set up the future entries (see the pattern?). Positives? There is more humour (and not the robot testicles of the 2nd film either) and the core of the film is decent enough. There is still too much confusing CGI and characters are paper thin (and that's the male characters, the women of the film are effectively place holders).
It tells you how much you are enjoying a film when the conversation whilst watching it centres on how well Alnwick Castle, Bamburgh and Newcastle are featured (the latter less so, possibly not at all, it's the blink and you'll miss it editing of a car chase). That and calling bullshit every time logic goes out of the window, which in a Transformers movie, is very common. If you liked the previous entries, this is a film you might enjoy (the box office for this entry was down over 40% from number 4, a big disappointment for all concerned). If you haven't seen any of the films, watch the first one and leave it there. If there is a 6th film, I doubt it very much I'll see it.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

From two franchise targeted films to a TV-originated big screen adaptation that ticks almost every box in the positive column and still wasn't successful. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is an origin story that nails the period, style and charm of the TV show with two good choices as Solo and Kuryakin (Henry Cavill as Solo is superb). The cinematography has that early 60's colour saturation and the military geek in me went wild when they had a scene setting shot of what appeared to be HMS Hermes (but with the radar from Victorious) with Scimitars on deck. Yeah, I know it is only CGI but it was well done and not obvious - which is what CGI should be used for. The story is interesting and makes logical sense, the action is well staged and the comedy veers towards subtle rather than over the top.
Why wasn't is successful?
There seems to be two lines of thought, one where the film and its source material were too old fashioned, that no-one remembers the TV show so have no real desire to see a film. The other, that is was released too closely to another spy film, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (I should point out that that film was number 5 in that series and because they take their time and make these event films, the series is going strong, unlike the frequent, re-hashed releases of the Transformers series). I tend to fall in the latter camp. This is a good film and if you have the chance to watch it, please do. You can do far, far worse (see the above two entries). It didn't make enough at the box office so it will remain a lovely attempt at launching a franchise but one that remained focused on creating a good film first, a franchise second.

6 Days

Finally, a low budget re-telling of the Iranian Embassy Siege of 1981. This had a limited cinematic release and that's a shame as it's a rather decent film. Yes, it's quite slow and there are no flash/bang/wallop scenes as such, but that does not detract from the way the siege is portrayed. Filmed on location in London and having one of the SAS troopers as a technical adviser, the cast is uniformly great and the period is well presented. The final assault is well staged although lacks the pizzazz of a big-budget blockbuster, yet that makes it even better as to be honest, you could not make the early 1980's look glamourous if you tried. I remember it as being brown. Beige and brown.
Anyhoo, it you have access to a streaming service (I watched this on Netflix), give it a go. It has a tight 909 minute run time and deserves a viewing.

Friday, 27 October 2017

More Computer musings...

Growing up in the 1980's and 90's and being interested in tech, his meant that I read voraciously about home computing. True, it is a topic that still interests me now but, compared to that period, the market today seems so... boring. By that, I mean that whilst there was a lack of standardisation, there was a vivacity that is lacking today. True, todays machines and software are infinitely more powerful and capable but at heart, they are pretty much the same. From different formats to weird designs, the computer market did suffer from beige box hell but you could still find some individuality. These days, it's black box hell with some neon strip lighting if you feel the need

As the years passed by, there were a handful of machines that appealed to me, either because of the way they looked and/or the functionality they offered. The following is a list of five machines that at some point, appeared on my wish list. I will add though that at no point have I ever owned these machines. I doubt I will as they are of their time and perhaps should remain there. Operating systems, however, do not follow that rule as my previous posts have noted. Having said that, if one of these machines was available, I'd give it a go just to see how much things have changed.

Amstrad PC 5286

First up, the Amstrad PC 5286. Why, you may ask? Well, I have always had a thing for tidy little desktop machines, designed from the ground up to do a job reasonably well without taking up half the floor or desk space in the room. This was a neat little machine that had enough power to work, 1Mb of Ram and a 40Mb hard drive, and a neat little case design that Amstrad used for several of its later PC ranges. Expandability was extremely limited, this machine was a sold as a straight forward package . I do recall that the monitors were horrible and the later 7xxx series were offered with a 10 inch VGA monitor that must have played hell with your eyes! This was a machine that could have seen me through most of my secondary school years but instead, we picked up a cheaper but much bigger LG Goldstar 286 that lasted a few years.

Apple PowerBook Duo 230

Now this machine covered two areas of personal computing, desktop and laptop, by way of a rather clever and tidy docking system. By day, a mild mannered, decently spec'd portable; by night, a decently spec'd desktop by the way of a companion dock.

Monitor and accessories were extra (naturally)
Remember, this was long before the time of fast and secure remote working so the idea was valid back then. It compared well with buying multiple machines (At launch the Powerbook Duo was $2,160 - a corresponding Powerbook 140 was north of $1,600 and a Color Classic was another $1,400, though you needed to add the dock, monitor, keyboard and mouse for the Duo. The Duo combination was a one fits all solution, rather than a multi-device kludge). The Duo did its job rather well, a 33 Mhz Motorola 68030 processor, 4Mb of RAM and an 80Mb hard drive was not too bad a spec for a portable warrior. The dock added a full range of ports, room for an expansion slot, more video memory and a hard drive bay. Altogether, a practical set up and one that worked well. True, it was expensive (and the prime reason this was never on my reality based shopping list - but that can be said of so much Apple kit throughout the years!), but for early 1990's tech, it was rather good. It was probably the sub-notebook format that worked best for me and I eventually got into that format with the Asus eee-PC, which still works as a handy little Linux device to this day. The Duo, however, was the portable for me at the time. Before that, however...

Amstrad PPC 512

Dialling back a few years, this was the machine on this list I came closest to being able to buy. Not that I did as the Amiga 500 was the computer of choice back then and, looking back, it would not have worked well. The PPC 512 was Amstrad's attempt at a luggable. I say luggable and not laptop as seriously, would you put this on your lap??? And which train/plane seat would you occupy? Admittedly, its size does allow it to sport a full sized keyboard and it can be powered by 10 (ten!!!) C-batteries, but the while thing is totally impractical.
Yet at the same time, it isn't. It was an eye opener back then and thirty years of advances make it ludicrous now, but I still like it. Why? Because it offered a chance of portable computing at a price that wasn't stratospheric. Okay, it was only a slight improvement on the likes of the Osborne 1 from several years prior but this was fully PC compatible, offered an MDA/CGA compatible monochrome screen and you could have two floppy drives. Aftermarket accessories included internal hard drives so there was a decent ecosystem around the machine. The 8Mhz NEC V30 processor did the job and there was a non-too shabby for the time 512Kb of RAM. And it looked cool in that 80's industrial plastic kind of way. Buying one today is relatively easy and cheap on ebay, the only downside being that they all seem to lack system disks. But still, not that tempting for me...

Acorn Risc PC

This one came with a pizza oven and the kitchen sink! Seriously, look at the pic below:

The full monty (including the kitchen sink!)

The Risc PC was the follow up to the Archimedes range and, for its time, offered a bang per buck that was hard to match. Using the (then) new StrongArm processors, the Risc PC was a bit of a powerhouse that had been carefully designed around slice based casing.

The bog-standard casing
You see, each slice had space for a 3.5" and a 5.25" drive bay so slice one could handle your floppy drive and CD-ROM, slice two could take an additional hard drive and a tape back-up drive and so on. Each slice could also fit two podule expansions and were easily stack-able, sometime to the extreme. As you have seen above, at one show, a demo machine was set up with every bell and whistle they could think of, including a pizza oven and working tap and sink. Comedy value aside, the industrial design is superb and extremely forward thinking. 
The back end, showing podule expansion backplanes.
If there was a fault, well two in be specific, they were the lack of shielding that scuppered the design when changes were made to electrical specifications and the speed of the bus connecting the motherboard components. However, for the latter, direct access expansion cards allowed new processor and RAM expansions to run without being slowed down by the motherboard. 
By the time this machine came out, I was at the tail end of my Amiga phase and it wouldn't be too long before I joined the Windows PC brigade. It was priced too highly for what I needed and could afford so a cheaper generic PC was the order of the day instead.
Only a couple of re-sellers stock these today and prices are quite high for what you get. Buying one would be for novelty value only as Risc-OS has moved on since then but the physical design has an almost timeless quality and one that I think would work well today. It's just a shame that no-one else took this up.

Commodore Amiga 1200

Finally, we have the Amiga 1200. The last of the affordable Amiga range to be released before Commodore's demise, this was the machine that could, maybe, have saved the company if they had released it a couple of years earlier. Well, probably not saved, but at least let it have another shot in the mid-90's. As it was, company politics and some downright immoral behaviour by the company's management meant that it would have been a tough challenge no matter what the company had produced. 
Similar in style to the Amiga 500 but with a more compact design, the 1200 had enough oomph to act as a basic but decent internet capable machine, even in the mid-90's. It was expandable and more than a few have been converted to tower configurations where the wealth of third-party add-ons in surprising.
It offered a hefty bump in power from the A500/A500 Plus range and demonstrated that with the tools and finance, Commodore's engineers could do the business. The less said about the management pushed A600 (the successor to the A500 range, the better). 
However, the era of cheaper PC's was beginning and it wouldn't be long before Windows 95 ushered in a (relatively) user friendly experience on hardware that was much more capable (albeit more expensive but better value). The closest I came to getting one of these was when Escom bought out the remnants of Commodore and released an internet-access based pack. Alas, I was torn between this and the Risc-PC so settled on a PC (yeah, I know), and as it turned out, Escom was not long for this world anyway.

So there you have it, a short list of the computers that interested me back in the day. Like I said, I doubt I will ever buy any of these for use in the present day but that doesn't mean to say I haven't been a little bit busy on E-bay either, but more of that in the future.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Flight of the Bat - A Book Review

Hot off the presses (in 1963), Flight of the Bat is the second novel by Donald Gordon. His first, Star-raker, is on my reading pile so I'll come back to that in the future). Set in the early to mid 1960's (probably '63 as it is post Cuban missile crisis), the Soviets land a capsule via ICBM to each of the Western capitals (London, Washington DC, Paris and Bonn) daring them to send a response by a similar method within seven days, otherwise they expect surrender talks  they blatantly have superior technology.

The novel sets out the Soviet superiority in missiles and defence technology in general. The West's missile replies are ineffective or shot down, a Polaris boat is lost in the Arctic and hope seems lost.

Except for the RAF who have managed to husband an aircraft programme (the Bat of the title), to the point where it is ready for service. From its description, it feels like a cross between the Valiant B2 Pathfinder and the TSR 2, though more the former than the latter. With two plucky pilots (one British, the other an American exchange officer) plus a bright young lady in the tech department, Flight of the Bat follows the reaction to the Soviet ultimatum and the sacrifices made for the mission to deliver the reply.

Now before I say anything else, the novel is of its time and it would be wrong to tear into it for that reason alone. Given its age, the novel does have one instance of racism from one main character that is quickly rebuked by another, but that is about it, unlike the Nevil Shute novel "In the Wet", which although one of my favourite aircraft related novels, does lay racist terms quite thickly. There is also smoking galore and whilst some of the technical details ring true, there is a lack of detail that modern day readers might find surprising given that public access to weapons technology information has been quite easy since the late 70's onwards.

Still, I will not be too harsh, it's a briskly written tale and rather enjoyable overall. There is a fault with the characterisation (almost stereotypical but then again, the British are terribly British, even when the character is American). When reading this, I was definitely reminded of the films of the period with their clipped, crisp pronunciation, the stiff upper lip and the stoic fatalism that seems to be an RAF entry requirement. At the same time, there is a techno-thriller vibe that feels very Tom Clancy and the combined spy trawler mission and flight to Moscow feel as if they are from a similar, Clancy-esq vein.

I first read this when I was at secondary school and somehow lost that copy. Replacing it cost a few pounds from Amazon and I am glad I have a copy again. If you have a fondness of Nevil Shute and his aviation novels (as stated before, In the Wet is superb), certainly give this a try.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Computing from the past??? 2 - The Acorn Risc-OS family

Depending upon where and when you went, chances are that, if you attended school between 1989 and 1996, you would have had the pleasure of using an Acorn Archimedes. Following the success of the BBC Micro, Acorn followed up with the Archimedes range to decent praise and sales, primarily but not exclusively to the UK education market.

The Archimedes range was powerful for their cost and offered a viable alternative to the Mac and DOS/Windows computers of the time. However, marketing, perceived abilities plus some god-awful business decisions meant they remained a minnow to other formats. A legacy does, however, exist in the form of the ARM processing architecture, used by a huge proportion of mobile tech today. ARM, meaning Advanced Risc Machine used to stand for Acorn Risc Machine.

As a quick comparison, here are three screenshots, showing the desktop systems of 1993:

Windows in all of it's glory, still residing upon DOS

System 7 for the Mac
Risc OS 3.11
Now, from a personal point of view, I have always liked the way Risc OS looked. It felt clean and relatively uncluttered compared to the other main desktop operating systems of the time. Indeed, apart from the low screen resolutions that people just had to deal with, the current RISC OS is still a pretty sharp looking OS.
Modern day Risc OS

It also had what still to this day seems to be a very straight forward and versatile mouse set up: three buttons - select, menu and adjust. I have used both Windows and Mac systems since the 80's and still, to this day, the slight amount of extra effort needed to deal with three buttons is more than made up for by the sheer versatility of the set up compared to one and two button systems.

Hardware wise, I only ever owned one Archimedes, the A3000, picked up as a surplus machine when my old school was disposing of them. Although large compared to the similarly styled Amiga 500/Atari ST, it was built like a tank and the example I had still worked perfectly even after several years service.

The A3000 - not the one I owned.
The computer carried over the red function keys of the BBC Micro, a look that was discarded by the follow-on A3010 and A3020 where red gave way to a sickeningly bright green. The keyboard itself, as I recall, was a little spongy but it was robust. The operating system and basic apps were held on ROM chips, allowing them to be upgraded by swapping the chips out. The machine came with a single 3.5 inch floppy drive, no hard drive but did have built in networking (Econet). The system itself was very stable and practically crash proof, something that could not always be said of the Amiga (Guru Meditations, they were called on the Amiga, f***ing annoyances was my term).Whilst they were a tad pricey compared to the 16-bit competition, they offered 32-bit/26bit RISC processing power (32-bit internal to CPU, 26-bit address to the rest of the system - I believe, correct me please if I am wrong). This also meant they compared well to the more expensive DOS/Windows and Mac systems of the time. In fact, in some areas, these other formats were left far behind. They also came bundled with BBC Basic, which in my humble opinion, is the best Basic ever to grace a computer. The Comprehensive school I attended had two networks connected by Econet and I gained a decent grounding in networking because of this. Moving to PC's in the mid-90's seemed very much like a retrograde step compared to the Econet days.

As with the Amiga, there is still a Risc OS community in being today, with quite a few hardware options from the likes of Armini and Raspberry Ro and the operating system itself is supported by two vendors, one covering version 4.29 and 6, whilst the other covers the more open sourced version 5. Version 5 seems to be the most up to date and available version of the OS, which may seem strange but there was a fork in the OS history when two companies developed separate versions and they have kind of travelled in parallel. There is also CJE Micros, who stock an exhaustive range of Risc OS related hardware and software.

Modern hardware is based on ARM based dev boards or the ubiquitous Raspberry Pi. Basic systems can be had for a couple of hundred pounds and it's not beyond the ken of many to do it yourself - source a Pi, grab a download of the OS (which is very cheap) and then off you go. The Raspberry Ro Lite is the aforementioned £200 system and whilst it may lack in the area of storage (easily remedied) and Wi-Fi (Risc-OS doesn't have support for this yet), it's a good beginners option and it can form the basis of a decent main system. The low cost of the hardware makes this a tempting hobby machine for anyone interested in alternatives to Windows, Mac-OS and Linux. If you want something more substantial, the Titanium board based systems can be bought which, if you must have the best, are a very good choice.

Personally, I am tempted by the Ro Lite, it being cheap enough but well-spec'd enough to act as a hobby/secondary system to tinker and get to grips with. And, unlike the Amiga, replacement hardware (the Pi) will never be extraordinarily expensive.

What has struck me with the retrospectives on the Amiga and Risc OS is that both formats remain, to this day, very capable alternatives to the mainstream formats. That is not to say you should bin your existing PC, as there are several areas where even the most up to date versions of OS4 and Risc OS 5 cannot compete It is, however, interesting that despite the passage of time since their originating companies closed their doors, there remains a substantial hobbyist market that keeps these older operating systems ticking along. Certainly, I will be keeping an eye on both formats in future. 

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Computing from the past??? The Amiga

Having a rootle around an upstairs cupboard led me to two diskette boxes full of 3.5 inch floppy disks. I had forgotten I had these, they made the move a couple of years ago, been dumped and that was it. Until now...
The dust says it all...

I started having a look through them and soon realised they were the sum total of my Commodore Amiga software collection, some of which dates back twenty seven years! I mentioned this to people at work the next day and had to explain to a couple under the tender age of 25 what a floppy disk was, despite them seeing one everyday when they click save in MS Office. And come to that, why is the floppy disk icon still used when most PC's haven't had one as standard for years?

Anyhoo, amongst the disks were the three pack in games that came with the A500 I bought so long ago: F29 Retaliator (initially the bugged version where the aircraft exploded directly after take off, soon replaced by a working copy), Rainbow Islands (a decent port of a coin-op) and Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters (a glorious 50's sci-fi pastiche of a shooter). My favourite at the time was F29 and the developer, DID, went on to make several more impressive flight sims through the years.

Some other gems in the boxes included 688 Attack Sub and Silent Service 2 - both early attempts at submarine simulations. The former placed you in command of a Los Angeles class nuclear attack sub and did a great job too, it's one title I really enjoyed and would happily play again. As a fan of the book and the film, "The Hunt for Red October", this game captured a lot of the atmosphere that the actual THFRO game did not. The manual that came with the game was also quite informative too. Game manuals back in the day used to be, these days, you're more likely to get a one sheet with an advert(!). Silent Service 2 was a WW2 sub simulator that was equally good at the lower tech end, especially when you were caught on the surface by a couple of enemy destroyers charging towards you!
When games manuals were games manuals...

Finally, there were the classic point and click adventures The Secret of Monkey Island (1 and 2) and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. The latter came on ten disks and as a teenager, I stared longingly at the adverts for a GVP 20Mb hard drive that I think cost as much as the computer itself. That didn't matter though, it meant no more swapping!!! Sadly, it was never to be.

There were also a load of cover disks, this being back in the day when computer magazines put demo disks on their front covers. One magazine (Amiga Power as memory serves but I could be wrong), started offering full games but that was frowned upon by the industry and the practice soon stopped. Demo diskettes eventually gave way to demo CD's when the 32-bit console era arrived, whilst PC magazines continued until the late naughties when downloading became the norm.
They look ok, but whether they still work is a different matter

The Amiga cover disks varied between giving utilities, game demos and tech demos, the latter highlighting the best of amateur coders and what they could achieve on the hardware at the time. I remember some seriously impressive stuff for the time.

Naturally, I don't have any hardware to try these disks out on, but it did get me thinking about the Amiga as a platform and what form it exists in today. With a vague plan, it was off to Google...

A couple of quick searches led my to Hyperion Entertainment  (the rights holder to the modern day Amiga OS) and A-EON, the only supplier of hardware currently supported by the modern day OS. There is also an Italian outfit, Armiga Project, who are offering Amiga 500 compatible boxes for a couple of hundred euros which look quite interesting and might be worth a look if you fancy re-living the Amiga during its heyday.

So, modern hardware for Amiga systems is pretty much limited to either the aforementioned A-EON X5000 (Ars Technica ran a review a few months back) or the Vampire accelerator cards that emulate the original hardware at almost current day speeds. The main downside to these is cost: The X5000 costs £1750 as a full system and the Vampire boards are currently just add-ons to existing hardware though that may change in future. Niche stuff indeed.

Having said that, let's put this in context. Commodore went bust back in 1994, so to have any market in 2017 is pretty amazing and a sure sign of a passionate community. It also means there is at least some money in it. The amounts may not be high, buy it has to be worthwhile for business to run.

I do have the option of buying an original (if slightly yellowed) Amiga, with all of the pitfalls that entails. There are issues with leaking motherboard batteries and twenty five years of wear and tear (or neglect) means that is not really a practical option, especially with some of the prices that e-bayers are asking. There are one or two places selling original refurbished Amiga kit, such as Amigakit, but as with the Armiga, you can go through a couple of hundred pounds easily and that is a lot just to have a trip down memory lane.

However, there are two cheaper options. Amiga Forever is the officially licensed emulator, with various versions ranging from £10 to £50. This allows you to easily re-live the software that made the Amiga the computer it was. This is the cheapest and easiest way to experience the Amiga. If you want dedicated hardware, then the way to go is with the Raspberry Pi. You can get emulators that will happily run on the Pi and give you near flawless performance. The Pi is cheap, a starter kit will cost about £60-£70 and gives you the flexibility to run other operating systems as well.

Would I buy a modern day Amiga? Well, no, not at the current cost of the X5000. Hell, £1750 would get me a kick-ass gaming PC so niche versus mainstream means niche loses. There is the up and coming A1222 board, but that is still expected to be several hundred just for the main board when it is finally released, so cost will still be a barrier to experiencing the modern day OS4. That does leave the emulation route which seems the most likely way I will go.

Rose tinted spectacles aside, the Amiga was a cracking computer for its time. That some enthusiasts have kept the spirit and hardware alive for nearly twenty five years after Commodore died is a testament to its enduring popularity. I cherished by A500 for several years before space and utility dictated that it had to go. It was one of the two personal computers of the era that I enjoyed using. The other, another format that still lives on to this day, and the Acorn Archimedes and the Risc-OS family.