Friday, December 21, 2012

New Computers

My very first computer was a Sinclair ZX80 that I bought for $200 in 1980. That put me a little behind the curve as both the Radio Shack TRS-80 and the Apple II were out before then, but they were also out of my reach financially. At that time I was the poor father of two … one a newborn. I was well employed, but I was also attending college in the evening and working my own business repairing stereos and guitar amplifiers, and $200 was a lot of money for me and the fancier computers were out of my range entirely. When the box arrived in the mail, and I pulled out this little computer about the size of a pocket book, my wife asked, “Is that all you get for $200?”

This was BM, Before Microsoft. PC DOS was still a different product waiting for Gates to buy and put in the IBM PC two years later. The ZX80 was a home computer produced by “Science of Cambridge Ltd.” (later to be better known as Sinclair Research). It eventually got a new case and was sold as the Timex Sinclair 1000; it took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’.

The ZX80 was named after the Zilog Z80 processor, an early copy of the 8008 microprocessor from Intel, with the 'X' for "the mystery ingredient".

Internally, the machine was designed by Jim Westwood using the Z80 central processing unit or CPU and ran at a clock speed of 3.25 MHz. It was equipped with 1 kB of static RAM and 4 kB of ROM. The ZX80 was designed around readily available Transistor-Transistor Logic ( TTL) chips, and the only proprietary technology was the firmware.

The ROM contained the Sinclair BASIC programming language, an editor, and an operating system. BASIC commands were not entered by typing them out but were instead selected somewhat similarly to a scientific calculator — each key had a few different functions selected by both context and modes as well as with the shift key. That was a good thing because you couldn’t really touch type on the membrane keyboard and single finger “poking” was the standard operating procedure.

The machine was mounted in a tiny white plastic case, with a one-piece blue membrane keyboard on the front; it owed its distinctive appearance to industrial designer Rick Dickinson. There were problems with durability, reliability and overheating (despite appearances, the black stripes visible on the top rear of the case are merely cosmetic, and are not ventilation slots).

The UK version of the machine was the standard, and only changes that were absolutely necessary to sell units in other markets were made. In fact, the only real change made in most markets involved the video output frequency (the ZX80 used an external power transformer, so differences in AC line frequency and outlet were not an issue to the machine itself). One outcome of this is that the machine had some keyboard keys and characters that were distinctly British: "Newline" was used instead of "Enter", "Rubout" instead of "Backspace" or "Delete", and the character set and keyboard included the British Pound symbol.

Sales of the ZX80 reached about 50,000 — an unheard of number for the day which contributed significantly to the UK leading the world in home computer ownership through the 1980s. 

Owing to the unsophisticated design and the tendency for the units to overheat, surviving machines in good condition are quite uncommon and can fetch high prices by collectors. Sadly I gave mine away to my friend William, and I’m sure he disposed of it somehow in the last thirty plus years.

The primary audience for such computers at the time was hobbyists, and the ZX80 was primarily marketed towards that end. In the US, the ZX80 was available in two forms: a prebuilt unit for US$199.95, or a "kit" version, which provided all the parts but required assembly, for US$149.95. Capitalizing on the price, the system was advertised (in computing and electronics magazines) with the slogan "The first personal computer for under $200.”

So that is the background to my two most recent computer purchases. As everyone knows, the last thirty years since the introduction of the IBM PC in 1982 have been dominated by Microsoft — first DOS and then Windows. There were challengers from Apple (several different versions … most recently OSX), Linux and other variations of low cost UNIX, and even, for a short time, IBM OS/2. But DOS / Windows has remained on top of the heap with giant market share, mind share, and application program ecosystem. That is starting to change with what many call the “Mobile Revolution” lead by new devices such as iPhones, Android, and other smart phones, as well as tablets/slates/iPads. These devices typically run operating systems and processors designed specifically for mobile applications with the low power battery source and mostly lacking real keyboards. Windows is responding, but that is not the point of this writing.

I’m talking about my two latest computers. I’ve already spoken about my new Raspberry Pi, also a product of British design. It runs a fairly standard version of Linux, but the real breakthrough is the low cost. $35 for the basic board. You have to add things like keyboard, mouse, display, network, and even an SD card, but still it is very, very affordable and actually pretty powerful even by today’s standards. The real point of the Strawberry Pi is the effect it will have on early grades of education … at least that is the hope of its creators. Already a small ecosystem has sprung up around it with hardware boards and experiment boards in addition to programming software designed for 6 to 10 year olds. It is revolutionary, and — if successful — will likely be cloned and copied.

That was one of my new computers and I will write more about it soon.

The other new computer is a Samsung Chromebook that sells for $249, very close to the original ZX80. But what a difference. This computer includes a high resolution display and a “real” keyboard. It is basically a laptop, or more precisely a member of the “netbook” family. Netbooks are small, typically under powered, but low cost lap top computers intended primarily to browse the internet. Their small size and weight, combined with their equally small purchase price, created a niche that was quickly filled with models from most manufacturers.

The difference is that the netbook ran Windows, although often a low end version such as XP after Vista was already announced. (The latest Netbooks run a special version of Win7.) Chrome is an operating system created by Google out of Linux and, like a Netbook, is primarily intended for use as an Internet browser.

What I’m amazed at is how much value the Samsung / Google partnership has gotten out of this low cost machine. The styling seems to be a direct copy of the Apple MacBook Air although inexpensive plastic is used where the Air uses fine finished aluminum. There is no mistaking the low cost manufacturing tricks used by Samsung, but they seemed to have put the expense into things that really matter.

It is very modern with a USB 3.0 port (plus one 2.0 port) as well as an HDMI video output and an SD memory card slot. It has a touch pad with physical click just like the Air, but does lack the quality of the Air’s display, even the non-retinal Air.

Two very excellent features: it has amazing battery life, lasting in the six hour range, and it boots up from dead cold in 12 seconds flat. It has 2 GB or RAM and — most exciting — a 16 GB solid state drive. It also comes with 100 Gb of free Google Cloud storage.

Some of the early Chromebooks were not nearly as elegant and Chrome itself had a lot of rough edges. However, as this offering from Samsung proves, the manufacturers are getting wiser and the latest version of Chrome is really getting there. This latest offering has everything you would need from the latest wireless standards to a built-in web camera and surprising good sounding speakers (if you don't turn it up too loud).

There’s still a ways to go, but if you are looking for a very inexpensive and simple to use computer that is highly portable (a version with cell phone connection is only about $75 more) and — maybe the best part — NON-WINDOWS computer, then give this Samsung a try.

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