DOS Palmtops – just one question: WHY???

This was a question i was actually asked in an e-mail. I always try to answer every e-mail in detail if i can and i also did that with this one (Hi George!).

But yeah I thought maybe I should share some insights into my collection craziness with everyone.

Before I take a deep breath – my collection craziness faded out a bit when i got married and now with 2 kids i lack the time and money to buy all the crazy stuff i used to. So take it as my memoirs. I still have my whole DOS palmtop collection – which is the last thing i could defend from the claws of my wife, but I am honestly thinking of selling some pieces. If you have 5 models of a Sharp PC-3000 and 4 of the PC-3100 it ‘s getting difficult to defend the need to keep all of them. And then there’s the other 60ish palmtops. I can personally defend the argument to keep ONE spare, but it’s difficult to argue why you have 5 of the same type. So – YAY – I guess in the near future some fellow collectors can have the one or other rare piece.

But back to DOS Palmtops. It’s not just them. They are just the melting Pot of so many interests and loads of love and memories.

But let’s try to sum up my interests and love.

Sharp PC-3000
  1. Small things. I have been collecting “miniatures” since i was a little school boy. I used to have a big show case in my childhood room and it was packing full of everything miniature. Not necessary everything boys love, but everything that would qualify as a miniature. A tiny book(a bit larger than a stamp. I think it was a Spanish bible, but what mattered was the tiny size), miniature cars (even smaller than the typical matchbox cars, obviously the smaller the better), hell even perfume miniatures (I guess most were the type my mum thought didn’t smell that nice). Really everything I could get my hands on. Later it were miniature (toy) trains and especially the buildings, when i grew older and didn’t need to argue why this was strange i even got some doll house stuff like a miniature fridge and matching miniature food. I guess everyone has a hobby.
  2. Computers. My first computer was a Commodore C-64. Not because that was exactly what I wanted but because it was cheap. Later my Dad got a real PC – a Tandon 80286 with a green monochrome (Hercules) screen and 5.25 inch floppy. Whooping 20 MB HDD and I think 1 MB RAM. Needless to say that when he wasn’t at home me and my friends prefered the PC.
  3. MS-DOS. Well I guess every DOS would do, but back in the days mainstream was screaming “MS-DOS” when it was about DOS. When I could finally afford my first own PC – a 486 DLC with whooping 4 MB RAM, 2 x 62 MB HDDs, SVGA card,14 inch screen (Up to 1024×768 res), Sound Blaster (Or “compatible”. Actually thinking about it – rather “compatible” i guess) and even a space age CD-ROM drive (1x speed) I felt like a king. And yeah of course it came with MS-DOS. I would ocassionally load Windows 3.1 but MS-DOS was “THE” system.
  4. AA-Batteries. This weird passion definitely came last (But not least!).  My adventurer days are kinda over now (Well maybe if the kids are a bit older they’ll come back…) but if you’ve ever been on a trip through a jungle and the batteries of your laptop and camera died you might remember my words when i say “It’s a blessing when you carry a few 8 pack of AA Batteries with you and know you can power your computer and camera from these for like another whole day.
  5. Size, size and size. probably the only reason why i still have my palmtop collection is the tiny size. I also started a small collection of arcade machines before i got married – but you guess that this hobby consumes quite some space. Maybe collecting writst watches, stamps or coins consumes less space, but palmtops will always be on the space-saving list of hobbies, so you can have a quite large collection all in a small cabinet.
  6. Not endless. There’s loads of stuff you can collect that will eat up your savings like there’s no tomorrow. But with DOS Palmtops there’s just a rather small selection of machines available. So unless you act like me and start having 6 palmtops of the same make and model you won’t spend much money after a while – simply because you can’t find any machine that’s not already in your collection. Yeah in the beginning it’s easy since you can always get a HP 100LX, 200LX or an Atari Portfolio, but after a while you just end up searching for new DOS palmtops and come up with nothing.

After all is said and done this is a halfway typical “Vintage computer” hobby. You have loads of games and apps you can use, you spend loads of money (Hint – an emulator is usually free, greetings from DOSBOX) and there’s few realistic tasks of today you can use these for. Try to camouflage this as a useful object, but honestly – your smartphone can probably do a thousand things more and faster – so maybe just take it as a hobby. But yeah you can do much more with them than with a coin or stamp, so maybe not the worst hobby ever. Unless you get extreme. Like me.

The 2000s – from Mininote to UMPC

In the previous article we already talked about the MiniNotes of the 1990s – Toshiba ended their classic Libretto series outside of Japan in 1999, but in Japan they released new model – the “ff” and “ss” series which were technically rather unimpressive, but it should be noted that the FF1100 from late 1999 was probably one of the first netbooks to feature a built-in camera (A webcam as we would say today).

Toshiba Libretto ff1100
Toshiba Libretto ff1100

The year 2000 started without many surprises. For a moment it seemed the MiniNote market was saturated. It wasn’t until late 2000 that a new challenger appeared. Fujitsu had been manufacturing rather uninspiring notebooks under the “FMV Biblo” brand name. I don’t know if this is a mis-translation of “biblio”(From the greek “Biblion” meaning “book”) or some clever naming scheme i just haven’t gotten yet – but their first Biblo were rather dull notebooks for the mass market. However – on september 2000 they introduced the FMV Biblo “Loox”. Notably the big “T Series” with 10 inch screen which is less interesting for us MiniNote geeks, but also the famous “S Series” which came with a 8.8 inch screen and was closer to the original MiniNote form factor. To be precise the “FMV Biblo Loox S5/53” – or “FMV Biblo Loox S5/53W”. The “W” includes an obscure Japanese ISDN style modem that isn’t compatible with anything in the rest of the world, so if you lack the “W” you didn’t really miss much. At 243 x 151 x 30 mm this was a bit larger than the Toshiba Libretto 100 series, but for these few milimeters more you actually got a really interesting machine that addressed some issues with previous MiniNotes.

FMV-BIBLO LOOX S5/53W
FMV-BIBLO LOOX S5/53W

Since the Libretto 20 the processor speed has more than tripled and additional stuff like modems and better graphics cards were added. However – battery life was not really improving, so besides ridiculously oversized batteries the most sold accessories were additional batteries – it was not uncommon that a Japanese businessman was carrying around one or more additional batteries in his suitcase. The Biblo Loox introduced the “Transmeta Crusoe” – a new type of processor that was built to be really power saving and would somewhat dominate the market of ultra-portables for the next few years. In a time before Intel Atom that was for sure a difference. So the Loox offered around 3.6 hours of battery type with the small battery and up to 8 hours with the large battery. Back in the year 2000 reading “8 hours of battery life” was jaw dropping for most Japanese that got used to carrying around an armada of spare batteries. But also the rest of the specs were nice. The screen offered a rather unique res of a whooping 1024 x 512. The graphics card was an ATI Rage Mobility-M – making it the first MiniNote with a “real” 3D graphics card. Memory was a whooping 128MB (Where 16MB were used for the Transmeta Processor code morphing function). HDD came with 10GB capacity which was also a lot in the days. USB, PCMCIA and modem included. 980 gram also made it rather lightweight, just under the magic 1 Kg barrier. This was really a breakthrough which immediately made it a best-seller. Not everyone loved the Crusoe – performance was slower than with the typical Intel processor, so a 933 MHz Crusoe “performed” more like an Intel processor with half that speed in Windows XP. The Crusoe used a quite unique “Code morphing” technology actually transforming X86 code into it’s own crude logic “On the fly” – so it was rather “emulating” an X86 CPU. In theory it would even have been possible to emulate other processors like 68K or ARM, but it was never delivered with anything else but the X86 emulation. The code morphing also had the drawback that it consumed a little bit (Somewhere in the range between 10 and 20 MB) RAM to park the code morphing stuff.

Transmeta Crusoe processor
Transmeta Crusoe processor

So it wouldn’t take too long until the competition reacted…

In 2001 Toshiba introduced the “Libretto L1” which received mixed reviews. Generally not a bad device, but the form factor had grown by 5 centimeter in each direction (Albeit being thinner) kinda eliminating the compact size the Libretto was famous for. So Size-wise it was now more of a subnotebook and while still being considerably small and technically impressive it failed to win the hearts of all the Japanese customers wanting another “MiniNote”

Sony released the PG-U1 in April 2002.

Sony PCG-U1
Sony PCG-U1

While it wouldn’t look so impressive like 15 years later this was quite a sensation in 2002… Really tiny form factor that gets me close to calling it a “Palmtop”, 1024 x 768 on a 6.4 inch screen means like 200 Pixel per inch. That is an impressive pixel per inch density that was incredibly impressive back in the days. More than 10 years later Apple was selling their Laptops with a “retina display” which had just reached the level Sony defined like a decade earlier, being around 200-220 PPI. The 866 MHz Transmeta processor also allowed impressive power saving – boosting battery like to around 4.5 hours with normal office appz. And since Sony always longed for more they offered the notorious extended battery (Which was nearly the same dimensions as the actual notebook) that could snap into the bottom of the device – delivering breathtaking unreal 9 hours of battery life. USB, Ethernet, Firewire (Called “i.Link” by Sony), PCMCIA and the notorious MemoryStick slot included. 128 MB BAse RAM, upgradable to a max of 384MB (Minus a bit that the gfx card and transmeta processor consume).

There was also the PCG-U3 – a special “Online order only” edition – which only differed slightly by a black case (Instead of the U1 silver), the “faster” 933 MHz Transmeta Crusoe (Like you’d ever notice the additional 60 MHz) and more base RAM (256MB instead of 128 MB)

In 2003 Sony reacted to some complaints about the “sluggish” performance of the U-Series and trashed the Transmeta concept, going back to Intel processors. So the U101 of 2003 used an Intel Celeron with 600MHz – which notably performed much better than the 933 MHz Crusoe.

 

 

…more to come

HB++ – Handheld Basic ++ – When PalmOS still mattered…

Back in the days – when PalmOS was about to die there was some French guy creating a blatant copy of Visual Basic 6 – but for PalmOS. I guess Microsoft never really cared for anything – may it be piracy of their own products or a copycat re-inventing Visual Basic. This prolly breached a million of patents, but then again PalmOS was already on the edge of death, so they just never cared. Actually this was prolly the reason why so many PalmOS appz still came out in like 2004/2005…

Handheld Basic++
Handheld Basic++

If you were a trained Visual Basic 6.0 programmer (Like all the cool kids making trojans and such) you’d obviously easily get into this. Actually it’s amazing how this was not made by Microsoft since this was pretty much exactly Visual Basic for PalmOS… I think the only feature it did not have was “Sort” -which was kinda not a big drawback.

So you’d draw your buttons and crap like in paint to create a nice GUI and throw in some dodgy functions or subs behind these, just like in good old VB6. Programming is so much fun if you don’t need to learn it…

The original manufacturer – “Peter Holmes Consulting” (Pretty typical French name i guess) – kinda went bankrupt years ago. Well since this was a one man show i guess the guy (Jean-Philippe Amaré) just noticed that PalmOS kinda died out and noone was left who’d slam a few hundred bucks (Originally 500 USD – Last reported price was like 150 USD) on the counter for this. So he closed down the website (www.handheld-basic.com) for good, concentrating on drinking red wine and eating snails or whatever French people do when they retire…

So if you wanna create enterprise PalmOS appz to sell for big $$$ here’s your link:

HB++ 1.04 Patched

The last official version was 2.53 which you can get here.

It will be ask you to register to get rid of the nagging screens on your compiled version – which you obviously can’t do since the website is down since like a decade. I can’t be arsed to patch it but if you have the patience then message me and I’ll upload it.

 

RIP PalmOS… But then again some gravedigging is fun…

Stereoscopic Player – or why Open Source can beat a crack/Keygen

Well even if you’re not much into 3D you probably know that problem – you definitely need a software for a given task. “Urgent” is the keyword. So you download, install, use cracks or keygens and then the crap just won’t work. Well I wanted to decorate one of our inhouse presentation stands with some nice eye candy 3D screen. Brought my neat little “IO Data RockVision 3D” screen to the office, installed Win7 on an old standalone workstation and then the trouble began.

IO-Data Rock Vision 3D screen

The driver for Windows 7 was already a pain. I immediately regretted installing Win7 X64 on the workstation because the driver worked fine on XP 32-Bit. For a 64-Bit windows 7 Install you gotta download a new Installer from Display Link which just gives me some error like “The installer was modified” which sounds like “virus”. Ouch. So checked the file size – no difference. Googling a bit it turns out that my standalone workstation is prolly missing some Windows update that checks the certificate or whatever. Downloaded and installed that update just to get another error (Doh!). Googling more someone came to the bright idea that you can grab the install files from the temp folder when the installer fails. Actually good point. Installed the inf from there and ended up with an installed driver and a black screen. Doh!!! So googling more and looking at the manual (pics since its in Japanese) i noticed i lack the “core” application. Changed driver manually to another .inf file with a good guess and finally got the screen working.

The IO-Data Rock Vision 3D is actually neat. A very small Glasses-Free 3D screen that is powered by USB (No AC adaptor required!) and has a whooping 800×480 Resolution (400×480 in 3D mode)

So now for the real problems. So there is a nice free Japanese player called “Stereo Movie Player” which supports nearly every output known to mankind – but not the “Column Interlaced” format this screen needs.

Did i say “Doh!” already? So i remembered that ripoff player from that Austrian guy – “Stereoscopic Player”.

Stereoscopic Player – ever wanted to shell out 55 USD for a media player? here ya go!

55 USD for a player that is a bit cleaner and can merely do a little bit more than the free Japanese player. If it was like 5 or 10 bucks i might have considered buying it. But hey – it does have that column interlaced mode. So downloaded it from the usual sources with a nice Keygen (Actually more of an “activation code” gen) – and guess what – it dows not work on 64-bit Windows. Tried some older versions with serials and they never worked. So i got out my disassembler (ILSPY) and guess what? .net but obfuscated. yeah there are some de-obfuscators and stuff but this is where it really starts to cost more time than i have. So Peter Wimmer if you read this – Fuck you. REALLY!

So here i go and do what only lamers do who can’t find an appropriate crack – searching alternate software. And guess what? The Freeware and Open Source software is pretty good. Actually some are on par if not even better than the 55 USD ripoff software. Well some have drawbacks, but i sorted them a bit according to their capabilities, so here is my Top 5:

 

The 5 best free stereoscopic player alternatives:

 

5. GLStereoPlayer

GLStereoPlayer
GLStereoPlayer

Actually pretty good player – but it only supports seperated left/right video streams. Output is in a myriad of formats though. I do have some movies in seperated left/right formats, but usually when you get a torrent you usually have a SideBySide format or such, so last place on this list. Noone really wanna split an SBS movie file into L/R files, but if you do then this is a true little jewel.

Grab it on Sourceforge: https://sourceforge.net/projects/glsp/

Mirror here: http://www.tankraider.com/userup/1497938234.zip

 

4. X3D video player

X3D Player
X3D Player

This is actually a really neat player – would have been the best if it supported more formats. But easy interface and awesome performance, so definitely worth giving it a try. If your favorite output format is supported then good chance you’d rate it the #1 of this list.

Grab it here: http://surodev.com/products/x3d-player/

Mirror: http://www.tankraider.com/userup/1497938910.zip

3. Stereo Movie Player

Stereo Movie Player
Stereo Movie Player

This Japanese Player looks pretty homemade and it sure has some deficits in the “look and feel” section but besides that and the fact it doesn’t play back in column interlaced format it is pretty good since it can do nearly everything else. Loads of functions, very lightweight (Under 1 MB!) so definitely worth a try.

Grab it here: http://stereo.jpn.org/eng/stvply/index.html

Mirror: http://www.tankraider.com/userup/1497986583.zip

 

2. SView

SView
SView

This is actually a stereoscopic player made for Ubuntu – but from the nature of OpenSource it was ported to Windows as well. At first i found the interface a bit confusing, but like 2 minutes into it and you get used to that. Supports pretty much all formats for input and output and it does look pretty nice in Windows, too.

Grab it here: http://www.sview.ru/en/

Mirror: http://www.tankraider.com/userup/1497942088.zip

 

1. Bino

Bino
Bino

This is my personal favorite. Maybe not the cutest interface but all you need and excellent performance. It’s not overloaded – just all you ever need in one convinient window. It does what you want and how you expect it and even less cluttered than the “Stereoscopic Player”.

Grab it here: http://bino3d.org/

Mirror: http://www.tankraider.com/userup/1497988185.zip

TV Wristwatches – forgotten tech marvels or junk?

Back in the early times of TV there were sci-Fi visions of miniaturized TVs in a wristwatch, probably first seen in early “Dick Tracy” comics. It was unavoidable that we’d get the TV wristwatch, the question was just “when?”.

In 1982 Seiko finally answered this question – with the first TV Wristwatch ever – the legendary “Seiko TV watch”. But let’s take a more detailed look at the history of TV Wristwatches…

 

 

1. Seiko TV Watch (1982)

Seiko TV Watch
Seiko TV Watch

It was introduced in summer 1982 in Japan – so that can be regarded as the birth of the TV Wristwatch. It was a bit cheating since you’d need to connect a walkman-sized receiver box that also contained the batteries as well as headphones in order to watch TV on a tiny greyscale display. In the end it would have been more practical to just bring the first Sony watchman which is pretty much the size of the receiver unit. The first (“Sports”) edition featured a black rim around the Watch face and came in a silver colored box. That is by far the rarest verson. The later “all silver” version was also released in the U.S. a year later.

 

2. NHJ Wearable TV VTV-101 (2004)

NHJ Wearable TV VTV-101
NHJ Wearable TV VTV-101

The NHJ VTV-101 was the first color TV watch and while it was still rather bulky for a wristwatch it contained the receiver in the watch eliminating the need to bring a box with you. What you’d definitely need to bring was the earphones – these also conatin the antenna, so even if you don’t need any sound you’ll not be able to watch TV without them. The watch itself is a bit bulky, but still kinda “wearable”. The TV module can be detached from the strap and be worn as a necklace. The box also contains a special docking station that you need to charge the batteries. So if the earphones or docking station get lost the unit will become pretty much unusable. The batteries last around 60 minutes, so usually a bit short for a soccer match or a movie. A bit later a PAL version called “VTV-201” was released. Unfortunately the PAL version lacked the watch display on top, so unless you turn it on it wouldn’t even show the time, thus defeating the purpose of a “watch” a bit.

 

3. “Super Dry” TV Watch (2006)

Super Dry TV Watch
Super Dry TV Watch

Probably the weirdest “watch” in this collection if you wanna call it “watch” at all is the “Super Dry TV Watch”. Actually it is rather a Japanese cell phone with a wrist strap. This is so bulky, i think you can only “wear” this as a cheap joke on a party or so. Well it does have a watch display on the outside, so when closed it would look like a ridiculous oversized digital watch. At least it contains a cell phone, speaker, antenna and everything so besides the bulky phone there’s nothing else you’d need to bring. Japanese “One-Seg” standard, so not really useful outside of Japan i guess. Interestingly this was never for sale – but you could win one of 5000 units in a sweepstakes from Asahi “Super Dry” beer. Thus probably the rarest TV watch ever, even in Japan this is difficult to get.

 

4. SUPRL SP-WTV01 (2012)

SUPRL SP-WTV01
SUPRL SP-WTV01

The last TV Wristwatch ever made and without doubt by far the best one. This is not just a color TV with retractable antenna, built-in speakers and FM radio – this one even supports virtually every TV standard ever – NTSC, PAL, SECAM and all kinds of different flavors of these standards. The watch is not so bulky and it can be charged by a standard micro-USB cable. You could also wear it like a pendant around your neck if you prefer that. If analog TV wouldn’t have been shut down already in most countries this would have been a “must have” – but unfortunately it came a bit late for most of us.

 

 

Unfortunately that’s it already. Hopefully we’ll one day get a (rather tiny) DVB-T2 wristwatch or so, but right now your collection is complete when you have these 4 models (And their variations if you’re extreme…).

War of the Mininotes – or how UMPCs looked like in the 1990s…

Is that a notebook in your pocket or are you just glad to see me? No – actually none of the “Mininote” fits into a normal pocket. “Mininote” (Which means “mini notebook”) is a term that was used in Japan and somehow never made it to other countries. Wikipedia calls them “Subnotebook” even though this term is also used for bigger notebooks. But as with all terms we use they are stretchable anyways. Typical palmtop computers of the early 1990s like the Poqet PC or Sharp PC-3000 typically fit neither on your palm or in your pocket (The HP 200LX somehow did – if you had considerably large pockets). The IBM Palmtop PC 110 kinda really fitted on a palm, but due to it’s thickness also typically didn’t fit in a pocket. The IBM PC110 was kinda unfair competition in late 1995 since IBM Japan spent as much money developing and manufacturing it that they made a big loss even though one unit costed something like a good used car – but oh well it was a prestige thing they could afford. Exact figures are unknown, but rumours say that the PC110 would have been profitable if it costed more than a brand new small car. Anyways, IBM had proven their point and had no intention to produce more than their original first batch.

So a few months later – April 1996 to be precise – Toshiba Japan came up with a new design that actually made sense from an economic point of view – the Libretto 20. It was considerably bigger (like 2 of the mentioned Sharp PC-3000 stacked), memory was the same (8MB standard, 20 MB max), but at least a faster 486 and the TFT screen had more colors.

Toshiba Libretto 70CT
A Toshiba Libretto 70. Same as models 20,50,60 – just with better specs.

So even as it was considerably bigger than the IBM PC110 – it was AVAILABLE and that meant a lot. The IBM PC110 would stay the smallest laptop ever for more than a decade, but hey – you could go into a store and buy the Libretto. That made it instantly the smallest laptop you can buy – and at under 200,000 yen for an 8MB model with a 260MB hdd , 75 MHz 486 and brand new Windows 95 it was “expensive” but still cheaper and more practical than the PC110. And a half year later Toshiba released an upgraded 100MHz model. There was always a demand for really tiny laptops in Japan (ride a subway in Tokyo during the rush hour to see why) but now Toshiba really delivered. The “Mininote” craze was born.

In January 1997 Toshiba released the Libretto 50 – now with a Pentium 75, 810MB HDD, 16MB RAM standard and a maximum of 32 MB RAM. An international release came in middle of 1997 and to Toshibas surprise there was also a (small) demand for such tiny machines in the rest of the world.  Librettos were Toshibas license to print money, so another CPU upgrade was due in November. But then a challenger appears!

NEC mobio NX
NEC mobio NX

NEC announced it’s “Mobio NX” series in october 1997 – to be released in November 1997. Actually it was released 3 days after the Libretto 70. Although NEC managed to boost the max memory to a whooping 80 MB it came with 16Mb standard (like the libretto 70), the same Pentium MMX 120MHz and a considerably weaker DSTN display (A special TFT version was available for much more money and often not even available in stores) while the Libretto 70 had the new fancy TFT by default. So after all is said the NEC was regarded a poor knockoff of the Libretto. Size-wise the depth was even a bit more than the libretto but it was a bit thinner. it did not sell as well as NEC expected but at least it was not a complete failure. The “OnNow” resume (hibernation) feature was praised as it was pretty fast, but that alone didn’t save the sales figures.

In March 1998 Toshiba released the Libretto 100 – making it a bit bigger by increasing the depth. it now featured a Pentium MMX 166, 2.1 GB HDD and 64MB RAM max. Competition was tiny (Hello NEC!) so it sold quite well. And then suddenly another challenger appears.

Palmax PD1000
Palmax PD1000

 

The Palmax PD1000 was kinda game changer. Released in July 1998 it featured the rather slow Cyrix Media GX 120MHz – an unimpressive clone of the pentium 120 MMX – but it came with a USB port, 1.6GB HDD and – behold – a touch screen. All that would not have impressed people much, but the price was significantly lower than the competitors. So finally there was a budget Mininote. While Palmax was and is no brand that rings a bell they did have an interesting history. The company behind Palmax was actually the notorious “Tidalwave” corporation from Taiwan who sold their cheap DOS palmtops to loads of more or less famous computer retailers and manufacturers all over the world who would in turn flood the market with countless OEM versions of the Tidalwave PS-1000. Since most retailers and manufacturers who sold their PS-1000 actually already went bankrupt they had to find new partners, so this model was also sold by IPC, Topline, Bestpal, Gericom, forefront and others. The most hyped feature of it was also the biggest drawback: The touch screen. While this was a pretty cool feature in 1998 it was also clear that Windows 98 was not really optimized for touch screens and most DOS games and appz were also not really much fun with a touchscreen.

NEC and Toshiba kept on releasing upgraded versions that only got you a better processor and more RAM while suddenly another challenger appears.

Casio "Cassiopeia" Fiva
Casio “Cassiopeia” Fiva

 

The Casio Fiva came out pretty late, but it tried to fix some of the shortcomings of the competition. While most people from outside of Japan only know Casio for cheap digital wristwatches they actually made a pretty fine “Mininote” in Japan. When released in November 1998 the Fiva did not only sport a USB bus but also the brightest display and that in a whooping 800 x 600 resolution while all other mininotes still had 640 x 480. The processor was “Not that impressive” being a Cyrix MMX 200MHz, but max RAM was already 96MB and it was the first mininote to feature a real touchpad compared to the mouse stick of the competition. With HDD options between 3.2 and 6.4 GB it was also a challenger on the disk space side of life.

All four of these manufacturers released other updated models of their Mininotes, but Casio remained the winner of the 1990s spec run selling a considerable number of Fivas in Japan and later even in the U.S.

 

I could continue with the 2000s but i guess i keep that for another blog post.

 

In search of the perfect solar laptop

Solar cells are a nice invention. They make you feel like a tree hugger and they are kinda warranty that your gadget always has enough power if the sun is shining. Some stuff like calculators or wristwatches are pretty easy to find in solar powered versions. Recently the market was also flooded with these small solar “power banks” that charge an internal battery while resting in the sunlight and deliver you a nice extra charge for your cell phone when there’s no power socket around.

But whether you’re a tree hugger or just preparing for the next zombie apocalypse – sooner or later you might search for a solar powered laptop and have a hard time finding one.

Remarkably there are only 2 solar laptop models that were ever made.

One is the much hyped “Wewi Sol” or just “Sol laptop”.

Sol Laptop
The legendary Sol Laptop

While hyped as the “300 dollar laptop” which is “rugged” and “waterproof” it was a bit of a disappointment when it was finally released. The fact that this laptop never really took off (It was sold in probably “small quantities” though) is a bit sad, but it’s also a story of crushed dreams. So let’s see what went wrong with this one:

  • Unlike the promised 300 dollars the most basic version costed around 600 dollars. Oops! Make that 850 Dollars for the “better” version.
  • Even the expensive “Marine” versions were not “waterproof” as promised but just used a rubber like coating that was supposed to be “hydrophobic”. Snake oil since plastic alone is also hydrophobic, so the coating does nothing.
  • The term “rugged” was prolly refering to the 2 cool looking greebels added to the solar cell compartment which improved the cool look but did nothing. The so called “reinforced polymer” case is what we would call “cheap plastic”.
  • Nothing against a 14 inch notebook, but when you fold out the solar panels you need loads of space, more like 5 laps or a truck bed.
  • The solar panel is detachable so you can finally lose or forget the most important part of your solar laptop. In theory that would make placing the solar panel much easier, but the panel cord is just like 7 feet long, so impossible to sit indoors in the shadow while using the solar panel.
  • So while you have to charge the laptop outside it is not really great to use outside because the screen is not really great for use in direct sunlight.
  • The promised “2 hours charging in sunlight to work 10 hours” turned out to be more like “5 hours charging to get the battery to 75% under good condition”.
  • It is also a heavy beast – at over 6 pounds there are sure lighter notebooks.
  • There was only one reseller – CDW – and they didn’t do much to advertise this unit.

With all this said it is barely more than a technically disappointing intel atom based notebook with a folding solar cell array. That the array can be attached to the lid when folded is already the cool part about it. There’s better folding solar cell solutions on ebay for less money. Basically a cool idea and a terrible result.

 

Well the second candidate for the title “best solar notebook” comes in form of the Samsung NP-NC215.

Samsung NC215
Samsung NP-NC215

Released much earlier (2011), but much lighter (under 3 pounds), smaller (10 inch screen netbook) and cheaper (around 400 Dollar). Which does not mean that this candidate is flawless (Nobody is perfect – which also seems to apply to solar laptops). So here’s the worst flaws:

  • Pretty small solar cell – Samsung sold it as “charge for 2 hours, work for 1 hour” which seems to be halfway realistic if it is charging under perfect conditions – but admittedly – the 4 solar panels of the Sol laptop definitely produce more power
  • The plastic is cheap quality and in some areas too thin. I actually have 3 of these and for 2 of them the plastic around the power button is already broken because it is so friggin thin and fragile.
  • The claimed “up to 14 hours of battery life” are obviously also far off – make that like 10 hours if you set power saving to the max and don’t play any 3D games.
  • While the screen is actually matte (Kudos for that!) it is far from being “sunlight readable”.
  • Just 1024 x 600 screen resolution which is “okay” for most applications but nothing you’d praise.
  • Was only sold in the U.S., Brazil, Korea and some african countries for a short time afaik.

With all that said the Samsung already comes closer to the “perfect solar laptop”.

Luckily there are a few things you can improve yourself:

  • Change the screen to a “Pixel Qi” – luckily the Samsung supports turning off backlight, so a Pixel Qi will perform very good even in the brightest direct sunlight while saving power. Bad news is that the display cable is a bit too short so you will have to start soldering.
  • Swap the HDD for a modern solid state drive. Some SSD like the Toshiba Q300 have ridiculously low power consumption figures and boost the battery life to more than what Samsung initially claimed.
  • Turn off or remove wifi (and bluetooth) if you don’t use these – they just eat up battery life.

After all the NC215 isn’t that bad once you modded it a bit. I just wish it was made from higher quality (or thicker) plastic.

 

 

Another (sad) candidate would have been the “iUnika Gyy” – sad not because it was supposed to be based on an “Arm” processor (Linux only!), but because it seems this one was never produced or released. Well  unfortunately it was just vaporware… 🙁

 

iUnika Gyy
iUnika Gyy

We heard you like computers, so we put a computer in your computer…

I like unusual computers. So it was love at first sight when i spotted the Sharp Mebius PC-NJ70A in Japan around summer 2009. A laptop with a color TFT touchscreen where others have a boring touchpad. Unfortunately i didn’t wanna spend the 80.000 Yen  that the machine costed in 2009 when it came out – which was like over 800 USD at that time. Well a few weeks later i bought a used one for 30.000 Yen – still a lot, but a price where i simply got weak.

PC-NJ70A
The legendary Sharp PC-NJ70A

Obviously it gets boring to just change the background pictures and even the included bowling game only entertained me for a short while, so curiosity made me wanna inspect the hardware a bit further. Luckily Sharp was kind enough to release a firmware update for the touch pad, so with a bit of editing and extracting i could get hold of the actual Compressed ROMFS image from the installer. If you have 7zip you can simply extract it and look at the complete system of the touch pad.

The surprise was pretty big when i realized that the touch screen is more than just a TFT – it’s actually a complete computer with RAM, flash-based SSD, ARM processor and even USB, networking and sound. It runs a customized Version of Wind River Linux 2.0 which is optimized for embedded systems.

This fact makes it one of the most overlooked systems ever – shame but noone ever really hacked this system even though it has loads of potential. I think the main problem that leads to the lack of attention is the availability. While this laptop was sold in quite large numbers around Japan it was never released outside of Japan – which is a shame.

A few months after the release of this laptop some Linux activists in japan threatened to sue Sharp since they obviously used all kinds of GPL software – but failed to release the source code. So Sharp did release the source code half-heartedly.

Originally Sharp had big ambitions for this laptop – they released an additional game (Kinda DDR clone) for the touch pad on their – now defunct – Mebius Club website. Since Windows 7 came out shortly after the laptop was introduced they also released a “new” version that came with Win 7 – the PC-NJ70B (impressive naming scheme here). The NJ70B also came with more touch pad games – which Sharp “forgot” to make available for the owners of the old NJ70A laptops. Sharp also promised an SDK to develop custom appz and games for the touch pad – needless to say that they never released that promised SDK.

After all this machine is so interesting (Well the touch pad is…) and had so much potential – it’s a shame they abandoned it so soon. I am sure that if this was released in the US along with the promised SDK, the Linux sources and everything it would have become an iconic machine with a cult following. There are limitless possibilities of appz, hacks and utilization scenarios for this “2 computers in one” netbook, but we’ll probably never see them since noone outside Japan knows about it (And the Japanese never cared much about Linux it seems).

So here goes hoping that my website will at least interest a few people in this unique machine.

A flatrate before the internet was invented…Blueboxing

I already wrote what it was like to use the internet when flatrates were not invented and how i stayed online 24/7 anyways without paying a few grand on phone bills ( Why hackers loved AOL ). Yes, i already pointed it out in the previous article, but before wifi and DSL were around you’d connect through a normal phone line to be “online”.

Well even before the internet went public many people were online and many of them didn’t feel like paying a fortune for that. A technique that seems to be nearly forgotten among the younger people was “Blueboxing” – a method to make free long distance phone calls (And modem connections). But blueboxing was not even that popular in some countries – for example Germany – because they had their own little paradise for a while.

In Germany paradise was actually closed on January 1st 1980. Before that a local call was always just “one unit” which was something like 5 cent. the thing was that the unit did not have a time limit. So you could connect to any other local modem virtually forever, costing you like 5 cent. Back in the late 1970s the popular BBS (Bulletin board system) came up, so just when it became fun to be on-line (back in the days you would write it with a dash) it was over again.

BBS System screen
That is how it would have looked like to connect to a BBS in the 1970s and early 1980s

Actually in Western Berlin (Which held a special role until the German re-union) local calls were still “unlimited” until 1992. However the rest of Germany (And other parts of the world) needed a solution. And the solution actually came much earlier – from desperate U.S. users – namely “John T. Draper” aka “Captain Crunch”.

John "Captain Crunch" Draper
John “I need more butter” Draper aka “Captain Crunch showing the famous captain crunch cereals whistle

John Draper aka “Captain Crunch” discovered that a whistle included in the famous “Captain Crunch” cereals produced nearly exactly a 2600 Hz tone – which was coincidentially also the exact frequency of the “operators” dialing console to trigger a long distance call. In a nutshell – you could call a local or free phone number, send the 2600 Hz tone through the phone line and then dial the long distance call number being only billed the cheap (or free) call. The mechanics behind this were already published in 1971 – but for obvious reasons they didn’t become that common in Germany before January 1st 1980. But yeah by then even the Germans saw how useful this technique is and it stayed very common until the early to mid 1990s when phone companies finally moved to “out-of-band” signals for routing phone calls.

Until then the 2600 Hz tone was so popular among “computer freaks” – some people even managed to whistle in 2600 Hz, some had tropical birds trained to whistle 2600 Hz, the 2600 Hz tone was on loads of audio tapes, there were selfmade (and “kit”) electronic devices around to produce it, there were toy whistles and with the popularity of sound cards and home computers with sound abilities there were obviously also numerous appz to produce the wanted frequencies. In the early 1990s most people in the “warez” scene used blueboxing to download tons of games and appz without having a high phone bill.

Acoustic couplers, hackers and the rest…

Even though it might be a surprise for some younger readers – before you connected to the internet via wifi or ethernet there were these crude little devices called “modems”. And – unthinkable to many – before the modem (and long before the internet – yes even without the internet some of us went “on-line”) there even more obscure devices to connect a computer through a phone line – the acoustic coupler.

Acoustic coupler in phone booth
Iconic German hacker “Wau Holland” connecting to a remote host via an acoustic coupler in a public phone booth.

These weird devices looked a bit like a stylish stand for a phone handset. Like the actual handset they contained a microphone and speaker – just in the opposite order of the handset – giving them the ability to “talk” and “listen” to the actual handset.

That might sound confusing to the younger audience – i already hear someone mumbling like “Hell why not just plug a modem into the phone jack?”. The answer is simple – back in the early 1980s there usually was no phone jack – phones at home were just directly “soldered” (not really, but imagine they were) to a cable that came out of the wall. And even if you had a jack back in the days – the phone companys in most countries had  a monopoly and strict rules that were usually “it’s not allowed to connect any device not issued by us” in a nutshell. So the early adopters of computer communication had to fall back to such primitive devices – the acoustic coupler was born.

Obviously they came out of fashion when phone jacks became common and phone companies either lost their monopole or at least “issued” their own “seal of quality” modems.

However – some hackers still kept them since these were (and still are) the only possibility to connect when there is a handset but no phone jack. Like for example in a public phone booth. This was also used by some real black hat hackers for illegal actions since when you call a BBS or other remote host they can usually trace your phone number. If the caller is a public phone booth though that information was not so valuable. Today you may be behind a dozen proxies or an open wifi – but back in the days you were in a phone booth. These were the days.