Friday, July 31, 2009

Conversations with dead PCs

Err, hello? Is this thing on? ~taps microphone, clears throat~

I've been using handheld computers of various sorts for about fifteen years now and I've just got a new one, but I thought I'd take a little wander down memory lane for a while before I talk about it.

The very first handheld PC that I ever used was a real revelation. My boss at the time had been given it as a freebie from Hewlett Packard and had never used it, so I snaffled it off her. It was a HP95LX and it was an IBM PC that literally was smaller than the user guide that came with it. It had a lot of useful stuff built into ROM, including Lotus 123 spreadsheet, and there were plenty of programs available for it too including one called Vertical Reader which flipped the screen sideways to display text files in a book format. The display was only 40 characters wide, which was a bit of a drawback to running most dos applications but on the plus side it would happily run for weeks on a pair of AA batteries. My main use for it was for reading usenet via a program I wrote which would take text files downloaded from my PC and display them as individual posts. It also worked for various email mailing lists that I was on at the time in those heady days before the web really got going. I've still got my HP95LX in the draw upstairs and it still works too.

The HP95LX was supplanted by the HP200LX with more memory (a massive 2MB!), more built in apps and an 80 character screen. I had a modem card for it too, although it was never really a realistic proposition as an internet PC. I did manage to get dial-up email to work, just about, although all of the plugs and adaptors probably took up more space than the machine itself. It really was a revolutionary PC and years ahead of its time. People still use them today, mainly because of the built in HP scientific calculator and there are services available to fit backlights and the like.

Next came the Psion Revo, which quite simply had the best keyboard and form factor of any handheld I have ever used. It unfolded in an ingenious and elegant way to reveal a superbly designed keyboard that was usable for a decent lick of touch typing. If it had a backlight and built in modem it would have been perfect, but as it was I mainly used it for e-books and a fair bit of programming using the built in EPOC operating system and tools. I also discovered the Mobipocket reader around this time, which was a easy way of transferring documents and news headlines onto a mobile device for reading.

The next two devices where a Palm III and a Handspring Visor Edge - a stylish Palm clone with a metal body and clip on stylus. The nice thing with these two was the ease of synchronisation - just drop them into the docking cradle and bob's your uncle. These two devices also had Mobipocket and with built in backlighting made reading in bed a realistic proposition. I never really managed to get the hang of the hand writing recognition though - it used a system of customised letters that almost matched regular hand writing, but not quite. Some good games on the system as well, not least Sol Free - a freeware solitaire program which saw extensive use over the years.

The last palm size pda was another departure, this time to a Windows Mobile OS with a Compaq Ipaq. For the first time, I had a handheld with built in internet access via wifi and a useful mobile browser. Unfortunately, the wifi doesn't seem to want to work correctly with WPA encryption on our router now, meaning that this machine now serves as another solitaire machine for moments of quiet reflection in the loo.

Moving on from the palm format, I purchased a Nokia N800 when I saw one going cheap in an internet sale. An excellent linux based handheld with a superb screen for video and a browser that handles flash pretty well. There's a lot of development still going on on the Maemo platform, not least the Mozilla based Fennec browser which is currently in beta testing.

I must give an honourable mention to the Nintendo DS and now the DSi which have quite useful web browsers available - as a cartridge for the DS and as a download for the DSi. Probably not what you'd choose for extensive browsing, but handy nonetheless. The DSi is mainly a games machine, although you can now upload pictures straight to Facebook from the camera.

My current work mobile is a Nokia E50 - technically a smart phone, although it is a pretty slow and clunky one. The saving grace though, is an excellent implementation of the Mobipocket reader which has been very useful for ebook reading at odd opportunities. It's always reassuring to have a couple of books available for those moments when you would otherwise be bored with nothing to read.

Finally, however, I come to the iPhone and it really is a thing of beauty. I have wanted one of these ever since the first gen, but held off for various reasons until the 3Gs was released. It really is everything in one package - a good camera with video, location services and maps, a music player that integrates with iTunes, hundreds of apps including an excellent ebook reader in Stanza and the best mobile browser that I have ever used. I love the way that pages are rendered, with a double tap zooming into a column of text. The iPhone version of Google reader (probably my most used internet service) is very slick too, making short work of my RSS lists. The touchscreen and keyboard are very well implemented, making text entry for Google talk instant messaging a realistic proposition. The drawbacks are no flash in the browser, which doesn't really bother me overmuch, and also I get rubbish reception on O2 in my house. Watch this space on that story.

1 comment:

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