The Nexus S has been a solid device and one that I have used nearly every day for probably the last 2 years. It’s been my primary mobile music device, as well as the device that has been plotting my walking and running progress, using the excellent Endomondo app. For the last few months though, the phone has felt like it’s taken a dip in molasses, everything has been running extremely slowly. When I leave the office on one of my walk nights, it can take a good 5 minutes before the Endomondo app is ready with it’s GPS connection and my music primed to go.
I also love to take photos. I used my iPod Touch for the longest time as my mobile snap camera, but slowly the Nexus S ousted that with it’s 5 megapixel camera, compared to the iPods then 1.3 megapixel camera. Using the Nexus to take pictures though was never intuitive, nor simple. I nearly always myself waiting an age for the camera app to load and be ready to go. I’ve lost count of the amount of photos opportunities I’ve been just too slow for. This never an issue with the iPod Touch.
Anyway the time came for me to look at a new phone. Before I go on, I have to admit, I’m not the most fervent of cell phone users. For the most part of the last 3 years, I’ve very rarely had minutes on my phone. Yes, I’m a staunch believer of Pay-As-You-Go phones. I hate being locked into a contract and paying an arm and a leg for a service I just won’t use that much. I have my bursts of adding minutes regularly, but on the whole my phone has been pretty much a glorified mobile computer. Recently though I’ve been missing that always connected feeling. There’s nothing nicer than having that question or thought pop in your head and be able to have it answered by typing in a search into Google or Wikipedia.
Anyway I digress. Recently both my wife and I decided it would be a good idea to upgrade our phones to something a little more modern. My wife was first. She originally wanted to get an LG Nexus 4 phone, especially with the last price drop. Unfortunately this was a pre-emptive strike to the new Nexus 5 being released, which meant that by the time she was ready to place her order they were totally sold out. It looks like the Nexus 5 is not coming until sometime late October, early November, which was too long a wait, so she decided to pick up a cheap phone for now with a view to replace it later with the Nexus 5. She finally plonked for the Samsung Discovery, which she managed to pick up for just $65. Not the latest, nor cutting edge Android device, but it seems to be a pretty solid performer and has certainly does everything my wife expects from a phone.
So now it was my turn. I too was tempted to get a Nexus 5, but also didn’t want to wait until November. I also looked at the Samsung Discovery, but it didn’t exactly excite me. I kept seeing the Nokia Lumia 520, one of the budget Windows 8 phones, but dismissed it. However over the next few days, it kept coming back into my sights. The 520 has dual core processor, 8 gigabytes of internal storage, an SD card slot and also a 5 megapixel camera. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. One of the things I do in my everyday job is create software, primarily asset and inventory management systems for Windows Mobile devices. That is devices that use either Windows CE or Windows Mobile 5 or 6. While all cell phone makers have migrated to Windows Mobile 7 or 8, industrial devices seem to be stuck using the older version of Windows for mobile devices. Buying a 520 would give me an opportunity to play with Windows Phone 8 development. The final thing for me to do was to check out some reviews of the phone to see what people thought of the phone. The reviews by people who had purchased the phone from Best Buy and Futureshop were certainly good. The phone itself was $129, again purchasing outright as a Pay-As-You-Go phone. So yes it was little more expensive than the alternative Android solutions, but it was also way more capable. I finally threw my cash down and took home my new phone.
My first impression on the phone were very good, apart from the cheesy, plastic packaging, the kind that allows it to hang on the store’s racks. A small thing and certainly not something I was going to hold against the phone. Once I put the simm card, battery and an 8gb SD card in the phone and put the back on, it felt nice in my hand. The 4 inch display is plenty big enough and indeed half an inch bigger than the Android phones I looked at. It took me about 20 minutes to go through the online activation before my phone was good to go.
Using a Windows 8 phone is a fairly different experience to either Android or IOS phones. Microsoft have a home screen, filled with something called Live Tiles. There have also found there way into Windows 8 for the desktop. Each tile is kind of like an intelligent shortcut. Not only can you click on the tiles to launch the application, they can also be used to provide information, like the amount of new emails, or updates available to the phone. The tiles can generally be small squares occupying 1 tile, an oblong occupying 2 tiles, or a large square taking 4 tiles. The larger the tiles the more information they can show.
Once the unit was configured for my service provider, in this case Telus, it was time to play with the phone. First impressions were very favourable. I read a recent article about how Nokia executives got hold of an early iPhone and realised that compared to their own Symbian offering, they were in a lot of trouble. One executive said he gave it to his 7 year old daughter and she just got it. This is pretty much the same for the majority of smartphones now, with Windows 8 being no exception.
Speed of operation is a big deal. Nothing kills the smartphone experience more than extensive periods of lag. This was something that was not all too prevalent with my Nexus S, but seemed to creep up on it over a period of time. Even compared to the Nexus S, after I had performed a factory reset, the Lumia 520 just left it in it’s dust. This is not really a fair comparison, as the Lumia 520 has a dual core processor, but it does go to show, how much more demanding we become.
First stop was the Windows Phone Store. While the Microsoft’s store pales in comparison to Apple’s or Google’s, you can still find pretty much an equivalent application for most tasks. Gamers are also fairly well catered for. One real surprise came when I purchased my first application. Upon checking out, I was given the option to pay using PayPal. Being an existing PayPal user this was a welcome discovery and has become my primary way to purchase on the Microsoft store.
So hardware wise, the Lumia 520 is not going to knock your socks off like it’s bigger brother the Lumia 1020, with it’s 41 megapixel camera, but it’s still surprising well equipped for the money. As I mentioned earlier it has a dual core processor, like many modern smartphones. Connectivity comes via 3G or WiFi. There’s also the obligatory GPS, which I use fairly extensively in conjunction win my running app Endomondo. There’s only a rear facing camera, but it’s well specced at 5 megapixels and takes surprisingly good pictures even in low light, which is nice considering it doesn’t have a flash. The lack of a front facing camera is not too much of a loss, I’m not the selfie kind of guy and Skype video chats are few and far between. I’m loving the dedicated camera button. I can hold this down, even when the phone is in sleep mode and then continual click on it to take pictures. This has changed enormously how much I used the camera. I have to admit, being used to the Google world, I do miss the ability to automatically upload my pictures to my Google account. Microsoft do provide a similar function, allowing all pictures to be automatically synchronized with Microsoft’s own cloud service, SkyDrive. While it’s nice to have access to the pictures from any machine that I have installed SkyDrive to, it’s still not as great an implementation as Googles. The screen is 4 inches and very responsive, in refresh rates and also it’s touch. Colours are sharp and crisp. Sounds is also pretty good, with decent volume and no nasty vibrations.
Now for the downsides…. er well there’s not really too much to add here. I think the only disappointment I’ve had is with battery life. The phone comes with a 1430 mAh battery, which with light use will easily get you through the day and then some. If however like me, you like to check Facebook, Twitter, play games, listen to music and use the GPS, then you are going to be lucky to get 8 hours of use. This isn’t really too much a problem for me. I can easily charge my phone while I am at work, but it has come up to bite me on a couple of occasions when I’ve been out and about. Fortunately I can charge my phone in my car, so the majority of eventualities are covered. The other thing is the lack of Google services. I would love to have my pictures uploaded to Google+ and while the navigation software is very capable, it’s hard getting used to something that’s not Google. This I think is really a small point. I’m still very much entrenched in the Google ecosphere on my tablet, desktop and Chromebook, so it would just be nice to have some of this functionality on the Lumia 520.
Overall I’ve found the Lumia 520 an excellent phone, especially for the low price. It’s incredibly well specced and will no doubt give me valiant service. I do have to admit though to having a hankering for the Lunia 1020. What can I say I love to take pictures. It will be interesting to come back in 6 months time, to see whether I have outgrown the Lumia 520. Will I somehow upgrade to the Lumia 1020, or will the Nexus 5 win me over. Time will tell. I the mean time, if you are looking for a well specced, off contract, inexpensive phone, the Lumia 520 is hard to beat.
I’ve always loved photography. Back in the day though, taking regular photos was just a pain in the backside. When I was preparing to come to Canada, there was lots of stuff I had to get rid of, being too impractical for me to bring, namely my vintage computer and console collection, which I sold on eBay for £700. One of the things I promised myself once I sold my collection, was to pick up a new fangled digital camera. Remember this was back in early 2000, so digital cameras were pretty expensive and also nowhere near as good as they are now.
I didn’t want to blow all my money on something overly expensive so settled on a Samsung Digimax 800K, for which I paid something like £120. This was a very small camera. Looking back on it, the resolution was also pretty pitiful at 0.8 megapixels. That being said it still took pretty decent pictures, with a decent dimension of 1024×768 pixels. Even though the camera had a flash, it was very harsh, so the best results were gained in natural light. Taking pictures was also a bit of hit or miss, as there was no rear LCD display. On the plus side though, because of this, the two AA batteries lasted quite a while. If I remember correctly the camera came with a 2 Meg SmartMedia card. SmartMedia was very similar to SD Cards, but were very, very thin. On a 2 Meg card you could get about 90 pictures, which was more than enough for my needs back then.
Although I used a digital camera, it was by no means my main camera, which was a Pentax regular film camera. I rolled that out for all the main occasions, using the digital camera, mainly for snapping and as an additional camera. You know that you’re not getting the most out of your photography though, when you discover a bag full of undeveloped films.
Sometime in 2003, I made the transition to digital photography full time, when I purchased a Pentax Option 33L. I didn’t buy this because of the film camera I already had, but as a result of researching the best in my budget. The camera took some really great pictures, but there was a noticeable lag between snapping a picture and it saving. It also had a cool feature where the LCD screen could be turned and flipped out, for taking awkward pictures. The camera took 3.2 megapixel pictures, which were far and away better than the Samsung, but you still noticed they weren’t as good as a film camera when getting the photos printed, especially if you wanted anything bigger than the standard 4×6. It was also the only camera I’ve had that took Compact Flash storage cards. The camera worked great until just before my twins were born in 2004. For some reason the camera kept failing to focus properly, resulting in blurring pictures, more often than not. I managed to borrow a camera for a few weeks, to take all the early pictures of the twins, but sorely needed a new camera.
In between work and cleaning up the various substances emanating from children, I did some more research on cameras and finally settled on the Casio QV51. For some reason I really loved this camera. It took great 5 megapixel pictures, was nippy and performed faultlessly. Unfortunately a piece of plastic from the flap covering the batteries and the SD Card slot, broke off. I tried securing it with tape, but it would only work for so long, before popping open. Also I found myself wanting to take more and more videos, but the Casio only took video without sound. The time had come to move onto yet another camera.
In the Summer of 2007, with a little extra money, my options for digital cameras were expanded somewhat. I don’t think I’ve ever researched something so much. I finally plumped for another Casio camera, this time the Casio Exilim EX-V7. Unfortunately the camera didn’t live up to the specifications. I mainly plumped for this camera because of the high quality video mode, but the resulting video was choppy and grainy. The pictures also suffered from very bad focusing. Now it could have been a duff camera, but I find that if something doesn’t feel right it’s better to go with you gut. Another thing that had nagged me, was the Casio didn’t take regular batteries. So I took the camera back and exchanged it for a Canon Powershot A640. So my love affair with photography began. The Canon was an amazing camera. It took 10 megapixel images, but there was something about the resulting pictures that just screamed of quality and put them way above par compared to the other cameras I had. Although it took 4 AA batteries, they lasted quite a while, but also gave the camera a nice weighty feel in you hands. The LCD screen also swiveled out, which was useful for taking self portraits, or for taking shots from an awkward angle. I took thousands of pictures with that camera, but last year I somehow misplaced it, after going on a family picnic.
During this time I also purchased a HP Photosmart M525 camera, as I went back to the UK in November and wanted to leave my wife the Canon. It was a 6 megapixel compact camera, that spent most of it’s life in my pocket. This camera also somehow disappeared. I’m beginning to think that cameras have legs. It took fairly reasonable pictures, but wasn’t a patch on the Canon, but then I only paid about $70 for it.
So last year I found myself without a camera. We were due to go to the beach in summer and I couldn’t go without having a camera, so back on-line I went to see what I could pick up for about $100 or so. I actually decided on a new Nikon camera, but when I got to the store found out it didn’t take AA batteries. The only other option was a Fuji AV150, which seemed on paper an OK choice for the money, taking 14 megapixel pictures and also 720P video. There’s something hard to quantify about the relationship you have with a camera. While the Fuji takes OK pictures, there’s something about the operation of the camera that just feels not quite right. This has resulted in me not taking half as many pictures as I used to do.
And that is my digital camera road trip. While I do hunger for a nice Canon DSLR camera, finances mean that will have to wait. I will probably pick up another Canon camera that’s similar to the Powershot A640 that I had, but will for the moment put up with the Fuji.
“Time is an illusion. Lunch time doubly so”, so begins a classic line from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Not that, that has much to do with this article, but you have to get the classics in when you can.
I’d worn a wristwatch for pretty much my whole life, barring say my first 4 or 5 years. I saw the introduction of digital watches, back in the 70s. I can remember my brother getting his first digital watch, an amazing piece of technology. Some things nowadays we take for granted, like the ability to look at your watch and see the time. Back in those days, digital watches were a huge drain on the battery, as they were LED, as opposed to the now more common LCD. To extend the life of the battery, the watch only showed the time, when you pressed the button. Now you didn’t just have to press the button, you had to hold it in. Looking back, this is almost laughable, but at the time, it was an amazing feat of engineering.
Although I had a brief dalliance with digital watches in the 80s, I always found my self coming back to the friendly face of an analog watch. This culminated in my Mum and Dad buying me a Seiko automatic watch. Ah the joys of a watch that you put on your wrist and forget. Waterproof, shockproof and self winding. I’d worn this watch for nearly 20 years, when finally the strap broke. Now it’s only a small pin that needs replacing, but it’s has sat in Sherri’s handbag for well over 2 years and in that time I have been watchless.
After having been so used to wearing a watch, the first couple of weeks were pretty odd. I used to get a sense of panic, as I would check my wrist for the time and upon remember I didn’t have a watch, would have to frantically hunt down the time, from another source. It was then that I became aware of my unhealthy obsession with the time. It’s incredible to realise just how much you look at the time, even when you have no real need. As I became less and less reliant on a watch, I began to feel myself becoming more relaxed. This became all the more apparent when I used to pick up the kids in the morning from school and play in the park. I had no pressing need to get back home, but I found myself constantly looking at my watch, counting down the minutes to a non defined lunch time. Without a watch I was much more relaxed and had more fun with the kids.
I know soon or later I have to get my watch fixed. It’s too nice to spend it’s life in a handbag, but now at least I will be more aware of the dangers of wearing a wristwatch and will endeavor to remain less driven by it.
For much of the time, news seems to travel at the speed of light, so I can’t believe that it’s taken me over 4 weeks to find out about the passing of Norman Wisdom. To the younger generation, this news will be but a small footnote, a old person who was once famous, to me however the news came as a something of an unpleasant shock, akin to finding out that a favourite uncle has passed away.
Now to some, this may seem a bit mellow dramatic, but to me, he was someone who was very much part of my childhood. His movies were always on the TV, especially during the school holidays. The downtrodden working class man, in the suit, just that little on the wrong side of fitting and the flat cap, slightly askew, always at odds with his boss, or superior. These movies were pure magic and while they weren’t exactly Oscar nomination candidates, they are filled with golden memories. Although 95 when he passed away on October 7th, Norman was never far from the public eye, enjoying a brief stint on Coronation Street, in 2000.
It was only upon watching a documentary celebrating his life, that I found out what a truly unpleasant childhood he had. He managed to struggle through a father who turned his back on him and living off the street, to join the army at 14, and from that point on, he finally began to find purpose and I think finally started to be happy and live his life.
Even more incredible was his amazing talent with music. To many people, the fact that he could play 12 or more instruments was a feat in itself, that he could play them with amazing dexterity and skill, was a testament to his skill at entertaining.
So to Norman Wisdom, I say thank you for entertaining me all these years, you will be truly missed.
The brother of a friend of mine, recently made a few posts on Facebook, picking many of the things that he remembered, when growing up and it kind of prompted me to blatantly steal a few of his memories, which of course I also shared. The first of these memories, is a particular favourite and something for which I am still fond.
To Americans they’re candies, but to kids growing up in the UK they’re sweets. When I was a kid, much of our time was spent in sweet shops, all of which had names. Within a 10-15 minutes walking distance to me, there was Sid’s, John’s, The New Shop, The Candy Shop, Ben’s Snackbar, to name but a few. Sid’s was the one that I had pledged my allegiance. OK, so that’s probably overstating things a bit, but Sid’s was very good to me growing up, letting me on many occasions run up a tab. Mind you I used to have a multitude of computer magazines on order, so while they knew I would always pay up or not get my magazines, there was more to it than that. I suppose going to the same sweetshop for over nearly 15 years, from about 3 to 18, also had something to do with it. The funniest thing was, although we called the sweetshop Sid’s I don’t think there was a Sid amongst the Indian guys that worked there. It was always rumoured that the whole parade of shops on the lower end of Bath Street, were going to be pulled down and something built in their place, but this seemed to be a persistent rumour that went on for a few years. Unfortunately one day, the rumour turned to reality, the parade of shops seemed to disappear overnight. Some of the shops had long since closed down, among them, Sunny’s the grocers, the Mecca cafe, the Balmoral chip shop, and Haverstiches I think it was called, which was a kind of mini mart. Once the shops got demolished, there was a rumour that a parade of shops was going to be part of the new structure, but it soon became obvious that this was not going to be the case, when the new structure, an extension of Moorfield Eye hospital began to take shape. I always felt a kind of regret, in not getting to say goodbye to the guys that serviced me with sweets, magazines and on occasion refuge from the odd skirmish.
Anyway where was I, oh yes sweets. Buying sweets back then was such an experience. Sid’s, had shelves of sweets in large glass jars, which they sold by the quarter of a pound. Some of my favourites were Rhubard and Custard, Army and Navy, Strawberry Sherberts, Kola Cubes, Pineapple Cubes, Midget Gems, Aniseed Balls and Pear Drops. I would estimate there were about 40 or 50 different jars of sweets to choose from. In addition were the usual staples that came in packets, like Curly Whirly’s, Mars Bars, Marathons, Opal Fruits, Spangles, Murray Mints and Pacers.
The final category of sweets were the penny sweets. I can remember when you could buy 4 of some of these for a single penny. Some of the favourites were Black Jacks, Fruit Salads, Flying Saucers, Keys, Gob Stoppers, Bazooka Joes bubble gum, Sherbert Straws, Licorice Catherine Wheels and Licorice Pipes. Also with the penny sweets were a few other things that were there for the impulse buy, some of these like the licorice Pipes, now deemed politically incorrect, like Sweet Cigarettes and Gold Rush Chewing Tobacco, which was coconut flavoured. I’m sure I’ve missed many peoples favourites, but these things come back to you the more you think of them.
Apart from sweets, crisps also used to take a fair whack of our school and pocket money. I found myself thinking of Monster Munch recently, specifically the roast beef flavour. Some of my other favourites were prawn cocktail, Fish and Chips, which had the greatest salt and vinegar flavour, Quavers, Wotsits and Potato Puffs, I think they were called, always a favourite with my brother.
I don’t think drinks have changed that much over the years. We had Coca Cola, 7up and Sprite. Courtesy of R Whites, one of the leading drink makers, we also had Lemonade, which had an unforgettable TV commercial and Cream Soda, which is quite different from the Cream Soda you get here in Canada, the one in the UK being clear and the one here, being a deep pink colour. In England we used to add milk to ours, not something I’ve ever been in a hurry to do here. We also had some quintessentially British drinks like Tizer, Irn Bru and Dandelion and Burdock, the latter I’ve been able to find in our grocery store here on the odd occasion.
I couldn’t finish talking about sweetshops, without mentioning Jubblys. For 2p you could get a frozen kind of diamond shape in various flavours. Man I used to devour many of these in the course of a day. I think they tried to reintroduce them again recently, but I don’t think they took off, mainly I think because they were much smaller and also considerably more expensive than their 70’s counterpart. You used to have to choose which end you wanted to chew the seem off, to gain access to the frozen treat within. One side was always kind of weak flavoured and rock solid, the other side was always full of flavour and fairly easy to chew on. I always like to eat the hard side first, which kind of made the softer side even nicer.
Other favourite frozen treats were ice poles, long sticks of flavoured ice and the usual ice lollies. Ice creams were also popular, but I’ve never really been into ice cream, even to this day. “Just one Cornetto, give it to…” someone else, to slap the old TV commercial in the face.
So there goes a whole raft of childhood memories, loosely related to sweets. All is not lost. Although many of the sweets mentioned earlier have disappeared from the shelves, there is still somewhere, thanks to the Internet, that you can go, to relive all those childhood, memories. A great company called A Quarter Of, which I’ve been keeping tabs on for a while, but alas they don’t ship to Canada, and even if they did, the cost would prove to be pretty expensive. For you lucky gits in the UK, binge away.
To those of you who regularly visit this blog, you may have noticed that all has not been well. With life being as hectic as it is, I have to admit, this blog has been neglected somewhat and I only found out about the break in service last week.
Anyway everything seems to be fixed and working, with the benefit that I am now using the latest version of WordPress. I’ll detail the problems in a little more detail soon.
So thanks for coming back, look forward to some new posts soon. Colin
Life can sometimes play cruel tricks. One of these tricks is procrastination. Once you get into this funk, things can spiral out of control pretty quickly. This has certainly been the case with me, over the last year or so. To be more specific, I used to write like a demon. I wrote articles for the Podcast User Magazine, the Canadian national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, as well as a myriad of other paid gigs and personal projects, including Indie Launchpad, and my own site ColinMeeks.com.
Things slide ever so slowly. Slowly though, you start using an kind of road block as an excuse. I sat down to write with good intention, but this is not the way I usually prefer to work. I’m good with deadlines, but as the recession began to take hold, writing gigs became hard to come by. Without these kinds of pressure, writing became purely a personal thing. This however meant that with no real deadlines, things would take me forever to complete. I needed a way to work easily, when I had that creative spark, instead of getting a creative idea and then trying to write it when I had a free moment near my main desktop computer. I knew the answer to my problem would be a Netbook, but picking one up, is not that easy when your disposable income shrivels to nothing, ah the joys of kids.
Anyway I was finally able to pick up a Netbook on Wednesday and I can already feel the creative juices burning a hole in my brain. As I type this, I have two children playing in the basement, and another watching, “Meet The Robinsons”. In this little free time slot, I’ve already finished off an article that’s been sitting on my computer for a few weeks and am very close to hitting the post button on this one. I do have a laptop, an unwieldy, but very powerful 17″ HP Pavillion, but just the thought of setting it up, forces one of those road blocks in front of me. It’s a great laptop, but the battery has long since given up the ghost, which means that I constantly have to have it plugged in. Even before that I was lucky to get 2 hours of of the battery. In comparison the Netbook I bought has a battery life of up to 8 hours. This hasn’t been the case so far, as I’ve been installing software and also generally abusing the Internet connection, but once things settle down I imagine I’ll get at least 5-6 hours.
Anyway I shall write a post soon, with a review of my Netbook. I did a lot of investigation and feel the one I pick has been right for me so far.
I was half way though the second part of my Computer Odyssey series when I was reminded of a computer game I used to play on the ZX81. This is a game that’s haunted me for many years. I always knew it was called London Bridge, but the only thing I can remember of the author, was that he had a Polish sounding name. This also wasn’t an off the shelf computer game, but a program listing that appeared in a computer magazine. The only thing I was certain of, was that it appeared in Sinclair User magazine, sometime between 1982 and 1983.
After a bit of Internet research, I finally had the name of the author, Jerome K Laskowski. I was also able to determine that the listing appeared in the December 1982 issue of Sinclair User. Unfortunately although I have several thousand snaps of ZX81 games, this isn’t one of them, but I did manage to find several other games from Jerome, including, Deploy, Future War and Race Track. So for a while the trail was cold and I thought no more of it, until while searching eBay recently found a seller offering every issue of the Crash magazine in PDF format and not just crash, I found ZX Computing and numerous other magazines on offer. This led me back to the greatest Sinclair resource of all, World of Spectrum, or WOS as it’s more affectionately known and BAM, there I found my Eldorado, virtually complete scans of every magazine, for the discerning Sinclair afficianado. Tucked away deep in the bowls, was the December 1982 issue of Sinclair User. On page 67, London Bridge, by Jerome K Laskowski.
OK, so now I had the game, it wasn’t much good unless I could actually play it, which was easier said than done. I sat down to type in the listing using a ZX81 emulator, and while the single click keyword entry was certainly great on a real ZX81, it majorly sucked on a PC emulating a ZX81. I thought there must be a better way and fortunately there was, a program called ZXText2P, which allows you to take an ASCII document and convert it to the P format compatible with the emulator. Now I think I typed in 10 or so lines into the emulator and it must have taken me at least 15 minutes, as former ZX81 and Spectrum users will remember, you had to press key combinations to get keywords to appear. Typing it in as a pure ASCII document, I managed to type the whole thing in under 10 minutes. Being able to play the game for the first time in 29 years was nearly within my grasp, or would have been if there hadn’t have been a typo in the program listing. I keyed in my first move and all I got in return was an error, “C/220”, which didn’t mean anything to me. Fear not, I pulled out my PDF copy of the manual and it told be :
“The text of the (string) argument of VAL does not form a valid numerical expression. ”
This basically confirmed to be something that I thought when I was looking at the listing, that, what appeared on the listing as a “,”, should have been a “)”. Once I made this correction the program sprang to life.
Now while the program is still interesting, it’s not quite how I remembered it. The passing of time, can be such a cruel mistress, but I think with a little careful thought, it would be quite possible to update it and really bring it up to date. We shall see what happens over the next little while. This exercise has also caused a few sparks to go off in my head. More of that another time.
Up until the age of 12, I’d never thought about what I wanted to do with regards to a career. In 1980 a seed would be sown, that would grown and map out the rest of my working life. On visit to the school library one break time, I was idly thumbing through some magazines. Paris Match was always a favourite, with pictures of alluring European women and the odd grotesque scene like a murder, or the aftermath of a suicide, was rich fuel for a furtive, pre-teen mind.
Anyway while picking through the other magazines, I picked up a fairly hefty one and realised that it was one on computers. Back then, computers filled rooms and cost thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds. I didn’t know enough then to know smaller and cheaper computers were making an appearance, but this fact hit me square between the eyes, when I saw a full page advert for the Sinclair ZX80 computer. It was very small, white and about half the size of an A4 sheet of paper. At one end it was about 2 inches deep and the other about half an inch, which meant it kinds of resembled a wedge shape, with a lump on the thicker side. The keyboard was a very, visually interesting shade of blue, with white lettering. The technical specification looking back were laughable, but here was a computer anyone could afford, well nearly anyone. Every day I went back to the school library, thumbing now exclusively through the computer magazines, lusting after a computer of my own, but not really knowing why. I think I might have asked for a ZX80 for Christmas, but it was still a lot of money, especially for something that could have been just a child’s fad.
In 1981 Sinclair launched the successor to the ZX80, predictably called the ZX81, with all manner of technical improvements. The biggest differences to me, were that it was now black, which made it look very futuristic, and it was cheaper. I seem to remember the ready built version (yes it was available in kit form, for the adventurous) was Â£79.95, but Wikipedia seems to disagree. As soon as I saw an advert for the ZX81, I desperately wanted it. It was virtually all I could think of. Fortunately for me, I had a birthday coming up and my Mum and Dad gave me the money I needed. After school on the fateful day, I caught the 73 bus near my school with my friend Steve and off we ventured to the West End, more specifically Oxford Street, to Bourne and Hollingsworth, inside of which was a W. H. Smiths, then the main outlet for Sinclair stuff.
I gently cosseted my new ZX81 at the checkout, along with a tape called Super Programs 1, which looking back was astoundingly written by ICL, the then, huge corporation, which was later to be taken over by Fujitsu. Why they were writing games for the ZX81, I have no idea. Upon getting home and unpacking my new computer, the first thing that struck me was the manual, which was 212 pages and took the user all the way from setting up the machine to actually programming. I didn’t need too much help hooking it up to my 14 inch black and white TV, as I had already owned numerous games consoles. Well you can call them game consoles, but they are not quite in the same league as todays XBox 360’s, PS3’s and Wii’s.
Bizarrely enough, the thing that really stumnped me was getting the tape player communication to the computer. I’d type the LOAD “” command into the computer, press play on the cassette player and be greeted to 2 minutes of awful electronic screetching. When the noise stopped, my ZX81 did nothing, but sit there, as it had the previous 2 minutes. For some reason it took me a while to realise I had to plug the supplied cable into the cassette player. Even then it was all a little hit and miss, but eventually I had loaded in my first computer program, the impressively titled Invasion from Jupiter. The title was impressive, but the games was a very simplistic counting game. Several aliens ‘*’ were randomly drawn across the screen and you had to guess their position, by counting across the screen, then typing in the number that corresponded to the alien’s position. This might have been simplistic, but considering this was the first computer game (not console) that I’d ever played, it was mighty impressive for this 11 year old. I remember dragging my Mum and Dad into my bedroom to show them the awesome power that was my computer. I’m not sure what they made of it, but I think they knew I’d found something I was passionate about.
Time is an illusion, computer time, doubly so. I lost track of the nights, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning, working my way through the manual and typing in computer programs from the magazines that had been created for this new, emerging market. That being said a computer program written in BASIC, didn’t take too long to type in, as the basic ZX81 only had 1K of memory, the same technically as 1024 Characters, or about 5/6 of the first paragraph. Even this isn’t quite accurate, as the computer itself needed some memory to work, which left the user with about 800 characters. The ZX81 had a few tricks for squeezing the most out of that 1K. One of these was to tokenise the keywords, which took 1 byte, instead of say the 5 bytes needed to save the word ‘PRINT’. The best way to make the most effective use of the memory was to program in machine code, the language the computer could understand natively, rather than BASIC, which the computer had to first convert to machine language, which is the reason BASIC is much slower. Machine code is commonly referred to as a low level language, meaning you are at the lowest level to the computer. BASIC is considered a high level language.
I remember typing in an amazing space invaders style of program that ran in 1K, printed in the Your Computer magazine. There was row after row of hexadecimal numbers like, AE, 00, FF, CB, CD, 09, 15… You had to be extra careful with this kind of program. It was imperative that you saved the program to tape first, as a single wrongly typed character, could cause the computer to crash, losing everything if it wasn’t already saved. You could have struck me down with a feather when after saving the completed program, I ran it and it worked perfectly. This was a miracle in itself as typing on the ZX81’s membrane keyboard was a pain, quite literally sometimes.
As I learnt more and more, I began pushing the ZX81 until it kept running out of memory. I managed to get the necessary funds to purchase a nice new 16K ram expansion pack, which I think cost about Â£49.95. Suddenly a whole new dimension of game-play presented itself. Unfortunately, so did the dreaded RAM pack wobble. Many times I can remember typing in a program and forgetting to save, then having the ZX81 crash as I inadvertently touched the RAM pack, or nudged the ZX81, causing the RAM pack to wobble and the ZX81 to reset itself, losing all my unsaved work. Clive Sinclair’s solution, was to use a bit of velcro, which I only found out about recently while watching a documentary drama, based on the kind of feud between Chris Curry, head of Acorn and Clive Sinclair in their race to be the BBC micro. Not really the kind of thing you want to hear from the head of a company, to who you just gave your hard earned money. For some reason I never did anything to alleviate myself of the RAM pack wobbles, but fortunately it wasn’t something I had to suffer for very long anyway.
I remember one day dragging my Mum and Dad to one of the unmissable events on every Sinclair enthusiasts diary, the ZX Microfair, this one held at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London. There I saw an amazing full action keyboard, which my Mum and Dad treated me to. Unfortunately the company Fuller, didn’t have any at the show on that day, so I had to return the following to to pick it up on my own. My new keyboard also had the added bonus of curing the RAM pack wobble.
I went to many ZX Microfairs, at the Horticultural Hall, and later at Alexandra Palace. In fact I was also an exhibitor at one ZX Microfair, working for the Micromania Software Shop, which used to be on Caledonian Road. Working at that shop was a blast, but more of that later.
One of the amazing things about the ZX81 is that it had no sound and no high resolution graphics. These limitations however did not stop people coming out with creative ways to overcome these limitations. For sound someone realised that if you switched the computer multiple times between SLOW and FAST modes, and turned up the TV’s volume, you could get the ZX81 to make a tone. Painstakingly, people began writing music for the ZX81, to be played this way. I think my most memorable was a rendition of Beethoven’s 9th, which seemed to be a piece of music used a lot on computers.
Using some low level creativity, it was even possible to boost the ZX81’s graphic resolution from a blocky 64×48 to an impressive 256×192. However high resolution games came relatively late in the ZX81’s life by which time most people had moved onto the ZX81’s successor, the ZX Spectrum, which had a native resolution of 256×192, all in colour, but not without it’s own limitations.
Looking back, I really wish I would have kept my ZX81. I sold it to Wayne Robinson from school, for 50 quid I think it was. Be interesting to hear what he did with it. Is it languishing in a closet somewhere? In the years since, I’ve owned a few ZX81’s. Unfortunately when I left the UK, I sold all of my retro machines, as they would not work over here in Canada, with the different power supply of 110V, instead of 240v and the different TV standard, NTSC as opposed to PAL. I did pick up a Sinclair/Timex TS1000, which is the North American equivalent of the ZX81.
So that’s how I got into computers. The next part to this series will be about the ZX Spectrum. I hope you enjoyed reading this, I’d love to hear about your first computers.
I love London with all my heart, but its always so sad to hear about the city I love, losing more and more of the things that define it. Roger Ebert the noted film critic wrote a wonderful blog post yesterday about the redevelopment of Jermyn Street, including the hotel 22 Jermyn Street, which I didn’t even know was a hotel, even though I’ve passed it hundreds of times and now will never get the chance to try it. The full blog post can be found here :