Category: Village Discount Outlets

Epson PhotoPC

Previously on Electric Thrift I mentioned that I passed on buying a Sony Mavica at Goodwill because it was missing the power supply and proprietary batteries.  I’m very glad I didn’t buy that camera because shortly after that I found an even older digital camera!

The oldest digital camera I can remember seeing was the Apple QuickTake 100 my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Bennett used in about 1995.  The second oldest digital camera I’ve ever seen is this Epson PhotoPC I recently found at Village Thrift.

Village Thrift has a “showcase” which is a section of supposedly more expensive items positioned on shelves behind a counter so that you have to ask the cashier to take a closer look.  This creates a dilemma because often times it can take awhile to get the attention of the cashier.  You have to really want to see an item in the showcase to justify waiting but the items are kept too far away to get a good enough look to really get interested in them.

I had seen the PhotoPC box back there for several weeks and never grasped the age of the thing.  Luckily there’s this place where the showcase’s counter ends and sometimes items spill over from the showcases’s rear shelves onto the normal, more accessible shelves.  That’s when I finally go a close look at the box and realized this was a digital camera box with screenshots from Windows 3.1! “Copyright 1995 Epson America, Inc.”  This is a survivor from the digital camera Jurassic period.

We tend to think of digital cameras as springing into existence as luxury objects in the late 90s, hitting their prime in the 2000s as people realized the utility of getting photos online and becoming ubiquitous after 2007 as the cheap ones were integrated into smartphones and tablets and the more expensive DSLRs overtook their film counterparts.

According to digicamhistory.com this was among the first digital cameras under $500.  You can see how they needed to make the camera extremely simple to meet that price.  Even though other contemporary digital cameras like the QuickTake 100 had LCD screens, the Epson PhotoPC has none.  There’s just a conventional viewfinder.  As a result, you can’t review photos you’ve taken on the camera itself, you have to connect to a PC.  There is however, a button that deletes the last photo taken.  Additionally, because there’s no screen you have just a tiny LCD display to tell you how the battery is doing, if the flash is on, how many shots you’ve taken, and how many shots you have left.

This is an esoteric analogy but the Epson PhotoPC reminds me of the Ryan Fireball:  That was a bizarre Navy fighter aircraft with both a piston engine and a jet; the PhotoPC is a cheap 90s auto focus point-and-shoot camera that just happens to be digital.  They’re both weird artifacts of a transitional time.

When you do connect the PhotoPC to a PC to look at the photos, you’re connecting with a serial cable because this camera predates USB.  For that matter, it also predates Compact Flash.  There’s 1MB flash memory built into the camera and an slot to add an additional 4MB of flash on a proprietary “PhotoSpan” memory module.  My camera has an empty expansion slot so the built-in 1MB of flash holds a mere sixteen 640×480 photos.

My parents old Dell Pentium III (which you may recall from the Voodoo 2 post) runs Windows 98 so I installed the EasyPhoto software, hooked up the serial cable and pulled some pictures off of the PhotoPC.  I can tell you that pulling photos off of this thing via serial cable is a lot like watching paint dry.  I watched the progress bar snail it’s way across the screen and was pleased when it got to 100%…when I realized that was just for one photo.  One 640×480 photo.  If you’ve got a full camera with 16 photos to transfer you might as well go make yourself a sandwich and catch an inning of the ballgame while that transfers.

However, when you think about the PhotoPC in context even this molasses pace would have seemed Earth-shattering in 1996.  Imagine you were one of the  people venturing out onto the Internet back then.  If you wanted to post a digital photo to a website or attach it to an email you would have to either:

  1. Take a roll of photos on a film camera, have them developed, then scan them, and then presumably crop the photo and resize it for the Internet.
  2. Take photos with a Polaroid camera, scan them, and then presumably crop the photo and resize it for the Internet.

I’ve done enough scanning to know that that would be immensely time consuming.  Once you had a digital camera, even a barebones one such as the PhotoPC you could almost go straight from taking a photo to getting it on the Internet.

Not only that but you could take 16 photos, spend 15-20 minutes transferring them to the PC, wipe the camera and take another 16 photos, over and over.  Sure, this would be no good on your trip to the Grand Canyon but if you were having a family reunion at your house or another scenario where you’re close to a PC this would have seemed miraculous.

So, what do photos taken with the Epson PhotoPC look like?  A lot like the photos I remember seeing on the Internet in the late 90s:  A bit fuzzy.  Strange color artifacts.  Not great focus.

EPC_Photo_Sky EPC_Photo_Pioneer2 EPC_Photo_Pioneer1 EPC_Photo_Mac EPC_Photo_Lego EPC_Photo_Box EPC_Photo_Trees

Keep in mind that in 1996 you’d be lucky to have been running 800×600 at 32bit color on your monitor.  Back then, 640×480 images were serious business.

The wonderful thing about finding this camera is how it is so utterly an artifact of the past but also totally tied to today.  The PhotoPC was one of rat-like mammals that scurried amongst the film dinosaurs.  A film camera and my iPad are of two totally different eras, but the PhotoPC and my iPad are clearly distant but related ancestors.

 

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Stuff I Didn’t Buy #1

As you may have gathered already from reading this blog, I buy a lot of things at thrift stores.  But, conversely, I also don’t buy a lot of things at thrift stores.  My Dad and I usually do a thrift store run three or four times a week and it’s rare that I buy something interesting enough to write about on the blog.  Many times I just come back with a book or two.  Stumbling across something interesting enough to write about on the blog is an uncommon and happy occasion.

Other times though, I’ll see something that was interesting but that I decided for various reasons not to buy,  Recently I decided to start documenting these things with my iPhone.  Keep in mind that taking photos of items in thrift stores is not easy.  I don’t want to draw too much attention to myself and often the lighting is very bad.  These are not pictures that are up to normal Electric Thrift levels of clarity and composition.

This Bang & Olufsen Beogram 2400 turntable was a real surprise to find nestled within the serpentine labyrinth that is the Abbey Ann’s off of Tallmadge Circle.  You can often find stereo equipment at that Abbey Ann’s but this was a cut above their usual offerings.

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What this had going for it was that is a striking European early-1970s design.  It was in the original box, including the cartridge, the Styrofoam packing material and the instructions.  I adore the look of European electronics so this sort of thing is right up my alley.

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There were two problems here.  First, I think the price was a bit steep, though Abbey Ann’s is known to negotiate quite a bit.  The second problem was that all of the glue on this thing had decided to dry up and much of the trim was coming off.  It’s a bit hard to see in this photo but the wood-grain on the front was just hanging off.  The little metal plate on the top of the end of the tone arm was coming off as well.  The dust cover was getting stuck on something and would not close correctly.

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I think if this has been one of B&O’s linear tracking Beograms I would have bought it in this condition.  However, I’m already backed up on conventional turntables and this B&O looked like it was going to be trouble so I took these photos and moved on.

A few weeks later this 1980s JVC boombox showed up at that same Abbey Ann’s

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This tugged at my heartstrings a bit because my Dad had a similar (probably slightly more recent, because it was black) JVC boombox in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  I fondly remember making recordings with my brother using the built in microphone and tape recorder.  My Dad had originally bought that JVC boombox because it got shortwave, like this one.

Despite all of the 80s electronics I buy, I haven’t yet gotten into boomboxes.  I think I’m mainly waiting for one that’s in nice condition and fully functional.

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Any time I’m looking at something with a tape player I’m worried about the condition of the mechanism.  There are so many mechanical parts, including belts, that can deteriorate.  I remembered that eventually the tape mechanism in my Dad’s 80s JVC boombox broke and I wasn’t really in the mood to spend even $10-$15 to find out if this boombox had any of the myriad of problems that tape decks can develop.

Those tape issues were also the first thing I thought of when I saw this Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck that showed up at the State Road Goodwill in Cuyahoga Falls.

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I’ve wanted a reel-to-reel for a while now and this one is gorgeous in a mid-1970s silver and wood-grain way.

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There were three problems here.  The first is that reel-to-reels are notoriously troublesome.  I believe one of the more notable moments of my Dad’s thrift store shopping career was when a reel-to-reel he purchased started smoking when he brought it home and turned it on.

The second problem was that while this is a great looking item it lacks two features I want to see in a reel-to-reel: Four channel output and some sort of exotic noise reduction like Dolby A or DBX.  To me, the appeal of a reel-to-reel should be it’s exoticism compared to the common cassette deck and having fancy noise reduction should be part of the fun.

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The third problem was that Goodwill wanted $50 for this thing.  Sometimes I really question the pricing of some of this stuff I’ve seen at thrift stores lately.  Asking $50 for something that’s for all intents not tested and sold “as-is” is not cool.

Coin collectors have a pricing theory that works like this: The price of a coin starts with the worth of the metal (copper, silver, gold, etc) and then you add a “numismatic premium” for the rarity of the coin and the condition of the coin.

I like to think that electronics at thrift stores should work in the opposite way.  You start with what a sort of idea of what the thing should be worth and then subtract a “broken-ness risk premium” for the possibility that the thing is incomplete or broken.

$50 is a fair price to pay for a fully operational, totally complete (minus instructions and packaging) reel-to-reel.  But it fails to take into account my risk in buying a potentially broken item.

This Memorex S-VHS deck from the same State Road Goodwill was the first S-VHS deck I has ever seen at a thrift store.

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It was in pretty bad shape and my same concern with the tape mechanisms on the boombox and the reel-too-reel applied here as well.

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There was also a front panel door missing.  This looked like a lot more trouble than it was worth, whatever price they had on it.

Completeness is also a common reason I don’t buy some things.

This strange thing was at the Village Thrift on State Road a few months ago.  I didn’t know what it was at first.  Maybe some sort of TV?

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When I turned it around and read the label things became clear.

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This was some sort of pen-based tablet PC input device, like a poor man’s Wacom Cintiq.

I have learned from an experience with a Wacom Intuos (which I someday may write about) that you should never buy a pen-based tablet of any type without the pen because finding a suitable pen can be very expensive.

Completeness was also the reason I didn’t buy this Sony Mavica camera.

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Comparatively early digital cameras are an area I’ve wanted to start collecting, so I was happy to see this Mavica show up at the Midway Plaza Goodwill.  Unfortunately, the very proprietary looking battery (Sony, natch) was missing.  I looked for a place where I could at least plug in an AC adapter.  Then, I realized that there was this notch cut out of the area around the battery door with a little spring loaded door.  it seems like rather than having an AC adapter this model had a thing that went into the battery compartment with a cord coming out of it (hence the little spring-loaded door) that acted as the AC adapter.  Another piece of proprietary crap I would have to pay shipping for on eBay.  Not worth it.

Sony TR-730

This is my Sony TR-730 transistor radio.

I’ve discussed before how there’s this mish-mash section at Village Thrift where you have the possibility of finding anything and everything.  It’s so packed with items of all types that you have to make several passes before you’re sure you’ve seen everything.  One day recently I had made several passes of these shelves and had decided there was nothing I particularly wanted to buy.  But then, just as I was about to give up, I spotted what I thought at first was an electric razor in a leather pouch.

Upon closer inspection I was surprised to find that it was actually a very small, very old Sony transistor radio, the TR-730.

After we brought it home I was eager to hear it working…And this is when we discovered, via this note we found in the battery compartment, that it needed an odd 4.5v battery.

Fortunately, equivalent batteries are still made (apparently they were used in cameras) and after a trip to Battery Bob’s site I had a PX21 in hand and the TR-730 fired right up.

I’m not sure what this thing sounded like in it’s heyday but it certainly works now.

That’s 1350AM WARF, a sports station that basically saturates this part of Northeast Ohio with it’s signal.  I can tell you that the tuning wheel on this TR-730 is a bit sticky so it’s not great for fine tuning.  I think I would prefer a larger wheel like the TR-1 has.

But all things considered, I’m very amused that this 50 year-old radio still works.

Most of what I know about the TR-730 I found on James Butter’s Transistor Radio Design site.  He quotes an advertisement in a Pittsburgh newspaper for the TR-730 dated November 1961, which places this radio squarely in the Kennedy Administration.  Depending on how old you are you may not think of transistor radios as particularly antique devices but consider that this radio has most likely celebrated it’s 50th birthday.  The $39.95 price for the radio in 1961 translates to about $312 in 2013 dollars.  Buying one of these radios would have been very much like buying a smartphone today.  I suspect that if you bought one of these in 1961 it would have been the most technologically advanced device you owned.

What you got for your $39.95 in 1961 was a tiny AM radio with a tuning wheel, a volume wheel, and a headphone jack.  That’s it.  No FM.  No “bass boost”.  No back-light.  No station memories.

But what you did get was extreme portability at a time when such a thing seemed miraculous.

In the first entry on this blog, about the Casio TV-1000 micro TV, I noted how the micro TVs of the 1980s in some ways foreshadowed today’s smartphones.  If you want to go further though, you have to look back at the first handheld transistor radios of the 1950s and 1960s.

If the smartphone revolution has taught us anything it’s that any technology with mass-market appeal will be shrunk until you can carry it in your pocket.  The smartphone exists because there is tremendous appeal in having The Internet with you and accessible at all times.  The games and camera and phone aspects of the device just come along for the ride.  What you really want is the Internet with you at all times.

The Game Boy existed because of the appeal of having a videogame with you at all times.

The iPod (and the other portable music players like the Archos and the Nomad and others) existed because of the appeal of carrying thousands of songs (if not your entire music library) with you at all times.

Before that, the Walkman existed because of the appeal of carrying one album with you at all times.

In order for something to be with you at all times it has to fit into your pocket.

I may be mistaken but I believe the first time this “fit it in your pocket” phenomenon occurred was the transistor radio revolution from the introduction of the Regency TR-1 in 1954 into the 1960s.  Now, there had been portable radios for decades by this point, like Zenith’s Trans-Oceanic series, but these are large, heavy things that you might put on the ground next to you when you were having a picnic.  There’s a difference between making something battery powered and giving it a handle and putting it in your pocket.

Outside of say, a flashlight, the transistor radio was the first piece of electronics that the average person might keep on their person.  In my mind that’s a tremendously important point in the history of technology.  As someone who grew up surrounded by tape players, radios, TVs, later personal computers, and now smartphones and tablets the idea of a world before ubiquitous consumer electronics seems fascinatingly distant and alien.  In that respect, something like the TR-730 represents the first dim moments of the era I recognize as my own.

Of course the reason why we are surrounded by consumer electronics today is because of the triumph of the semiconductor and the transistor and again the TR-730 represents the opening moments of that era as well.

The TR-730 also represents the early moments of Sony’s entry into the American consumer electronics market.

When I was gathering the materials for this entry I was thinking about how much Sony stuff I own.

For a long time I’ve felt some ambivalence towards Sony.  There was a time when the Dreamcast was being crushed by the Playstation 2 that I really hated Sony, but today I have this general feeling that they’re a company that despite their intense drive to innovate has a tendency to drop the ball halfway to greatness.

If the MiniDisc had had a way to quickly and effortlessly copy music from a CD to a MiniDisc, like the iPod did years later, it might have been a tremendous success rather than the middling semi-failure that it became.

The PSP debuted in 2005 and coupled a fast CPU (for a portable device of the day) with WiFi and (once you bought a mandatory memory card) mass storage.  Sony had all of the ingredients in front of them to have invented the App Store two years before Apple, but they dropped the ball and had to rush to create something similar after Apple did.  Before that point, the process of putting demos, music, pictures, and videos on the PSP involved putting files in bizarrely named folders on the memory card.  It seemed like no one at Sony had considered the consumer’s perspective in this at all.

The PS Vita is basically the best portable game hardware ever created…and Sony can’t quite figure out what to do with it.  Does it exist for miniaturized versions of console games?  Does it exist for $10 indie games?  Does it have a chance competing with tablets and smartphones?

It’s as if this company loves to build stuff but can’t figure out how to make it really usable or delightful for the consumer in the same way that say, Apple can.

The world of consumer electronics is changing.  Whole classes of electronics like digital cameras, video cameras, eReaders, digital audio players, radios, and other devices are being subsumed into the smartphone and the tablet.

The era where you could simply bring out another new model of say, a TV or a DVD player, or a camera and people would buy it simply because it was new and it contained one new feature are quickly coming to an end as people just want one new device that does all of these things.

The world that Sony thrived in where they could have tendrils into every consumer electronics market is dying.  The TR-730 also represents the birth of this era as well.  Does something like the PS Vita represent the terminal end; the end of the Sony era?

Panasonic Senior Partner

This is my Panasonic Senior Partner a “luggable” portable MS-DOS computer from the mid-1980s.

All buttoned up like this, you might wonder if it’s some sort of old video camera case.

When you open it up and plug in the keyboard, it becomes apparent that this is actually a very old PC…A very old PC that works.

I found this Senior Partner in the Fall of 2011 at Village Thrift and it’s probably one of my proudest thrift store finds of the last 5 or so years.  It’s become an incredibly rare experience to find 1980s PC hardware at thrift stores and it blows my mind that this one is still in working order.

As PC hardware goes, this is almost as basic as it gets.  You have an 8088, a monochrome CRT monitor (with a DB-9 connector for color RGB on the back), a serial port, a parallel and two 5.25″ disk drives.  There’s no hard drive.  There’s no built-in clock.  This machine predates mice on the PC by several years (unless you used a serial mouse).  The only “luxury” is that this machine has is 512K RAM and a built in thermal printer hidden under a flap on the top of the computer.  I suspect the computer’s name derives from the fact that with a built-in printer this machine could be considered a portable office for mid-1980s businesspeople.

But, there’s no battery.  This is not a mobile machine.  It’s a machine you lugged from place to place where you had a place to sit it down and AC power available to plug into.

The keyboard doubles a a cover to enclose the monitor and floppy drives.

When you detach the keyboard you have to pull the retractable keyboard cable out it’s hiding place below the “Panasonic Sr. Partner” label to the left of the CRT and attach it to the connector that hides under a cap on the keyboard.

There are also little lifts you can pull out from the keyboard to place it at a comfortable angle.

As the name entails this was a machine its designers intended for business users.  The monochrome CRT is extremely crisp for word processing and spreadsheets.  When (before the paper ran out) I fired up an old copy of Print Shop the thermal printer gladly printed with no additional setup.

One could imagine some business travelers in a hotel room preparing for a meeting the next day huddled around the tiny green screen furiously printing curled up thermal printed documents…Almost.

Consider the fact that this thing is 35 pounds.  Imagine lugging that around an airport.  There’s a good reason why the luggable form factor that began with the Osbourne and the Kaypro luggables and continued with the famous Compaq Portable was a technological dead end.  The Senior Partner is even larger than the Macintosh despite that machine having a larger screen not actually being intended to be luggable.

The reason for this, as I understand it is that luggables were just normal PC components with all of their heft and hungry power consumption, wedged into an unorthodox case that happened to have a handle.   The engineering advances that needed to happen to make portable computers into “laptops” happened later in the PC realm (though certainly the Grid Compass and a few others were showing the way even when the Senior Partner was on store shelves).

As an antique though, this thing is fantastic.  The Senior Partner is a self-contained retro-computing party.

Easy to setup and quick to put away when you’re done.  When it goes back on the shelf you can easily stack stuff on it’s hard shell.

And simply as an object it looks fantastic.  Sure, it does not look (or act) like the glorious 80s vision of the future embodied in the brilliant Macintosh and Macintosh SE designs.  There’s no Snow White timelessness here.  But, what the Senior Partner does look like is the offspring between a Mission Control command console and an armored personnel carrier.  You have no doubt as to which floppy drive is which because there are huge thick drive letters printed beneath the drives.  The huge embossed “Panasonic” name looks like what you see on the back of a pick up truck.  This machine looks serious in a way that I just adore.

Nothing says retro quite like a brilliant glowing green CRT screen.

When you’re sitting with a machine like this you feel a closeness to technology that is unlike using a computer today.  When you use a modern computer you are swathed in warm colors and pictures designed to make you feel comfortable.  You can quickly switch between multiple programs or browser tabs.  There are a million things saying “use me”.

On a machine like the Senior Partner you basically have one thing in front you.  You have one program with a handful of options so it demands concentration, but the high contrast of the screen makes it easier to concentrate because only the program is glowing and all else is empty darkness.  This is the cyberspace equivalent of a sensory deprivation chamber.

The closest thing I can compare that feeling to is using an e-Ink Kindle.

I suspect that this machine spent a lot of it’s life “buttoned up” and that accounts for what great shape it’s in today.  Despite being almost 30 years old it seems like a missing pad on the “bottom” side that faces downward then the machine is laying handle side up and a few scuffs are the only things wrong with it.  There was little opportunity for dust to get into the keyboard and the disk drives.  I also suspect that this machine may not have gotten that much use in general considering the lack of burn-in on the monitor.

As a retro-computing machine, it is not perfect.  For one thing I have no idea how to get inside of the machine, or if that is even a good idea.  On the one hand, generally if a machine has a CRT I don’t want to get inside of it.  On the other hand, I can’t find an obvious way to replace the printer paper and I wonder if they just intended you to open the case for that.  The back of the machine has what looks to be where an indication of an internal expansion slot, which would be more evidence that you are intended to be able to safely get inside of the machine.

Having only a monochrome screen, no hard drive, only 512K RAM, and no joystick port makes this less than ideal to play many old games or some of the more prominent software I’ve collected.  As you can imagine finding software for a PC with 512K RAM, no hard drive, and only 5.25″ floppies might be an issue.

However, I’ve had some good luck in this area.

When I first bought this machine I remembered that in my parent’s attic I had saved the 5.25″ floppies from an Epson 286 we had gotten as a hand-me-down from my aunt in Cleveland in 1995.  When we had discarded the Epson I had made sure to save the 5.25″ MS-DOS boot and installation disks as well as some educational programs, including the immortal classics The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.

This meant that when we brought the Senior Partner home from Village Thrift I had a working DOS startup disk and a few programs so I had the bare minimum needed to see the machine working.

Several months later I found this insane lot of 5.25″ PC games on ShopGoodwill.  I think I paid $16.25 for this lot including ShopGoodwill’s usually exorbitant shipping cost.  What I received is a treasury of late 80s/early 90s PC games.

Here are just a few of the games in that box.

Many of these games require hard disk installation but several, like Ultima I (which we saw running on the Senior Partner in the Commodore 1084 post) and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are perfectly at home running on an early floppy-only PC.  It turns out that many games from the late 1980s basically assumed a PC with 384K-512K RAM so they run just fine on the Senior Partner.

Finally, last year my uncle gave me his old PC and the Commodore monitor I mentioned previously.  Along with that was his box of 5.25″ disks that went with the PC.

The best thing in the box was a disk labeled IBM DOS 3.2.

The Epson MS-DOS 3.30 disk I had been using was fine for booting the machine but because it was only indented as a minimal OS to be used to install the other disks it was missing several important utilities like CHKDSK.  With my uncle’s DOS 3.2 disk I could finally confirm how much memory the machine had.

There was also a disk labeled Lotus 1-2-3, which I had badly wanted to see running on a vintage machine.

There was a time when this screen was a common as the Google homepage to computer users.

Using this machine also taught me a lot about MS-DOS.  Today DOS is remembered as a difficult monster of an OS; cold to use and brutal to configure.  Some of that is true.  Some of that was Apple advertising crud.  But I think a lot of that image of MS-DOS came from the time after about 1988 until the release of Windows 95 (and even a little after) when so many odd tricks had to be crammed into DOS so that it could use more than 640K memory and use new hardware like sound cards that were not supported without strange autoexec.cfg and config.sys changes.  The nonsense you had to go through to use the hardware in your PC had was truly insulting.

However, in the earlier period the Senior Partner belongs to DOS seems almost tame.  You change directories.  You list the files in a directory.  You run a program.  You change drives.  You format a disk.  It almost seems quaint compared to the ordeals that people had using DOS later.  DOS was clearly meant for a machine like the Senior Partner; this was its heyday.   After that point it slowly turned into a curmudgeonly antique.

I remember reading DOS for Dummies and seeing all of these commands the author basically told you you shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.  I wondered what had happened for these commands to have been put into the OS and never taken out in the intervening years.  These were things for configuring serial ports and display modes that made made sense on machines like the Senior Partner in the 1980s but were increasingly less relevant as time wore on.  The large group of people who first encountered PCs in the early 90s ran headfirst into this confusing period where DOS was a geological dig of successive eras stacked on top of each other.

To use a machine as old as the Senior Partner seems quaint not just because of it’s age but because it’s so old that DOS actually makes sense.

VideoLabs ScholasticCam

This is my VideoLabs ScholasticCam desktop video camera from 1999, a sort of TV camera on a goose-neck mount that based on it’s name seems to have been intended for classroom use.

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Oddball stuff like this is why I love the Village Thrift on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls.  At other thrift stores you’re lucky to get a smattering of mundane electronics like old TVs and VCRs.  At Village, they do have an electronics section but they also have another section that’s just a long set of shelves full off everything imaginable: Housewares, videogames, cookware, audiobooks, sporting goods, board games. medical supplies, etc.  On a typical trip to Village Thrift my Dad and I will scrutinize these shelves several times because lost in the piles can be real gems.

The ScholasticCam is one of those things that you see out of the corner of your eye and think “What is that?”

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When I spotted this thing I was hoping it was a web cam that magnified so that you could capture close up images of small objects on a PC.  It turns out that it’s a bit too early for that.  It’s actually a tiny TV camera attached to S-Video and Composite outputs.

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The box implies that you can use it as a web cam but when you read the fine print it says in order to use it like that you need a video capture device on your computer, which they do not supply.

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On the other side of the box it looks like VideoLabs sold a line of similar cameras for other purposes.  I would love to have the model that attaches to a microscope.

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At first it looks like the ScholasticCam does not have any obvious controls.  The base has nothing whatsoever other than a connector for the power/video-out dongle and the VideoLabs logo.

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There’s a power button and indicator light on the camera.

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What’s not immediately obvious is how to focus the camera.  See that cone-shaped thing at the bottom of the camera?  That twists for focus.  It feels a little too free and loose when it turns.  I would prefer something a bit more smooth and firm.

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One problem I noticed is that focusing the camera inevitably bumps it slightly out of position.  You end up having to very delicately twist the focus while watching your video source to see how you’re doing.  It seems like twisting in one direction and looking in another leads to more camera bumping.

To it’s credit, the ScholasticCam is built like a tank.  The base is well weighted so that you can bend the neck very far without it having balance issues.

I was very curious to see what this camera’s pictures looked like on a computer.  I don’t have any modern video capture equipment but I do have this Dazzle Digital Video Creator USB (circa 2000) that I found at the Midway Plaza Goodwill in Akron (it’s a pretty safe bet it will show up in a future blog entry).

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The Dazzle, like many PC peripherals of it’s day, does not have drivers for modern versions of Windows (Vista, 7 and 8).  I had to pull out the old Gateway Pentium 4 I used in college to fire up Windows XP and install the Dazzle’s drivers.  I quickly discovered that with the Dazzle the image doesn’t update on screen at full speed.  You can output to a TV and see a 30-fps view of what you are capturing, but I was too lazy to hook that up.  So, making fine adjustments to the ScholasticCam while watching in 5-fps on the computer screen was a bit of a pain.

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The Dazzle is sitting on top of the Gateway mini-tower and the ScholasticCam is sitting on the table with some objects I want to look at.

The first time I tried hooking up the ScholasticCam and the Dazzle to the Gateway it was at night and I quickly found that the lamp I had on in this room was not providing enough illumination for the ScholasticCam.  So I improvised with a little LED light with legs.

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The next day I moved into the living room so that I could try some images under daylight.

This 2012 Hawaii Volcanoes America the Beautiful Quarter presents a difficult target to image.  Keep in mind that this is connected via S-Video (which is alright, but not great) through a low-grade video capture device and JPEG compressed.  This is under the artificial lighting at night.  As I said before, focusing was difficult because every time you focus you bump the camera.

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There are a lot of strange color aberrations and much of the detail on the eruption was been lost.

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This image taken with daylight is a little better.  At least you can see the eruption.

One of the problems is that large focus cone ring on the ScholasticCam does not do you any favors for lighting.  It would be better if it had a built-in lamp on the camera.

Here’s another coin, a 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar.  First, under artificial lighting.

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We see more of those color aberrations but the details are good.  And now, under daylight.

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The colors are bit better under daylight.  But, the color fidelity on this camera, and the resolution it outputs at makes everything look like it’s being taken underwater by a submarine.

Something else I noticed is a spherical aberration in the lens.  This TextelFX² chip is clearly supposed to be square.

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This Intel 486 chip is also supposed to be square.

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I spent some time trying to focus this image of the serial number on the bottom of this Apple Desktop Bus Mouse for some time and I thing I got a good example of what a properly focused image looks like.

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Honestly, it seems like my iPad gets better images than this.

Now, it could be that without having the manual to this thing, I’m not giving the ScholasticCam a fair shake.  It also could be that this camera is not intended for taking such close up images.  But it seems like this well built and obviously highly engineered camera from the late-1990s has been thoroughly outclassed since then.  It also reminds me that phone camera tech was producing images of similar quality to this just a few years ago.  It makes you appreciate how far CCD technology has come.

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SNK NeoGeo Pocket Color

This is my NeoGeo Pocket Color (NGPC), a short-lived handheld videogame system that the somewhat esoteric Japanese company SNK sold from 1999-2001.

I believe I found it at Village Thrift sometime well after the system was discontinued in the United States in 2000.

Village Thrift has a good habit of taking a lot of items that go together, like a NGPC and several games, and putting them together in a clear plastic bag.  I remember finding it at their showcase, rather than the electronics section.

I’m also not sure if the scratch on the screen was there when I bought it or if that happened later.

NGPC_Collection

The games that were in that plastic bag along with the NGPC were:

Sonic The Hedgehog Pocket Adventure, a Sonic the Hedgehog platformer:

NGPC_Sonic_Pocket_Title NGPC_Sonic_Pocket_Screen1

Bust-A-Move Pocket, an entry in the well-known puzzle game series that resembles Bejeweled:

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Baseball Stars Color, a fairly straightforward baseball game:

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Neo Dragon’s Wild, a collection of “casino” games:

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Metal Slug 1st Mission, a portable version of SNK’s Rambo-like side scrolling platforming shooter:

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And finally Metal Slug 2nd Mission, the sequel to Metal Slug 1st Mission:

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Oddly enough, there were no fighting games in that lot because that’s what SNK was known for and what enthusiasts wanted the NGPC for.

There are several neat and interesting things about the NeoGeo Pocket Color hardware.  The first is that it has this tiny spec sheet for the display written above the screen.

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You know, in case you ever need to look up it’s pixel pitch.

The screen on the NGPC can be difficult to see in all but direct sunlight and it can also be a pain to photograph.  So, if my screenshots look odd, that’s why.

The need for very bright light in order to see the colors well was a problem with a lot of the color portable systems of this time period.  I fondly remember the uncomfortable position I had to sit in to play Tetris DX on my purple Game Boy Color while hunched below a reading light that was attached to my bed.  Penny Arcade memorably poked fun of the difficult to see screen on the Game Boy Advance in 2001.  The rise of back-lit screens like the one on my Game Boy Micro finally alleviated this problem.

The unfortunate thing is that when you see screenshots of games from the NGPC and Game Boy Color from emulators you realize what beautiful colors those games were putting out and how the hardware made them almost impossible to see.

The NGPC has a unique 8-way joypad located on the left side of the console. This was the system’s most memorable feature and one that people would be wishing for on other portable game systems for years afterword.

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Unlike the control stick you might see on an XBox controller this is a digital control pad, rather than an analog one.  However, because it can move in eight directions it’s easier to point in a diagonal direction than a conventional cross-shaped D-pad like you find on Nintendo systems.  SNK specialized in 2D arcade games that had sophisticated joysticks so it’s no surprise to find something like this on their portable system.  The joypad has a really solid feel and makes a lovely clicking sound as you move it around.

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On the back the NGPC curiously has two battery covers.  The system uses two AA batteries to power the system and one CR2032 button battery to backup memory to save games and settings.

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If the CR2032 dies you get this lovely warning message when you turn off the console.

When you turn on the NGPC the boot screen has an attractive little animation accompanied by a cute little tune.

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If you turn on the NGPC without a cartridge you get this menu screen that includes a calendar and (in silly Japanese fashion) a horoscope.

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I can’t think of a videogame feature more utterly useless than a horoscope.

In order to explain the NeoGeo Pocket Color I have to tie together a few threads.

SNK is not what you would call a household name in the US but it was one of the titans of the Japanese arcade in the 1980s and 1990s.  Their specialty was (and still is) was 2D fighting games.  That is to say that the graphics are hand-drawn sprites that view the action from the side.

In 1990 SNK released the NeoGeo home console which for all intents and purposes was one of their arcade machines repackaged for home use.  As you would expect it was outrageously expensive.  The console itself (including a pack-in game) was $650 and games cost $200.

If you owned a Sega Genesis or a Nintendo SNES the NeoGeo must have seemed like some sort of mystical Shangri-La.

If you purchases a NeoGeo what you would have gotten for your obscene amount of money were perfect arcade games in the home.  From the beginning of the home console market the fidelity of home console conversions of arcade games had been a constant problem.  There were always compromises in animation, music, fluidity, and control sensitivity.  Not so, if you were a NeoGeo owner.  What you got was perfection.

But in the mid-1990s the market moved on to consoles such as the PlayStation and N64 that were built around 3D graphics.  The arcades moved on too, and fighting games like the Tekken and Virtua Fighter series that were built on 3D graphics excited the public’s imagination.

SNK’s contemporaries like Capcom (whose Street Fighter series is one of the pillars of the 2D fighting genre) found ways to stay relevant by developing new series like Resident Evil while continuing their line of 2D fighting games.  SNK didn’t and the NeoGeo became an expensive collector’s item.

Then, something possessed SNK to release a monochrome portable system called the NeoGeo Pocket in 1998 followed by the NeoGeo Pocket Color in 1999.

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1999, when the NGPC came out, was a very strange time for portable videogames because it’s when the technological gap between the home consoles and portable consoles was at it’s peak.  It wasn’t so much a technological gap as it was a chasm.

It’s funny how technology trends wax and wane over decades.  Today, vast sums of R&D dollars are being spent on making components (especially CPUs and GPUs) for portable electronics faster and more power efficient.  Intel’s new (Jone 2013) Haswell processors have marginal speed gains for desktop users but offer better battery life and less heat for mobile users.  Across the industry from Apple to Samsung the effort is going into making better mobile devices.

Back in 1999, everything was different.  Back then the money was being put into chips for devices like PCs and home game consoles that were plugged into the wall.  We wanted faster devices and didn’t much care how much power they used or how much heat they put out.

In the home console market, the Dreamcast had just debuted, ushering in an era of more more refined 3D graphics that would lead to the PS2, XBox, and GameCube.

The Dreamcast was powered by a 32-bit Hitachi SH-4 RISC CPU and a PowerVR GPU that’s the direct ancestor of the GPU in today’s iPad and PS Vita.

Meanwhile in the portable realm the popular Game Boy Color was still based on an 8-bit CPU, technology that was solidly rooted in the game consoles of the 1980s.  Very roughly this meant that the state-of-the-art home console was at least several hundred times more powerful than the leading portable console.

Battery life was the root cause of this gap.  You could build a much more powerful portable system with a much more powerful CPU, much more RAM, and a higher resolution back-lit screen.  But, it would have been heavy and had horrendous battery life.  The marketplace thrashings that the Atari Lynx, the NEC TurboExpress, the Sega Game Gear, and the Sega Genesis Nomad received at the hands of the Game Boy throughout the 1990s were all clear proof of this reality.

Essentially those systems had tried to be to the Game Boy what the NeoGeo had been to the SNES and the Genesis, a far more powerful, far more expensive competitor.  But, there was no place for that in the portable market.

The breakthroughs that would happen in the mid-2000s that allowed the revolution in portable computing devices simply had not occurred yet.

In 1999 the Game Boy Color sat at the sweet spot between battery life, weight/size, and cost.  As a result, any serious competitor would have to have a comparable size, weight, cost, and battery life to the Game Boy Color and that precluded anything that was vastly more powerful.  But it would also make it difficult for a serious competitor to differentiate itself from the Game Boy.

Technically, the NGPC was a 16-bit system and the Game Boy Color was just an 8-bit system but at these CPU speeds, with these amounts of RAM, and with these screens, the difference was negligible.

So the situation you had was that SNK must have felt that their background in 2D arcade games would be an asset in portable games, which were still totally dominated by 2D graphics even as the home consoles were putting out increasingly sophisticated 3D graphics.  They probably also thought that as a company that specialized in fighting games they could build a portable game system suited to fighting games (with that gorgeous 8-way joypad) and exploit a market that Nintendo had ignored.

The problem was that 1998-1999 was an awful time for any company not named Nintendo to launch a handheld game console.  From the earliest days of the Game Boy most of the best games had been essentially miniature versions of console games.  The great games of the Game Boy from 1989 to 1998 include Super Mario Land 1 and 2, Metroid II, Legend of Zelda: Links’ Awakening, Kirby’s Dream Land, the Donkey Kong Land series and other games that basically would not have existed without their console counterparts.

Pokemon changed all of that in 1998 (in the US).  Here was a game that had no console counterpart.  Here was a game who’s popularity was strongly attached to being able to play the game against and with friends by connecting your Game Boys together.  Here was a game that lent itself to consuming every available hour of a child’s day  –on the school bus, on the playground, waiting at the doctor’s office, etc — like no game since Tetris.

NGPC had nothing comparable to Pokemon.  At the time, the influence of SNK’s 2D arcade games was waning in American arcades so for the vast portion of the NGPC’s potential audience they had very little to offer.  There were SNK enthusiasts who loved the NGPC and there were fighting game enthusiasts who loved the NGPC, but on the whole it didn’t make much headway in the American market.  And that’s why mine ended up at a thrift store a few years later.

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Sony Watchman FD-10A and Watchman FD-30A

Today we return to the extravagant world of 1980s handheld TVs.

This is my Sony Watchman FD-10A and Sony Watchman FD-30A, two of Sony’s attempts to create “Watchman” CRT handheld TVs in the 1980s.

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The FD-10A, dating from 1987 is on the left and the FD-30A, dating from 1984 is on the right.  They both still work, though the FD-30A seems to have a loose connection somewhere and sometimes will not turn on after you pull the antenna out.  As you can see, they are both black and white sets.

My father found the FD-10A at a thrift store some years ago and I believe I found the FD-30A at Village Thrift sometime in the past two years or so.

The most distinctive thing about these TVs is what they’ve done with the CRT.  On a typical CRT the electron gun is located behind the viewing surface you’re looking at.  The gun is firing at a surface of phosphors that are glowing on the other side of the glass tube you’re looking into.  There’s basically a straight line between your eyes, the surface of the picture tube, the glowing phosphors, and the electron gun.

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Take a look at these Panasonic Travelvision handheld TVs and you can see the ergonomic issue this creates.  The shape you get from putting a tiny conventional CRT into a handheld TV  ends up with the screen on the short end of a long case.  Holding that up to your face is very unnatural.  If you’re sitting down you end up putting the TV in your lap and craning your head down to look at it.  If you really wanted to hold it up to your face you would have to hold it like a telescope.

The ingenious CRT that these Watchman units use solves this problem.  Their CRTs have a window built into the top of the wide end of the tube and the electron gun fires at a curved surface of phosphors located under the window.

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See that?  You’re actually looking down into the CRT there.

So, the electron gun ends up firing perpendicular to the viewers eyes onto the curved white area with the phosphors.  While this does not do great things for the geometry of the resulting image it does mean that you can hold the Watchman in a much  ore natural way as you would a portable radio or a Game Boy with your hands down near the Watchman logo and the screen facing your eyes.

This must have been difficult to design.  Clearly this is from the era people remember when Sony was doing amazing things miniaturizing electronics.

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The FD-10A is a fairly basic model that only has VHF/UHF and no other fancy do-dads like AM/FM or a video-in jack.  As a result though it’s more lightweight and somewhat smaller than the FD-30A.

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Other than an earphone jack, just about the only feature that the FD-10A has is a switch that allows you to save the batteries by only listening to TV sound.

I used the FD-10A to watch the end of analog TV on June 12, 2009.  Here is an image of Cleveland’s Channel 19, WOIO-TV taken before the 10AM cutoff and moments after.

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At the moment of the cutoff I took a blurry and unusable movie with my Blackberry.  While some channels made a big deal about the switchover to digital on WOIO there was no fanfare other than a text explanation that scrolled very fast up the screen, followed the by the static you see in the second picture.

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The FD-30A is a more full-featured set but it’s heavier and larger than the FD-10A.  It has a video-in jack (using a normal stereo Y-cable), AM/FM radio (with FM stereo), a DC power input, and a kickstand.

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This FD-30A also came with a cloth case.  All of the controls are accessible through the sides of the case so when the case is closed you can easily use the FD-30A as a rather weighty AM/FM radio.

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The real party piece of the case though is that the cover can become a hood by unfolding flaps that attach to Velcro on either side of the Sony logo.

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I supposed this might help in bright Sun conditions, but I couldn’t see using this thing in the rain at all.

One thing I like to think about when I collect items like this is what would people at the time thought about them?  That is to say, if you walked into an electronics store in the 1980s and wished to purchase a handheld TV with your hard-earned money, which one should you have bought?

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As a collector, I love the styling on the Casios such as the TV-400 and the TV-1000 here.  These Sony Watchman units do not have the same 80s flair that the Casio do.  I’m sure salespeople hawking the Casios would have been buzzing about the stunning newness of LCD technology and the significant advance of on-screen electronic tuning.

In reality, those Casios are awful.  Even if you look past the inherent awfulness of first generation passive-matrix LCDs screens the electronic tuning is disturbingly bad.  Anyone who has ever tuned in analog TV knows that you always have to fiddle with the tuning.  There’s no way to do that with the Casios.  If they don’t find your desired channel, they just tune right on by.

So, what you really want is a TV with analog tuning.  I think you also want a CRT.  I still need to see what a quality 80s active-matrix LCD looks like but even so I don’t think the LCD technology of the time could hold a candle to the contrast and crispness of a CRT.  Even if those CRT handheld TVs ate batteries like vampires, I think the picture quality would still be worth it.

Personally, I would have bought a FD-10A.  It’s simple to operate and it’s more convenient than the larger and heavier FD-30A.

But then again, if this was the 80s and you were blowing a wad of cash on something as decadent as a handheld TV, you probably want the FD-30A with all of it’s bells and whistles.

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