Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Bye bye analogue telly

   It is with some sadness that I note today sees the turning off of the final UK terrestrial analogue TV transmitter in Northern Ireland. Not because I miss Ceefax or because I hanker again for the days of only three, four, or five channels, but because analogue TV was what gave me my start in electronics when I was a teenager.
    When my contemporaries were doing more conventional 1980s teen stuff like riding BMX bikes or burning away their money on Pac-Man, I was hunting through skips for discarded TV sets, fixing them, learning how they worked, and using them as sources of components for my other electronic projects. I must have had hundreds of them pass through my hands, mostly the sets from the colour TV boom of the early 1970s. I learned the foibles of the Philips G8, the Decca Bradford and the ITT CVC5, I understood how an analogue PAL decoder worked and I picked up what is now one of the most useless skills around for an engineer, converging a delta-gun colour CRT.
    I remember some of my projects, the UHF transmitters fashioned from tuner cavities and the scary spark generator using TV EHT parts. My DX-TV setup, my home-made satellite receiver, and those weird Lockfit transistors. And the FM bugs made in IF cans, or the stereo valve amplifier using dirt-cheap PCL86 TV frame output valves. I made a lot of awful projects, some useless projects, other scary projects and one or two really good projects from discarded TV parts.
    As you might expect, I never had to pay for a TV until I was 35 and wanted an LCD panel.
    I still have one or two sets left over from that period. A few black and white sets of varying sizes, and a solitary ITT CVC5 colour set, rather battered. I sometimes fire one up with a Humax set-top-box, but there's no practical reason for me to keep them. Too good to throw away though.
    I feel privileged to have grown up as an engineer in the 1980s. Not only did I get the explosion of 8-bit microcomputers, I was also lucky enough that the electronic devices of the day were accessible enough to understand. I pity today's teenagers for whom electronic devices are highly integrated and surface-mount, they have such a restricted opportunity for experimentation.
    So bye bye analogue telly. I can't say I'll miss you in 2012, but I'm indebted to what you gave me. I doubt I'll see your like again.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

What I really want from a mobile phone

    Every week it seems, there comes a new smartphone launch. Despite the fact that they are increasingly becoming identical black slabs, we're told that this one is different, special somehow because of one of its new features. It has an extra few mm of display width, it's 0.5mm thinner or it has an extra core in its processor.

    All very nice, but y'know what? I don't give a toss.

    For me, a technophile, to say that indicates that for me at least the multi billion dollar mobile phone industry has failed. Its products are all pretty much indistinguishable, but more importantly for me they don't do what I want from a smartphone.

   My perfect smartphone must have these features:
  • Nuke-proof hardware. Tough enough to survive my pocket, clever enough to conjure a signal out of almost nothing.
  • A useful and popular operating system. And a realistic chance of OS upgrades over its life, if I buy a phone from you that gets Osborned you simply will not get another chance. I'm looking at you, Motorola, I haven't forgotten my DEXT with its official support for Android 1.5 only.
  • No stupid manufacturer front ends or resource-consuming bloatware.
  • A QWERTY keyboard. Hey phone companies, I've got NEWS for you! We don't all have tiny fingers, and sometimes we use our phones in environments where touch screen keyboards are quite frankly shit. No, let me qualify that. Touch screen keyboards are ALWAYS shit.
  • A kick-arse camera. No, simply having a gazillion megapixels is not enough. It has to be a decent quality camera module in the first place. Nokia cracked this one a decade ago, wake up at the back there!
  • Enough screen area and resolution to be useful for browsing, enough processor power to keep up.
  • Decent hardware expandability. 3.5mm audio, Micro SD, USB, no weird and expensive proprietary connectors. 
That's it. I don't give a toss about device thickness, dot pitch, chipset willy-waving, Angry Birds, tinny built-in speakers, cheap music deals or all the other crap. If I could buy a bullet-proof QWERTY Android smartphone with a camera like the Nokia Pureview 808, I'd pay full price. Five hundred quid, there and then. Until then, you can keep your shiny black slabs, and I'll keep my money.