REwind: Issue One – New Old Beginnings

I’m taking a break from the usual stuff to write about something rather different, which I’m also quite interested in. I’ll be back with a normal post next week.

The story so far – I was discussing blogs with my friend, who had expressed interest in writing a tech blog, which got me thinking about gadget journalism. I love modern technology in general and I would like to be able to cover the latest stuff, but a) I don’t have any money yet, and b) Engadget and a million other blogs already exist that have greater resources than I do, and all their time to dedicate to this stuff. I needed a hook; a USP (unique selling point, for those unfamiliar with the horrific world of marketing). And what better hook than old technology! It isn’t cutting edge, and costs buttons, and nobody really covers it these days. I’m not going to sit back and leave the past in the past…let’s drag this stuff kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Well, it isn’t quite that old in some cases, but you get the picture. I’m just realising it has been a while since

Now I need a simple name. One that has technological connotations, but is also descriptive of revisiting past gadgets and tech in general. How about REwind? It’s not the most original name ever, but nevertheless is very apt. Most likely reviews will just arrive whenever I get round to it. This could be pretty wide ranging, and I’m happy to take requests from anyone – even better, donations of defunct tech are welcomed! I should have enough to keep me covered for the first while anyway.

And without further ado, I present to you the first ever REwind review.

HP Jornada 720

The HP Jornada 720

Where better to start than the device I’m currently typing this article on. The HP Jornada 720 was a portable computer built around the HPC, or Handheld PC  format, and was released way back in the year 2000 (Y2K!). These were fairly powerful devices for their time, and utilised the Windows CE operating system. The Jornada uses Windows HPC2000; an operating system based on Windows CE 3.0. This gives the interface a Windows 9.x feeling to it, and would be familiar to any Windows user from the classic era. There’s a nice nostalgia too, but if it gets too much, the interface can changed to have a Windows XP look (including the icons) which is the way mine is set up at the moment.

The spec sheet was pretty impressive for the time, as this was in no way a cheap piece of kit. At the core is a 206 Mhz StrongARM processor, paired with 32 MB of RAM. Because it’s an HPC, the OS is stored on ROM and all user data is stored on the RAM. This means the device is instantly, or effectively always turned on and there is no start up time. A slider in the control panel allows you to choose how much RAM you allocate for storage and for system memory which is pretty cool. Even more can be unlocked through some other tweaks. The disadvantage with storing everything on RAM, of course, is that if it runs out of power you lose all your data. The backup button battery is the failsafe which keeps power to the RAM at all times, but that can only last so long and if you forget about it then your saved stuff is history if it isn’t on a compact flash card. HP recommends regular backups of your data, which is relatively easy with the inbuilt utility. The screen is a 6.5″ 640×480 DSTN panel, which is adequate but suffers from poor refresh rates and low contrast and brightness. Having said that, I don’t find the brightness an issue really – but the screen is very difficult to read when outside, and wouldn’t really be suitable for reading eBooks (which I’ve seen as a suggested use for the device). The refresh rates do cause problems though, making video difficult to watch and also some games suffer badly from ghosting when scrolling across maps, or in fast paced action. Of course, Tetris plays pretty well on the device – it’s not actually Tetris, but CanTris, a freeware copy of the game, designed for HPCs.

As far as connections and ports go, there’s a CF card slot (it seems to support most card sizes, as I’ve tried up to an 8 GB card and had no issues so far, though 128 MB is pretty adequate as old software doesn’t tend to take up a lot of memory) , a PCMCIA card slot, a smart card reader (business security), a docking port at the bottom for the cradle, the obligatory 56k modem, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the charging socket. There are also external media player buttons which are nice to see in a device this old. The audio quality is actually pretty decent, as I used this as both an MP3 player and a network streaming player (it worked really well for a while, then started to have issues and I haven’t managed to get it to work properly since).

Yes, you can believe your eyes. It can play classic Doom! Quake too (quite well, after some tweaks)

Performance is pretty zippy for most of the core applications, and everything loads quickly. My main use for this device would be word processing and basic games, which it performs admirably, but it does struggle when it comes to surfing the internet. When I first bought the HPC I found a free dialup ISP (yep, I was suprised too to find out some people actually still use 56k) which was still in service and hooked it up for some nostalgic surfing. Let the modem noises commence! This was all well and good, apart from the fact that almost all websites have become massive and need broadband to navigate them at any decent rate. Needless to say I very quickly bought a compatible 16-bit PCMCIA wireless card to speed things up.

Here we hit the first set of limitations. Only older 16-bit cards are supported, limiting the choice. Also the HPC2000 operating system only supports WEP encryption, which is a problem when everyone has switched over the the much more secure WPA encryption. The cards also only support the 802.11b wifi standard, which is well and good and most routers have support for it, but the whole network slows down when a single 802.11b device connects. This could be rather annoying for everyone apart from the Jornada user who, lets face it, doesn’t really care what you think because he/she’s surfing the web with a 12 year old handheld computer. Though the J720 is compatible with 16-bit PCMCIA cards, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll work, because very few have drivers written for Windows CE, which is another big drawback. The hardware is there, but without the drivers it’s functionless. So again, our choice is narrowed to 16-bit cards, with the backing of a developer making drivers for legacy hardware. Why is that so difficult? Because nobody makes money off old HPCs – they’re 12 years old now after all, and the remaining faithful users are hardly numerous enough for any developer to seriously profit out of creating software for a dead device. The task falls  to some very dedicated enthusiasts who want to keep the platform alive, and support the community (most of whom seem to reside at HPC:Factor, if you’re interested).

Once you’ve found your wireless card and drivers, and have everything up and running, you can just go ahead and start surfing. Right? Well, sort of. The built in version of Internet Explorer is pretty limited and won’t let you visit some sites, notably Gmail which is a big drawback for me as Google is my email provider. Basic or mobile versions of websites should work, but when you have a screen that size would you want to look at a scrunched up page which takes up less than half of the screen real estate. Just install another browser then, you might say. That would seem to be the sensible option, and there are a number which work well on Windows CE (normally Pocket PC versions) with the best being Opera Mini, but that has it’s own problems. Many Pocket PC applications will work on HPCs, but they require a few tweaks and a piece of compatibility software called RedGear made by the now defunct Alpaxo Software. Alpaxo was an example of a dedicated developer who supported the community to the very end, all with the intention of making HPCs like the J720 more usable in everyday situations and to let them compete with other consumer electronics which have taken over our lives (smartphones etc.).

Cmonex really likes HPCs. I’m an enthuiast, but not quite that enthusiastic!

This is getting quite long winded, so I better wrap it up soon. Were HPCs popular when they were released? Not particularly, due to high cost and competition from notebook computers, but my interest was mainly due to the Psion organiser my dad bought years ago. I was in love with the platform ever since then. Are HPCs useful and worth having? Yes, I believe they are. If you work with them, and find out how to unlock their true potential they can be great day to day note-taking, web-surfing, music-listening, organising, game-playing, book-reading, code-writing devices, but they do require a bit of work to get to their most productive. And if you aren’t put off by the lack of software support, shoddy screen, and restrictive web browsing capabilities, you’ll find a great little device with a decent battery life and which is always ready to go (no startup!). And I can’t believe I forgot about the keyboard. It is full QWERTY, and just smaller than a laptop keyboard so typing is pretty fast making it ideal for taking notes or writing essays in restricted spaces such as the bus or train. And best of all, it’s now pretty damn cheap. It originally sold back in 2000 for over £1000, but I picked mine up a few years back for a measly £30. That’s the price of an Xbox 360 game for a small piece of computing history.

Next time will be back to normality, and I will leave you now. For the night is dark, and full of terrors…

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