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Retro Unbox: 1984 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Game

25 May

Since it’s Towel Day, I thought I’d post a new video I’ve been meaning to make for a while: An unboxing of the original 1984 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game by Infocom and Douglas Adams. It’s a crazy-hard-but-awesome text-only adventure game that you can now play online. I had it for the Commodore 64 when I was a kid, but the version I’m unboxing (another very thoughtful gift from my mom!) is MS-DOS compatible. This box is chock full of cool Hitchhiker’s paraphernalia!

Like I say on the YouTube video, I flubbed up the narration of the video a little when I was introducing the destruction certificates, but I don’t have time to re-record so hopefully the Douglas Adams fandom will forgive me. (more…)

Minidiscs: Style Isn’t Obsolete

4 May

Recently I did some restoration on my old VW. Giving consideration to its aftermarket sound system, it occurred to me that if I was crazy enough to install an in-dash minidisc player in my ’72 VW Beetle back in 2001 — more or less boarding a sinking ship — nothing is stopping me from rekindling my minidisc love now.

TDK Bit Club Minidiscs from Japan
(I made this gif tonight, a tiny love note to minidisc fandom)

I took a look through some of my old minidiscs and discovered the most awesome package of minidiscs I remember owning. These are TDK Bit Club, which is the most stylish brand of minidiscs that I’m aware of — although minidiscs are pretty damn stylish in general.

TDK Bit Club Minidiscs from JapanAbove: All four minidiscs in the package

TDK Bit Club Minidiscs from Japan - Package front and back
Above: Package front and back (I still have one precious unopened 4-pack)

I don’t know if physical media is completely dead, but minidiscs share a stunted past with Betamaxx and Laserdisc — formats that hardly blossomed before the world moved ahead without them. When I madly chose to install a minidisc player in my 30-year-old Volkswagen, it was already an awesome-not-good idea.

But minidiscs are simply cool, right? This is partially because of Sony’s amazing commitment to style and distinctiveness, which persists even today when the market adores Apple’s think-different-buy-same gadget homogeny.

Besides Sony’s attention to original style, the diversity of minidisc fashion may owe to the medium’s popularity outside the US. The Japanese market, where minidiscs were apparently more mainstream, embraces colorful technology. (Americans? Beige, tan, gray, silver, black, white … and the occasional “slate”, which is pretty much denim.)

I have more minidisc players and cool discs I may photograph and post another day. In the meantime, thanks, Sony, for your effort. Let’s all take a moment to envision a world that never was, where digital audio was a little quirkier and style reigned.

4 Smartwatches vying to be your “Dick Tracy” wrist accessory

10 Mar

How are those evasive “Dick Tracy” wristwatches we were promised coming along? Well, phone watches have debuted with some fanfare — but it’s 2012, and making “phone calls” is already passé. Lucky for us, we have truly connected wrist communicators coming around the bend: “smartwatches”. Here are four watches of interest, particularly for smartphone owners, and some thoughts on what’s coming next. 

1. Wimm One


VIMM is an ambitious new Android platform

The watch-of-the-future with the most impressive specs is the Wimm One, which is currently available as a developer pre-release. It’s a tiny Android device that can not only standalone as an internet device with wi-fi, GPS, apps, music, etc, but can also be your handsfree headset via a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone (including Android, iPhone, Blackberry, and Windows phone compatibility). The first release comes with a pretty ugly wristband that makes the Wimm One look like the nerdiest wristwatch ever, but the Wimm website features a gallery of concept designs that have plenty of style potential. Price: $200 and up.

2. i’m Watch

I'm Watch

I'm Watch

i'm Watch is the hippest option

More stylish but less fully featured, the Italian-designed i’m Watch is also Android-based. For wireless data, it relies solely on a Bluetooth connection with your internet-connected device. On the bright side, the lack of wi-fi likely contributes to its longer battery life and smaller size than Wimm One. Like Wimm, it delivers the up-to-the-minute social media, news, weather, messaging that your smartphone can to your wrist while also working as a handsfree headset. It’s compatible with iPhone and Android. Price: $329 and up.

3. Sony Smartwatch

Sony Smartwatch

The Sony Smartwatch is for Android users only

Sony has also released an Android phone accessory called simply Smartwatch (Sony MN2). This device will ship on April 1 (US) and pairs with any Android smartphone via Bluetooth. Like the Wimm One, it’s a little chunky, and apparently only interacts with certain Android apps. The Smartwatch replaces an earlier Sony Ericsson Live View product that got pretty bad reviews, but the new Smartwatch seems to be a higher end product with better prospects. Unlike Wimm One and i’m Watch, Sony Smartwatch will only be compatible only with Android phones. Price: $149 from sony, $119 and up elsewhere.

iPad Nano

iPod Nano is cool, but you can't chat your friends on it

4. iWatch (iPod Nano + wristband)

It can’t post a Facebook status — not yet at least — but the iPod Nano with the Apple wristband lights up a lot of wrists already and is the only watch by Apple. However, the iPod Nano has no wireless connectivity … unless you count FM radio. (Ha.) It is stylish, small, runs a number of apps, and syncs with iTunes via USB. So if you’re already iAddicted, an iPod wristwatch might be your thing. Price: iPod from $118, wristbands from $11.

What else is available? 

VIP Quad Band Stainless Steel FM Radio Watch Mobile Phone

Mobile phone, media player, FM radio, camera, and watch

I listed some of the most advanced smartwatches on the market, but smartwatches are an emerging gadget trend around the world, so you can find some others on the market from brands known and unknown.

The results of searching “smart watch” on Amazon show a number of watches that don’t have the all social media compatibility and connectivity of the above watches, but that are GSM mobile phones with touchscreen displays — some pretty stylish, inexpensive, and worth a look. But I can’t call all these gadgets “smartwatches”, because many aren’t “smart” in terms of apps or internet integration.

What’s next?

Flexible OLED Screen by Samsung

Flexible screens might make smartwatches bigger and more comfortable

I think that smartwatches have real potential to bridge the convenience gap between an actual phone and a “smartphone”, the ginormous little computer that sinks to the bottom of your bag when you can bear to put it down. But I wonder if these phones are trying a little too hard to look like wristwatches and not hard enough to make real strides forward in design.

For instance, I expect to see larger screens in these watches in the future, possibly using flexible OLED screens to increase comfort and wearability. A bigger face would enable the smartwatch to become thinner while making room for a larger battery and other good stuff, like faster processors and more memory.

And if these smartwatches become more powerful and have larger screens, fewer will need to depend on an outside smartphone or computer, like the above watches largely do.

Wearing a watch on the inside of the wrist

People may prefer smartwatches designed for the insides of their wrists

Another design stride that smartwatches could make is moving to the inside of the wrist. This might not sound convenient at first, but many of us are most comfortable reading and interacting with devices in the palms of our hands, so “digital natives” (who didn’t grow up with wristwatches) might feel most comfortable having a screen inside their wrist. It’s also much easier to keep the inside of your wrist private from onlookers when you’re in a meeting or riding the subway.

I also think smartwatches could take some design cues from the Smart Cover accessory for iPad.

iPad Smart Cover by Apple

iPad's Smart Cover could inspire some smartwatch designs

A smartwatch (or small, wrist-friendly tablet) come come with a similar folding cover to use when you put the device in your bag or pocket, but that unfolds to magnetically wrap the device around your wrist, and can just as easily stand the device up on a table in front of you.

The feature I thought was most glaringly missing from every smartwatch I looked at in detail is a front-facing camera for video chat. Maybe the idea of video chatting someone from a wrist-mounted camera watch doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I think it may be less awkward than chatting on a tablet or video phone. This feature can be found in some wrist phones outside the US market, so it might soon appear in smartwatches stateside.

I hope I’m right about some of these things, but it’s possible that smartwatches will never really catch on. After all, most of us are still so amazingly primitive that we still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

Retro Unbox: Panasonic RQ-2102 Portable Cassette Recorder

30 Dec

I got a vintage shoebox tape recorder for my birthday! Here’s a video I made of unboxing and playing a tape for the first time.

Getting 3G and higher data speeds with your unlocked GSM phone (in the US)

30 Nov

In the US, when I tell people about I have an unlocked (carrier-independent) phone, they’re often surprised. Where do you get one of those? Is that legal?

I bought mine on Amazon, which is, unless I’m very misinformed, perfectly legal. And once you have one, it’s relatively simple to activate a carrier-independent GSM phone with a SIM card. Unfortunately, there are only two big carriers that use SIM cards in America: AT&T and T-Mobile. (Here’s a handy list of all US wireless carriers if you’re interested.) You can buy a new SIM card directly from AT&T or T-Mobile for around $5 or just get one at Amazon or another store.

The part where things get complicated is ensuring that your phone can communicate on the right bands or frequencies. It used to be OK to just buy a global “quad-band” phone, but now you need to worry about high-speed data too (assuming you’re getting a phone capable of transferring data at 3G or 4G, and seriously, who isn’t?).

Here are the frequencies you need to work with AT&T and T-Mobile in the US:

Carrier GSM bands for 2G/EDGE connection HSPA (HSUPA/HSDPA) bands for 3G/4G connection
AT&T GSM 850 and 1900 MHz HSPA 850 and 1900 MHz
T-Mobile GSM 1700 or 2100 MHz HSPA 1700 and 2100 MHz

I’ve heard people say they’ll settle for the slower EDGE network and use wi-fi for broadband, which is reasonable, but you should know what you’re getting into. Your phone needs to support both 850 MHz and 1900 MHz to get 3G+ speeds on AT&T in the US. I’ve heard their are exceptions depending on the part of the country you’re in, but if you want your phone to connect to 3G reliably, you should make sure to get a phone that works across these bands. Likewise you need both 1700 and 2100 MHz support for faster data speeds on T-Mobile US.

If you really want to try out a phone that only supports one of the bands your carrier uses, check out this AT&T US coverage map by frequency to check your area. I can’t find a map for T-Mobile by frequency, but the map on their site is nice. I don’t suggest roughing it with shabby coverage, but it’s your party. has detailed specs on just about every mobile phone, so if you’re not sure which bands your phone supports, find the model here and check the network info.

Disclaimer: I have experience with this, but I’m not an engineer, so if I have my facts wrong, please let me know :)