Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Originally published 2005 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


The technology-appreciator's life is all about novelty. People scour the Web for information on the latest wafer-thin phone, the newest 150 watt CPU, that innovative Logitech mouse that tracks its motion with a scanning tunnelling microscope.

And when you get the latest new thing, it's cool. For about a fortnight, or until one of your friends gets something better, whichever is the sooner.

Thankfully, some gadgets have a bit more substance to them. The cutting edge has left them way, way behind, but people who bought them years ago are still using them. And I'm not just talking about the vintage tech fans, with their Sinclair Spectrum with eight daisy-chained Microdrives that all actually work and "Xenon 1 4 Life" tattoo.

No, I mean people who're actually doing useful things with superannuated technology.

It takes a special kind of gadget to still be lovable when it's years old. Every now and then one of them makes it, though. Not everyone using gadgets ten generations out of date is a crusty Luddite.

The really great thing about old gadgets is, of course, that they're cheap. If you missed the chance to pay a thousand bucks for them when they were new, you'll now be able to pick them up on eBay for fifty.

Some whole classes of gadget fall into the old-cheap-and-good category.

Do you need a mobile phone, for instance? Just a phone. Not a camera, QWERTY keyboard, barometer and massively multiplayer Snake engine. Just a thing that makes and receives calls.

Well, buy some old green-backlight Nokia with a NiMH battery on eBay for pocket change, insert SIM card, spend money saved on case of whiskey.

It won't be the smallest, and won't have the longest battery life, but if you smash it or drown it in the ocean, who cares? Fish out the corpse, get the SIM card out, clean its contacts with an eraser, drop it into another $20 phone. Sorted.

You actually almost have to get a pretty elderly phone if you want to get one on the cheap, even though newer models may be selling second hand for little more money. Why so cheap? Probably because their lithium ion batteries are stuffed. New ones can cost a mint and, regular readers will know, may be just as stuffed if they've been sitting on a shelf for years. It's not a complete disaster; some popular phone models still have fresh batteries available for reasonable prices. But if you don't want to spend time making sure of this before you buy the phone - and making sure the batteries really are fresh ain't easy - you've got to go back to the NiMH-battery phone generation.

The same applies to old laptops, but not as badly, because a laptop with a dead battery will still work fine from its AC adapter (as, of course, will a cellphone, but that kind of defeats the purpose). And even a really rooted laptop battery will probably keep the computer running through a 20 second power cut.

Old laptops make excellent print servers, Linux network appliances (or, you know, whatever), remote terminals and, of course, game machines, provided your tastes run more to NetHack than to Half-Life 2.

And then, there are palmtops. Lots and lots of lovely cheap palmtops.

Old AAA-battery-powered Palms (or Handsprings), say. The Palm III series, in particular.

Palm IIIx

Sure, they've only got 160 by 160 black and white screens (dark green and lighter green, really); colour screens draw a lot more power than greyscale, so no handheld that can run from AAA alkalines has colour. And old Palms think 8Mb is a lot of RAM, and there's only a serial-port sync cradle, and Internet access ain't easy, and you can forget about playing MP3s and taking pictures.

But if you want an organiser, e-book reader, handheld game that can do stuff your GBA can't (OK, you can get Solitaire and chess for Game Boys, but Palm versions can be had for the $0 such games ought to cost), and platform for a ton of other cheap-or-free software, you're likely to be very pleased to get it all for, oh, 75 bucks Australian on eBay, as of 2005. Maybe $AU50.

Palm Portable Keyboard

The funkalicious folding Portable Keyboard for old Palms is dirt cheap these days too. Add that and you've got a perfectly acceptable medium-duty portable word processor.

To properly make a fetish of middle-aged-tech, of course, you have to go for the more obscure products.

The Sony Clie PEG-SL10, say. A AAA-powered Palm with a 320 by 320 screen and Memory Stick slot. Maybe $US100 on eBay in 2005.

The Palm IIIe Special Edition. Only 2Mb RAM, but a see-through plastic casing, like the developer units. I've seen one sell for $US18.49.

(If you're on a thin shoestring budget, be advised that plain black IIIes are now, to a first approximation, free.)

The Handera 330. Good luck finding one, but if you do, you'll get a four-AAA-powered 240 by 320 CompactFlash-slotted Palm with a voice recorder.

If you want a tiny-puter with an integrated keyboard, the obvious answer is one of those natty fold-up Psions. The Psion 5MX runs from a couple of AAs. But the cool solution is an Apple eMate 300, from 'way back in 1997.

The eMate is a Newton with a bigger screen, full-sized keyboard, and magically delicious translucent green casing. Made for the education market (and, in typical old-Apple fashion, never sold to regular consumers...), so it's bombproof. It's got internal rechargeable batteries, but they're just AA NiMH cells; easy to replace.

(I know, because I've done it, with my very own eMate!)

If you're a hardcore nerd, you can not go past Commander Data's Psion, the HP 95LX from 1990. QWERTY calculator-button keyboard, 256Kb RAM, and an NEC V20 CPU. Running - wait for it - DOS 3.22. Lotus 1-2-3 v2.2 in ROM and, of course, a bitchin' calculator. All running for ages from two AAs. No girly-man sync function, either; welcome back, XMODEM.

You're not that pocket-protectory, but you still want an HP? Try the younger OmniGo 100. 240 by 240 screen, AA batteries, keyboard plus stylus, limited DOS compatibility, and a GEOS interface. Yep, like your C64.

Or, for appreciators of the Brit-tech scene, consider an Amstrad NC100 (I've got one of those too, but it's broken). Full-sized keyboard, screen wide enough for proper word processing (but not very tall - it's a "mail slot" screen), AA power, decent built-in applications, BASIC, serial and parallel ports.

Become a vintage radio enthusiast and you lose out on FM. Drive a vintage car and you get 1969 safety features along with your 1969 style. Opt for the right vintage gadgets, though, and it's amazing how much great stuff you can get for a ridiculously small outlay.

Emulators, schmemulators. Nothing plays Carrier Command like a real $35 Amiga 500.

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