[Next] [Up] [Previous]

Gadgets with Microprocessors in Them

An earlier page dealt with the pocket calculator as a forerunner of the microcomputer. While electronic pocket calculators worked because they contained within themselves an electronic digital computer of sorts, it was possible for that computer to be too small to be useful as the heart of a device that would be considered a full-fledged computer.

While today's desktop microcomputers wield an immense amount of processing power, far eclipsing that of the most powerful mainframes of the 1960s or even the 1980s, just as a PDP-8, tiny though it was, was still powerful enough to be what is commonly thought of as a computer, either running programs in BASIC, or compiling programs in FORTRAN so they can run faster later, so too was even the Intel 8008 powerful enough to be the heart of a real computer.

While the processors that were used in desktop computers became more powerful, processors as powerful as those used in them in previous years became less expensive. And thus the point was reached where placing an 8-bit processor, and later even a 16-bit processor, inside a special-purpose device ceased to be so exorbitantly expensive as to be unthinkable.

Of course, I have no intention of covering the entire field of embedded computing in this section. I fear I lack the specialized knowledge, the interest on my own part, and the writerly flair to make the story of how microprocessors allowed adding features to toasters, or replaced relay logic or timing cams in washing machines, one that would fascinate the general reader. For that, one must look elsewhere.

The Chess Computer

One category of device which is as obviously performing a computational task of some sophistication as a scientific pocket calculator computing the value of a log or trig function is even usually called a computer, even if it isn't user-programmable.

The first chess computer I owned, as it happens, could have squeaked into the same page as discussed pocket calculators, as it was built around a 4-bit microprocessor, the Hitachi HD44801.

It was a version of the CXG-001 Sensor Computachess, on sale at Eaton's at a reduced price. It didn't have the CXG logo visible on it, however, but was a version sold under another name. Pictured at right is still another version, with the Hanimex brand name on it.

While it did not play Chess very well, since one entered moves by pressing down on the piece at its departure square, and then again at the arrival square, it was more sophisticated than the earliest chess computers, which required entering the departure square and then the arrival square on a keyboard in algebraic notation.

Pictured at left is the Chess Challenger 7 by Fidelity Electronics, the name of which indicates that it had seven selectable levels of chess play. This was of a similar type to their original Chess Challenger, which was one of the earliest chess computers to be available, and which was successful enough to popularize the idea of a chess computer.

The image above is from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic License, and is thus available for your use under the same terms.

Its author is Joe Haupt.

Another example of an early chess computer with keyboard entry of moves in algebraic notation, and a numeric display, is the Boris Diplomat, by Applied Concepts. It does have a pegboard with chess pieces, but that is only so that a separate chessboard is not required for portable play; it is an ordinary chess peg board which does not include any kind of electrical switch or sensor.

The image at right shows a unit that is blue in color; while some were made in that color, a brown color was more common.

Pictured at left is a later chess computer also from Fidelity Electronics, the Sensory Chess Challenger 9. This was much larger than the Computachess portable chess computer shown above; the membrane sensor was the board surface itself rather than being below holes for pegs. Note, as well, that there was a LED on every square, instead of LEDs at the edges to indicate both the row and the column. And, again, its name indicated that it had nine levels of play.

The image above is from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International License, and is thus available for your use under the same terms.

Its author is morn.

In addition to Fidelity Electronics, Applied Concepts, and CXG, a number of other companies made chess computers. Novag, also an American company like Fidelity Electronics, made several chess computers recognized for good playing strength at the time and which had a stylish appearance. Their Super Constellation is pictured at right.

There were also some large and expensive chess computers, beyond the relatively ordinary ones pictured here, including ones that used the 68000 microprocessor, and there were some that would actually movie the pieces in response to the computer's moves - either by using strong electromagnets in the board to make the pieces slide, or even by having a robot arm to pick them up and move them.

Examples of chess computers that used the 68000 microprocessor (or, in some cases, even related ones that were more capable, such as the 68020) are: the various Mephisto S models, and then the less expensively packaged Mephisto Mondial 68000 XL, the Novag Diablo 68000, the Fidelity Model 6094 Excel 68000, and the CXG Sphinx 40 and 50.

While at first a 68000-based chess computer would have been an extravagant purchase at over $1,000, by 1988 some were available at just over $400.

Mephisto chess computers were originally made by Hegener and Glaser, and subsequently the rights to the line were purchased by Saitek (formerly SciSys), a Swiss company, but now Saitek has been bought by Logitech.

During the heyday of chess computers, devices similar in appearance for playing other board games were also made. There was the "Great Game Machine", which was a chess computer with interchangeable program modules, including some for games other than Chess. Fidelity Electronics made a Bridge Challenger, which required a special deck of cards with bar codes printed on them. Some later chess computers could also play checkers. And there was also Monty Plays Scrabble.

Of course, there were also many other handheld computer games which did not resemble chess computers in any way.

The Pocket Calculator, Part II

In April, 1995, Texas Instruments announced an incredible new calculator, the TI-92, which became available in January of 1996.

Or perhaps it could have been called a portable computer. It included a microprocessor compatible with the Motorola 68000 to run the software it contained. Which included a modified form of the computer algebra program DERIVE. DERIVE began life as a Microsoft program, mu-Math (the actual name had a real Greek mu in the front) but Microsoft decided not to pursue marketing the program, and allowed the employees who developed it to start their own company with it.

This revolutionary... calculator... could perform symbolic integration.

There's a picture at left, and, yes, I know the quality is terrible. It was what I could find that I could use in a hurry, and, of course, if you want to know what it really looked like, it will be trivial to search on the Web and find much better images. I have been able to find another image, which is in color, but it was a very small one without much detail, that has now been added on the right.

A few years later, it was followed by the TI-89, which provided the same functionality in a package that was about the size of a conventional pocket calculator.

Of course, back in 1987, one could say that Hewlett-Packard was there first, with the HP-28C, pictured at right. That was succeeded in 1989 by the HP-28S, with more memory and a faster processor. This calculator also had a graphing capability, and symbolic algebra capabilities.

The HP-28C had a very limited symbolic integration capability: it could perform symbolic integration of polynomial expressions, and it could also use Taylor series to obtain integrals for other expressions. The TI-92, on the other hand, used the same basic algorithm as was used in Macsyma or Mathematica, giving it extensive symbolic integration capabilities.

The SONY PlayStation Portable

Video games that could be carried around in one's pocket were hardly new when the PSP, shown at right, became first available in North America on March 24, 2005. For example, there was the famous Nintendo Game Boy.

However, the PSP was a very impressive handheld device. A high-resolution screen. Programs weren't distributed on cartridges, but on small-sized optical discs combining DVD technology with advanced data compression, so you could buy UMD discs for the PSP with movies on them. These discs were 64 mm in diameter, and were inside of a protective carrier; their data cpacity was 900 megabytes, which could be doubled for dual-layer discs.

It even includes a web browser.

And, of Course...

the smartphone in your pocket.

While the capabilities of a typical smartphone aren't unlimited, which is why people still spend money on flagship smartphones, desktop computers, or petascale supercomputers, or even exascale supercomputers, they certainly are so impressive that, by comparison, many of the impressive computers and computer-related devices of the past that were impressive in their day hardly seem impressive.

Of course, for tasks like content creation, one does want to have a big screen, a mouse, and an actual keyboard; a small touch screen will be too awkward. But while a smartphone can't quite do everything, it can do so much.

Pictured at left is the sort of thing one can do with a smartphone these days, although it's harder to explain why one might want to. However, if you really need to find an integral, and your smartphone is the only thing you have with you, the application Maxima on Android might even be a lifesaver.

The image you see was obtained by typing:

plot3d ( cos(u^2 + v^2) / (u^2 + v^2 + 1), [u, -5, 5], [v, -5, 5] );


Pictured at right is what the graph obtained from that command looks like when it is typed from the comfort of one's desktop instead.

Not that it matters terribly, but the smartphone in the picture is an LG Electronics V30. This means that its processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip, manufactured on 10nm technology.

It has eight Kryo 280 cores, although four of them run at a slightly higher speed than the other four (2.45 GHz as against 1.9 GHz) which seems a rather odd application of the big.LITTLE principle. Oh, silly me: now I see what they're doing. A typical octa-core smartphone processor would have four powerful cores of one design, and four weak cores of another design that consume much less power, so that it only uses the good cores when it has to. This phone doesn't bother with that. But it does use four cores when it can, and all eight cores only when it has to. And so, while it can run four cores at 2.45 GHz without getting too hot, when running all eight cores, it needs to step down the speed slightly to 1.9 GHz. And so the additional four cores need only be specified at 1.9 GHz!

Well, maybe not. Looking into this more deeply, I see that the Kryo 265 model number was used for Kryo 265 Gold cores, which were modified from the Cortex-A73, and for Kryo 265 Silver cores, which were derived from the Cortex-A53. So although all the cores of the Snapdragon 680 were Kryo 265 cores, they were still two different kinds of cores. On the page where I learned this, the cores of the Snapdragon 835 are called Kryo 280 Performance and Kryo 280 Efficiency cores, so they, as well, could be two different designs varying much more in performance than the clock speeds would indicate.

The Snapdragon 835 was also used in the Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone.

[Next] [Up] [Previous]