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[Sweet, sweet loading sounds]
[Popping beats]
When it comes to electronic toys for kids, one name springs to mind; vTech.
It's a company which popped up 43 years ago and almost immediately starting competing
against the big boys, or at least attempting to.
VTech, standing for Video Technology began with a pong console.
In the UK, it was imported and distributed by GrandStand.
It wasn't revolutionary, but sold enough to allow Vtech to produce a multi-game LED handheld
system, quickly moving into the world of LCD games, and directly competing with Nintendo,
including such delights as their their Tri-Screen Time and Fun series.
That's right a whole screen more than Nintendo's BASIC Game and Watch Series.
Before 1981 they had launched both a game console; the CreatiVision, and their first
electronic learning product; the Lesson One.
A tabletop version swiftly followed, and was imported by companies such as Grandstand to
Western regions.
It only offered simple spelling and number tasks, but for many of us, machines like this
were our first taste of the hugely exciting world of computing.
Vtech would go on to release typing training aids, a home computer line and numerous follow
up game consoles, and would quickly grow to a size which allowed them to enter domestic
markets themselves, rather than relying on other importers.
But perhaps their most successful products, were those aimed at youngsters.
//ENTER THE CORRECT SIGN//
So, I want to concentrate on their computer range aimed at these little whipper snappers,
because they have always fascinated me.
I mean, do they really qualify as computers?
Vtech would produce a lot of variations, aimed at various regions and age ranges through
the 80s, 90s and 00s.
Some in laptop form, some in desktop computer form, with a few offering pretty advanced
capabilities.
But ultimately, they're all designed to offer a stepping stone up to the real deal.
I've got a load of them here, and I thought we could spend the next 20 minutes looking
at some of the best, and the features which really cause them to stand out.
Because these, well, they're not just crappy toys.
Although looking at some of them you'd be forgiven for thinking they were.
//ONE TWO//
[BEEPY DITTY PLAYS]
[Music to reflect the playful work in hand]
Ahhh batteries... the
further you go back in time, the bigger they were, and the more you needed.
Just like punks.
This is the VTech Smart Start.
[DITTY]
A little LED screened device from 1988, aimed at 5 to 8 year olds, and featuring a variety
of educational games.
Addition, multiplication, memorise the sequence.
But my favourite thing about it is the fake disk drive.
Even at this stage, Vtech wanted these machines to resemble the real deal... and of course
they did.
Little Dwayne wanted a computer that looked the same as his mum's at work.
But it's basic.... what we need is a computer which actually HAS BASIC.
That's where the Pre-Computer 1000 comes in.
Launched in 1989 and aimed at ages 9 and over, this little beauty featured all sorts of entertainment
on it's single row LCD display.
This was a machine specifically designed to bring kids into the world of computers, using
EDUTAINMENT as it's selling card.
Externally, it doesn't really look like it's trying to be anything other than its own thing.
Especially with this built in handle.
At this point in time, real laptops were relatively unheard of in the domestic setting, and so,
there was no point trying to make it look like one.
It's the full QWERTY keyboard which really sold this one, and made it appear like a serious
machine.
Centre stage are the numerous questions on History, Geography, Science and General Knowledge.
There's also a typing course, calculator and some other games, and if you want you can
slam a cartridge in to get additional content; usually in the form of more quiz questions.
But the best thing is the built in BASIC interpreter.
You can either select from one of the 9 built in programs, or start from scratch.
It's pretty limited.
I mean we're talking a single row display.
BUT a flick through the manual reveals all the essentials.
Input requests, truth tables, variables, arrays.
Pretty feature packed for such a limited device.
[Unscrewing clatter]
An internal peek reveals that actually, it's not too dissimilar from your average 8 bit
home micro.
Running the show is a Zilog Z84, which is really a CMOS based Z80, whereas the version
you'd find in say, a ZX Spectrum is NMOS based.
This Vtech one actually runs at a whopping 4MHz, but later VTech machines would run at a whopping 6MHz.
There's 16KB of onboard RAM, and a whopping 1MB of firmware stored in a TC531000CP mask
ROM.
We've got components here which can do a lot more than the dot matrix output suggests,
and this hardware would serve many VTech machines going forward, albeit with a few tweaks.
One of those being, the Pre-Computer 2000 in 1992 which really stepped up the game,
from an external perspective.
This thing is now attempting to resemble a proper laptop, albeit with a fake hinge which
doesn't close.
But it does have a pull out handle on the top.
The real party trick however, is the dual row display, and a souped up version of BASIC
called PCBASIC (or Pre Computer BASIC).
Now I remember creating a pretty fancy database application on this back in the day, using
an array and input statements.
You can only save your current program into memory, but it's good for dabbling in the
language, and really understanding how computers work.
The 2000 also features numerous quizzes, typing games, cartridge slot, and of course, the
all important wobbly keyboard, sitting on top of a receiving membrane.
I quite like the touch of a constant sand-timer, just printed on the case there.
I guess they wanted to make it feel like Windows.
[Midnight jazz to soothe the soul]
The big daddy to the 2000 is really the Pre-Computer Think Book.
THINK....
BOOK.
Hmmmmm, I wonder where they got that name from. Probably just a conincidence.
It seems Vtech liked to update their lines by adding more plastic.
It's essentially identical to the Pre-Computer 2000, but with a proper hinge.
It's like having a Nintendo 3DS instead of a 2DS.
It also has a much nicer keyboard than its predecessors.
Seriously, it's still just membrane based, but we've got a nicer rubber dome switches
underneath, improved mouldings, and generally tighter housing; it isn't half bad for a toy.
It kinda feels like a Spectrum+2.
[Jazz lingers in the air, like the midnight oil which fuels your mind]
VTech likes to recycle, and so this Pre-Computer concept would find its way into various shells,
including the PreComputer Graduate.
Again, pretty much the same, but now with a snazzier aesthetic.
Check out that that bezel.
I mean it's trying very hard to look like a Window based GUI.
Although that 3D effect from the window to the LCD sceen is a bit... well it's weird
isn't it?... kind of breaking perspective.
I am a fan of these fancy icons at the top of the, again, otherwise 2 row LCD panel though.
This is like peak GUI imitation crappyness.
I love it.
Now, running almost parallel to this range, was another Pre-Computer range.
But this one had a slightly different feature set, and a bigger LCD screen.
But it also lacks BASIC, making it, well, a bit purile in comparison.
//CHOOSE AN ACTIVITY//
Here's the PreComputer Notebook from 1993.
It's got crazy things like a music maker... if you can call it that, and an animation
maker.
I'm not sure I can even be bothered to explain exactly how it works.
But you can arrange about 4 different images in a sequence to create Animation.
[HaRsH sounds play]
//PRESS THE NUMBERS TO CREATE A MOVING CARTOON//
The PreComputer Notebook 2, is a slight advancement on the first.
"What do you want?"
I mean it's got a 3.5mm headphone jack on the side, but good god.
Why would you want to listen to this....
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEPPPPP
though headphones? It would break your brain.
Clearly it's just there to appease parents who couldn't bear the horrifically bone shattering
sounds from the first model.
These Notebooks might have bigger, more versatile higher resolution dot matrix LCD screens than
the other Pre-Computers, but they're more frivolous and, they are suited for a younger
audience, even though the advertised age range overlaps.
It would take the Power PAD to combine the best of both worlds.
Here we've got that familiar wobbly Pre-Computer keyboard, Pre-Computer BASIC, but also a whopping
4 lines to go with it.
It's still a very text based experience, compared to the dot matrix graphical abilities of the
Notebooks, but 2 extra rows of screen space are a welcome addition for any budding programmer.
Interestingly, the system still waits for you to press return after a single line of
output, rather than 4, as you'd imagine.
So we've still got a lot of programming from the 1000 days nestled in here.
However, we also have some new programs, like Story Problems....
[Jazz sustains us]
but the problem isn't the story, it's the fact that you have to write 400 G as the answer
rather than 400 GRAMS.
BUT THEN IN THE NEXT ONE, you have to WRITE GRAMS RATHER THAN G. WHAT THE CRAP VTECH?!?
I quite like the bezel on this one though.. not too overstated.
But here's where things really start to change.
You might have thought that VTech machines just stayed the same throughout the years
- well that's true in some respects - but just look at this.
We've got a 9 pin serial, a 25 pin parallel and some kind of RJ45 port on the back...
and check out this translucent plastic aesthetic..... maaaaan, this is where it's at.
It even come with its own mouse - which strangely plugs into that RJ45 style port - and a mouse
pad.
I'm not entirely sold on the "shocking" bezel, but let's crack on, anyway.
Look at that, the mouse actually has a proper pointer, and if you want you can use the track-pad,
although it's a resistive sensor, so it does require quite a bit of force.
The mouse is easier to use, although the DPI leaves something to be desired.
Still, it's pretty impressive for this limited LCD setup.
Talking about the LCD.
It is incredibly difficult to work out what's going on, unless you've got spot on lighting.
It reminds me of trying to play the Gameboy in a car, in the 80s.
Trying to absorb as much street lighting as you possibly could.
If the angle is off, you're not going to see much!
*Blerup*
*clicking*
So what's good?
Well, we've got some PCM sound effects.
We've got some shortcuts behind the keyboard, and we've got an ART STUDIO.
It's even got a Word Processor and a so called HomeWork Wizard, which allows you to put your
own questions and answers in, for, self testing I guess?
I mean, it's not really a wizard.
More an bridge troll.
But at least there's a little bit of memory to save all this.
We've also got an array of games, including a first person maze game, reminiscent of 3D
Monster Maze on the ZX80
*sound effects*
"I mean, it's quite easy, given you get the map"
*brrrrrrrr*
"seriously basic racing"
The 3D version of tic-tac-toe, is also quite cool, in a Star Trek, chess type of way!
//IT IS MY TURN//
//IT IS YOUR TURN//
You also get lots of settings to tweak, [bleepy sounds continue] and the best thing of all....
LOGO.
Yes, this might not have a BASIC interpreter.
But we get a fully fledged implementation of LOGO programming language.
Now if only we had a floor turtle to instruct.
If you've got an appropriate printer, you can even print out your program listing, or
end result.
I've actually got a VTech Thermal printer.
But it's a generation behind this laptop, and so, just isn't compatible.
Bit of an oversight by VTech there.
Another optional extra is the Vtech Modem.
Paired with the email cartridge you can actually hook this thing up to VTech's servers and
send electronic mail.
Of course, they don't work now, and I don't have the cartridge.
But we've actually got a proprietary slab of LCD here, which almost resembles a real
computer.
Not bad.
It's even got a screen saver.
Where's that tiny car going?
What's it doing?
So many questions.
At this point, I'm more than intrigued enough to take this one apart and see how how things
have evolved.
[Jazz. It feeds your soul like a million wet pickles]
Well, there's no Z80 processor anymore, instead we have an unknown processor blobbed in place.
I suspect it's probably a SunPlus unit.
You find lots of them in toys of this time.
To the left we've got a CMOS Micro-controller, and to the right is 2MB of CMOS Flash ROM
just next to a RAM chip, which I think is 256KB.
The Talking Whiz Kid Platinum is next, and this thing is really like a cut down Endeavour,
aimed at a slightly younger audience, but it does have a whole extra on screen colour.
Alongside blue we also have RED... and actually, it helps a lot with clarity.
It's also got a fairly nice, widowed interface.
But jesus christ, it is MIGHTY insistent on you deciding on a program, and fast.
//SELECT AN ACTIVITY//
"Alright, Jesus Christ!"
Check out this word processor.
It works.
We might not be able to save anything without an expansion memory cartridge.
But we can at least print to the VT25 Thermal printer without issue.
Can you imagine handing this in for your homework?
*chuckles to self*
And honestly these bezels absolutely fascinate me; It's such a permanent thing, trying to
mimic a changing dynamic interface.
Who decides what goes here?
EXTRAS.
CHARTS, MOUSE PORT... what's that about?
If you've got a mouse, you know it has a mouse port.
Otherwise it's just a constant, f*ck you to the kids forced to use this navigational excuse.
*slow mouse grunting*
You're probably thinking, that's great Peter.
But how about something bigger.
Something more vulgar with it's visual impact.
Well fear not.
Vtech have us covered.
[MUSICAL TO MAKE THE EARS SUFFER]
[MAKE IT STOP]
//HI//
"I'm Barry Scott... and I'm here with Jill!"
//SELECT A MODE//
[Jazz saves the day]
Introducing the DESK STATION.
You get the feeling that Vtech had an abundance of plastic laying around at this point.
Especially when you consider that a load of these computers were out at exactly the same
time.
Interestingly, a lot of them were the same underlying hardware, just with different aesthetic.
Thankfully all that size isn't gone to waste.
Look, we've got a storage compartment for the mouse on the back.
Along with our seemingly now standard big boy connectors.
*flailing clunking*
And this keyboard is possibly the nicest so far.
All setup it looks.... well, it looks like something doesn't it.
I mean, I especially love the fake Hard Drive light.
What's it searching for?
A purpose to go on?
One particularly abhorrent feature, is that musical ditties play in the background as
you use it.
Kind of like a background media player.
BUT these are not tunes any sane human could ever bare to listen to.... honestly, it's
[EAR BLEED]
*FRANTIC TAPPING*
[MORE EAR BLEED]
no wonder kids annoy adults.
Look what we're putting the poor sods through.
Not only that, but you can tell these tunes are consuming processing power, as whenever
they play, your interaction is slowed to that of the British government taking action in
a pandemic.
[BLEEEEEEED]
This machine is again, aimed at the 7 year old.
It's got a normal mode, or an ADVENTURE mode on boot.
Adventure mode is just a story, involving lots of puzzles, whilst normal mode, provides
our standard VTech edutainment resources.
//ARRANGE THE WORDS IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER//
*sponsor segement*
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this video.
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of a subject which alludes you, then Brilliant is where it's at.
Take this Computer Science course about writing programs.
Here you're put in the position as a new employee of Amazoo Adaptive Systems, and tasked with
understanding and writing the programs required.
Or how about putting your mind to some interactive logic solvables.
There's an entire world to immerse yourself in, and come out the other end better.
It's like an online Vtech machine, just BETTER.
Go to brilliant.org/nostalgianerd to sign up for free.
The first 200 people will also get 20% off premium annual membership.
*sponsor segement end*
OK, it's about now that things start to take a nose dive.
Yes, the millennium wasn't kind to VTech's children's range.
This is where style really starts to take the lead over substance.
Enter....Vapor.
It's a laptop, with a built in stylus which wangs up.
But all it's core componentry is housed in this removable PDA.
Yup, this thing can be used on the go, without it's keyboard, as long as you have 3 triple
A batteries.
But it's..... oh god it's just horrible to use.
You can use these touch icons with the stylus, but without the keyboard, it's really difficult
to navigate anywhere or do anything.
It's not much better when its plugged back in.
Golf anyone?
*TERRIBLE SOUNDS*
*MORE*
The Style Pad tries to cross that bridge between tablet and laptop, with horrific consequences. No, really.
[Out of tune nonsense plays]
"It sounds out of tune!"
[Continues to torment us]
Because now we're in the era, where tablets were all the rage...
This thing is...
Eugggghhhhhhh..
And then we're on to the full colour screens.
You know, we're getting to the point were actual proper technology, for adults, was
as cheap as a VTech machine.
So it kinda feels like they gave up for a while.
We've got a tiny colour LCD screen, and we can learn about Stone Henge, or put some entries
into our diary.
But hey, at least we're down to just 3 AA batteries now.
How far we've come.
Opening this one up, is quite painful, as components now tend to be stored in the screen
section rather than keyboard side.
So it requires literally peeling the screen surround off.
Once done, it reveals all those glorious components of old are now squeezed into a single Chinese
ARM processor, and with that, the soul of the original machines was also apparently squeezed out.
That's not to say that all VTech machines are now crap.
Their role has just changed, to more of a novelty, than a staple toy.
Whereas before they used to offer a genuine world of wonder.
A stepping stone to an actual computer; now the lines are blurred.
Kids are more likely to have an Android tablet, incorporating exactly the same functionality
as their parents devices, rather than a vastly reduced wannabe.
You might think that's better, but for me, that charm is just lost.
The charm of having a bit of kit that was it's own thing, that was limited to a crippling
extent compared to a real computer, kinda forced you to understand how it worked, and
it what ways it couldn't work.
If I were to give this to my ten year old now, he'd throw it in the bin, and just crack
on with his computer.
Blissfully unaware of what's going on behind the scenes.
Blissfully unaware of how many technological hurdles have been conquered to get to where
we are now.
I guess, that's what progress is all about.
But, it feels like we're losing something in the process.
I just hope we don't lose it altogether.
In the meantime, I guess we could always use these for circuit bending.
[BENT CIRCUITS MAN]
Oh by the way, I haven't forgotten about machines like this.
But then, they require their own video.
Anyway, thanks for watching, and have a great evening.
[Playful business music leads us out]
Thanks for reading these subtitles. I hope they were useful for you.