Sunday, 21 April 2013

Mamiya Twin Lens Reflexes

Kodak Portra 400NC / Mamiya C33 / 80mm f/2.8

"There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive." So began David Attenborough's classic documentary series Life on Earth. I only remember it from repeat showings, although I'm old enough to have seen its sequel, The Living Planet when it was first broadcast.

The 1980s was, on the whole, not a bad decade for television; but David Attenborough's documentaries strode the landscape like a colossus. They were the Half-Life of television programmes, and came around just as infrequently. Please, in a world where no-one can be trusted, please let it be that David Attenborough is not a sex fiend.

A Fairlight CMI - there is no reason why

Just as there are millions of different solutions to the problem of staying alive, there are millions several different solutions to the problem of accurately focusing and composing an image with a camera. The twin lens reflex was an evolutionary step along the path that led from direct viewing with a ground glass screen, through scale focus and rangefinders, and ultimately to single-lens reflexes and electronic viewfinders.

What will come next? Lytro light field cameras? Probably not. Some kind of Google Glass interface where people focus just by looking? Now that every square inch of the entire world is constantly being photographed from every angle, the future of photography will probably be one of editing, shot selection, and presentation rather than actual taking. People will browse Google Earth, winding forwards and backwards through history, rather than going outdoors.

Mamiya TLR lenses have lovely bokeh. This is the 80mm f/2.8 at probably f/4.

TLRs had their heyday in the middle of the 20th Century, a period interrupted by the Second World War; and so, although Rollei launched the popular Rolleflex TLR as early as 1929, I tend to associate the TLR with the 1950s. TLRs jostled with 5x4 Speed Graphic press cameras and Leica rangefinders for supremacy, before being shoved aside by the SLR in the 1960s. By then the TLR was an antique. The basic idea of using two separate lenses for focusing and composing was literal and effective, but awkward, and once Hasselblad launched their SLR system the TLR was doomed. Professions gravitated away from the TLR to the SLR, and remained orbiting around it like a captive moon.

Such as Siarnaq, the largest irregular moon of Saturn. Siarnaq is an Inuit goddess of sea creatures who "withholds seals, walruses and whales from their Inuit hunters", the horrible woman. But from her point of view the Inuit hunters are the baddies and the seals etc are her children. If she's a goddess, why doesn't she just melt the ice and drown the hunters? Why doesn't she give the sea creatures armoured shells, immune to Inuit arrows? Or, better still, give them arms and legs and make them the hunters, so that they could hunt the Inuit instead?

But perhaps the god or goddess that watches over the Inuit is stronger than the goddess of sea creatures, and that is why the odds are stacked in the Inuit's favour, and not the other way around. It has to be said that human supremacy is only a recent phenomenon; for many thousands of years the Inuit led a harsh, dangerous life. Were it not for the petrol engine and the rifle, human beings would still cower in fear from seals, walruses and whales.

Also, twin-lens reflexes or twin-lens reflexi or just twin-lens reflex? Yes, I know that reflexes is the plural of reflex, but in this case I'm not talking about a bundle of reflexes, I'm talking about several individual twin-lens reflex cameras. There's a subtle difference.

Post-the-1950s there were still a few niche markets for TLRs. Yashica continued to sell the popular Yashica Mat into the 1980s, targeting the curious amateur who wanted to shoot medium format with an affordable camera that was a cut above the Lomo Lubitel. Yashica Mats are still popular on the used market for this very reason. They are a cheap, good-quality entry into the medium format world. They have an emotional appeal; they're cute to look at, and for many photographers who went on to buy Hasselblads, they were the first kiss.

The Lubitel itself was a bargain-basement option aimed at students. It seems to have made little impression on the First World until eBay came along in the late 1990s. The few references in Google Books suggest that Ritz Camera imported a batch of Lubitels into the US in 1984 and then gave up.

Rollei's Rolleiflex followed the same path as Leica's rangefinders, gradually transitioning from professional tool to collector's item, before the line came to an end in 2000. Rollei's successor company still sells the f/2.8 model, which - as of 2013 - is the only non-toy TLR still being made. At a price of $5,000+ it targets a very small market.

Mamiya trod a different path, across the fresh snow in mukluks, the traditional shoe of the Inuit. The early Mamiyaflex TLRs were nothing out of the ordinary, but from the 1960s onwards Mamiya took the unique approach of building their TLR as a system camera, with interchangeable lenses, finders, backs, grips and so forth. By the 1970s the Mamiya TLR range was part of Mamiya's extensive medium format line-up, which covered all of the popular medium format frame sizes, from 6x9 via 6x7 and 6x6 to 645. Mamiya still exists, although it is now part of the Phase One / Leaf concern, and sells digital medium format gear.

This is my C33:

Mamiya's TLRs were solidly built and resembled part of an industrial lathe rather than a camera, although in my experience the film winding gear needs a bit of care and attention after all these years. Both of the Mamiya TLRs I own have sticky winders. That's why mine has a non-standard paint scheme - you have to rip off the mock leather coating in order to open up the side, and I decided to paint it white rather than stick the leather back on. Here's what the innards of the winding mechanism look like:

The turny thing with the numbers is the film counter. The other turny things with the pointy bits are called gears. They go round and round. There is also a green pointy thing. How did I fix the winding mechanism? Firstly I looked at it - I literally just looked at it - and then I sprayed WD40 over it, wound it a few times, left it to dry, and then wound it some more and presto, it works again. The whole mechanical thing with gears and so forth is really before my time.

As of 2013 it costs less to buy a new C33 than to have it repaired, so presumably as time goes on the pool of cheap Mamiya TLRs will wither. There will come a time when the last Mamiya C33 seizes up and is put in a cupboard forever, although no-one will have space for cupboards by then. We'll all be living five to a room and it will be a daily struggle to stop the other residents from stealing things.

The TLR range was discontinued in the mid-1990s. As legend has it the company only stopped making them because the tooling was starting to wear out. The December 1989 issue of Popular Photography profiles the C330 in a fascinating feature that rounds up the state of the camera market at the end of the 1980s, here:

At a shade under $1,000 with a lens it's the cheapest medium format camera in the list by a considerable margin - cheaper than the 645 cameras - and half of the price of a Canon EOS-1 35mm film SLR with a 50mm f/1.8.

The list ends with the Canon Xapshot and the Sony Mavica MVC-C1, amongst the first still video cameras sold to the general public. Still video cameras were not the future - in fact they died far harder and more thoroughly than film - but they helped usher in the modern age. Their children are the reason why the $710 Canon EOS 630 further up the article now struggles to fetch $15 on eBay.

The C33 was one of the transitional models, sold between 1965 and 1969 - I also have a C3, which was sold from 1962 to 1965, and was the first of the Mamiya C system cameras. The C33 was followed by the C330, which had a lighter, more plastic body. This mutated into the C330S and C330F, which had very minor modifications (slightly different knobs, and in the case of the C330F a different focus screen). The C3 has a plain focus screen, the C33 has a split-image, and both cameras have a flip-up magnifier which is essential for accurate focus.

There was a slightly cheaper C2 range - encompassing the C2, C22, and C220 - which was similar but had a winding knob instead of a crank, and a fixed back. The C3 models had a removable back that could be swapped out for a sheet film holder (and presumably there was a Polaroid option).

Here's what the body looks like with the lens taken off:

In this case the lens is a 65mm f/3.5, a general-purpose semi-wide. In 35mm terms it's roughly equivalent to a 35mm f/2.8 (in terms of depth of field, rather than speed - it's still f/3.5).

The lenses were upgraded over time. In general the originals had silver bodies, and later versions were painted black, with a blue dot on the shutter cocking lever. Later lenses are supposedly better, but it doesn't matter. None of the photographs on this page would have been improved by a fractionally sharper lens. These cameras are bought by curious people as toys. Incremental improvements in image quality are neither here nor there. If you're buying Mamiya TLR lenses, make sure they're in good nick and the shutters work.

The shutters were mounted in the lens bodies, and typically ran from 1s-1/500, with flash sync at all speeds.

Oh please do keep thy lovely eye / on all poor creatures born to die

Focal lengths ranged from 55mm at the wide end to 250mm at the long end, which is roughly equivalent to 28-135mm in 35mm terms. There were no exotics - no fisheye, no mirror lens, no soft focus, no dedicated macro. There's a neat comparison of the different focal lengths here, which shows off the system's absolutely gorgeous bokeh - it seems that every lens had fantastically smooth background blur that rendered point highlights beautifully.

In terms of depth of field the 6x6 format is essentially two stops depthier than 35mm, e.g. the standard 80mm f/2.8 behaves like a 50mm f/1.4, except that it's much better wide-open than a 50mm f/1.4. All of the indoors shots in this article were taken wide open, my rationale being that if I'm going to stop down, what's the point of using a medium format TLR? I could get the exact same effect with a digital camera just by cropping the edges so that the picture is square. You would never tell the difference.

I say no dedicated macro. Mamiya's TLRs used bellows focus, and the shorter lenses went almost to 1:1. Macro photography with a TLR is difficult. The bellows requires a boost in exposure, and the parallax error produced by the lens displacement is considerable at close distances. To solve this problem Mamiya sold a device called a paramender, which was a tripod baseplate extension that cranked the camera up and down, so that the viewing lens and the taking lens were in exactly the same position. Here's what the bellows looks like at full extension:

Once you factor in the difficulty of calculating depth of field, using the C-series TLRs as close-up cameras is a pain. The Mamiya RB67 SLR also had bellows focus, and is much more practical as a macro camera because it had through-the-lens focusing. Still, looking at price lists in 1970s issues of Popular Photography the C330 would have been a tempting choice; $350 bought you a medium format camera with a good standard lens that could almost do proper macro photography. The same money would have bought a Pentax K1000 and one extra lens, or it would have bought one-half of a Hasselblad 80mm f/2.8 (but no body to go with it).

That's a wooden model of the Balfron Tower, which was designed by Hungarian ex-pat Erno Goldfinger. Goldfinger fled Europe in the 1930s and moved to Britain, having shrewdly married the heiress to the Crosse and Blackwell fortune. After the Germans did their best to smash London to bits in the 1940s Goldfinger decided to make amends with concrete tower blocks and the like. He is a melancholic figure nowadays; Brutalism seemed to benefit the movement's theorisers more than the practitioners, who were stuck with the reality of making their dreams work, in Britain. If he had moved to France in the 1950s the government would probably have created an institute that he could run (with a tortuous abbreviation, such as L'Ecole Pour l'Architecte Technique aux Brutalisme (EpATB), or something). Instead his name is more famous than him, and it's very hard to explain to people that such-and-such a tower was designed by a man called Goldfinger. "You're having a laugh, surely?"

So, if you've learned one thing from this essay, you've learned that you should never cross Ian Fleming. Or he'll muddy your legacy and gradually erase you from history, and replace you with his own creations. Take for example top 1930s light opera singer Frank Scaramanga. Or once-legendary, now-forgotten radio comedian Ernie Blofeld. Or top Silent Hollywood actor Johnny "Shady" Drax. Who speaks of them nowadays?

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Over the Ice

In the previous post I installed an SSD into a laptop. There was some music, too:

Performed with Ableton, using a mass of samples and my favourite VST plugin of all time, Korg's Polysix emulation. (edit: Soundcloud's HTML5 widget sounds stuttery on my machine, with Firefox - but after following the instructions in the second post here and disabling SPDY everything is fine.)

The actual Polysix - the physical instrument - was launched in 1981, but it was overshadowed by the Roland Juno. Korg quickly replaced it with the Poly 61, which was overshadowed by the Juno 60, but the next year Yamaha's DX7 overshadowed them all. It blew a cold digital wind over the synthesiser market. The DX7 was powerful and flexible but difficult to edit, and helped introduce a tendency whereby synthesisers were sold as a box of preset sounds (specifically E Piano 1 and Bass 1, in the case of the DX7). The post-analogue, pre-FM, pre-sample based instruments of the early 1980s - DCO-based machines such as the Alpha Juno range, the Korg Poly 800, Casio's CZ-101 - seemed to fall into a pit of obscurity in the 1990s, which was handy if you were a student, 'cause they were cheap on the used market.

And so the Polysix has at least one claim to fame - in the 1990s, Japanese student Hiroyuki Hayashi started off his musical journey with a second-hand Polysix, and ended up naming his band, the Polysics, after it:

Korg's VST Polysix is relatively old and has a tiny interface, and there are cheaper and more powerful choices out there. The real thing was quite basic - a single-oscillator six-voice synth with a chorus/phaser/ensemble and a sub-oscillator to beef up the sound. The VST expands upon this by adding many more oscillators, more polyphony, and expanded modulation routing. It has a neat combination of easy interface with just enough power and flexibility for my needs. In Over the Ice - this is an early version, in mono - it does the Big Bass, which is twelve detuned oscillators in unison (the lead voice, which you can see in the screenshot, is a single square wave with the effects turned off).

My first keyboard synthesiser was a second-hand Roland D-10. I can't very well call myself D-10, that would be silly.

Ten Bands Named After Synthesisers
1. Polysics
2. Prodigy
3. Opus III ("It's a Fine Day")
4. (long pause)
5. (longer pause)
6. (fill in later)
7. (fill in later)
8. (fill in later)
9. (fill in later)
10. Odyssey (but were they named after the instrument? -ed)

Look, I can't help it that the two leading synthesiser manufacturers chose to give the vast, vast majority of their instruments alphanumeric code names, such as DX7IIFD and MKS-80 and MC-202 and TX81Z. The American synth companies tended to use names, but who wants to call themselves Pro-Soloist?

One day there will be a band called Axxe. One day.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Installing an SSD into an old ThinkPad X61

A while back I installed a Solid State Drive (SSD) into my old ThinkPad X60, and although the machine was noticeably snappier I wasn't convinced that it made sense. The X60 has a SATA I bus, which hobbles the SSD. Luckily I also have an X61, which is generally faster and has SATA II. After swapping the drive and cloning the X61, here's what it's like:

Music by myself there. The X61 was launched in 2007, and introduced the 64-bit-capable Core II Duo to the ultraportable ThinkPad range. The Core II Duo is one of the classic modern CPUs and overshadowed the short-lived, original, 32-bit-only Core Duo. As of 2013 a Core II Duo machine with sufficient memory and a good graphics card is good enough for almost any purpose, which might be one of the reasons why the PC market is rapidly being overhauled by the tablet market; there's no compelling reason for Mr Joe Average to junk his perfectly-functional five-year-old PC in favour of a new machine that does the same stuff, but fractionally quicker.

Officially the X61 had 150mb/s SATA I only, but on a technical level it was fully compatible with 300mb/s SATA II, it's just that for some reason Lenovo decided to disable it in the BIOS. It can be turned back on, but the procedure isn't for the faint of heart; you have to install a custom BIOS. In theory this is just a matter of downloading the file, clicking on the installer, and waiting, but as with anything involving flashing the BIOS there is the potential for great harm if (say) a nuclear explosion in the upper atmosphere temporarily cuts the power.

Speed-wise Crystal Disk Mark says that the 840 reads at 251mb/s, which at least means that the custom BIOS works. I would really need to run something that involves reading one large chunk of sequential data to truly appreciate the SSD's benefit, but operationally the X61 is (as with the X60) distinctly snappier. It's not so apparent from the video, but there's less jerkiness, fewer pauses. The experience of using the machine feels smoother. Economically the upgrade is still iffy - X61s are limited by their screens, which can't easily be replaced or upgraded.

It has to be said that SSDs do not, on a rational level, make economic sense for the typical consumer or individual, at least as a need rather than a want. They're polish. On a financial level their depreciation is awful, because of their finite lifespan and the possibility that the previous owner used his SSD to feed a 24/7 torrent server. As a consequence I think of an SSD as something that ends up wedded to its host unto death, in which case you might as well marry it to the best machine you can afford.

Still, the X61 meets my needs for the time being and so the SSD can stay inside it. 'twould be interesting to stick it in my Asus 1005HA netbook - netbooks were harbingers of the SSD revolution, before they grew fat - but it still has XP on it, which is trickier to configure for SSDs.

Boxout: Ten Three-Letter Abbrevations that begin with SS

1. Super-Sonic Transport (SST)
2. Sigue Sigue Sputnik (SSS)
3. SSS (I'm a snake)
5. 55555555555
6. S5S5S5S5S5
7. SSF (Soup? So Fine)
8. SSN (Succullent, Silky Nougat)
9. SSK (Stinky Submarine Kid)
10. SSL (Spatula, Spoon, Nife)

For some variety, in the next post I will try installing an SSD into (a) an old pair of boots (b) some hot cross buns (c) former head of the UN Kofi Annan (d) Europa, mysterious and possibly life-harbouring moon of Jupiter. Attempt no landings there.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Installing an SSD into an old ThinkPad X60

A while back I installed Windows 8 onto an old ThinkPad X61, and after five months I have grown to... I have grown to ignore it. Before Microsoft discontinued their cheap upgrade offer I took the opportunity to install Windows 8 on my ThinkPad X60 as well. The X60 was the X61's immediate predecessor. It was launched in 2006, and was one of the first laptops of any kind to use Intel's then-new Core Duo CPU, in this case running at 1.83ghz. Spec-wise it's very similar to a contemporary 13" MacBook - it has the same Intel graphics card, it even has a FireWire port - but with a 12", 4:3 screen running at 1024x768 instead of a 16:10 1280x800 widescreen.

And it's dressed all in black, like Joan Jett. This is one of the reasons why ThinkPads rock. They're much cheaper than used Intel MacBooks, too, although I'm not suggesting that Joan Jett is cheap. She would fetch a high price. Upgrade-wise I've always been very conservative when a new technology comes along, because I want other people to experience the pain and misery of failure first, and furthermore new tech depreciates quickly.

Solid state drives (SSDs) are one of the most interesting upgrade options of recent years, and the thought of owning one has nibbled away at my peace of mind. They're an elegant solution to the problem of data storage. Solid-state hard drives have been the next big thing since the 1980s, but until recently the price and capacity has kept them tantalisingly out of mankind's grasp, like nuclear fusion power or images of Christina Hendricks bending forwards. For example, here's an article from the June 1988(!) issue of PC Magazine on the bright future of flash memory, in the form of EEPROM modules.

"Flash EEPROM could provide the key to the PCs of the future: fast, secure machines with bigger memory-storage capacity - and no moving mechanical parts ... The nonvolatility of EEPROM raises some other interesting possibilities. Is there any reason why it can't replace floppy discs? I can't think of one. With surface mount and wafer-scale technologies, EEPROM modules may match 3 1/2-inch floppies in size and storage density."

And a reader letter from the October 1983 edition of the same magazine:

"Q: One of the main reasons why I would want to buy a hard disk for my PC is for convenient storage of programs. But could I save money and gain more convenience by adding EEPROMs and loading the program onto them? - Dan Proctor, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A: I think you would find the EEPROMs (erasable, programmable non-volatile storage chips) are decidedly not cost-effective. For about $3,000 you can purchase a hard disk with 10mb of memory. this will hold perhaps 100 programs. The same amount of money would buy you approximately 300k of EEPROMS (not counting the cards to mount the chips) that would hold perhaps three programs.

It must have been painful for Dan. He could see the future, but he was trapped in the past, with the little people and their tiny minds. Modern SSDs can generally hold more than three programs - unless that program happens to be Max Payne 3. With an installation footprint of 35gb, Max Payne 3 would indeed only fit into a 120gb SSD three times. In contrast it would fit comfortably into a typical 2tb desktop drive more than fifty times over, so the ratio between magnetic and electronic storage is obviously more favourable than it was back in 1983. The 2011 Thailand flooding wiped out a chunk of the world's hard drive foundries and caused traditional hard drive prices to zoom skywards, which for the SSD market was the equivalent of those old musicals where the lead actress catches a cold, and her understudy has to go out as a naive young chorus girl and come back as a star. SSDs are that young girl. They can do whatever Fred Astaire can do, but backwards and in high heels.

In a way I already have an SSD - my old Asus Eee 701 has a 4gb SSD, which still works after all these years. The rule of thumb is that larger solid state drives perform better and last longer than smaller drives, and so I waited until the 120gb models had dipped below £100. Samsung's SSDs tend to get good reviews - everybody liked the 830 - and although the reviews have been mixed for the 840 (more later) it's temptingly cheap. The cheapest price I could find was from Amazon; they're slightly more expensive on eBay, which has always puzzled me. Why buy new technology from eBay when it's more expensive than Amazon? Is it a tax dodge, or part of a money laundering scheme? Or what? Here's what you get in the box:

Worth it for the cute little stickers. Before opening the jiffy bag I assumed it contained a card reader or some MIDI cables or something similar, because the drive is almost comically lightweight. SSDs don't need as much shock-proof packaging as conventional hard drives and are presumably much cheaper for manufacturers to ship in bulk, which must help offset their generally higher cost. Samsung includes some data migration software on the CD, although it's also available on Samsung's website. In fact the CD installation immediately downloads a complete installation of the latest version of the software as an upgrade, so you might as well use the CD as a cat-fascinator. Samsung also includes some bloatware that seems to have one useful function (it reserves part of the drive's capacity for error-correction).

Here's what the 840 looks like, next to a conventional HDD ripped from my X60:

Installing a modern new SSD into an elderly X60 is a bit perverse. The X60 has an old-fashioned SATA I interface, which has a top transfer speed of 150mb/s. This is a quarter the theoretical maximum transfer speed of the 840's SATA III interface, and roughly a third the drive's sustained transfer rate. SATA is backwards-compatible, and so the 840 works in the X60, it just wastes two-thirds of its potential. And yet in most other respects I don't have a problem with the X60 - with sufficient memory, even the original 32-bit Core Duo is plenty fast enough for basic stuff circa 2013, and the audio applications I use aren't generally CPU-limited.

Boxout: Ten Suggested Collective Nouns for Moths

1. A Majesty of Moths
2. A Muttering of Moths
3. A Motherhood of Moths
4. A Month of Moths
5. A Manoeuvre of Moths
6. A Merrydew of Moths
7. A Maundering of Moths
8. A Mentality of Moths
9. A Mystery of Moths
10. A Magniloquence of Moths

SSD's have a number of killer positives and a couple of drawbacks. In their favour they're lighter and less power-hungry than conventional hard disk drives, and they're much faster. They're also physically much more robust, because they don't have any moving parts. Install one in your laptop, and it boots up faster, opens things faster, shuts down faster, and lasts a little bit longer on battery power. Here's a short video in which my veiny white person hands prod my X60, before and after installing the drive:

First Iain Banks reveals he is going to die, and a day later Roger Ebert beats him to the punch, which wasn't unexpected but is still a blow. I've always thought of Roger Ebert as a kind of movie version of John Peel, a hip old man with a surprisingly deft command of his medium. Peel sometimes played records at the wrong speed, but he always put things right, and he could talk entertainingly non-stop without spluttering or saying something offensive, which is difficult. Roger Ebert's opinions were occasionally baffling - one star for Blue Velvet, two for Fight Club, three for Spawn - but you could always see where he was coming from, and he had the attitude of someone who had seen it, done it, proved it, and still loved it. I have been raising a glass to him since the beginning of this post, which explains why my mind is wandering.

On the other hand there are good reasons why SSDs have not taken over the storage world. Pound-for-gigabyte they're more expensive than good old HDDs, and large SSDs (north of 500gb) are so prohibitively expensive that they generally aren't sold to consumers. The £74 that I paid for my 120gb 840 would have bought me a 2tb 7,200rpm Seagate Barracuda with £10 left over to spend on (thinks) you can't buy much with £10 these days.

Consumer-level 2tb SSDs exist. Five thousand dollars. Very much a niche product, and as one of the commentators points out you can buy four 500gb SSDs for much less. In practice, desktop users tend to reserve the SSD as an OS drive, with a HDD storing masses of porn and Death Star blueprints etc. Yes, you can use computers for things other than pornography, I was just picking an example off the top of my head.

The other major drawback of SSDs is that they have a finite life span. Like love, and human beings, and the universe in general. The drive is divided into individual memory cells, which wear out after a certain number of read/write operations. The drive combats this by spreading data evenly across the disk, and by including a hidden reserve that is deployed when necessary, but for some people the write limit is one of those deal-breaking issues. The limited life is an inherent characteristic of flash memory, and has been around ever since the days of EEPROMS in the 1980s, in fact the PC Magazine article mentioned above points this out. Digital camera memory cards, mobile phone SIM cards and so forth have the same problem, although it's not as apparent because computer operating systems tend to generate a lot of read/write cycles. Whenever you boot your computer up it spaffs temporary files all over the place and if you have a limited amount of system RAM the OS uses the hard drive as virtual memory.

The 840 uses a new type of memory chip that costs less but wears more than Samsung's earlier 830, but nonetheless the estimates I have seen place the life at roughly ten years (with lots of writes) and much more than that for typical usage. Samsung also sells a Pro version which used the older, more robust storage standard. HardOCP pooh-poohs the non-Pro 840 in this review, but they seem to be reviewing it in the context of a desktop boot drive or high-performance laptop. I just want something that will turn my X60 into a kind of super-netbook with a taller screen, for light internet browsing. In fact the big draw for me is the physical endurance, which is important for a machine I expect to carry around. And there's nothing to stop me from cloning the 840's contents back onto my 250gb hard drive, which I will keep around just in case.

Still, installation. After spending an age fretting about sector alignment and whether I should reinstall Windows 8 from old-fashioned (ugh) physical media the resulting process was a bit of an anti-climax. Reason being that Samsung's migration software works and works well, or at least it did for me using Windows 8. You plug the SSD into a spare USB port and Samsung's software clones the internal drive onto the SSD, not caring that the two are different sizes. It aligned the sectors automatically. In my case the internal drive was a 250gb model but only 35gb or so was in use.

The tricky thing is that you need a way to power the SSD externally whilst you do this (unless your laptop has two hard drive slots, which it almost certainly doesn't). Fortunately I have one of these:

It's an endlessly handy sonic screwdriver that also lets me use DVD drives with my X60, which doesn't have an optical drive. It's also useful for extracting data from older hard drives that you might have lying around from your previous computer build, without having to stick the drives into an external caddy. Whilst waiting for the drive to clone I had a cup of tea and read a bit of Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, an old book from long ago.

Hoggart's thesis was that international media tends to displace the kind of local culture he grew up with, and to his credit he generally avoids being a fuddy-duddy about it. What makes the book noteworthy is that it was published in 1957, five years before The Beatles' Please Please Me and the concurrent invention of sex. Quite what Hoggart would have thought about the internet I have no idea. When I was growing up working-class culture was an affectation put on by the middle classes. Localised culture simply did not exist, and it's never going to come back.

Beyond Hoggart's immediate location there was Britain in general, but the majority of British mass media of Hoggart's day was naff, absolutely wretched in comparison with the American variety. And this hasn't really changed. Britain failed to produce a distinctive internet culture apart from American internet culture, which is for all of the English-speaking world synonymous with internet culture in general.

As I pondered this the drive cloned away in the background, which took about ninety minutes or so. I had already set up the BIOS to use discs in AHCI mode, which is apparently a very good thing. After slotting it back into the laptop I was disappointed to find that it worked straight away. No lock-ups, no cryptic pattern of beeps, no booting to the desktop and then immediately crashing, no ERROR 601. It did not release a cloud of toxic gas.

Windows 8 was developed during the SSD era. It recognised the 840 straight away - asking it to defragment the drive performs a TRIM operation instead. What's it like to use? The most obvious difference is the general lack of noise. The SSD isn't quite silent - it sounds like an insect navigating mountainous terrain at night - but it no longer ticks. The X60 feels slightly lighter although I suspect this is mostly psychological. Operationally the X60 is noticeably quicker, at least until the novelty wears off, which isn't very long. Applications seem to spring onto the screen and as per the video above the machine boots faster. I now have fewer qualms about picking up and moving the machine when it's turned on.

It would make even more of a difference on a machine with a faster SATA interface. Officially, the first small ThinkPad with SATA II was the X200, which came out in 2008, but the X61 is apparently SATA II compatible with an unofficial BIOS. Which I have already installed in my X61. And so for the next post I might just whip the drive out of my X60 and stick it in my X61 (after doing the necessary cloning).

Is it worth putting a Samsung 840 into an old machine? In my opinion if your laptop costs more than £200 on the used market and you use it at least once a day then yes, go for it. Keep the HDD for when you want to resell the machine (used SSDs aren't particularly in demand - what if the previous owner thrashed it?). The X60 is a borderline case. The older small-format ThinkPads - the X32, X40, X41 - had PATA interfaces, and although PATA SSDs exist the performance gains in such old machines are slight and don't compensate for the ageing infrastracture. Used X200s are so cheap on the used market you might as well sell your X60 and get an X200 instead. In fact the X60 still has the same problem it had during its heyday - it was quickly overshadowed by the X61, and nowadays the price gap between the X61 and the X200 is such that the X60 isn't a rational choice. I keep mine because I'm sentimentally attached to it.

On the other hand, if I had and regularly used a 1400x1050 X60 Tablet or the X61 equivalent I wouldn't hesitate to put an SSD into it. I would end up with a kind of end-game netbook/laptop/tablet hybrid with a quasi-HD screen for much less than the price of an iPad.