Thursday, 30 July 2015

Windows 10 on an old laptop

It won't be easy, no, it won't be easy without you, no no no, in the words of Justin Heyward

Way back in October 2012 I upgraded my old 2ghz ThinkPad X61 from Windows XP to Windows 8. I still use that machine quite often - most recently as a musical instrument - and although it's eight years old it's still pretty good. I've upgraded mine with extra memory and a solid state drive. It's useless for games but otherwise it works just fine as a kind of Windows-powered Chromebook. Now that Windows 10 has come out I decided to test it out, and my X61 was close to hand.

Windows 8.1 - the much-reviled Start screen (top), and the desktop (bottom)

The machine came into this world in 2007 with Windows XP Pro. I've upgraded it to Windows 8 Pro (£25, a special offer) and then 8.1 Pro (free) and 10 Pro (free). There is also a Home version of Windows 10. The Pro version doesn't have any killer features that distinguish it from Home, but Home is for women. I'm not a woman, for heaven's sake. I'm not telling people that I have Windows 10 Home.

This raises the question of whether you can get hold of the Pro version of Windows 10 by picking up a crappy old XP Pro laptop and upgrading it. It's an interesting proposition although I don't think that it's viable, because you have to upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8->8.1 first. You can't upgrade straight from XP. This adds anything from £50-100 to the cost depending on how legitimate you want to be - Windows 7 upgrades are actually more expensive, because they're no longer available new - in which case why not spend a little extra and buy a laptop with Windows 7 Pro already installed? Hmm? Note that whereas my XP-Windows 8 upgrade essentially wiped XP, the 8.1-10 upgrade kept everything as it was.

Windows 10 is being rolled out via Windows Update progressively, but you can beat the queue by going here and downloading it from Microsoft. You have two options - an in-place install, or an ISO that you can burn / write to installation media (in which case you have to be careful to pick the right version of Windows 10).

The most powerful XP Pro laptops came out in 2007 and perhaps 2008, "the year of the Vista-XP downgrade". XP devices were sold for a couple of years after that, but they tended to be low-cost, low-power netbooks. The cream of 2007's crop were late Core II Duo laptops running at 2.6ghz or thereabouts, with 4gb or 8gb memory ceilings and 1440x900 screens if you were lucky. Nowadays these machines are, as with the X61, still competent if you can find them cheap enough. The T61p, which had a 1920x1200 screen and a separate graphics card, is not bad at all. I prefer the X61 because it's smaller; it was unusually small in 2007 and has aged well.

But I digress. Microsoft's attitude seems to be that you already have Windows, so you might as well upgrade. There will be boxed versions of Windows 10, but not until August. Do you remember when people queued up for boxed versions of Windows 95? Do you remember when PC software was sold in shops?

Star Cops was pretty much symptomatic of Britain's dysfunctional... look, I always thought that although Red Dwarf was a sitcom, it was a better sci-fi show that most sci-fi shows. The first series in particular had a philosophical, melancholic tone. The writers were obviously huge sci-fi nerds but they could do characterisation and storytelling as well.

You know, there comes a time in a man's life when he looks deep into his soul and instead of seeing Clint Eastwood peering back at him, he sees Arnold Rimmer. "An incompetent vending machine repairman with a Napoleon complex who commanded as much respect and affection from his fellow crew members as Long John Silver's parrot." Isn't that all of us? Lister was the hero, but I suspect that Rimmer was how the writers saw themselves; Lister was an ideal.

Inevitably Microsoft wants to own your life, like diverticulitis - but whereas diverticulitis requires antibiotics and/or surgery, Microsoft's clingyness can be dismissed with a few boxes.

But can it be dismissed entirely? We are all pawns in a great war between the forces of Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Where once there were nation states, now there are giant data farms, vying with each other to own our souls, so that they can sell us shopping machines that help us shop for more shopping machines, and smartphones that help them sell shopping machines to us. "Our children will live, Mr Beale, to see a perfect world in which there is no war or famine, no oppression or brutality - one vast and ecumenical holding company, for which all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused."

I'm digressing here. Back in the early 2000s Apple came up with the idea of launching OS X and then gradually upgrading it, without making major changes to the core OS, or at least without making major changes to the interface. I have used OS 10.4 Tiger (2005), 10.6 Snow Leopard (2009) and 10.10 Yosemite (current), and they look and feel basically the same. As far as I'm concerned an OS should be a transparent thing that gets out of the way; I have a MacBook so I can use Logic, not so I can use OS X, although as it happens I like OS X. It gets a lot of stick in the computing world - hardcore Linux fans don't generally get along with Apple, and in any case they would prefer it if OS X didn't exist; Windows people never use it and pooh-pooh it because it's an Apple product; the great mass of humanity never uses it; Macintosh owners aren't aware of it, because they don't care about OSes. But it has never let me down and it just works.

During most of OS X's lifespan Microsoft generally maintained the Windows look and feel, although you often had to do a lot of clicking to get back the standard taskbar and start menu, and some things were changed irrevocably. But the rise of the smartphone and the tablet and the market for apps in the 2010s threw a spanner in the works. Apple decided to develop a new operating system for the iPhone/iPod/iPad - iOS - and Apple apps are written for it. It must have been tempting to port OS X for mobile devices, but Apple decided not to, and although the company is often dismissed as a shallow bunch of fashionable hipsters creating fashion trinkets for hip fashionistas, its OS strategy was simple and effective.

And... it looks a lot like Windows 8.1, with some tweaks. From start to finish it took about forty minutes, not counting time spent downloading it.

"A shallow bunch of fashionable hipsters creating fashion trinkets for hip fashionistas", that's quality writing you know. It has rhythm, it flows off the tongue. The overuse of fashion- and hip- was deliberate. It's supposed to imply that I'm tired and bored with the kind of people who dismiss Apple users as fashionable etc, because their stance is tired and boring.

Yeah but right in contrast Microsoft initially had a separate mobile OS in the form of Windows CE, which was joined with but not replaced by Windows Mobile which was replaced by Windows Phone and meanwhile there was Windows RT which was a bit like Windows but for ARM and also there was Windows 8, which could run on desktop machines and tablets but not smartphones. Got that?

The duality of Windows 8 irritated a lot of people, although over time I have grown to ignore it. Windows 10 is an attempt to gather some of this together, although there is still a separate Windows 10 Mobile which hasn't been released yet. I just don't care about this section of the article any more.

10 - can I call it 10? - has a new Action Centre, roughly analogous to the old Charms menu.

I wonder what they've done with the Start screen. Let's hit the Windows key and bring up the Start screen. Let's see how they have tweaked the Start screen. I can't wait:

Oh. They've got rid of the Start screen. There's no more Start screen. You can enable an imitation by fiddling with the personalisation features, but it's not the same. Like Joffrey Baratheon from television's Game of Thrones the Start screen reigned briefly, no-one liked it, no-one will miss it. To be fair it works fine on my Linx 10 tablet. It's not so much the interface that angered people but its ubiquity on non-tablet devices. A rare case of Microsoft having the right idea, but too soon and too much instead of too late and not enough.

You can expand the new miniature start screen / start menu out to the right. If you want shortcuts to the rest of your apps you click "all apps", in which case you get a straightforward alphabetical list. Unless you have more than 512 shortcuts in which case it breaks, apparently.

Cortana is Microsoft's new digital assistant. When I envisage digital assistants, I think of Jane Wiedlin's Singing Telegram Girl from Clue, which pleases me. Clue is one of those films that isn't very good but everybody remembers it, like Innerspace or Explorers. Men remember Clue for Colleen Camp, who played the french maid, and at this point all the male readers of this blog are nodding. I'll save you time, just highlight "colleen camp" clue and right-click and search google for and images.

Microsoft has a new browser, which as you can see is called Microsoft E
It's a "start screen app" - apps launch in a window now, and although the X61's 1024x768 screen is behind the curve it's a shame Microsoft didn't test this out more thoroughly.

Will I use Edge? Why?

Hearteningly my existing setup is retained intact. Windows 10 doesn't crash or throw a wobbly. There was a time when each new version of Windows required a more powerful computer, but that seemed to fizzle out with Vista, which was widely panned for its bloat.

Over the last few years there has been a general emphasis on low power consumption and light weight, and Windows 10 has surprisingly modest system requirements - 1gb of memory, a 1ghz CPU, an 800x600 screen, around 20gb hard drive space. In theory that covers late Pentium III machines(!) but in practice I understand that BIOS, CPU and graphics problems mean that it won't work with pre-Pentium M devices, or at least not without hacking it.

There is a new Tablet mode that also emulates the Start Screen and is entirely optional. Microsoft should have implemented this back with Windows 8. Presumably from now on Windows 8.1 will have security updates but will otherwise be left to wither on the vine. Shed a tear for the concept of Windows service packs; the last one was Windows 7's first and last service pack back in 2011. Note that although the X61 has rubbish integral Intel graphics, it still copes with transparency, and in use Windows 10 feels fast and snappy. The Samsung 840 probably helps.

Returning to the topic of a cheap laptop, if the X61 copes then any late Core II Duo upgraded to Windows 10 with the hard drive replaced with a cheap 120gb SSD (about £50) should be just fine as a general productivity machine under Windows 10. I would pick one in tip-top condition. Does Windows 10 work on Macintosh hardware? I have a Macbook, but I'm not minded to try it out; I use it for music and I have it set up just right.

Controversially, updates are now downloaded without your say-so. The Pro version of Windows 10 lets you schedule restarts and I believe the Enterprise version lets you defer them. After installing Windows 10 there were two small updates as above.

The modern trend is for text-based searching rather than hunting through menus. Linux fans are generally smug, but wasn't it Ubuntu that introduced the idea of searching Amazon when you just want to open the device manager, hmm?

The install also added some Lenovo rubbish that seems to just run Disc Cleanup. I got rid of this. The X61's hardware is mostly generic although it has some oddities - a fingerprint reader (unusual for 2007), a TrackPoint nipple, a ThinkLight in the bezel that points down at the keyboard, and some kind of whitelisted wi-fi card. All of this worked. A while back I upgraded the BIOS with a special "Middleton BIOS" that enables SATA II, and Windows 10 either doesn't notice or doesn't care about this.

On Windows 8.0, SuperPi calculated Pi to 2m digits in 1m 02 seconds (right at the bottom). With Windows 10 it performs the same sums in 57 seconds! My hunch is that this is some kind of quirk rather than a genuine performance improvement. The new DirectX 12 is apparently faster than its predecessors, which may or may not influence the CPU's ability to calculate Pi. Subjectively the X61 seems to run slightly cooler than before; my recollection is that XP ran fairly cool, Windows 8 and 8.1 blew the fan more often, and after a few hours of trying Windows 10 seems to be cool again, with the machine idling at around 40c vs 50c as before. The X61's compact case is notorious for heating up quickly. The battery life seems much the same.

So, Windows 10. It introduces a lot of new features that you have already read about elsewhere. My immediate impression is that it's Windows 8.1 with a tarted-up menu system. No doubt under the hood a lot of clever stuff is going on, but from the perspective of this user, the upgrade process is quick, and it works. And I have demonstrated that an eight-year-old but well-maintained ThinkPad X61 will run Windows 10.

The big quandry; do I upgrade my desktop machine from Windows 7 Pro to Windows 10? It seems painless but I have far more installed on my desktop machine. Not yet.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Linx 10: Icicles Rocked by Waves

Goodbye stretcher. You remember tee-hee. The grand old duke of salamander took off with barney's bull and roasted three pence of finest great dane. The flat-wheeled flick pass flicked a live wire lizard and today we're going to have a look at the Linx 10. It's one of those Windows tablets that emerged overnight at the tail end of 2014.

It runs Windows 8.1 with Bing and it's essentially a laptop PC but in tablet form, at a price point that competes directly with Android tablets. Unlike ARM-powered Windows RT tablets it's compatible with all of the typical PC applications that you know and love, such as Photoshop and Steam and so forth, and unlike Microsoft's own Intel-powered Surface Pro tablets it isn't vastly overpriced.

It doesn't run Android natively, although it's powerful enough to run an Android emulator such as DUOS, for example:

Looking squashed there in a window - it's a lot better full-screen.

A wave of these cheap tablets appeared last year. Microsoft wanted to get Windows 8.1 out there and Intel wanted to sell some of its mobile Atom chips - the two companies were starting to worry that Android running on ARM would steal away their future - and so both companies slashed their licence fees. OEM manufacturers in the Far East immediately responded by launching these things.

There have been some name-brand Windows tablets and lots of models from made-up companies that don't really exist; Linx seems to be the most popular in the UK. As far as I can tell Linx is just a postal address and a website. Google keeps telling me that I'm searching for Linux instead; I'm not.

Running STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which is surprisingly playable even at 1920x1080 on an external monitor. The most obvious problem is that the Linx is a touchscreen tablet, but almost all PC games require a keyboard and mouse, which means you have to start plugging things into the tablet and packing extra peripherals in your suitcase, which removes some of its portability.

Linx sells three Windows 8.1 with Bing tablets. What's Windows 8.1 with Bing? It's Windows 8.1 with Bing as the default search engine in IE. I don't use IE so I don't notice it. You can change it. It's not a problem.

Will it upgrade to Windows 10? Apparently so, although I'll wait until Windows 10 has been out for a while before doing so:

EDIT: In the next-but one post I upgraded to Windows 10, which was painless although the installation process almost filled up the hard drive. Running Disk Cleanup returned most of the space, although running this removes the possibility of going back to Windows 8.1. The upgrade ditches the with Bing nonsense and installs plain Windows 10 Home instead:

Linx sells three Windows 8.1 with Bing tablets. I've said that before. Three of them. The Linx 7, the Linx 8, and the Linx 10. They're broadly the same, with a 1280x800 touchscreen, a quad-core Intel Atom clocked at 1.33ghz, 1gb of memory, a mini-HDMI port, headphone socket, one mini-USB port, one MicroSD slot.

They all have a tiny 32gb eMMC flash drive for onboard storage, which is slower than an SSD and really only large enough for Windows and Office and a few other applications. You're supposed to offload everything - especially Steam games - onto the MicroSD card, which is a tenner for another 32gb, half again for 64gb.

There are differences between the models. The screen size, obviously. The Linx 7 has a 7" screen, the Linx 8 an 8" screen etc. Windows 8.1 with Bing is free on smaller devices but manufacturers still have to pay for anything larger than 9"; the Linx 10 is proportionately more expensive than the other two models, but perhaps to compensate for this Linx doubled the memory to 2gb. That's the main reason I bought the 10" model. Prices are roughly £60, £90, and £150 respectively. Of the three, the 8" model seems to be the most popular.

Another thing - the 7" and 8" models charge through the micro USB port, the 10" model has a separate charging port, which means you can leave it plugged in while using the USB port. Sadly the charger has a very short cable.

Windows 8.1 is a mixed bag. I've used the tablet editions of Windows 8, Windows 7, and Windows XP, and 8.1 is fine but in one respect it feels a bit of a step back - the keyboard doesn't automatically pop up when you select a text area! You have to continually pop open the keyboard manually. And the "keyboard close" button is right next to the "delete / back" button, so I constantly find myself typing search terms, hitting enter, hitting delete/back accidentally, and then going back a page.

The XP / Windows 7 floating keyboard was better - it popped up automatically and you could grab and resize it much more easily. Google Chrome tries to restore some of the pop-up functionality although it's hit and miss.

It's Half-Life 2. The machine has some trouble with DOSBox - it's a CPU-intensive application, and ironically UFO: Enemy Unknown was very sluggish - but mid-2000s 3D games seem to run really well.

Performance-wise, my Linx 10 is roughly on a par with one of the slower Core Duo laptops from 2006 or so, or at least that's what the SuperPi score suggests:

That's the kind of score that you'd expect from one of the 1.6ghz, 1.4ghz Core Duos. But on the other hand it has a much more powerful graphics system than any 2006 laptop and feels subjectively must faster - I mentally peg it as a really fast Core II Duo desktop system of the mid-late 2000s, except in a box the size and weight of one of those posh rectangular plates you get at posh restaurants. With the sauce dribbled around the outside of the food.

I'm a long-term tower case desktop PC man, with five fans and two hard drives and expansion cards and external hard drives, but I'm impressed at how far and fast mobile chips have come on in the last ten years. The Linx 10 doesn't have a fan, it's lightweight, it's on a par with a good laptop of a few years ago, but it's the same size and weight as one of those posh plates etc sauce etc.

I used mine with an external monitor at 1920x1080 for a while. It chugged a little but that might have been raised expectations on my part. The 1gb models probably wouldn't be much fun, and even with 2gb Firefox lags a bit, but you can in theory hook any of these machines up to an external monitor, plug in a keyboard and mouse (or use a wireless suite, in which case you only use one USB port), and use them as basic browsing / wordprocessing / simple games machines.

The Intel x86 / Windows architecture was invincible a decade ago. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and "wintel" doesn't seem invincible any more. Wintel is less of a draw than it was, but it's still a powerful draw. With the 7" or 8" models you have Photoshop in your pocket - grown-up, full-sized Photoshop. It probably won't be very fast Photoshop but you have that option. For music applications something like Ableton Live works at 1280x800; if you're recording interviews a Linx tablet with Audacity plus an external microphone rivals a pocket recorder for portability and beats it for flexibility. There are fewer and fewer things you can't do with Android nowadays, but generally Wintel does everything all at once and there are more options.

With an external monitor, running Firefox on the desktop (top) and a Metro application (bottom).

Surprisingly my Linx came without any bloatware at all, just a year's free subscription to Microsoft Office which you have to redeem by August. This gives you the option to install Office on a PC, a tablet, and a smartphone, and obviously trendy people like you and I pooh-pooh Office but the plebs might like it.

Will it last? The Linx is a sealed unit, neither the battery nor the flash drive can be replaced. There's no way to boot from the Micro SD card, so if the internal hard drive fails the device is kaput; but you're probably not going to keep your life on it. The battery lasts for six hours or so although Windows taxes it even when it's on standby - it helps if you disconnect from wifi and turn "flight mode" on. Eventually both the battery and flash drive will wear down although I suspect the machine will have been shoved into a cupboard long before then.

And that's the Linx. As with the Eee netbook of a generation ago it's really an expectation game. As a Windows laptop it's far behind the curve, and once you add a keyboard and mouse it's not portable any more; but as a pocket tablet that runs actual genuine Windows applications it's amazing.

What's it like to use? I took it on holiday to Budapest earlier in the year, replacing my Asus Transformer. I used it exclusively in desktop mode, in which case the buttons are occasionally fiddly but otherwise it was more flexible than an Android tablet. I used it mostly to surf the internet or read Kindle books. One thing Android/iOS has that the Windows App store doesn't is a range of airline check-in applications; DUOS dealt with that, and I suppose if you have an Android smartphone you can use that instead, but it's one of a growing number of things that don't have standard Windows equivalents, which is a sign of the times. On the other hand, I could interface the Linx with my hand-held Garmin eTrex GPS navigator, pop open Google Earth and EasyGPS, and transmit waypoints to the eTrex, which would have been awkward or impossible with Android. VLC plays any of the porn you download-thing, it plays anything.

As a mobile productivity device it has the same problem as all other tablets - you have to pack a keyboard and a mouse and perhaps a USB hub and an SD card reader and some extra (Micro)SD cards, and the charger, at which point you have a bundle that takes up as much room as a laptop. But you can use the tablet independently. I suspect that one of the biggest First World Problems - your smartphone is powerful but too small to use all the time, your tablet doesn't make phone calls and isn't practical as a GPS navigator or phone, packing both feels redundant but you have to take the phone but the tablet is very useful too - is irresolvable.


Over the last few years I've tried a variety of mobile solutions. At first I used books, which last for years but are very limited unless you cut out the pages and re-arrange them. Then I used an original Asus Eee 701, one of the cute little white models; then I upgraded to a later seashell Asus Eee 1005HA, which was less cute but a lot more functional. The Linx is faster and lighter than late-period netbooks.

Then I moved to a Thinkpad X61 12" subnotebook, which was lighter than the netbooks and much more powerful, but only slightly larger - netbooks had lost the plot by then - and eventually I tried out an original Asus Transformer TF101, an Android tablet with an unusually functional keyboard dock. I am essentially platform-independent (the headline image shows a Linx sitting on top of an old MacBook Pro, which is really too large to use on the move), and of all these different solutions to the problem of reading, researching, writing, surfing the internet and listening to music whilst on holiday or on the train I'm not sure which is best.

The Linx has the performance of a really fast netbook and it's even lighter than the Asus Transformer, although the battery doesn't last as long, and I prefer the Android version of Kindle to the Windows desktop version. App-wise, Windows is hard to evaluate - the Windows Store apps are mostly dire and pointless, with a huge number of outright cons, but on the other hand you have the standard Windows repertoire, but then again as with netbooks none of the standard Windows applications are optimised for a small touchscreen, but again again the 1280x800 screen of the Linx is a standard PC resolution whereas the 1024x600 screens of netbooks was not.

Emotionally I prefer the Thinkpad, because it feels like a proper computer. It has a really nice keyboard. I still have it, whereas I have sold off most of the aforementioned. But it doesn't fit easily into a bag and the battery life isn't very good, and it's not something that can easily be whipped out and turned on. My hunch is that something like a MacBook Air would be ideal, but perhaps there is no single solution to the mobile problem. It is nonetheless striking to think back all the way to 2000, 2001, when mobile internet was a pipe dream; we've come a long way since then.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Vulcan at Yeovilton 2015: Infra-Red

Off to the Yeovilton Air Day, with an infrared camera and a bottle of pop. This year the Avro Vulcan retires for the third and final time. Like Lazarus, it was raised from the dead; and like Lazarus it is fated to die again, this time forever.

I used an infrared camera - there is no shortage of Vulcan photographs taken with visible light - in part because the results are dramatic but also because I was curious to see what would happen.

The Vulcan entered service in the 1950s. Its original mission was to incinerate Russians - tens of thousands of them - with our nuclear bombs. In practice this never came to pass, and the only people incinerated by Vulcans were Argentine ground crew, six of them, during the Falklands War of 1982. The Vulcan was retired from service almost immediately afterwards. It remained in flight as a display aircraft until 1993, at which point the expense of keeping a jet bomber in the air became too great.

In this shot, for example, you can see that some of the panels were made of a different material from the rest of the airframe, or perhaps they used a fundamentally different paint.

Just like Doctor Who, it made an unlikely comeback; in 2007 the Vulcan to the Skies trust finally got the machine airborne again, thanks to millions of pounds of donations from members of the public. Alas, the Vulcan's engines and airframe are coming to the end of their service lives, and so 2015 will be its final year in the air. It outlasted the Lighting, Concorde, the Harrier (at least in British service), and its close contemporaries, the Victor and the Valiant. Because it looks awesome, that's why. And it sounds awesome.

There were some other aircraft at Yeovilton, but in most cases* they will be there next year, so they can wait.

* Notable exceptions include the French Super Etendards - which were displaying just as I left - and the Sea King helicopters, which are still in service elsewhere in the world.

In the nuclear strike role the Vulcan was painted white so that the nuclear blast wouldn't hurt the crew. Why didn't the Russians paint their cities white? Perhaps they did, I don't know. Thanks to the efforts of our American friends, the Russians eventually stopped being our enemies and became if not our friends then at least some people we know, and indeed large tracts of modern London are owned by Russians because we are great friends (short pause) with their money.

What's it like to see a Vulcan dancing in the sky? In an airshow context the experience is somewhat muted, because regulations prevent it from flying overhead. The pilot can only make long passes parallel with the crowd line plus some wingovers. The Vulcan's low wing loading gave it superb high-altitude performance - I imagine that the likes of the F-86 or MiG-15 would have found it an incredibly hard gun target - but this doesn't help at an airshow. Nonetheless, when the pilot gunned the engines it was like being punched in the chest, and I could feel a collective grin from the crowd, although I was too far from the car park to hear the car alarms going off.

On the ground it's smaller than I expected. The pilot and co-pilot had ejection seats, but the back-seat passengers - the radar operator, the navigator, the electronic countermeasures specialist, and often a relief pilot - were expected to climb down the crew ladder and hop out of the aircraft. Looking at the entrance hatch I wouldn't rate their chances at low level.

The Vulcan had a surprisingly good accident record for a jet aircraft from the early Cold War years, but the Aviation Safety Database lists three instances in which only the two pilots survived a crash, with the other crew dying inside the airframe. I know that RAF men are not given to sentimentality, but it must have haunted them, at three o'clock in the morning, later on in life.

The enormous, unsegmented bomb bay was originally designed to drop freefall nuclear weapons, at first from high altitude and later from a few hundred feet - the WE177 freefall bomb was slowed with a parachute, which gives me a mental vision of Soviet policemen desperately firing at it with their pistols.

The bay resembles a metal skeleton. In practice it seems that the Vulcan was just as likely to carry stores under the wings (either missiles or sensor pods) with the bay used as a fuel tank. As with the American B-52, the Vulcan lent itself to different roles - in the 1970s it became a maritime patrol aircraft and mid-air refueling tanker - and perhaps if it had been cheaper, or had attracted export sales, it would still be flying today. The RAF only retired their Canberras in 2006 and the American version of the Canberra, the B-57, is still flying today, in a limited capacity as a communications relay.

Writing about the Vulcan's dimensions doesn't really impart the flavour of the thing. It has meaning beyond numbers. On one level there's something desperately melancholic about its original role as a nuclear bomber. Perhaps in the early days of the Cold War it was feasible that the Vulcan could drop its bombs on Russia and return to Britain for tea and medals - but the Russians would have done the same to us, and they had 1,500 Tu-16s, outnumbering the Vulcan more than ten to one. They only had to hit London once to knock us out as a functioning nation. Later in the Cold War it was obvious that the Vulcan was a desperate weapon of retaliation that would fly off into oblivion, "not to return on this day, or any other day".

On a cultural level the Vulcan's emotional legacy is complex. In the 1950s it was a symbol of Britain's globe-spanning power and technical ingenuity. This blog post captures some of the Vulcan's hold on the British psyche, expressed in the likes of Commando and Eagle and Ladybird's The Airman in the Royal Air Force. Britain's globe-spanning power had been an illusion for a decade by the time the Vulcan entered service, and it's hard to feel nostalgic for it, but the aeroplane, its engines, and its bombs were undeniably state of the art. I imagine that kids reading Eagle would have been enthused to grow up as aviation engineers or designers or technicians, but when they left school there were no jobs for them, not then or ever since, so the bright ones moved abroad.

Still, the Vulcan. It will be flying until September, unless the Argentine government invades the Falklands again. Or there's a giant war between America and Russia that also knocks out India and China, in which case Britain will be a world power once more, albeit that the world will be much smaller and more radioactive.

On a photo-technical level I used a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, because that's all I have in the long range; I had to focus manually because the lens is calibrated for visible light, but that's easier than it sounds because the aeroplanes were roughly the same distance. In my admittedly limited experience anything around 400mm plus or minus a couple of hundred mm with good central sharpness is good enough for airshows, 500mm if you have a full-frame body. The most popular lenses I saw were, in roughly descending order, either of Canon's 100-400mms, Nikon's 80-400mm, various Sigma "bigmas" and a couple of 70-200mms with teleconverters. Yeovilton has a little mound in the north-east that lets you look over the heads of the crowd.

No doubt in a few years people will start using drones as camera platforms, assuming that they aren't banned; and a few years beyond that all of the display aircraft will be drones as well.