Thursday, 16 July 2020

Souping Up a 2009 Mac mini

Some of the most important scientific observations are simple, almost to the point of appearing self-evident, but they have weighty implications. The notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun, for example, explains the observed motion of the planets in our solar system, but it also implies that the tiny lights visible in a cloudless sky at night are distant suns much like our own, with planets whirling around them, and that the firmament is not in fact the interior of a giant globe but is actually a gigantic and mostly empty three-dimensional space.

Einstein's idea that a beam of light recedes away from an observer at speed c no matter how fast or in which direction the observer is moving seems unimpressive at first - "light is very fast" - but it gives rise to the idea that if the speed of light is a constant, then it follows that miles and hours must be fluid, which implies that light is somehow embedded in the fabric of the universe and that time and space are linked.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution states that over the course of multiple generations a species will tend to mutate in such a way that it functions efficiently within its environment, not through conscious intent but simply because unsuitable mutations die before they can pass on their genes. Darwin did not believe that animals become better over time, merely that they adapted themselves to their environment.

The theory is simple but the implications are profound. Traditional religion tends to imagine that human beings were created fully-formed by God to rule the world, but if all animal life is subject to a slow process of evolution the human animal must be mutating as well. If portraiture had been invented fifteen million years ago, and some of those portraits had survived to the present day, it would be obvious that we are not the same creatures we once were; and one day we will look back at twenty-first century humanity and be repulsed by our filthy hairy bodies and our need to wear socks.

This does not mean that God did not create us, but it does mean that he could not have created human beings as they exist today. Perhaps he created the protoplasmic goo from which we formed, or he devised the physical laws of the universe in such a way that life might emerge, but this raises another question. Are we God’s chosen creature, or merely one of many? We were not the only product of that protoplasmic goo, and all life derives from the motion of subatomic particles, so why should we be special?

Furthermore the success of an organism can only be measured in terms of its ability to survive within a given environment; not in terms of whether it is beautiful, or virtuous, but simply by its ability to survive and procreate. In a world where murderous dictators pass on their fortunes to a dozen kids while saints die childless, what is good and what is bad?

And if God’s role was to create the physical laws of the universe, why should it be that organic life was his aim? Suppose his goal was to study the behaviour of black holes, and we are just swarf from his workbench; an inconsequential biological infestation that spreads across some of his test subjects.

Perhaps the experiment was concluded billions of years ago, and we are simply waiting for God to wipe off the petri dish and start again. Before that happens I'm going to have a look at the Mac mini (early 2009), but before even that I'm going to have a look at Sade.

The video for Sade's "Never As Good As the First Time" features several unbroken shots of Sade riding a horse across southern Spain. Life is horror, capped off with the grim inevitability of death, and the best we can do is distract ourselves from the awful fact that we are just rotting animal meat. "Never As Good As the First Time" is as good a distraction as any.

In fact few things are more distracting than Sade riding a horse. Imagine if that was the whole world! For a short time I can pretend that I myself am a horse, and Sade is gripping me tightly in her thighs, and later on she will shower me with sugarlumps, and hopefully she will never read this.

The Apple Way
Sade's music, her persona, the ambience of her gesamtkunstwerk, whatever - it's a separate world that we can visit, a better world, and the same is true of Apple. The company's computers have a number of practical uses, but beyond that they fill an emotional need. Tony Blair would have described them as aspirational.

When I use Apple hardware I imagine that I am sitting in a clean white room with a wall of Expedit shelves holding rare groove records sourced from YouTube's sidebar. I imagine that I am syncing my iPod with FireWire.

The original mini was designed to fit in with the circa-2005 PowerBook range. As you can see the colour scheme is the inverse of my old PowerBook G4. The mini's body is made of aluminium, topped off with a translucent plastic cap that tends to yellow with age.

I've always liked the concept of a small, silent internet box, but at £800 the modern Mac mini is a hard sell. That's a lot of money for a machine with a GPU that's soldered to the motherboard, and I realise that nowadays there are external GPUs, but it still seems wrong to spend so much for a machine that has such limited expandability.

Ironically the mini began its life as a cheap, entry-level Macintosh. The original mini was launched in 2005 at a price of around £400, although you had to bring your own keyboard, mouse, and display; the idea was that existing PC owners might buy a mini just to try the Macintosh platform. Apple hoped that it would expand the base of people using OSX, thus making the platform more appealing to developers.

Alas for the mini its role as a cheap entry into Apple's ecosystem was swept aside by the iPhone, which was launched two years later; the huge success of the iOS App Store diverted the company's attention away from OSX and the computer range, and as a consequence development of the mini has proceeded in fits and starts since then.

The mini remains something of an outlier in Apple's product range, but it fills enough niches - low-power server, portable music machine, media centre, basic PhotoShop computer, cute lifestyle accessory - that Apple has been unwilling to kill it off entirely.

The pre-unibody minis have a non-slip rubbery base. The mini tends to run hot, so it's a good idea to elevate it slightly or rest it on something conductive, like metal or glass.

A Brief History of the Mac mini
The first Mac mini was powered by a single-core, 32-bit PowerPC G4 running at 1.25, 1.33, 1.42, or 1.5ghz, with a maximum memory ceiling of 1gb; in terms of raw computing power it lagged behind contemporary Pentium M-powered PC laptops, but Apple marketed it as a general lifestyle machine so the slow CPU wasn't a huge problem. It wasn't intended to run Doom 3.

Historically the mini kicked off a fad for small form factor PCs. The idea had been floating around for a while, but it was hard to build a small PC around a Pentium 4, and none of the mini's predecessors had the same kind of marketing push as the mini. My recollection is that early-2000s mini-PCs were the same size as a micro-hifi system, e.g. they were twice as tall as the mini. It wasn't really until the middle of the decade that it was practical to stuff a bunch of laptop components into a small case and sell it as a genuine desktop PC alternative rather than a limited novelty toy.

A year later AOpen released a Pentium M-based clone that was conceptually similar but looked hideous - it also sold for twice the price of the mini - but in general the SFF movement never really hit the mainstream. It's not that people didn't want small computers, it's that smartphones and tablets and latterly the Raspberry Pi and Intel NUC can perform the same tasks just as well in even-smaller boxes.

The G4 Mac mini came with OS X 10.3 Panther and latterly 10.4 Tiger, although it could be upgraded to 10.5 Leopard. The general consensus is that 10.4 Tiger is just fine for PowerPC software and 10.5 Leopard only slows the mini down. Contemporary reviews bemoaned the stingy RAM allocation - just 256mb on the entry-level model - but on the other hand the interior was user-servicable, so owners were free to buy the cheapest mini and upgrade the memory themselves.

On the second-hand market today the G4 Mac Mini is awkward. It only has two USB ports and a single full-sized DVI port. It uses PATA hard drives, and the G4 processor is only capable of running PowerPC-era software. For web browsing I use TenFourFox on my old PowerPC machines, but my hunch is that the internet would be very slow on a 1.42ghz G4 with only 1gb of memory. Purely as an objet d'art the G4 mini suffers in comparison with the earlier, more expensive, but considerably flashier G4 Cube, so if you want a cool ornament why not buy a Cube instead?

I shouted my question to the heavens. "Why not buy a Cube?" But answer came there none.

The G4 mini was launched after Apple had switched the iMac and Power Macintosh to 64-bit G5 processors. There was never a G5-powered mini; IBM couldn't make the G5 run cool enough. In fact just six months after the mini was launched Apple announced its intention to abandon PowerPC entirely in favour of Intel x86, so the G4 mini has the honour of being the last brand-new Macintosh product released during the PowerPC era.

They were replaced with Intel-powered minis in 2006. The new breed had four USB ports but were otherwise much the same, port-wise, as their predecessors. The price rose to £600 for the dual-core 1.66ghz Core Duo model. There was also a £450 Core Solo model, but it was generally seen as a bad deal; the Core Duo model was much faster.

The Core Solo mini is notable for being one of the few mainstream computers that had a Core Solo. The Solo was essentially a Core Duo that had failed Intel's quality control, with the faulty core disabled; a bit of Googling suggests that it was used in a couple of cheap laptops and almost nothing else. Thankfully the CPUs in the early Intel minis were socketed, so with deft hands and some thermal paste it was possible for mini owners to replace the Solo with Core Duo chips.

In 2007 the Intel minis were upgraded with the new 64-bit Core 2 Duo. Unfortunately the machines still had 32-bit firmware, which meant that they were unable to run versions of OS X beyond 10.7 Leopard. There doesn't seem to be a way to hack them to run newer versions of OS X. They can be BootCamp-ed into Windows 7, which still runs Chrome, but that seems a needlessly complicated way to surf the internet.

Counter-clockwise from lower left the 2009 mini has power, ethernet, FireWire 800, Mini-DVI, Mini-DisplayPort, USB 2 ports, then audio in and out, Kensington lock, ventilation slots, power button.
It would be great if you could turn the mini on by tapping the Apple logo on the lid, but you can't.

On the used market the early Intel Mac minis are intriguing as simple media servers and/or souped-up alternatives to something like a Raspberry Pi. For internet surfing they're in an unfortunate dead zone, being too old to run modern versions of Chrome or Firefox but not niche enough to have a cult following, so they can't run TenFourFox either.

The mini's compact desktop presence becomes less compact when you plug anything into it. Some bulky USB peripherals - sound cards, for example - won't fit unless the mini is lifted up slightly, and heat from the fan tends to toast anything plugged into the USB ports, so you might want to use a USB hub.

The Core 2 Duo models remained on the market unchanged for almost two years before being replaced in early 2009 by the subject of this blog post, the early 2009 Mac mini. The new mini had a number of internal tweaks, plus an extra USB port, and crucially it included two video ports, one Mini-DV, the other Mini-DVI. I say crucially because I find it a lot easier to work with two monitors.

The 2009-onwards models can run up to 10.11 El Capitan natively. El Capitan was current from 2015-2018 and is no longer updated, but it will run the most recent versions of Firefox and Chrome, so the 2009 Mac Mini is the oldest Mac Mini that doesn't require hacking or tweaking if you just want to surf the World Wide Web. You might want to be wary about buying things online or banking with one.

Thanks to DosDude's easy-to-use patching utility the 2009 minis can be hacked to run the most modern version of MacOS, which as of this writing is 10.15 Catalina. On a personal level I'm not fond of Catalina, if only because it won't run 32-bit applications; that includes a lot of older games, ironically the only games likely to run well on a mini.

What's the 2009 mini like to use? I've never used a mini before. The first thing that struck me is the silence; the machine is designed to spin the cooling fan as little as possible. As a result it idles at 60-64c, twice as hot as my desktop PC, but after eleven years it still works, so presumably the heat isn't that much of a problem. It's nice being able to listen to music without a faint whirrrrr in the background. The only distracting noise is a faint high-pitched whine from the SSD, which is easy to tune out.

After a bit of experimentation I tried mounting the mini vertically, on its front, with the exhaust fan and ports on top. An unconventional solution but it seems to work; the machine now idles at around 54-57c, slightly cooler. Obviously this blocks access to the optical drive slot, but after souping up my mini (see below) it no longer has an optical drive, so that doesn't matter.

On the downside the built-in DAC is shockingly poor. Or perhaps it just isn't very well shielded. The audio out socket suffers badly from electrical noise, no doubt caused by all the components being packed into a tiny case. I solved the problem by using an ancient MOTU 828 FireWire audio interface, which is overkill; alternatively you could use a cheap USB sound card (my old Asus Xonar U3 works fine and doesn't require any drivers with OSX).

My mini's previous owner upgraded the memory to 8gb and installed an SSD. He was obviously a man of taste. Judging by Geekbench my 2ghz dual-core Core 2 Duo mini is around a quarter the speed of my 3.4ghz quad-core i5-3570 desktop PC, which has 12gb of memory, but it only feels slower when using GPU-intensive tasks such as YouTube at 1080p. Otherwise I don't notice a difference.

According to my power meter the mini draws 28 watts while playing an album with iTunes and editing this blog post with Chrome, which has eight tabs open. The following piece of music was sequenced with Logic Express 9, and if I run the sequence the power draw goes up to 32w, with the activity monitor telling me that it uses a third of the machine's processing power:

In comparison my ancient Power Macintosh G5 draws 230w when running the same sequence, but the G5 was infamously power-hungry.

My desktop PC draws around 75w idle and 140w+ under load, but it's hard to compare the two machines because my desktop PC has a much more powerful GPU. No amount of power will make Sleeping Dogs work on a 2009 Mac Mini.

What came next? The 2010 models had a completely new case that brought them in line with the contemporary unibody MacBooks. The new case was slightly larger than the pre-unibody models, albeit that the total system footprint was smaller because the unibody models had a built-in power supply unit. The pre-unibody models have an external brick:

The 2010 early unibody models had a 16gb memory ceiling and dual display ports - Mini-DisplayPort and HDMI this time. They topped out at OS X 10.13 High Sierra, but they can also be hacked to run Catalina. The 2011 models were simular, but (finally) brought i5 and i7 processors to the mini range. They also dropped the optical drive. The 2012 models were also similar but mostly had quad-core i7s. They can run MacOS Catalina natively, so they're the oldest minis that can run modern MacOS without hacking or special tweaks.

The mini was never aimed at the performance market, but with high-speed external drives the 2012 models were attractive media creation machines. They were in theory replaced in 2014 by a new set of minis, but the 2014 models were controversial because the memory was soldered onto the motherboard, which meant that owners were stuck with the factory configuration. The quad-core CPU options were dropped and in general the 2014 models represented everything that people dislike about Apple - their mixture of forced obsolescence, un-upgradable internals, profit maximisation, meanness, their habit of leaving empty bottles in the fridge, etc.

As a consequence late-2012 quad-core i7 minis still fetch surprisingly high prices on eBay, because they're more powerful and expandable than their replacements and are still capable desktop machines eight years later.

Apple then seemed to forget about the mini. The 2014 models remained on the market unchanged for four years, during which time Apple launched the iPhone 6, iPhone 7, and iPhone 8, plus the first three generations of the Apple Watch, plus two generations of the 5K iMac, and in addition they relaunched, revised, and then abandoned an entire range of MacBooks, and J Geils died alone at home at the age of 71. Four years is a long time in the computing world.

Perhaps in compensation for the lengthy wait the 2018 minis were a major advance on their predecessors, with a memory ceiling of 64gb and a graphics system that could drive three 4K monitors. They brought back quad-core CPUs and user-replaceable memory. They are the current generation of Mac mini; they are still on sale today.

But for how much longer? In 2020 Apple announced that it would switch its computers from Intel x86 to ARM processors in the near future, which raises the question of whether the company's computer range will be gutted or revitalised. The mini has far more internal storage than an iPad, but Apple is keen to sign people up to its streaming services, so internal storage is not in Apple's interests. The mini also has more ports than an iPad, but an iPad docking station would fill the same role. The ARM development machines are built into Mac mini bodies, but this doesn't necessarily mean there will be an ARM-powered mini; the development machines could well be kludges not intended for mass production. The future is not yet written.

EDIT: Of course a few months later Apple launched an ARM-powered mini. It was part of the initial wave of Apple Silicon-powered machines, alongside a new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. What do I know?

In brief the 2012 unibody models are still decent desktop machines in 2020. If you're going to spend money on a mini then a quad-core i7 2012 model with 16gb of memory and a big SSD would be a sound choice. The 2011 models are almost as good.

The 2014-2018 models aren't very attractive; they're new enough to sell for high prices on eBay, but they're difficult to expand and repair and don't perform as well as their predecessors.

If you're going to spend a lot of money a brand-new 2018 model will remain current for several years to come. I don't have access to Apple's secrets, but I suspect that the company's decision to adopt ARM was driven more by a desire to manufacture its own CPUs than because x86 had hit a dead end. The current situation isn't directly comparable to 1994 or 2006. If the problem was the poor performance of recent Intel CPUs it would have been simpler and cheaper for Apple to switch to AMD's x86 processor range instead. As such I imagine that the 2018 minis will age gracefully; the new ARM machines do not represent the same performance step-change as PowerPC and Intel before them.

EDIT: As it turned out the first-generation Apple Silicon-powered Mac Minis were a major performance leap over their x86 predecessors - in the order of 50% faster. Again, what do I know? Given the big jump in performance will the 2018 models "remain current for several years to come", as I wrote back in July 2020? Interesting question.

The 2009-onwards models are the cheapest used minis that can be hacked to run current versions of OSX. They're good value as general media servers. The pre-2009 models are technically obsolete and are awkward internet machines on account of the lack of a current browser, and the G4 Mac Mini is really a cult retro toy, but there's nothing wrong with that. As such if you're going to buy a mini nowadays the choices are (a) 2012 (b) 2018 (c) 2009.

Souping Up a 2009 Mac mini
After that preamble let's get down to business. Let's roll up our sleeves, dab the crooks of our arms with alcohol, and draw blood! Let's send the blood off to the laboratory! And then do it all again because the blood sample got lost in the post.

As mentioned above my mini has already been upgraded with 8gb of memory and an SSD. Those are the two most obvious upgrades; the third upgrade that everybody does is an extra hard drive.

This involves opening the case. The chaps at iFixIt used a plaster spreader. I used a razor-sharp Opinel folding knife. I jammed it into the side of the case and prized out the interior because nothing escapes this world unscathed.

It's a cliche, but opening the old-fashioned Mac mini the first time is harrowing; the second time it's merely scary, but after that you just roll on top of her and do your thing and roll off again, like a pig, or a dog. We kid ourselves that we have souls, but we don't. The soul is just an illusion sustained by our own vanity and we are animals driven by lust.

Animals driven by lust. Surprisingly the aluminium case isn't used as a heatsink. You'd think Apple would have added a pipe that transmits heat to the case, but in practice the mini's exterior remains cool to the touch even when the interior is running hot. Safety issue? Thermal expansion? Who knows.

With the top off the mini is a compact block, with wifi and Bluetooth antennae sitting on little poles and a DVD drive on top of the motherboard. I tried running the machine with the DVD drive taken out to see if it would be cooler; it was, but that was because the fan went mad, so I assume that the optical drive helps direct airflow.

The mini has a motherboard with CPU, GPU, and memory connected to the bottom of the case, with the storage connected to a daughterboard that sits slightly higher, hard drive and DVD from bottom to top. The storage uses a pair of SATA 2 connectors, although apparently some SSDs are flakey if they're used in the DVD bay, so I opted for an old-fashioned 7200rpm hard drive instead.

It's a good idea to periodically open the case and blow out the dust. If you're feeling brave it's also a good idea to replace the thermal paste, which I will have to attempt at some point.

Adding the hard drive involves buying a caddy. Mine was a universal mount that also goes into MacBook Pro laptops. The screwholes don't line up properly, but the caddy fits. I guess I'll just have to make sure I don't shake the mini around:

It was a surprisingly easy process. I just had to unscrew the optical drive, pull it out, insert the hard drive caddy, and close the case. If you do this you then have a choice between simply using the second drive as a mass storage device; using it to make Time Machine backups of your primary drive; setting it up with a different version of OSX for compatibility reasons; the sky is your oyster.

I cloned my installation of Yosemite onto it using OSX's built-in Disk Utility with a bootable OSX USB stick, although Carbon Copy Cloner is just as easy; once that was done I upgraded my boot drive to El Capitan, and at some point I'll use DosDude's tool to upgrade it further to Mojave.

The reason for this kerfuffle with Yosemite is that, as mentioned earlier on, I intend to run Logic Express 9, but LE9 only works with versions of OSX up to Yosemite. Or at least I used to think so; after upgrading to El Capitan is still seems to work, so perhaps I am mistaken. It definitely breaks at some point up the OSX chain.

Why Logic Express? An awful lot of older Apple hardware still works but doesn't meet the system requirements for Logic Pro X, besides which LE cost me £40 and has almost all the functionality of Logic Studio. That's why.

Beyond music I have also made a concerted attempt to use my mini as a daily computer. It's quiet, not obviously slower than my desktop PC, but utterly useless for games, so I'll have to finish Ori and the Blind Forest later.

In general the biggest fuss when switching machines is logging back into all the websites I use. As a proof of concept I even wrote this blog post from start to finish with the mini, including images, and I can confirm that Apple's computers can be used to generate content for the internet, thus.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Brompton B75

I don't believe in Peter Pan, Frankenstein, or Superman, and today we're going to have a look at the Brompton B75, a relatively cheap folding bicycle from Brompton, of Greenford, way out there in Zone Four on the Central Line.

I say relatively cheap. It's £745, which isn't pocket change. The price has been steady since the B75 was launched in June 2019, and on a pragmatic level Bromptons depreciate gracefully, so as long as mine isn't stolen or crushed I imagine I'll be able to sell it on for a modest financial hit. It has to be said that £745 is quite low for a posh folding bicycle.

As I write these words the B75 has sold out, but I imagine the elves that work in Brompton's factory are being whipped to within an inch of their lives by their supervisors, so by the time you read this review I'm sure you'll be able to buy one. B75s are apparently assembled from a stockpile of older spare parts, so presumably it will have a limited life, but perhaps Brompton will replace it with a modified B75 that has modern parts. Who knows.

EDIT: A month later the B75 remains out of stock, and people have started flipping theirs on eBay for £900 because the Great British public is wary of public transport. Will Brompton ever make the B75 again, or will they come up with a completely new budget model? I learn from the internet that Brompton made a similar budget bicycle back in 2003, the C3, which also came without mudguards. Back then it sold for £380, but then again the average house price was only £120k and Freddos were 10p (they are now 25p), so that's in line with inflation. The government likes to say that inflation is under control because laptop computers and drones have crashed in price since 2003, but you can't base economic theories on relatively new and emergent technologies.

These two clamps hold it together.

This paragraph originally had a short dissertation on Queen's "Bicycle Race". Some bands responded to the punk revolution by stripping down their sound and singing about unemployment and urban decay, but Queen were above all that. Instead they released a compact mini-symphony about riding a bicycle, with a video that had dozens of naked women doing circuits around a racetrack. It was recorded at great cost in Nice and Montreux because that year they were tax exiles.

In his review of the song's parent album Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone famously described Queen as "the first truly fascist rock band". He was of the opinion that Queen were contemptuous of their audience, which may or may have been true, but in my opinion it doesn't matter. As long as the music is good who cares if a band likes you?

The B75 is available in a bluey-green colour that looks blue in the shade and green in the sunshine.

I think the problem is that Dave Marsh is American. He comes from a society where public figures are expected to pretend to be your great pal, even though they live in gated mansions with private security guards. Because America doesn't have a class system and everybody is equal.

At the National Technical Museum, Prague. This lady looks like she knows precisely what she has and could overtake you no problem.

That isn't the case in the UK. British artists are expected to hide away in an ivory tower. When they try to talk to the public it feels grating and insincere because they have nothing in common with us.

Hahaha, "nipple".

British actors look down their noses at the hoi polloi, and artists and writers only mingle with the working classes when they want to buy drugs or have rough sex. Even I am not immune to this. When I am not filling my uncircumcised foreskin with cocaine, or hanging out with Deliveroo drivers on Hampstead Heath I like to fantasise about being mean to you, dear reader. But my heart isn't in it. I just can't bring myself to dislike you, because you're rare and precious and you have exceptional taste.

I really do want to see you succeed, because there is room at the top and the view is fantastic. I realised at an early age that unless I elevated the mass of humanity to my level I would be eternally lonely, but I'm digressing here. Let's get back on topic. Enough of Queen. Enough of being sexually aroused by the smell of pee. Enough of that.

The B75 is a folding bicycle made by Brompton of London, England. The company only sells one pattern of bicycle, so the B75 is more or less the same as any other Brompton, but the specification is fixed. It has a three-speed hub gearbox, a single-post saddle, an older model of brake lever, no basket, no mudguards, no titanium, blue/green only. To paraphrase Syd Barrett it doesn't have a basket, although there is an optional luggage block, but it does have a bell that rings, and it looks good.

When they are spooked Bromptons fold down into a compact shape in the hope that predators won't see them.

Why did I buy a folding bicycle? So that I can carry it about the house, and also on the train, in the office etc. Why a Brompton? The factory is in London, so it's easy to visit; "buy once, cry once"; the bikes have a good reputation; parts are widely available; they hold their resale value.

Why a B75? Three reasons. The price was nice. The delivery quote was seven to ten working days, versus almost two months for a custom Brompton, and for the record it was delivered on the tenth working day. There is incidentally free delivery in the UK.

The deciding factor was that apart from the handlebars the B75 has the specification I wanted from a Brompton anyway, e.g. a three-speed gearbox and nothing else. I wanted the simplest, lightest Brompton that didn't use custom parts, so that if I decide to take it somewhere exotic there is at least a chance that parts might be available locally.

Bromptons are available with a bunch of different components. Ignoring smaller things such as the luggage blocks and mudguards (and expensive options such as titanium forks) the most substantial options are the gearbox and the handlebars. I wanted S-type sporty handlebars, which are low and straight; the B75 has M-type bars, which rise up in a U-shape, but I've got used to them. There are also H-type bars, which rise higher still, and P-type handlebars which look like a flattened O and can be ridden high or low. I can get used to the B75's handlebars.

The other major variation is the gearbox. Single-speed with a freewheel, two-speed, three-speed, or six-speed. My commute involves a bit of city driving, followed by a hill, followed by a straight, so I felt that a single-speed wouldn't be much fun. The two-speed also struck me as too limiting. Three speeds seems ideal.

The six-speed is apparently a combination of the two-speed gear unit with a three-speed hub, giving two sets of three gears, but I'm worried it would be just one more thing that might break. The B75 has a standard-ratio three-speed hub, but the pedal chainring has 44 teeth instead of 50, so it's slightly better at hill climbing. The B75 also has an extended 580mm seatpost as standard. I'm just under six feet tall and at maximum height the extended post suits me fine. I've since tried out a standard seatpost, which is 520mm, but it was torture; I couldn't stretch out my legs. If you're taller than six feet Brompton also sells a telescopic model that adds an extra 17.5cm. The B75 also comes with a mount for a pump, but no pump.

What's it like to ride? I have to admit that I've never ridden a Brompton before, or anything with a hub gearbox. The gearbox pleasantly surprised me. Unlike a Derailleur unit the B75's Sturmey-Archer hub doesn't have things hanging off it, and it doesn't make a loud clack when the gear changes. It's a lot easier to keep clean. It does however make a fairly loud tick-tick-tick in cruising gear, but that's apparently normal for hub gearboxes.

Can the B75 pick up women? It has a total carry weight of 110kg, so they would have to be very small.

The gear ratios have a limited top speed but I found that on the lower end even fairly steep inclines were do-able, with a bit of puffing. I would not have expected a bike with such tiny wheels to be any good on hills. According to my Garmin eTrex I cruise at 13.8mph on the flat, 18.8mph downhill. The low top speed isn't a problem given that the B75's suspension is fairly stiff, which means that unless the road is glassy-smooth riding at high speed isn't much fun. I found myself cycling around potholes and drain covers rather than cycling over them. I would not want to mount the kerb with a Brompton. The steering is frisky. Acceleration is excellent.

The folding mechanism is simple, once you learn the drill. You lock the saddle up, tilt the front wheel slightly to the left, turn the pedals so that the right pedal is to the rear, then lift it up. The back wheel tucks under the frame and it all fits together. It has a little pair of wheels on the suspension block for transport. One of Brompton's most popular options is a folding left pedal, and after carrying the folded bike I can see why; you have a choice between holding the bike close to you but having the left pedal dig into your body, or holding it away from you and spraining your arm.

Security? I'm sceptical that any kind of security will work, so I haven't bothered; the B75 never leaves my sight. It's too easy to carry off.

Any problems? At first it felt as if the seatpost was sinking into the frame, but after a week of commuting the sensation stopped, so it may well have been a delusion brought on by alcohol. The suspension is a rubbery white block that fits between the frame and the rear wheel, which means that when going over bumps it feels as if the bike is bending front-to-back instead of bouncing up-and-down, but again I got used to this.

At around 11kg it's too heavy to carry long distances, but of course you can just unfold it and wheel it around. I have only had mine for a month, so if it falls to bits in the near future I will update this article. EDIT: A month later it has not fallen to bits, although I did have to adjust the gear selection cable slightly because it had come loose. I couldn't select first gear.

Of note the bike comes packed in a big cardbox box and requires a little bit of assembly, essentially screwing in the left pedal and fitting the seat and bell. It comes with a spanner. The joints were pre-greased, and after setting up the bike it appeared to be in good shape so I took it for a ride; it didn't require any more tweaking. Brompton offers an initial three-month / 100 mile service, which is nice of them, so at some point I'll have to pop along to their store and have it looked at.

EDIT: The service went without a hitch, although the store was still under coronavirus lockdown so I had to book way in advance. The bike pictured above was on display in the engineering room, downstairs. It's number 18, part of the first batch of 400, handmade in presumably 1981.

It's interesting to compare it with modern Bromptons. The early clamps make sense from an engineering point of view - I imagine that keeping the frame together was one of the most significant worries early in the design - but they're very bulky. It appears that the rear luggage rack is integral. In common with all pre-2004 Bromptons it has a shorter wheelbase, so the bend in the frame is more pronounced. Beyond that the basic idea is much the same because the human body hasn't changed much since 1981. Albeit that people are larger now. But Bromptons can take a load of up to 110kg, so I have a wiggle factor.