Friday, October 29, 2010

Portable Devices

Sony stopped making the Walkman cassette player this week. I haven't owned a working portable cassette player in years and I never paid the Sony premium price but it still made me reflect on all of the changes that have taken place over my lifetime.

When I was born TVs were pieces of furniture. The screen was fairly small and oval and the picture was black and white. It used vacuum tubes which were huge and took minutes to warm up. There were three networks and no cable. You used an antenna for reception and your signal quality depended on the time of day (signals carry further at night) and the weather. You had a channel selector for the first 13 channels. There was an outer dial that you had to use to tune the reception once you put it on the channel. For channels above 13, you put the selector on "V" and used a separate VHF selector. That one did not have pre-selected channels. You had to hunt around or leave it on one channel (chances are that you only had one selection, anyway). A "portable" TV could be put on a stand and rolled from room to room but you had to be careful because the cart was top-heavy.

Radios were also big with tubes. The only portable ones were installed in cars. The tubes were so big and used so much electricity that there was no possible portable version. Chances are the radio only received AM.

If you wanted to record something then you needed a tape recorder. This used open reel tapes. The tape was 1/4" and held on a reel. To use it, you had to unwrap a foot or so of tape and start it on an empty reel. Then you carefully fed the tape through the read/write tape head and took up the slack. The length of the recording was based on the length of the tape so an hour tape was much bigger in diameter than a half-hour tape. Again, this was big and heavy with tubes.

Devices based on transistors started becoming common around 1960. The transistor radio was the first really portable entertainment device. The early ones only received AM radio and had lousy fidelity but you could take it anywhere and, compared with vacuum tubes,  it seemed indestructible. If you wanted to listen by yourself you could plug in an earphone and listen through one ear.

TVs changed. Color became common. As transistors replaced vacuum tubes, you started seeing "instant on" sets that didn't need minutes to warm up before you got a picture. Remote controls were invented. The first ones were sonic with four buttons (on/off, channel up, channel down, and mute). Picture tubes became nearly square instead of oval.

By the end of the decade you could get a real portable TV. This had a 5" black and white screen. The set itself was around a foot in each direction.

Cable TV was becoming common with additional channels. These were mainly independent stations offering syndicated shows (mainly reruns of successful series). HBO didn't start until the 1970s.

Small tape recorders were available by the mid-1960s. These were just small open reel recorders that took the smallest (and shortest) tapes. In the early 1970s, new types of tape were introduced. There was the cassette tape which the Walkman used. This was a small version of the open reel tape with the tapes permanently attached to the two reels. The tape had four tracks - two for stereo in each direction. There was also 8-track which had four stereo tracks on an endless tape. 8-track was popular in cars for most of the 1970s because it would play until removed. Cassettes had superior quality and became dominant in the 1980s.

The 1980s saw the Walkman which was a cassette player small enough to carry while running. Radios also became smaller, often being incorporated into a cassette player and FM became the dominant signal.

Sony also introduced the first pocket TV - the Watchman. This had a tiny black and white screen. The screen size increased and the overall size decreased rapidly. While this was a nice innovation at the time, the decline of broadcast TV made these into niche devices.

CDs were invented in the late 1970s but were slow to be adopted. Purists insisted that the digital sounds were too "cold". Also, CD player were very sensitive to vibration so runners could not carry one with them. It wasn't until the 1990s that players could read several seconds ahead and compensate for vibrations.

Early video tape units were available in the 1970s but they really took off in the 1980s. Prior to that there was no way to time shift a TV show or to watch a movie at home except through broadcast. Video disks using disks a foot in diameter were also introduced. They offered better picture but could not time-shift and flopped. Rather than join with other makers on a common format, Sony used their own Beta format. The quality was not much better and the selection of tapes was worse so this flopped.

Hand-held recorders were introduced in the mid-1980s. Prior to that you had to shoot 8mm movies without sound. The film was expensive and the results were usually poor. The first hand-held recorders used separate tape decks. The combination could weigh 20 pounds or more and was bulky. Camcorders combining the camera and recorder came out soon after.

With the camcorder, the biggest constraint on size was the VHS cassette. There were two alternatives - the VHS-C (for compact) which was a short VHS tape in a smaller cassette. This needed an adapter to play on a regular VHS player. Sony introduced their own format (again), using an 8mm tape. In order to play these back you had to hook the camcorder to the TV.

DBDs were introduced in the late 1990s and were adopted quickly. They were sold for less than VHS tapes, they were smaller, they offered a better picture, they never needed rewinding, and they usually had extra tracks. Players reached casual purchase prices quickly and they worked with existing TVs so the price for adoption was very low.

When the CD was introduced home PCs were just coming out and none had hard drives so no one thought about copying. By the early 1990s "multimedia PCs" were becoming standard. These could play CDs. By the late 1990s, they could also copy CDs and save them as compressed files - mainly MP3s.

The first MP3 players either had a limited amount of memory or used removable memory. These could hold at most a few hours of music, probably less. Apple's first iPod was a major innovation because it had a built-in hard drive that could hold megabytes of music. Later models could also play video. Sony tried introducing its own players using proprietary formats and failed (does anyone see a pattern here?).

Which brings us to the end of the Walkman. It was an innovation in its day but today's MP3 players and phones are infinitely better. During the 1980s Sony was the biggest name in portable entertainment devices. Now they are an afterthought.

No comments: