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Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Buying into the Digital R-Evolution

A few weeks ago at work I processed the contract for a Smartphone for a young gentleman, whose bill was going to be around $80 a month. My total talk and text usage last year cost me $30, about $2.50 a month, and my phone cost $20. This got me thinking about the various digital consumer technologies that have appeared in my lifetime, and my relationship with and adoption of them.

Cellphones aka Mobile phones: I've had four cellphones in my life. The first, a Phillips, I soon sold on to my parents and got another. I was on a Orange plan, because it was the only Pay-as-you-Go plan that did not delete your unused minutes after a certain time period had elapsed. My initial £50 of airtime lasted over a year. My second phone, a Nokia, set the pattern for getting Nokia phones, and every phone I've had since was a Nokia.

That first Nokia phone had the fun feature of being able to compose your own ringtones using a special shorthand, but unfortunately didn't have a vibrate function, and the ring was very quiet. I missed most of the few calls people made to me, simply because I didn't hear the ring when the phone was stashed in an inside coat pocket. This ultimately led to the loss of this phone when I couldn't find it, and couldn't hear it ringing anywhere in the house. Just before we moved to America I found it in the a boardgame box, where I must have tidied it away. The loss of this phone led to my third cellphone purchase, a very similar Nokia 3210,  much slimmer and lighter (technology had moved on), with a louder ring and a vibrate feature (hurrah) but also no compose ringtones feature.

That phone I still have, but needed a new one when we moved to the US, and Beth found a T-Mobile plan where you get 1 year's airtime and 1,000 minutes for $100. The phone was a separate purchase, and I got the cheapest lightest $20 Nokia I could find. 1,000 minutes doesn't sound a lot to people who go through more than that in a month, but I used around 300 minutes (total talk and text) in a year. By adding $10 to my account I was able to carry over the unused minutes, so I started 2011 with 800 minutes of available talk and text time.

I use my phone, as I have always used cellphones, for emergency contact only. I can't talk on the phone at work or driving, don't need to at home, and it's main use is so Beth can text me if something comes up (e.g. need to buy milk or cat food).

Smartphones: A smartphone is a cellphone with internet access provided through a 3G cellphone network. Some people love them, such as the $80 a month gentleman, but I haven't seen the need as I have internet access at home. 3G is defined as a certain speed of information transfer, and 4G is already on the way in.

Video Games: I fondly remember the day (sometime in 1977?) my father came home with a videogame console. He is prone to spontaneous bursts of generosity like this, for I can't recall either myself or my brothers asking for one (he may remember differently), but we spent many happy hours playing Pong, Hockey, Skeet Shooting and the like. The games were all built in, and limited to white graphics on  black background. A year or two later I saw my first Space Invaders ArcadeGame at a Youth Hostel on the shores of Loch Lomond, in color, though the colors were just colored filters stuck to the screen.

Home Computers: Sometime soon after, still in the early 80s, my mother bought us a BBC micro computer, one of the first generation of home computers.  The idea was, I suppose, that we would learn to program computers, but as I recall we mostly played text-based adventure games like Snowball, and a fantastic open-ended space adventure game called Elite, with wire-frame graphics. At school I was just too old to learn on the first generation of PCs, and my early computer experience came on the school's mainframe accounts computer, far from ideal but a lot better than nothing.

At University my access to computers was mostly limited to using the Library's system to access Reuters for news stories. In my final year someone bought a computer to write their essays and assignments on, but for personal organisation the FiloFax was the thing, not a laptop or smartphone.

After University I grew closer to my eldest brother Richard as we shared an interest in gaming, comics and Manga, and we spent most Saturdays together, the mornings at comic shops, the afternoons and evenings at a Roleplaying club. We also worked together as he got me a job where he worked at a small magazine publishing company, which used Apple computers. He it was who introduced my to the Internet, and got me my first email account through a company called compuserve.

Nothing has impacted the way we run our lives more than the home computer. Apart from video games, I use mine for spreadsheets, organising my digital photos, music, video files, and of course internet access, without which you would not be reading this. The fact that you are reading this suggests you have also adopted a computer as a regular part of your life.


Portable Game Systems: One Saturday in the early 90s my eldest brother and I went to a game shop and bought ourselves Nintendo Gameboys, with 4 or 5 games each. In addition to Tetris that came with the unit, I recall Battle Bull and Nobunaga's Ambition as two of those initial purchases, and I still have those games and all their packaging. Other friends had gone for the Atari Lynx and Sega Gamegear, but these burnt through batteries at an eye-watering rate, and we were happy with the simpler graphics but better battery life. My middle brother had a handheld space invaders style game some years before, and at the time it was a great unit, but it only played one game. The Gameboy allowed different games to be played with different cartridges, and the latest Nintendo handheld console, released earlier this week, now sports 3D graphics.

I've continued my interest with videogames mostly through Nintendo handheld devices over the intervening years, and also have a Sony PSP (short for Play Station Portable). I used to have a Sony Play Station, followed by a Play Sation 2, and for a year we had a Nintendo Wii, but all these consoles had to go when we moved to the US and have not been replaced. We play PC games at home, and I use my Nintendo DSi and Sony PSP, and Beth has a Nintendo DSi and uses her iPod Touch to play solitaire.

eBooks: An eBook is a dedicated device for downloading electronic books. There are various ones about, the Nook and Kindle being popular, but I've not bothered to buy into this technology. I have shelves full of books already when I want to read, and prefer the feel of paper in my hand and turning real pages. Besides this most of the books I read are for reference, and not available as digital copies anyway.

HDTV:  I'm old enough to recall when a TV which had a dial for tuning to the three available channels, and when I bought my own TV in London, had the same ex-rental 24" screen cathode ray tube TV for over 15 years. Arriving in the US we needed a new TV, and by 2009 you couldn't buy a non-HDTV flatscreen even if you wanted to.

HDTV stands for high definition, which means the TV displays more horizontal lines (720 or 1080) than a conventional tube TV (which had around 525 lines for NTSC, the US standard, and 625 for PAL, the UK system).  However unless you have an HD input (via terrestrial broadcasts, cable, satellite or Blu-Ray player) the picture you see is not HD. At present the cable and satellite companies charge extra for HD channels so we don't bother, and Blu-Rays are still generally more expensive than DVDs, so we haven't invested in one of those either. I'm sure that in time HD will become the standard, but until it does we may have an HDTV, but we're not usually watching HDTV. When we watch DVDs the picture is upscaled to near-HD quality by some technical wizardry in our DVD players.

Cable and Satellite Broadcasting: Alongside HDTV, the way we receive broadcasts has changed. In the UK I had cable for a while, but felt I was paying a lot for not watching much and eventually dropped it. Beth and I lived with a Freeview box for the rest of our time in the UK. A Freeview box is a set-top box purchased for around £30 that is capable of receiving many more channels (around 30) than the terrestrial broadcasts alone (five channels by the time we left the UK). Once you've paid for the box your viewing is free, except for the annual TV license fee. We had a freeview box with built in hard drive, so we could record hours of TV and watch at our leisure. We found that we recorded more than we had time to watch, but it was a very useful device.

In the US there is no Freeview system, but unless you are happy with the basic 6-8 local digital broadcast accessible through a digital antenna, you need to subscribe to cable or satellite TV. This is going to cost you an arm, and if you want HD channels a leg too.

3D TV: This is starting to come in, and customers ask me about it occasionally at work, but there are very few 3D sources, so there's not much you can watch in 3D. There's currently about 60 3D films available, and a handful of channels. To me it's a gimmick, and when a movie comes out in 3D I only watch the 2D version at the cinema anyway. You still have to put on special eyewear to watch 3D (also assuming you have a 3D TV and a 3D source), but the technology is being developed to do away with this annoyance. Will 3D become the standard some day? I hope not, but if it does it's years away yet. Yesterday one of my colleagues proudly told me about his 3DTV purchase, and his library of eight 3D titles.

Record Players, Audio Cassettes, CDs, Mini-Disks, Sony Walkman, MP3 players, iPod, and iTouch: I never had many vinyl records of my own (though my parents had a family record player and collection), because by the time I had money to spend on such things tapes has already taken over. At University I used audiotapes to both play and record, and bought my first tape-to-tape cassette recorder with a win from the Premium Bonds in my first year away from home, but CDs and other audio options were already coming in.  Prior to cassette tapes I mostly listened to the radio for aural entertainment, on a clock radio that woke me every day for school.

I resisted CDs for a long time, mostly because I had invested so much in audiotapes, but also because CDs were very expensive. The Walkman was a portable cassette playing device, and later models had radio receivers as well, so now we could have music and audio entertainment on the move. I went through several Walkmen (and similar devices) in my post-University years, because they received a lot of knocks. One problem was that, though the player was not much bigger than the cassette inside, you would need several cassettes to have listening options.

Car stereos have developed alongside Walkmans and portable CD players, illustrated by the fact that my wife's 2002 car has a cassette player, while my 2007 car has a CD player with auxiliary input. This means I can plug an MP3 player straight into my stereo, while Beth uses a device like a cassette tape with an audio jack hanging out of it on a wire.

Alongside CDs, my wife and I both briefly and independantly (as we didn't know each other at the time) had Mini-disk players. The advantage of these over CD players was that you could record your own (until home computers gave that option for CDs), and indeed few commercially available pre-recorded minidisks ever existed. The disks were smaller and better protected than CDs, so easier to carry around.

I recorded many of my old cassette tapes onto minidisk to preserve them and make them more portable, but before long another option became available - MP3. Actually MP3 is only one form or digitally recorded audio file, but has become the quick reference name for any form of digital audio file. Digital media has the massive advantages of reproduceability and portability, though some say the audio quality is not as good as CD, and CD is not as good as vinyl. I really can't hear any difference.

When I invested in my first MP3 player I wanted one that could record as well as play, as I am an amateur musician. This wrote off all the iPod offerings, but (after a friend's recommendation) in 2002-3 I bought an iRiver iHP-140. This machine had a 40GB hard drive, a massive amount at the time, so it could hold a LOT of recordings, but more importantly I could transfer my cassettes, minidisks, and CDs onto it, and after a little editing, have them in an even more portable and robust form. I spent much of the next 5 years copying my precious tape, CD and mini-disk collection via the iRiver, editing and saving the tracks on my PC, plus a back-up external hard drive.

This wasn't part of any bigger plan, other than saving material in digital (and thus more transportable) format, but when Beth and I decided to move to the US it was much easier to carry my entire audio collection in a device that fit in my pocket, or clipped onto my belt. By that time I had replaced the iRiver with an iPod (though I still have the iRiver as a backup), and I carried the data in three places, the iPod, an external hard drive, and my PC's hard drive. I chose 160GB iPod Classic for its storage capacity, and I use it every day.

Digital Cameras and Camcorders: Digital photography has greatly impacted my photographic habits. It used to cost about 25p to print a single picture, and until it was printed there was no knowing if it was worth printing. I spent several years in the '90s and '00s doing long distance walks and conservation holidays, and during these years a digital camera would have been very welcome. Unfortunately I didn't have one, but soon after Meeting Beth for the first time (June 2003) I was converted to the idea, and bought my first digital camera, a Pentax Optio S4 (after seeing Beth's one). The delight of this model was that it fit into a shirt pocket, so there was rarely an excuse NOT to have a camera handy.

 After a few years and several drops the S4 started playing up and was replaced by a Pentax S6, and when that started playing up a year ago, Beth and I bought Sony Cybershots. That is, Beth decided to get one, after weeks of painstaking online research, and I jumped on the bandwagon. Thus we have matching cameras (one black, one silver) which also act as camcorders. I bought a separate Panasonic camcorder in 2009 for a trip to France, but have never been good at making videos except for special occasions.

VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray: I was probably fortunate that I never had time to build up an expensive library of VHS videotapes before DVDs took over as the primary medium for purchasing films and TV shows. It was no real hardship to shed the few videotapes I had when we started planning our move, and copy the special ones to DVD. DVDs are artificially regionalized (via codes on the DVD and software in the DVD player) to prevent the global marketplace from being truly free (because truly free markets apparently don't really work), but it is easy to either buy a de-regionalised DVD player, or de-regionalize one yourself. We've done both in our time, because our DVD library has always been a mix of US and UK titles.

Blu-Ray is another matter, and we haven't yet made the step up. Just as people who have an extensive VHS library hate having to upgrade to DVD and resist the cost, trouble and frustration, so we are for now ignoring Blu-Ray. Blu-Ray does give better picture sharpness, but at present there's still an additional cost of around 15-20% over the cost of the same movie on DVD, and in any case we don't buy many new titles. No doubt we will one day buy a Blu-Ray player and start buying Blu-Rays, but as long as DVDs are still freely available and cheaper we'll stick with those.
GPS: We didn't buy a GPS navigation system until we arrived in the US to stay, but after that we both bought units for our cars and use them for many non-standard trips. Having experience of Garmin from a trip to Scotland, sharing the driving with my brother, we stuck with what we knew and both got Garmin units. You can pick up a GPS for a car for $79, though we invested a little more to get more features, and the units have served us well and features in this blog several times.

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