The end-of-year technology news that had me in a spin yesterday wasn’t so much that sales of music on vinyl (that’s LPs to anyone aged over 50) rose in 2021 for the 14th year in a row. It was the accompanying report that cassettes are also enjoying a mini-boom, with year-on-year sales up for the ninth time.
Tapes? Seriously? I would have been less bemused if pianola rolls were the latest music format to be enjoying a revival.
There is good reason to love and cherish records. With quality equipment and LPs in decent condition, music sounds sharper, more exciting and somehow more realistic (even with a bit of dust noise) compared to the smooth perfection of CDs and digital.
The artwork, size and palpable nature of LPs also makes them a delight. As does the obligation to play tracks in the order intended, rather than skipping around in the egregious ‘shuffle’ mode we have on our phones. Altogether more respectful to the artist, I always feel.
But as life-long lover of all things gadgety – and a professional writer on technology for over 30 years – I regard the cassette, launched by Philips in 1963, as the second worst invention of the electronic age.
The only more atrocious innovation was its cousin, the notorious 8-track tape, which also appeared in the early 1960s, before fading by 1979 – the very time when the Philips cassette we know and despise had a totally unexpected boost thanks to the surprise success of the new fangled Sony Walkman.
My dad, a techie long before the word was coined, was an early adopter of the cassette, having bought a Philips cassette recorder for Christmas 1964. The audio quality was awful – music on cassettes wasn’t even a possibility until many years later – but for anyone used to stringing up a reel-to-reel tape recorder, the convenience of the cassette was undeniable.
Anyone of 1970s vintage who went a-woo-ing in a Ford Escort fitted with a cassette player loaded with seductive tunes (guilty) will remember that it was essential also to carry a pencil in the car’s glove compartment – to manually spool back the yards of wayward tape that spewed out of the cassette when its mechanism failed, as it regularly did. And that was if you were lucky if the tape was sucked into the tape player rather than all over your car, it may well have been back to Halfords for a new £12.99 machine.
But please don’t be getting the impression that I am opposed to retro tech fashions – there is a substantial roll call of gadgetry which is objectively better – speedier, more ergonomic, better looking – in its olde worlde form than in its thoroughly modern, 2022 styling.
Here, then, are some of the old-style gadgets I have not given up on. And bear in mind, I am someone who can currently only turn on the kettle and the bedroom lights by asking Alexa to do it for me.
I bought myself a fantastic new Nikon digital camera for Christmas. I’m a keen photographer and also often need a good camera for work. But the Nikon is still in its box. I spent £50 during the first lockdown on a 1966 Minolta film camera and a load of film, and I love it more every time I use it. It’s a bit of a vinyl v. digital thing. Technically, the Nikon will produce vastly better photos, but the grainy, imperfect look of 35mm film photos is weirdly emotive and effective.
First there were video tapes. Then they vanished in favor of DVDs. Then Netflix et al came along and at remarkable speed, DVDs vanished, Blockbusters shops closed down, and now, you can struggle to buy a DVD player. Yet the idea that everything you could ever want to watch is available on Netflix, Amazon Prime or another streaming service is completely wrong. DVDs and their posh brothers, Blu-rays may seem to be obsolete, but they are often the only way to see rare and classic films. They’re an expensive way to see movies, but they’re not dead – and neither are DVD players. Especially handy if you have a smart TV and your Wifi goes down.
It’s a known thing that men in particular love mechanical watches and, even though an Apple Watch is better in 50 ways, wind-up watches are, quite rightly, still hugely popular. I have several mechanical watches including a couple of good ones collected over the decades. None of them keep particularly good time, and nor do they alert me to incoming emails either. Or tell me while I’m in the shower that there’s someone outside the front door trying to deliver a package. But at risk of sounding pretentious, 4 o’clock on a real watch with hands and a face looks like time for a cuppa. 1600 on a digital watch looks like the latter reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Some 45 years ago, I rented a flat in Leeds whose sitting room had no center ceiling light, but a series of side lights instead, which all came on with one click of a switch. I loved the gentle lighting effect, and when I first viewed the home I’m now in and saw it had the same wiring feature, I was sold on it. So now, seven side lights come on together with one click. The first time my son, who is even geekier than me) came to see the flat, flicked the switch and, as he saw all the lights come on together, he said, “That’s so cool. How did you do that without asking Alexa?” I remain my case for light switches. Simply. Better.
Anything with a knob
I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but knobs are a thing of beauty and practicality. They are faster, more intuitive and more precise than irritating little clicky buttons, whether it’s for turning up the volume or looking for stations on a radio. And electronics manufacturers are beginning to realize this, thankfully. Every week, I get news of a new piece of equipment with simple, rotary knobs, ditto buttons you physically press and big, clear, round dials you can read in an instant.
I have a fantastic coffee maker – a Sage Oracle Touch, since you ask. But the best coffee I ever had was with a Norwegian family who stewed freshly ground coffee in a saucepan on the stove until it was thick and syrupy. Apparently it’s a popular method in Norway, and if you can be bothered, this old method produces a delicious brew. I can’t be bothered really, but it’s indisputable that saucepans are easier and don’t require complicated manuals and menus. See too kettles. The ones that you can turn on without help from Alexa.