Saturday, 17 August 2013

Format Wars

Last week I mentioned some old camera film formats, and I thought it might be worth taking a little trip down memory lane to pay a visit to some of the numerous media formats that have come and gone over the years.
The other day I read an article describing a replacement for Bluray with 300Gb worth of storage, and I cast my eyes heavenward. I've only been buying Blurays for about two or three years and already they're talking about the next thing. Seriously, is there any point now in trying to keep up?
My first experience with video outside of a cinema was the Philips N1500 video recorders we had at school. These machines were roughly the same size and weight as the Isle of Man and took a cassette that was something like six inches square and about two inches thick. More info here.
Then came the brief but bloody war between VHS and Betamax, with the technically superior Beta being beaten to the punch by VHS with its superior advertising campaign. A brief mention should perhaps be made here of Video 2000 which was doomed to failure because nobody wanted to have to turn the tape over half way through the film, and a bit later there was LaserDisc which was a sort of early CD roughly the size of a vinyl LP.
Since then the DVD quickly replaced VHS, with everyone keen to adopt a system that didn't need to be rewound when you'd finished your film, took up half the space on the shelf, and had a perfectly still freeze frame for those little Kleenex moments.
Now we also have Bluray which has been rather slow to be adopted even though most people now have high definition TVs that can make proper use of its benefits.
TVs themselves have undergone major changes too, and I for one was glad to see the back of cathode ray tube sets as, having dog ears, I can easily hear the high frequency whistle they generate which always drove me mad. Changing to an LCD TV was a revelation.
Alongside these developments we've had similar improvements in video cameras. From cine cameras and full size VHS machines that needed to be propped on the shoulder, we saw a steady reduction in the size of cameras as their media formats and the electronics surrounding them shrunk until we can now take high def video with something that fits discreetly in the palm of your hand, which is great because few things can make you look a complete nob quite as efficiently as walking around with a camcorder.

Recorded music has undergone dramatic changes since the wax cylinder was invented and quickly usurped by the gramophone. But it wasn't until the vinyl record arrived that music sales really hit the big time, and the humble record remained king of the hill for a very long time in the world of the format wars.
We've also seen magnetic tape come and go in various guises, from big open reel machines to the compact cassette. This format had a considerable following (helped by the invention of the Walkman) and I have many memories of sitting with a portable tape recorder next to the radio as a kid, trying to record the charts on a Sunday without catching the DJ's waffle between songs. Usually with limited success.
I also remember having an 8-track machine that I'd inherited from my brother, along with just one tape (Blue Jays by Justin Hayward & John Lodge - bought again a couple of years ago on CD), and I always smile to myself when I spot an 8-track in an old film. Awful things.
When CDs first arrived they were prohibitively expensive and by that point most people owned considerable collections of vinyl, so the uptake was a bit on the slow side to begin with - hard to believe now when you see the size of the average music enthusiast's CD collection.
Those who have read previous posts will be aware of my reservations about the shift to non-physical formats that has occurred in more recent years, even though the later uncompressed formats are (I'm told) just as good as a CD.

Data storage for computers has seen miraculous rates of evolution. Back when I owned a Sinclair Spectrum a 48KB game would take about ten minutes to load from a cassette. At secondary school with BBC Micros we were impressed by the five and a quarter inch floppy (ooer!) that held 360KB. Wind the clock forward to today and and 64GB fits in a Micro SD card that's about half the size of a postage stamp. When hard drives got to 1GB capacity we thought "What the hell are we going to fill all this space with?". Now we're miffed if we don't have at least 500GB.

Whether it's music, video, photos or whatever, there's a constant evolution of formats; a cunning ploy by manufacturers to ensure that every few years you'll be coerced into buying yet another piece of over-complicated electronic gubbins you never knew you needed that comes with an inch-thick user manual written by a dyslexic baboon.

"Guess I'll have to buy the White Album again"