Thursday 3 December 2009

Designed for Landfill

The Sony Walkman turned 30 years old this year, at almost the same time as I did.

Back in the old days a cassette walkman had big chunky buttons, with “Fwd” on one side, “Rev” on the other side, “Stop” in the middle and a bigger “Play” button somewhere equally obvious. They didn’t have a “hold” switch because those massive buttons were never going to be pressed down by accident unless you dropped it on all four of them at once. Doing that would jam them for a minute until you thumped each button one at a time which would generally un-jam them again, sometimes leaving them a little looser but almost always still working.

One happy day “Auto-reverse” came along and removed the need to take the cassette out to play the other side, and at about the same time they got a bit smaller and only needed one AA battery instead of two. As rechargeable batteries slowly came down in price I’m sure I was quite contentedly musically mobile for a while there.

Unfortunately this got me hooked early, and for about twenty years now I’ve combined the activities of walking and listening to music, taking my mind off the massive heavy rucksack I’m often carrying usually via something trashy with the bass boost on. CDs are too flimsy a format to ever really be portable, but they got me used to skipping tracks and I eventually switched to the instantly-obsolete minidisk format. I’m now thinking about getting an MP3 player, but I can’t find anything that isn’t almost completely unusable because of basic design flaws.

This is all I ask…

1) I’d like one that takes a standard sized interchangeable battery, preferably a single AAA, with as long a life as possible. Nothing affects my enjoyment of a music player quite so much as it being silent because the battery has run out, and being able to carry a spare charged battery is the only practical way of making the thing truly portable.

2) I want something reasonably easy to navigate by feel so I can keep it in my pocket out of sight. Not just because I don’t want to get mugged for it, but because I need to pay attention to small matters like crossing roads, looking where I’m going, and generally not ending up like those earphones in a pool of blood from the road safety ads.

3) It’d be handy if it could be reasonably rain proof, or at least come with a rainproof cover it can stay in while I use it. I need this because I live in the UK where it rains quite a lot, and I plan to go out in that rain quite a lot with a portable music player. That’s the whole idea of it being portable. If I wanted to stay at home where it’s dry then I’d use my computer instead. I had a waterproof Sony Sport Walkman in about 1988 so I don’t feel I’m asking for the moon here, but water resistant electronics don’t even seem to exist any more. What happened there? It hasn’t stopped raining.

4) I’ll have it in any colour that won’t show dirt too much. I’ll try not to actually drop the thing in any puddles, but I’m not going to wash my hands before each time I touch the stupid thing. Black works, any other darkish colour would do, white would be bottom of my list.

I’m struggling to find anything that meets even the first two criteria, and I’ve now started just looking for something with as many visible buttons on it as possible.

How does one operate an MP3 player which only has one button anyway? Presumably the sodding thing changes function all the time and you have to keep taking it out of your pocket to find out what the damn button actually plans to do next time you press it. Or each side of the same button does something different so that you have to get it the right way up in your pocket, guess which corner of the circular button you’re stabbing at and then wait a few tantalising seconds to find out whether you’ve skipped to the next track, turned the volume up, turned the volume down or skipped back to the start of the track you were in the middle of. You can be tantalised for even longer if the middle of the same big circular button also happens to be “Pause”.

Touch screens? Horrible! Fine, I guess, if you’re sitting somewhere warm and dry (because I guess you can’t wear gloves), devoting all your attention to dragging the pretty little animated icons around. Not so much fun if you want to go anywhere where you might have to look away from it for a minute or where anything might bump it unintentionally. So you can’t actually put it in your pocket and walk, drive, do the washing up, exercise, weed an allotment or eat anything to music.

And why the hell are these things all white now? WHITE?? They’re supposed to be portable, and yet if you’d like them to stay shiny at least until the novelty of having something new has worn off you can’t put them in a pocket, can’t touch them if you’ve been reading a newspaper, can’t put them down on any surface that might have any dust on it or in a room that might ever have had any children in it. And it must take the potential resale value down to a small fraction at a stroke, because after just a few weeks use it’s going to be a highly unfashionable shade of yellowy grey.

And is it really too much to ask for corners that won’t rub off? Coloured plastic has been around for quite some time now and is available in a vast range of colours, several hundred of which would make very nice colours for the casing of a small electrical device. It’s really not necessary to coat it with a metallic finish of any description, and it’s going to look much better in a few months time if it doesn’t have a coating that wears off all the corners.

But the battery situation is just unforgiveable. Having agreed - more or less - on things like standard time, which side of the road to drive on, and roughly how many volts are going to come out of a socket in a wall, humankind went on to produce battery cells for mass consumption in some common standard sizes. Both AA and AAA rechargeable batteries are easy to source, durable, easy to charge and easy to replace – they’re the quite blindingly obvious choice of fuel for a small portable electrical device. So why would anyone decide to put a completely non-standard sized rechargeable battery in a portable device and then seal it inside so it can’t be charged outside the unit?

Because, obviously, anyone who wants portable music enough to buy one of these things is going to want to sit next to their computer all the time to recharge it. They take 3 or 4 hours to charge, so when the music suddenly stops half way to the 24 hour garage one evening, all you have to do is turn around, walk back home and sit next to a USB port for three hours and then you’re up and running again.

OK it means they can be ultra slim, but I can fit seven AAA batteries in the tiny fifth pocket of my jeans - it’d be well worth an extra 3mm width to be able to carry a spare battery around with me. For when the battery runs out. Which it is generally going to do while I am in the middle of walking and listening to something, rather than when I am conveniently sitting at home next to my computer.

Especially since some MP3 players have a battery life of an unbelievably low six hours - perhaps that’s so that you can’t actually get too far away from your PC before the battery runs out? I despair.


Jane said...

There's a Sony Walkman that takes only one battery and has auto-reverse? Wow, I'll have to think about upgrading.

Alice said...

Oh yeah. Auto-reverse was amazing, and depending on how much you use it you might be able to justify an upgrade if you compare the battery life you get on an old one with the 1-AA models from after about 1994.

"Newer" models get something like 35 hours playtime from one AA battery.

Remote controls are also awesome...

James Higham said...

That's all you ask? Quite reasonable request.

punkscience said...

Hi, just come across your post and would like to share my experiences. I spent several years using cheap, generic mp3 players from China which you can get on ebay for bugger all. They don't last more than a couple of years before you end up cracking the screen or dropping it in the bog. Not because they're not particularly robust but because they just get beaten up being in your pocket all the time. However, they run for a dozen hours or more on a rechargeable AAA, have a built-in USB socket so you can plug them directly into a mate's computer and require no proprietary software so you can share your music with anyone you want.

I've now moved on to a Sansa Clip, which has a built in battery but lasts for ever. Its easy enough to use, small enough to clip to your belt or fit in your fifth pocket and sounds awesome! The headphones that come with it are the best I've ever owned.

Unknown said...

Not quite what you're looking for, but have you considered one of these?

I've had one for a couple of years now, and while the interface is ****ing annoying you can skip tracks by pressing the buttons, read ebooks from project gutenberg, charge your phone with it (if, like me, you have a 5 year old brick with very low power consumption youcan get a text message's worth out of it before your hand drops off) and the speaker is surprisingly good. It's pretty robust, lasted two years then the hadphone socket broke when I took it to Africa but the great thing is that though it's out of warranty they'll still repair it for a fee so it doesn't need to go to landfill. For reasons too complicated to explain I currently have two, I'd be happy to lend you one to try out for a while if you like. I once tried to email you a PDF of the climate camp policing document so you should have my email address, send me your postal address if you're interested

Alice said...

Hey thanks Jules, that'd be great - maybe I could review it here.

Sorry I can't dig out your address, but I'll post mine in a comment and then delete it so it doesn't show to anyone who hasn't ticked "email follow-up comments"

Let me know if this doesn't work.

Alice said...

Punkscience - the Sansa Clip does look pretty good, but the built-in battery thing really puts me off. It does help if it has a long battery life, but I never know where I'll happen to be when it does die and I can't eliminate the problem by just carrying a spare battery.

Various websites give the battery life as 15 hours, which isn't the worst but really isn't enough to persuade me to put up with not being able to make it work again until I get home.

It's just so frustrating that they don't use AAA batteries which completely solve the problem!

Unknown said...

Hi Alice,

That'd work, at this rate I won't be able to send it till after CHristmas though

Blue Witch said...

Ah, not just me who finds the relentless pressure of 'modernisation' not an advance, then :)

mrs green said...

:D great article. Man I LOVED my Sony walkman; it was red and it was the thing I really wanted as a young teen. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, but I have to confess; my daughter left her MP3 in her pocket, it went through the washing machine and it survived - hurrah! I doubt my walkman would have survived the same fate...

Soozcat said...

I feel your pain, particularly about rain. Living in the Seattle area, I have to wonder about the makers of the Zune... do these guys really *not* leave the confines of their offices? Tch.

Andrea T said...

You're still carrying a massive rucksack? I do miss my Sony Walkman. I got one for my 13th birthday and it was the size of a housebrick. It lasted till I was 18. I doubt you can get that kind of longevity out of any of the Apple products.

Norman Rogers said...

Shouldn't these have rechargeable batteries?

Alice said...

Norman - they should take either AA or AAA batteries because these are standard commonly available sizes.

Obviously then we should all use rechargeable AA or AAA batteries rather than disposable ones.

Stan said...

Nice post. Good to hear opinions from other techno-luddites.

The good news is that your problem is easy to solve. Why not just get a new Walkman cassette player?

Alice said...

Stan - I don't have anything on cassette any more, all my music is now in MP3 format, which does have the advantage of being tiny.

What I've ended up doing is getting a bicycle. I don't listen to music on the bike 'cos I need to concentrate on the road more, so I'm listening to music while traveling much less now. I'd still like something that works though, it's be good for the allotment.