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.