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Cassette tapes: rightly obsolete

Rubenerd is a blog I frequent, and today my RSS feed shows a piece titled Is it worth collecting cassettes in 2024?

It’s an interesting idea and his post does bring back memories of slowly spinning double tape decks, pencils1 and my awesome Sony Walkman WM-FX325.

I still regret losing it (or throwing it away – I really can’t remember). What I do remember is what the bad picture above makes perfectly clear: Dolby noise reduction, independent high and low volume dials, an FM/AM radio, and auto reverse. Everything I needed while on the 60 kilometer/ 1 hour bus rides between my home town and the city where I received my music lessons.

Music however, is not what first comes to my mind when thinking about cassette tapes.

About a decade before I bought the walkman above, my father bought his first computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K. For storage, it used cassette tapes, at about 1.500 baud. The volume of the player had to be set correctly for anything to load or save and even then the medium appeared less than reliable. When the cassette player was replaced with a dedicated data recorder the situation improved somewhat, but fact of the matter is tapes were slow (almost 5 minutes to load a full game of 48K) and they couldn’t seek, which meant that for every recording of software or data file we had to write down the position, indicated by a counter that we had to reset after fully rewinding the tape. Forgetting that cost more time.

When I bought my own first computer, a Mitsubish ML-FX1, it too, used tapes, at either 1.200 or 2.400 baud, but at least it had expansion ports that allowed for a floppy disk drive. Floppies were the be-all and end-all of storage in the eighties, before affordable hard disks and way before anything else. My second computer, a Philips NMS 8250 had no less than two drives built-in and I never used a tape again to store data or load a game.

The thing is, apart from the worst type of data storage in the history of consumer computing, these MSX machines also used the absolute most convenient way of software storage, to this day: the game cartridge. Just put it in a slot, turn on the computer and play. That’s it. As far as I’m aware, no console today can do that. Neither can Steam. Even better, my kids have a lot of fun with those cartridges, the very same I enjoyed forty years ago. No console today will be able to do that, forty years from now, simply because their content is online and will no longer be available.

Anything that’s not on cartridge in my retro setup, is on micro SD cards, which my MSX can read through a GR8NET, a cartridge that also provides ethernet, extra RAM en sound chips. I still own a data recorder and the cable to connect it, but it’s in a box on the attic. If you’re into these machines, skip the tapes. There’s no reason not to.

  1. To wind the tape to a position just past the piece of unusable plastic at the start. ↩︎

Categorised as: gadgets, music, retrogaming


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