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Here come incompatible digital recorders

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Beta and VHS all over again: Here come incompatible digital recorders

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

The big guys are about to mess up again.

The folks who brought you 8-track tape cartridges and 4-channel records and two totally different videotape formats are about to stub their toes on technology again.

The electronics giants are getting ready to spring a new digital audio system on you. It won't play the tapes that you are just now making (or hoping to make) on a new DAT recorder. And it won't play the tapes that I and many other audio buffs have made over the years on the PCM adapters we added to our VCRs.

In other words, the new format will start out playing an old role – the co-star in the remake of Beta vs. VHS. The two videotape formats staged a battle to the death for about five years, because nobody who had a Beta VCR could play a VHS tape, and nobody who had a VHS VCR could play a Beta tape—and everybody thought that was a dumb idea. Beta eventually lost when Sony gave up the fight.

The electronics industry's command centers in Tokyo and elsewhere were supposed to have learned a lesson from this. They were real proud of the way they all got together behind the laser disc that Sony and Philips invented a decade ago.

All that togetherness helped make the compact disc what it is today – the preferred way of listening to recorded sound. CDs are sturdy and they sound good, and they last just about forever. And they're even getting cheaper.

What's more, the compact disc is the most promising invention in audio since Tom Edison put wiggles on cylinders. It's got more potential than we can figure what to do with. It can hold sound, photographs, video, computer programs, telephone numbers—imagine a single CD with the phone numbers of everyone in North America—and things we haven't dreamed of yet.

And best of all, the CD can be used for recording. CD recorders are already used for computer data, and they aren't far away from becoming audio and video recorders, too.

It boggles the brain. It's going to be wonderful when we have cheap CD recorders.

Everybody I've talked to agrees with that. Laser-disc recording is going to be the Big Thing in a year or two at most. But tell that to Philips. It has just confirmed that a new tape recorder is on the way. All of us are going to love it, Philips says. Tandy, the owner of Radio Shack, has even endorsed the new tape recorder and is helping develop it.

Yes, that's the same Tandy that announced a while ago that it's going to come out with a CD recorder in the next five years. That project is going nowhere, according to sources close to Tandy.

Details on the new digital recorder are hard to come by, but Philips has confirmed that it will play both its own digital tapes and any of the regular "compact cassette" tapes all of us have right now. It's supposed to be fairly cheap -- $500 or so.

But I've been told that the new recorder won't have the same quality as CDs, and won't be as good as DAT recorders, either. That's not stopping Philips, which invented the standard audio cassette in the 1960s and wants to make a hit with its successor in the ‘90s.

With two major incompatible digital tape formats, DAT and the new Philips system, many consumers will suffer through the old headache of trying to choose which one to buy.

But my advice is to stay away from both. DAT recorders are an expensive flop, and the Philips system offers no advantage over a good, standard cassette deck.

For me, and I am sure for millions of others, record-and erase CDs cannot come too soon.

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