It's doubtful whether Baird, Marconi or Bell foresaw the impact their inventions would have on the world. And if just 10 years ago you had predicted that we'd have access to hundreds of digital television channels, be surfing the web through our TVs and carrying tiny mobile phones in our pockets, you'd have had a hard job of convincing even the Tomorrow's World team of your sanity.
These enormous changes have been made possible through digital technology which, from CDs to television, and from radio to mobile phones, has had a huge impact on the world we live in. With new digital devices arriving on the shelves all the time, it's easy to feel left behind and wondering if your prized analogue equipment is good for anything more than the scrap heap. This overview should give you a good idea of why the digital revolution has happened, where it's likely to take us and what you need to do about it.
Let's get digital!
Digital information is transmitted as a series of binary digits rather than the undulating waves used by traditional analogue devices. One benefit is it gives far more capacity for television, radio and mobile phone calls.
In most cases, this makes for better quality output. Also, copies can be made of digital information that are exactly like the original, with no deterioration in the quality of the recorded signal.
Another advantage of digital technology is that it allows manufacturers to cram far more into a smaller amount of space than ever before, so high-tech devices are getting smaller all the time.
One of the best-known examples of digital technology is the humble CD, which has been with us for more than 20 years. As most people have discovered, CDs deliver better quality sound in a smaller package than old vinyl recordings.
There's no hiss or crackle, because what you hear is an exact replica of the original digital recording, making the sound cleaner. The fact you can pick up a CD player for under £30 goes to show how the popularity of a technology can force prices down.
The other lesson to be learned from the CD revolution is perhaps that new technology isn't always all that it's cracked up to be. We were originally told that CDs couldn't be scratched or warped and were virtually indestructible.
However, although CDs are less susceptible to scratching than vinyl, we now know they can be easily damaged if proper care is not taken. Yet the enormous popularity of the silver disc would suggest that most people are more than happy with this particular digital innovation.
With the CD firmly established over vinyl as the format of choice, the race was on to find a digital successor to tape cassettes. Conventional analogue tape owes its success to its low cost and versatility, rather than its quality. This isn't great to start with and the sound quality of cassettes deteriorates the more you play them. They are also liable to break, twist and warp.
In a reversal of the Sony Betamax versus Philips VHS war of the early 1980s, Sony's MiniDisc format triumphed over Philips' digital cassette format by virtue of its portability and better support from manufacturers. Because of their tiny size, MiniDiscs are marginally inferior in sound quality to CDs but are still vastly superior to cassettes. Most importantly, you can record on them as many times as you like and get a perfect copy every time. Not only that, but track names and other information can be stored on the disc, and you can rearrange, delete and merge tracks at will.
With the price of portable players and blank MiniDiscs tumbling, the MiniDisc format makes sense for anyone who wants easy-to-use, portable, high-quality audio.
As a portable audio device, the MiniDisc is only likely to be challenged in the coming years by MP3 devices - these, of course, are also digital. Instead of using disks or tape, the music is stored in special memory in the device. When you want to listen to different music, you just transfer it from the hard disk on your PC to your MP3 player.
If any technology demonstrates the superiority of a digital format over its analogue forbear, then it is digital television. Only a modest percentage of the population have this now, but it looks set to take over.
One advantage is increased sound and picture quality, as analogue systems are always subject to the vagaries of interference from things beyond our control, such as the weather and the landscape. With digital, however, you can be assured of a pin sharp picture every time - you either receive it as it was meant to be seen, or you don't receive anything.
Another big benefit is that the compressed nature of the digital TV signal means that broadcasters can squeeze far more information into the radio waves. This translates into more channels and the possibility of extra services such as interactive television, video on demand, and email through your television.
The UK is leading the world in the introduction of digital television and there are currently three different methods of receiving it, all of which have their advantages and disadvantages.
ONDigital allows you to receive digital transmissions through your normal aerial, with the addition of a set-top box which plugs into the back of your television - this box is free as long as you agree to sign up to the minimum package for a year. The downside of this 'terrestrial' digital system is that there are fewer channels available (around 30, as compared to more than 200 on the other systems) and that ONDigital has been slower out of the blocks with the launch of interactive and ancillary services.
Sky Digital offers more than 200 TV channels through a satellite dish, including interactive services such as Sky Sports Extra, which allows you to change camera angles, view statistics and watch action replays at will during football matches. It also offers email and a cut-down version of the internet that allows you to browse and buy from a number of ecommerce stores, including household names such as Woolworths and Dominos Pizza.
The third format, cable digital, has only just been launched and is only available in selected areas of the country. But it offers a huge choice of channels along with even more scope for interactive services, due to the almost unlimited number of channels available.
On the downside, the Sky Digital and digital cable services require you to either have a dish fitted on the outside of your house or a cable hooked up to your television.
Now is as good a time as any to get connected to digital TV, as the three rival systems are offering attractive deals in the race to get people signed up. It seems likely all three will continue for the foreseeable future, so there's no reason to 'wait and see'.
We're also starting to see the first integrated digital television sets, which do away with the need for a set-top box. There's little doubt that the future of television is digital. Indeed, in not much more than a decade, we won't have any choice, as the government is planning to switch off analogue TV.
With all the hype surrounding digital television, digital radio hasn't managed to get much attention. Yet the changes going on in the world of radio are just as far reaching. Although less dramatic, the improvements will be familiar by now - more channels, improved sound quality and the possibility of interactivity being the main ones.
It may come as a surprise that all the BBC radio stations and several commercial ones are already broadcasting digitally. And many more regional services are planned. The standard they use is called DAB or Digital Audio Broadcasting.
A variety of in-car and in-home digital radio receivers are available, although at £400 to £500 they're beyond the reach of all but the richest audiophile. The car sets make most sense as an initial purchase, delivering CD-quality sound no matter how many hills and valleys are between your car and the transmitter. One manufacturer, Radioscape, offers a PC card that turns your PC into a digital radio receiver, opening the possibility for interaction between the internet, radio and your desktop PC.
Another exciting development is the possibility of text and still pictures being transmitted along with the radio sound. At the moment, this means little more than crude advertising messages and the name of the track being played, but in the future the possibilities are limitless, including advertisers tailoring adverts to your interests and interactive services combining digital radio with your mobile phone.
The impact of digital technology is readily seen in the mobile phone that many of us now carry around with us. All four mobile phone networks (Orange, BT Cellnet, Vodafone, One 2 One) use digital transmission. This means anyone who's bought a mobile in the last few years almost certainly has a digital model. Vodafone and BT Cellnet also continue operating their original analogue services for people who like to cling on to their old mobile phones, but these service will soon disappear, a milestone in the advance of digital technology.
Less visible, but no less important, is the fact that the vast majority of BT exchanges are now digital in nature. Again, this means less signal loss and less chance of the 'echo' we were used to with the old analogue network.
Another use of digital technology is in the cordless DECT (digitally-enhanced cordless telephone) phones that turn your humble home phone into the height of modernist chic. These allow you to wander up to 200 yards from the base unit and go on chatting on your home phone line. Most have a host of extra features, such as call waiting, built-in phone books and answering machines, and allow a number of handsets to be operated from the same base station. But most importantly, the digital nature of DECT means sound quality is in a different league to old-style analogue cordless phones, which often suffered from interference.
One area in which the jury is still out on the impact of the digital revolution is that of photography. There's a huge range of digital cameras available, from cheap and cheerful models for under £100 to professional quality efforts costing more than £1000. The quality of the pictures themselves, even at the top end, is still not quite up to that of a decent 35mm camera that costs far less, but it's almost there. The other factor still holding back digital photography is the cost of the removable memory cards on which your pictures are typically stored.
One advantage of digital photography is that pictures can be quickly and easily transferred to your PC, where they can be 'improved' in an image editing program. From there they can be incorporated into documents.
Alternatively they can be emailed or posted on the web. Most digital cameras have an LCD screen, so you can view each picture you've taken and immediately know if it's what you want, rather than having to wait for the whole film to be developed. If a picture isn't up to scratch, you can delete it and try again.
Digital camcorders are also improving in quality and coming down in price all the time. This means that they're taking over from analogue camcorders. Admittedly these are mainly used to record family holidays and birthdays. But they also appeal to the amateur film-maker, now that many people have PCs with sufficient processing power and hard disk space to edit video, something that is hard with analogue camcorders.
Having bravely clung on to its status as the recordable format of choice for about 20 years, VHS videotape will surely be the next to go. DVD is already challenging it in the pre-recorded market by offering, yep you guessed it, better quality pictures, better sound and a host of added features. Now that DVD has entered the mainstream, manufacturers are working on a recordable version, but the familiar issues of compatibility and piracy are dogging their attempts.
Piracy is even more of an issue than with VHS, as digital technology means perfect copies every time. Therefore it may be some time before we seen the recordable DVD disc on the shelves of a high street retailer.
What will come sooner is a recorder that will be able to record your choice of digital programmes directly to a hard disk drive stored in a set-top box or inside your PC. On the other side of the Atlantic, US companies TiVo and ReplayTV are already offering set-top boxes that can record up to 30 hours worth of material. These can be programmed to store every episode of Friends or any film starring Marilyn Monroe, for example. It's inevitable that we'll see these technologies arriving over here.
So, is digital technology the future? Absolutely. And does this mean that you have to throw away all your analogue equipment and start again? Absolutely not. The best thing to do is to identify areas in which going digital would bring you real benefit and buy that when you can afford it. Only upgrade the rest when your current technology gives up the ghost. In the meantime, prices will continue falling and any niggles will be ironed out.
We say what matters is that the technology works for you - so, if you're happy with playing your old 45s but fancy the extra choice and quality that digital television brings, then go for it. Or if you're more than happy with five TV channels, but can see the value of a digital camera, then take the plunge in that direction. Meanwhile, one thing's for certain - digital technology will continue to transform our lives in ways that we can't yet imagine.
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