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Evolution of portable music: from Walkman to iPod

Now we all take listening to music and watching videos on the go for granted, but you just have to go back to the early 1980s to find out where it all began.

Three decades ago, the Sony Walkman hit the UK market and started a revolution. For the first time it was easy to listen to prerecorded music on the go, even if that meant you had to carry multiple cassettes or, more likely, listen to the same tape over and over again. Incredibly bulky by today’s standards but considered compact when launched, the Walkman set the standard that others followed. Anyone who remembers taking such an original Portable Cassette Walkman with them will be more than a little taken aback by the capabilities of today’s portable devices and also by their incredibly compact and battery-efficient design.

However, by 1984, the previously enormously bulky player had been reduced to just over the size of the cassette it was playing, and the batteries also lasted much longer. The same year a CD version of the cassette player, known as the Discman, was released. A few years later a minidisc version followed, but all of those devices relied on playing some prerecorded media format, rather than being able to store music digitally on the device.

It was the breakthrough of USB devices in the early 21st century that paved the way for today’s plethora of portable digital music devices. In just over a decade they have progressed to the point where they are now capable of storing more than 100 hours of music, equivalent to 250 albums. For example, an 8GB Apple iPod nano is capable of storing 2,000 songs or eight hours of video, or a combination of both.

MP3 players and iPods can run for approximately 24 hours of solid audio without recharging or, if you prefer, five hours of video playback. Weighing in at just over an ounce and a half, these devices are now truly portable, to the point where they are smaller than the cassettes that were inserted into the original portable music device – the Walkman.

In fact, functionality has progressed to the point where music and video players are now incorporated into smartphones, such as the iPod built into the iPhone 3GS. This means that fewer devices need to be carried, as the smartphone now performs all the functions of a music and video player, a camera, and a web browser; functionality you could only dream of in the 1980s!

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