Clarkson on: technology
This article was first published in TopGear magazine, October 2006.
Normally, I am very slow off the mark when it comes to new gadgets and technology. Partly, this is because I’m mean and know the price is sure to fall soon, and partly it’s because I live in Chipping Norton, where there are no new gadgets and technology. People here still point at corduroy.
Mostly, however, it’s because I’ve learned from past mistakes. I, for instance, was one of the seven people who bought a Philips laser disc. It was idiotically expensive, and if something moved quickly across the screen, it ghosted, so that the scene ended up looking like an early Queen pop video.
Then there was a grey box I bought while cruising the Tottenham Court Road. You plugged it into your computer, inserted a disc, and it would copy any file from your hard drive. I was immensely pleased with this, right up to the point when someone pointed out that the computer itself could perform this task. And had been able to since about 1992.
This is why I didn’t rush to leap on the plasma TV bandwagon. God, they looked good and, wow, the picture was sharp. But initially, they cost about £2.5billion, and they had a habit of blowing up every five months. This is annoying. And expensive.
I therefore waited until the reliability gremlins were sorted out and the price had come down to a still preposterous £1,500. And then in I went, choosing a 42-inch JVC.
Gosh, it looked fine, sitting in a specially made hole I’d created in the bookcase. And it continued to look fine until I turned it on.
The picture had a tie-die Haight-Ashbury quality to it, and that was bad enough, but worse, the sound came along ages after the picture. That’s OK if you’re watching an artillery bombardment from a few miles away – you expect it. And it’s OK if you’re watching a commercial for Odour Eaters. But it’s emphatically not OK when you’re watching the weather forecast. And what you’re hearing is some bint from the local news programme that’s just finished.
Imagining this might be a cabling problem, I called out the man from the shop who fiddled around, said he’d mended it and went away. That night I listened to Silent Witness while watching Stephen Fry on QI.
So I called the man out again and still he said there was nothing wrong, even though Stephen Fry seemed to be wearing an oscillating electro-suit. Which he wasn’t. And we were listening to Alexander Graham Bell saying, “Come here Mr Watson, I want you”.
Well that’s what I think he said; it’s hard to be sure because the £1,500 JVC comes with the sort of speaker you expect to find in a musical birthday card.
Eventually, I decided that the only solution was to buy another television so I went back to the shop and found that in the last year, things have moved on in a sort of gigantic triple jump. Plasma has been replaced with LCD which only works up to 42in, and not at all if you’re not directly in front of it.
"On Top Gear, we reckon that shooting in high-definition would add 20 per cent to the budget"
And now you will be steered toward something called ‘high definition’. It looks great in the shop. But this is a test signal. The number of programmes broadcast in this shiny new way is tiny, because it’s so expensive. On Top Gear, we reckon that shooting in high-def would add 20 per cent to the budget. Simply to survive, we’d have to eat James May.
Still, you know hi-def is coming, so you feel duty bound to invest, which means upgrading your Sky Box, and that’ll cost £300 a year. Just so you can watch something that isn’t available yet, on a TV that doesn’t work if you sit to one side, and has crummy speakers.
And do you know how long it took two men to install the new set? Six bleeding hours. And when they left, it didn’t work. You can’t get the Sky listings, and you can stab away at the remote control, but all you’ll get is an increasingly complex set of meaningless hieroglyphs on the screen. Tuning? Forget it.
Flatscreen TVs simply do not work as well as the old tube boxes. The technology is racing ahead so quickly that it’s not actually functioning properly before it’s on the market. It has always been thus, I suppose. Right back at the dawn of TV, customers were offered a choice of Baird’s useless spinning-disc system, which cost about the same as a Rolls-Royce, or the US electronic option. Many went the wrong way.
Then there was Betamax, which was sent to an early grave when the US porn industry went with VHS. And then VHS was killed off by DVD. And now, how many of you have bought DVD recorders? Why, when you can have Sky+? A system which seems brilliant, but loses its ability to record if it’s wet, dry or if ivy grows over your satellite dish when you’re on holiday.
If you look at the march of human progress in the past 30 years, you’ll find that for every mobile phone, there are 10 Sinclair C5s. And that for every iPod, there are 100 digital coffee machines which cost £1,000 and break after making two cups.
And so, rather late, I admit, we arrive at the motor industry which could, and should, be a shining beacon for the whole of the electronics world.
Of course, there was a time when the car people were consumed with a need to experiment. If you go down to the Beaulieu motor museum, it’s like stepping into a modern television shop today. It’s a world ambition running at top speed before the talent can walk. But then, at some point around 1920, everyone seemed to decide that the fuel should be petrol, that the clutch should be on the left, and that the handbrake should be inside the car. And that, pretty much, has been that for the last 90 years.
Oh, there have been flirtations with diesel, and Wankelling, and the Americans still think the gearlever should be on the steering column, but the essence of the car has remained unchanged.
Today, conspiracy theorists say that the industry’s refusal to adopt electric cars is evidence of a deal with the oil companies. But it’s no such thing. The car industry doesn’t gamble on possibility any more. It’ll only play fast and loose with its money, and ours, if something’s a real benefit. And electric power isn’t.
Just about the only foray into a mad world has been with the gearbox. We had Merc trying to prove seven speeds are better than five, and then wisely not bothering on the new SL. And just about everyone’s played around with flappy paddles.
This is flatscreen technology with a clutch. It is the sandwich maker you were given for a wedding present and which you’ve never used. It looks good, and it sounds impressive when you first explain it to mates over the water cooler, but it’s rubbish.
Maserati has just figured that out. They know that the idiot-box spoils the Quattroporte, so they’re redesigning the car, ditching the transaxle layout so they can get a proper, tried and tested auto in there.
Sony should think about this. To wonder if going backwards is sometimes the way to make progress.