Monday, February 20, 2012

New television sparks memories of old ones

I hunted through our file drawer trying to find a record of the last television we had purchased. It had been around 20 years ago, when we daringly opted for a 25-inch TV to replace the 19-inch model purchased some years before. Alas, I could not find any record of the purchase, nor a user's manual for the hefty Sanyo tabletop model. But I do remember how long ago it was, based on the model car I was driving and the memory that we could not get the TV in its pasteboard box into the car, either in the trunk or in the back door. Standing in the Wal-mart parking lot, we pulled the heavy, awkward TV out of the box and folded it into the back seat.

I replaced that TV over the weekend with a model that would fit neatly into the trunk of the car and that weighed only about 15 pounds, compared to the 80 or more the old TV weighed. In the 1970s, a friend told me that the heavier a TV is, the better it is because heavier TVs have more parts in them. He may have been right at the time. Weight was not the only difference. The new TV has a 32-inch screen (a size dictated by the width of the cabinet we had to place it into) and offered high-definition video and stereo sound. After setting up the new set, I tuned in the end of the N.C. State basketball game. Wow! What a difference.

While everyone on the block, all of the relatives and most of the people in the country had switched to flat-screen, high-def TVs, I had resisted, smugly opining that my TV was perfectly fine. It had a "good picture" and allowed me to watch the football and basketball games with relatively clarity. But I was wrong. High-definition video makes a huge difference. (Let's not even talk about 3-D televisions — I'm not going there.) I thought I might ultimately resign myself to buying a flat-screen TV and measured the space I had available. Conceivably, the space could have accommodated a 46-inch screen, but that would have required a new cabinet or table to place the TV on, or a switch to wall mounting — an option impractical before flat screens came along. We decided recently that we liked our TV cabinet, which allows us to close the doors and not have the TV continually staring at us, so we measured the width and decided a 32-inch TV would suffice. I'm happy with it.

I may be just as happy as I was 28 years ago, when I bought the first TV I ever purchased. I studied product reports and settled on a 15-inch RCA XL100 set. It was the latest thing. I watched the ads and caught it for $100 off the $399 list price. It had a yellow molded plastic shell, dials for both VHF and UHF channels, a button on the front that promised to correct any color problems and built-in rabbit ear antennae. We replaced the 19-inch black-and-white with the snowy picture that had been my late grandfather's. We placed the new TV on the chrome and fake-wood TV cart that had been handed down by my wife's late grandmother. We thought we had arrived. I could watch NFL games in color! About five years later, we invested another $200 in the set when we had to replace the picture tube. On the day President Reagan was shot, I spent the day on the roof attaching a TV antenna to the chimney so I could get better reception and watch the NCAA championship game that night.

It was a yearning for a remote-control TV that prompted the replacement of that first TV I ever bought. The 19-inch model, which I remember costing around $250, was a big step up. There was nothing wrong with that set, which we moved to a bedroom, when we bought our most recent set with a larger screen some 20 years ago. For the first time in our marriage, we became a two-TV family.

Considering the $300 sale price and $400 list price plus inflation over the past 28 years, that very first TV I ever bought was a huge luxury, costing probably four times more in constant dollars than our new TV. The advances in electronics have been difficult to grasp. In even less time than this television chronology, the first (second-hand) computer we bought for $800 had far less computing power and data storage capacity than the iPod I carry in my pocket and costs less than one-fourth as much as the used computer.

So now I have a used television with a 25-inch screen that works perfectly but that, likely, no one wants. I'll donate it to a charity, which will try to sell it for a pittance. The Catch-22 in electronics advances is that TVs, computers, stereos and the rest now last far longer than their technological guts. Technology makes them obsolete long before they wear out.

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