Portability is driving much of the technical innovation that shapes these early days of the 21st Century. On the consumer side of the electronics market, laptops are overtaking desktop computer sales. The iPod and its ilk have all but replaced the portable CD player and are taking the place of the portable DVD player for individual use. Car players that are iPod-friendly will further drive down the sale of wallet carriers for round shiny discs — it's just too convenient for the consumer to tote a single handheld device to replace a bulky bundle of discs. That portable players and file-based delivery are hammering physical media sales in general is also noteworthy, if a discussion for another day.
Thus far, some sort of compromise has typically accompanied portability. This is not necessarily an operational compromise (the iPod again offering the example of a truly groundbreaking and intuitive human interface), though small devices with limited control and display elements can indeed present challenges for designers, not to mention limiting the physical I/O options. That these physical considerations exist should come as no surprise to anyone who, say, popped the top on a consumer component cassette or CD player of even a couple of decades ago — the insides being filled mainly with air and the case size determined by the need for front-panel metering, controls and the mechanical drive for the media and, to a lesser extent, by the rear-panel need for I/O. Increased reliance on remote controls accompanied a move to slim-line disc players, with even less real estate given over to front-panel control and display.
Performance compromises are those that concern us more as professionals. Consumers will not retreat from their desire for ever-more portable devices, despite the potential compromises that entails. Sure, you can put high-resolution audio and video on a portable device, but until we notch a step or two forward in portable data storage, the convenience factor of having more songs and videos at their fingertips will trump quality for most users, if they actually even know (or care) that they have such options.
Even if our definition of portable is a bit different than that of the consumer, portability in professional gear has benefited from the consumer revolution. Improved battery technology, high-performance/low-voltage and low-power consumption ICs, miniaturization of devices in mass storage while storage capacities climb, and innovations in display and control technologies are all tools that professional gear designers can use to develop portable devices with no performance compromises and truly staggering capabilities.
That truth became abundantly clear in the process of putting together this issue of Pro Audio Review, in this case being two devices each in the portable field recorder and portable test gear categories. Let the consumer make their compromises. While our definition of portability allows for devices significantly larger than an iPod, today's solutions can allow the audio pro to opt for convenience while actually raising their standards.
Frank Wells is the editor of Pro Sound News and the editorial director of Pro Audio Review.