Back in the 1980s, hard drives were prohibitively expensive, so electronics companies (particularly the ones that made computers) had to find ways for people to store data without spending the price of a small car. The answer was floppy diskettes and compact cassette.
The most popular example of data on compact cassette was the once-ubiquitous Commodore 1530 C2N "Datasette", pictured right. Most people who owned a Commodore 64 or Commodore VIC-20 had one of these because it was the absolute cheapest way to store data.
Across the pond in the UK, the ZX Spectrum‘s primary way of sending and receiving data was also from compact cassette.
Data transfer using compact cassette was not exclusive to home computers. For example, several music synthesizers such as the Roland Juno-60 were able to store ‘patches’ using any plain standard cassette recorder.
Slow. Really slow.
Data stored to compact cassette was never quick unless what you were saving was tiny in size. Even something as simple as a 200-line script could take 15 seconds or more to load.
Anyone who has ever loaded a game on a ZX Spectrum from cassette knows very well how long it takes – sometimes up to 8 minutes or even longer depending on game size. And of course once the slack started wearing out, there was the distinct possibility that you sat there for almost 10 minutes waiting for something to load only to discover the transfer botched. And you had no way of knowing this until the botch happened. Fun times.
Compact cassette was never really a good way to send or receive data, and the only reason anyone used it was because it was cheap. Bear in mind this is very small, very thin slack we’re talking about and not proper larger slack (which is reliable).
Everyone was happy to toss out their cassettes once floppy disks finally started to come down in price. Even ZX Spectrum users finally got their floppy disk drive in 1987 with the ZX Spectrum +3 with its built-in 3.5-inch FDD.
Looking to relive the not-so-glorious days of data on compact cassette?
Even as slow and unreliable as compact cassette is, retro computer fans like getting them working because it’s a unique way of working with data.
Fortunately there’s still a good crop of portable cassette recorders out there in near-mint condition which will work fine even today. Tapes are still readily available as well, although you must remember to buy the 30-minute kind to get the thickest slack for best performance. Search for 30 minute cassette on eBay; they’re easy to come by.
Concerning the Commodore Datasette in particular, if you have one that’s in need of repair, anyone familiar with repairing tape decks will be able to fix it. All that’s required is usually a thorough cleaning of the tape head, a proper demagnetizing and the installation of new belts.
If you’re thinking, "There are people who still sell belts for the 1530?", the answer is no, but there are enough sizes available where a proper tech who knows these things will find ones that will exact-fit without issue.
If you don’t know where to go to get a 1530 repaired, anyone who works on restoring stereo cassette decks will know how to fix the Datasette. After all, it is just a tape deck with a converter for data transfer so the mechanics inside will be easy for the tech to figure out.
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