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Old 11-09-2011, 10:30 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Retronauts: Tiny Tech Adventures

It is the future, and while there are no flying cars (sorry, Commander Sisko!), we do have all kinds of fun stuff that was well beyond our grasp in the 20th century. Those tablet computers the astronauts used in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Yeah, we've got ‘em. Instant communication no matter where you are? Put down that shoephone, Agent 99' we've got something you won't need to feed a steady diet of Odor Eaters.

Then there are the handheld game systems. Back in the 1980s, the only portables that would fit comfortably in your pocket were Nintendo's primitive Game & Watches. However, in the far-flung year of 2011, handhelds like the PSP Go and GameBoy Micro have never come closer to the full console experience, yet have never been smaller. What accounts for this shrinky-dinkery? Here are three major factors'


There's a rule of thumb in the tech industry (commonly known as Moore's Law) that the number of transistors in a microchip doubles every two years. This brings with it a big boost in computing power, and a corresponding shrinkage of consumer electronics. Today's supercomputers become tomorrow's game consoles, the next day's handhelds, and' well, you see where I'm going with this. For instance, the technology in Sega's Game Gear first debuted as the homebound Sega Master System five years before. Similarly, Nintendo found a way to take the already compact GameBoy Advance hardware and squeeze it into a series of increasingly small frames, ending with the palm-sized GameBoy Micro. Ain't technology grand?


Ever wonder why the first GameBoy didn't have internal lighting? If you've ever opened up one of its competitors, you'd understand. Early handhelds like the Atari Lynx and the Sega Game Gear used fluorescent tubes, the same kind of lighting you'll find looming overhead in supermarkets. These tubes were paired with a dome-shaped reflector that covered the screen evenly with light. However, the reflector was bulky and the fluorescent tube needed a half-dozen batteries to power it, making the first few color portables a lot less portable than advertised. Fortunately, the tiny, energy-efficient white LEDs created by Shuji Nakamura in the late 1990s played an important part in slimming down today's handhelds. You can also thank Mr. Nakamura for saving you a fortune on AAs!


Speaking of batteries, lithium-ion technology went a long way toward cutting portable game systems down to their current size. Prior to their widespread adoption in the 2000s, handhelds used ordinary disposable batteries, which not only put a dent in players' wallets and a lot of extra garbage in landfills, but contributed to their hefty size. Even the original GameBoy Advance, while smaller than the lion's share of previous color handhelds, was bulkier than it could have been thanks to the battery holder in the back. Nintendo addressed this by hardwiring a wafer-thin Li-Ion battery into later models of the system, and its competitors quickly followed suit, paving the road to Munchkin Land for many of today's handhelds.
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