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BUYING A VCR

VCR TechnoFILE points you in the right direction…

When VCR's were new, and the land was sweet and flowed with milk and honey, these new gadgets promised to release humanity from the bondage of the TV networks. No longer would we be bound by their arbitrary scheduling decisions: thanks to their "timeshifting" capabilities, we could record a program when the networks deemed they would run, but watch them at a time convenient for us. Life was grand, and the Betamax ruled the world.

Of course, that was about twenty years ago and a lot has changed since then. For one thing, the Betamax no longer rules; in fact, it's virtually dead as far as consumer VCR's is concerned, though many will argue that the loss of beta is a shame, since the format is supposedly technically superior.

Perhaps, but the argument is meaningless, since it's a VHS world until the next format comes along to challenge it. And that will happen, but not tomorrow.

Over the years, VCR's have grown in quality, and shrunk in price. Where the basic VCR, which was also the top-of-the-line VCR, once cost about $1500 US, a basic VCR now is nearly cheap enough to find as a giveaway in cereal boxes. Top line machines still set one back several hundred clams, but what you get now rivals or exceeds what you'd only have seen in video studios back in TV's infancy.

Not only that but, since TV truly is a vast wasteland, many people are discovering that timeshifting isn't their number one priority anymore: renting videocassette movies is. Other people want a VHS VCR so they can dub from their camcorders.

So what do you look for in a "90's" VCR? Good question, and undoubtedly why you're here in the first place.

Purposeful Design…

Decide what you're going to do with the machine: whether its primary function will be timeshifting, movies, or whatever. Then, decide what features are important to you and how much you're willing to pay for them. Higher end VCR's positively sparkle with neat features, but if you're never going to use them, what's the point? On the other hand, you often have to buy extra features to get the ones you really want, so you have to balance what you need with what you can afford. Fortunately, it isn't difficult to balance the two factors these days.

But don't be fooled by endless lists of features you find in some ads; again, you'll never use a lot of them, so why be bamboozled or confused by irrelevancies? Pay attention to the features you want, and ignore the rest.

"Ease for Effort…"

A good VCR will be easy to use, and the most important ease of use feature to keep in mind is the remote control. More on that later. You should also be comfortable with how the VCR programs for timeshift recordin,g if that's important to you.

And if you're going to run the VCR's sound through an audio system, and you can afford it, you should definitely opt for "hi-fi" audio. It isn't as good as digital, CD sound, but it's close enough for most occasions. This is especially important if you like watching movies or musical events. Even TV programs benefit from hi-fi sound these days; many of them are recorded in Dolby Surround and if your VCR has an MTS stereo tuner (and most do), and if you have a Dolby Surround decoder built into wherever you're plugging the VCR (usually an audio/video receiver or a TV) you'll be able to take advantage of the surround sound.

Getting with the Program…

Most VCR's come with "onscreen programming," which is a series of menus that (at least theoretically) walks you through the various settings and functions of the deck. Some of these systems are straightforward; some make getting the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle seem easy. Try out your prospective VCR's in the store to make sure you're comfortable with the particular method offered.

Ditto for timeshift recording. Many VCR's offer "VCR Plus+," which makes programming easy once you've initially pointed the VCR to your area's channels. VCR Plus+ lets you use those numbers after the show descriptions in the TV listings: you just activate the programming feature, punch in the code, and Presto! Barring Murphy's Law, or scheduling changes, you're off to the races.

Other VCR's use the onscreen menus (and many use both systems) and, as mentioned just above, this can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the thought the manufacturer has put into the process.

The Basics…

Your first decision should be which VCR format you want. You can choose between VHS, SuperVHS (S-VHS), 8mm, Hi8, and Beta. You can pretty well write off Beta, though, as that war is long over. Still, if you have a decade's worth of Beta tapes, and only want to use the VCR for playing them and recording new stuff from TV, you might want to take a look at that format.

Otherwise, you can choose from the two VHS's or 8mm's. For now. There's digital stuff on the way, but it'll be at least a couple of years before they become mainstream enough to be affordable (or before there's enough pre-recorded software available to make 'em worth your while), so you can safely forget about them for now.

VHS is where you'll find the vast majority of movie and other video titles for rental and sale. So that's the way to go if that's important to you. If you want the best recording quality, opt for S-VHS, which is far superior to the "marginally better than black and white" picture of regular VHS. You'll pay more for the VCR and the blank tapes, naturally, and you won't find much in the way of pre-recorded stuff, but your TV recording will be better (and if you're pirating laserdiscs you'll be much happier…and so will your lawyer!) S-VHS boasts horizontal resolution of about 400 lines (as opposed to VHS's 250 or so - an appreciable difference).

Put simply, recording a TV show at slow speed (SLP or EP) on S-VHS gives a better picture than recording on fast speed (SP) on regular VHS.

8mm is popular for camcorders, and there are a few 8mm home VCR's, but it's not big as a home format and probably never will be. It's small and portable, which is nice for camcorders and TVCR combinations, but you can count the movie titles on one hand (well, okay, it's not quite that bad, but VHS still wins hands down).

Hi8mm isthe 8mm equivalent to S-VHS, in that it's a high resolution version of 8mm. The same basic differences exist between it and 8mm as exist between VHS and S-VHS.

And naturally, VHS and 8mm tapes won't fit in each other's machines. Oh, no, that would be too easy. So, if you want to play a tape from the other format, you'll have to dub it over to the other type and live with the inevitable loss of quality that brings.

So what we're saying, then, is if you're nine out of ten consumers and want to rent movies and record from TV, look to the VHS or S-VHS camps.

Okay, now that we've pretty well told you to ignore everything that's not VHS, we can get on with which VHS decks you should pursue.

Head Count…

Video heads are the doohickeys that pick the video signal off, or put it onto, the tape. And, just as two heads are better than one, four heads are better than two - usually.

Two video heads will give you good results if you're always recording in SP mode. If you like getting more than 2 or 2.5 hours or so on a tape, or if you like your scanning speed to be as fast as possible, you probably record in SLP. So you'll want a four head deck, which has a pair of heads for each speed. You may never notice the difference if you're just watching tapes, but if you use freeze frame etc., the extra two heads will give you better results on the slow speed.

Fortunately, most decks are four head these days, so finding one isn't a big deal.

Incidentally, the video heads are mounted on that silver, spinning drum that's (fortunately for them) just out of reach of your kids' fingers when they poke 'em into the tape slot. They're just in range of a peanut butter sandwich, however...

Hi-fi VCR's also mount audio heads on that spinning drum. These heads are usually ignored in the head count, though we've heard tell of some -shall we say - less than credible dealers who've tried unloading two head hi-fi VCR's as four head by counting the audio heads. For shame! So if four heads are important to you, make sure you make sure they're four VIDEO heads.

SPEED = QUALITY

As mentioned earlier, the faster recording speed gives a better picture. This is because less information has to be crammed onto a particular section of tape. So if picture quality means a lot to you, record on SP for regular VHS. If it really means a lot to you, buy S-VHS.

A word about LP. Besides being an obsolete form of recorded medium that was pushed out of the spotlight by compact discs, LP is a middle VCR speed that fits between SP and SLP. Not too many VCR's offer this speed for recording any more, but most if not all of them will automatically play it back. So ignore it.

And a pitch for LaserVision: if watching movies is your primary want in a video unit, and you have adequate software available in your area, buy a Laserdisc player. You'll get the best playback quality possible until DVD becomes popular (probably at least a few years). You can't record on it, but you can't record on a CD either and millions of them are sold each year.

Still, when all is said and done, most people are perfectly happy with regular VHS, which is by far the most popular and affordable format. Just realize that you can do better if it's important to you.

Sound Judgment…

When VCR's first came out their audio quality was about equivalent to AM radio. VHS eventually added stereo sound that gave you two audio channels that were marginally better than AM radio and then, finally, stereo hi-fi audio entered the fray. And the rest is history.

Hi-fi audio is the ultimate VHS sound playback (some digital dabbling has been done, but it's safe to ignore it) system. It isn't quite CD quality but, except for some occasional fluttering you may notice coming from your speakers, you may never notice the difference. Hi-fi works just fine at all tape speeds and will also pick up the Dolby Surround encoding on most of Hollywood's releases these days. It won't decode the Dolby Surround, but it'll pass it along to your decoder.

Hi-fi audio is so good you can use your VCR as an audio tape recorder, though it's not nearly as convenient as cassette, DAT (Digital Audio Tape), or Minidisc. And you can't stick the tape into your car stereo, no matter how hard you push it. But for recording TV and watching movies, it's great.

Calling the Tuner…

Even many low end VCR's today come with MTS stereo tuners. This is a must if you want to take advantage of stereo TV (or bilingual TV) broadcasts. Most major shows are now broadcast in stereo (or even encoded with Dolby Surround - which an MTS tuner will also pass along to your decoder), and while the sound quality isn't as good as a tape or disc, it still beats the pants off mono.

MTS tuners also have the "SAP" feature (a rather insulting-sounding acronym that merely means "second audio program") that isn't used very much but that allows the broadcaster to send bilingual programming, or programming with an alternate audio track (like a commentary).

Most VCR's are also "cable ready," which means they can pull in a multitude of channels. Numbers vary depending on the make and model, but what's important to consider is how many channels you receive in your area (or how many you anticipate will be offered over the life of the VCR - channels that you'll actually use). A 180 channel tuner is just ducky, unless you live somewhere you can only receive three.

Remotes…

Don't forget, you'll spend more time with the remote control than with the front panel buttons on your VCR. Many manufacturers are taking this into account and virtually eliminating them from the VCR itself. This isn't a big deal unless you chronically misplace the remote and are suddenly faced with a programming emergency…

Some remotes are "unified" or "universal," which means they operate more than just the VCR. They can also be used to control a TV, LD player, cable box, etc. And they sometimes operate other brands of equipment, too, usually by having you enter a code from a list supplied by the manufacturer. It's an easy process and you'll like the results. Don't expect these remotes to replace the other ones, though; they generally only operate the main functions of the other components, which is still a bonus.

Before plunking down your pennies, make sure you're comfortable with the remote, with where the buttons are and how the whole thing feels. Make sure you can figure it out! And make sure you think it'll be easy to use in dim lighting.

I/O, I/O, It's off to Work We Go…

If you want to dub from another VCR or a camcorder, it's nice to have a set of audio and video input jacks on the front of your VCR. This prevents you from having to mess around with the spaghetti factory behind your unit.

VCR prices are all over the place, and since this is a world-distributed publication, it would be very difficult to get into them here. Just make sure you shop around and check the "before you buy" guide across the way.

Our Feature Presentation…

Here are some features you might run into on your quest for the perfect VCR:

AUTO PROGRAM: This is a set up feature you'll probably only use when you first unpack the VCR. It searches all the channels it can receive, automatically programming the ones it gets and ignoring the ones it doesn't. This sets up the "channel up and down" buttons. Every channel is still available from the number keys, even if there's nothing on them. After autoprogramming, you should go back and erase the channels it memorized but that you don't want to scan, like scrambled pay TV channels you don't want, the airport listings, or the all commercial channel. Again, these channels will always be there if you have a number pad on the remote: you just won't hit 'em when you channel surf up or down.

AUTO CLOCK SETTING: A quick way of eliminating that flashing "12:00" that's become such a running joke. Some channels broadcast a signal that can set your clock. Make sure the channel you use is in the same time zone as you are!

AUTO HEAD CLEANING: Every time you insert a tape, this feature gives the heads a quick scrub. Big deal.

AUTO TRACKING: Sometimes called "digital tracking," this feature is nice when you're playing tapes and you don't know where they've been. It automatically adjusts the VCR's heads for the best playback. It doesn't always work perfectly, but it's pretty good.

AUTO START: This is a feature that, when you slip a tape into the VCR, it turns itself on and, if the tape's "write protect tab" (the little plastic tab you remove to prevent the tape from being recorded on again) is broken, starts playing.

AUTO REWIND: When the tape reaches its end, the VCR switches into rewind mode and zips it back to the beginning.

AUTO SHUTOFF: Something we wish kids came with! Auto Shutoff is just what the name says: it shuts off by itself.

AUTO EJECT: Again, this is pretty straightforward. The VCR spits out the tape (not so far that you have to clear a spot on the living room carpet, though) when it shuts off. This can be handy when you've left a "write protected" tape in the deck because the next time you walk by the VCR, you have a chance to be warned to put a recording tape back in for your next time shifting session.

DIGITAL EFFECTS: These are nothing like those seen in Jurassic Park and other recent movies. These digital effects, in fact, are merely toys you may never use. The most popular is Picture in Picture, which can let you see two programs simultaneously. You need two picture sources to take advantage of the feature, though, like two tuners, a videocassette and a tuner, etc. Others include trinkets like mosaic or pixilization, which are fun to see once but basically a waste of time and money unless you're planning to use them in your own video productions.

FLYING ERASE HEAD: A close relative of the Flying Wallendas, this is a nice feature if you're going to do a lot of editing with your VCR. It's an erase head mounted on the spinning drum with the video (and hi-fi audio) heads. It makes for clean, sparkle-free edits. If you don't plan on doing a lot of editing, pass this feature by: it adds to the price.

INDEX SEARCH: This is really nice. The VCR puts a mark on the tape each time it begins recording, and later you can have the machine find these marks either by number or by scanning forward or backwards. It makes finding the beginning of your recording programs easy. It certainly beats scanning back and forth randomly!

JOG-SHUTTLE: A little wheel or knob on your VCR and/or remote that lets you scan at various speeds, from frame by frame to Warp Factor Eight.

VIDEO NOISE REDUCTION: A circuit that shovels snow from your picture. Does a better job than not having it, but the best way to reduce video noise is to buy a laserdisc player.

Good luck!

 

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January 31, 2006