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PANASONIC AG-TL500

 

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WHAT OUR EXPERTS SAY...

It has been a while since we bench-tested a Panasonic time lapse VCR. The last one was the AG-TL700 featured back in the October 1997 issue and this well-equipped Super VHS machine generally fared well in our report. The TL500, which we will be looking at more closely in a moment, bears more than a passing resemblance to its stablemate but there are a number of significant differences. The most obvious one is the recording system, which this time is low-band or 'standard' VHS, and the new model, launched at the beginning of the year, now sports an RS-232 interface for PC connectivity and control.

 

The principle features are 10 recording modes, (from 3-hour standard VHS real-time to 170 hour time-lapse, on a 3-hour tape) and it has a built-in timer for scheduling recordings on a daily or weekly basis. Additionally the VCR has a range of alarm functions, compatibility with and connectivity for a range of external devices (frame switcher, remote control devices, PC etc.), plus there's a full set of playback functions, including still and forward/reverse field advance.

 

Panasonic have clearly based the TL500 on the TL700 and from the front it's almost impossible to tell them apart. The machine has a mid-mount deck mechanism with the tape hatch mounted above a dual colour (green and orange) florescent display panel. This shows tape time, recording speed/time-lapse mode, deck status and various mode indicators. There are six small buttons mounted next to the display panel, these are for setting the time-lapse mode, tracking, resetting the counter and counter search.

 

To the right of the display panel is a group of three largish buttons for tape eject, record review (replays the last few seconds whilst in the record mode), and the main record button. This panel also has a recessed 'Summer Time' button, for advancing the clock display by one hour, and an 'Alarm' indicator, which starts flashes as soon as an alarm recording has been made. On the left side of the machine there is a hinged flap that opens to reveal another set of controls. These comprise the main on/standby button, stop, still play, tape fast wind and tape advance keys plus two small slide switches for selecting the on-screen display and timer mode selection.    

 

On the back panel there are two BNC and two phono sockets for the video and audio inputs and outputs, a third phono sockets is used for external camera switching. A pair of 3.5mm jack sockets handle microphone and external remote control connections and a female 9-pin D-Sub carries RS-232 data for linking the VCR to a PC. A six-way spring terminal carries the alarm connections and the mains lead plugs into a 2-pin Telefunken socket on the far left.

 

Most functions are controlled from a set of five on-screen menus. Page one covers the basic time and date set-up, there's also a recording lock switch that inhibits all control functions whilst the machine is recording, and an hours meter that shows how long the tape head drum has been in use. The instruction manual includes a maintenance chart with advisory times for routine cleaning and inspection of the tape path. The second page of the menu deals with a variety of secondary functions including the position of the on-screen display, background display (blue or camera input), alarm buzzer, tape remain alarm (a buzzer sounds when 3% tape left), and error warning buzzer on/off. Menu screen 3 is for the primary alarm functions. These include setting the recording speed for the duration of an alarm event (3 or 6 hours), the duration of an alarm recording (30 seconds to 5 minutes, continuous or manual), alarm recall (details of the previous 4 alarm events) and alarm error warning.

 

The instructions erroneously state that menu screen 4 is used to set the position of the display (it's actually on menu 2, and incredibly this mistake is a repeat of the one made in the TL700 instruction manual almost eighteen months ago…). In fact menu 4 has settings for the default recording speed, VCR action when a tape is inserted (stop, record or rewind and record), tape end action (rewind, repeat or eject), video signal input mode (auto, colour or monochrome) and playback detail (normal or soft). Lastly menu screen 5, this is used to set the machine's internal timer, this can be set to switch the VCR on from standby to record at a specific time on a particular day or days, record at the same times every week, or a combination of both.

 

Earlier we mentioned there were 10 recording speed options, it's worth looking at them in a little more detail. The 3-hour mode is the standard VHS SP configuration with a recording interval of 1/50th sec and audio on the tape's mono linear edge track. The 6-hour setting is standard VHS LP mode again with a standard 1/50th sec recording interval and audio. The L12H speed is a 12-hour mode with an interval of 0.1 seconds and audio recording; L24H is a 24-hour mode an interval of 0.18 seconds, again with audio. There is a second 24 hour mode but without the audio facility. The remaining modes and recording interval times are as follows: 48h/0.34 sec, 74h/0.5 sec, 96h/0.66sec, 120h/0.82 sec and 170h/1.14 sec.

 

Actual recording times in the time-lapse modes will be a little longer than those stated, and shorter or longer tapes will vary the recording length accordingly. The instructions advise against the use of 4-hour (E-240) tapes, though we have used four-hour tapes from reputable manufacturers in this machine with no apparent problems, other than a misleading time indication. The RS-232 interface is dealt with in considerable depth in the instructions, with plenty of detailed information for those needing to control the machine from a PC

 

Build-quality is outstanding; the mechanics and electronic assemblies have an impressively solid feel to them and if past performance and reliability are anything to go by the TL500 should enjoy a long and trouble free life.

 

OPERATION

Panasonic VCRs tend to be fairly easy to get to grips with, at least as far as basic installation and operation is concerned and the TL500 is no exception. Apart from setting the time and date, any relevant alarm options and the recording speed, it's completely painless. It's not quite all plain sailing though. The timer is a particularly fiendish design, reminiscent of domestic VCRs of ten years ago. It takes several read-throughs of the instructions to get the hang of programming it. Fortunately it's the sort of procedure that only needs to be carried out infrequently. Nevertheless, the designers would do well to have a chat with their colleagues over in the domestic division, who after a long and tortuous struggle have finally managed to develop reasonably user-friendly timer and on-screen display systems.

 

The alarm log which stores details of only four events could do with being a bit bigger and like the TL700 there is still no means of quickly accessing the start of an alarm event recording, other than by trawling through a recording and looking for the recorded on-screen indications.

 

Routine record operations are simple enough though playback can be a mite fiddly, especially when trying to access a particular segment of a recording. We can only repeat what we said in the TL700 review that this machine, like all time-lapse VCRs need the kind of multi-speed replay facilities found on many domestic VCRs, preferably using a jog/shuttle dial which can simplify fast and slow speed tape navigation.

 

PERFORMANCE

We tried the TL500 with a variety of tape grades and formulations; the results were consistently good with below average levels of picture noise and solid, vibrant colours on all recording speeds. There is a very slight reduction in noise levels when using super high-grade tapes but the difference is small and unlikely to be significant in normal use. Resolution on our sample hovered on and around the 250-line mark, which is about as good as it gets on low-band VHS. Image stability was generally good on all recording and playback speeds and it is possible to achieve a near jitter free still frame and slomo replay, using the time-lapse mode control to regulate replay speed.

 

Audio recording quality is passable in the 3 and 6-hour modes but the upper frequency response tails off sharply in the 12 and 24-hour modes and the soundtrack becomes indistinct. It is possible that with a suitable microphone it might record intelligible speech but in practice it's unlikely to be much use for recording anything other than incidental or background sounds.

 

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

We had hoped the interval between the TL700 and this model appearing would have produced something a bit more radical but the bottom line is the L500 is basically a low-band variant on its predecessor with an RS-232 interface. Not only have all of the main features and facilities been carried across, so too have some of the S-VHS machine's shortcomings. It can still be difficult to locate recordings of alarm events, the replay controls are still awkward, and we can hardly believe they've repeated the mistake in the instruction book. However, for all that the TL500 is still a competent and now even more flexible time-lapse VCR, capable of above average performance and in that respect it deserves to be considered alongside similarly specified models from other manufacturers.

 

PRODUCT ASSESSMENT

Design and design features                      ****

Circuitry and components                *****

Ease of installation and wiring            ****

Range and variety of functions            ****

Accompanying instructions              ***                            

Technical advice and backup            *****     

Value for money                         ***                         

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1999 1202

 

 


 

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