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COMMERCIAL HIT

 

STANDFIRST

Let's face it, most VCRs are dull, anonymous black boxes that do more or less the same job, but here's something a bit unusual…  Hitachi has dared to be different with the VT-FX880

 

COPY

Suppose you were given the chance to design your ideal VCR. Apart from the best possible picture and sound quality and making it so easy to use that you don't have to read the instructions, what other features would you include? Here are a couple of suggestions. How about a gizmo that automatically makes a list of all the programmes you've taped, when you did it and what they're about, and then tells you whether or not you've watched them? What about a widget that detects commercial breaks during playback and whizzes through them, without you having to lift a finger? Well it's been done and it's called the Hitachi VT-FX880.

 

Before we look at those features in more detail it's worth having a quick tour around the rest of the spec. Before you ask it's not an edit deck as such -- they are an increasingly rare breed nowadays -- but that's not a problem, it's a job almost any VCR can do, it's just that some are better at it than others. In addition to the core facilities typical of the current crop of mid-range VCRs (stereo hi-fi sound, NICAM, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto installation etc.), the FX880 has a number of handy extras. They include a multi-brand remote for controlling the main functions on a wide range of other maker's TVs. There's NTSC replay, satellite control, multi-speed replay and Movietext. The latter enables the FX880 to display Closed Caption subtitles for the hard of hearing. Closed Caption data is hidden away inside the video signal on a lot of recent movies on tape and some broadcast TV programmes.

 

The FX880 is a smart-looking design, housed in a classy silvery box with a set of AV sockets hidden away on the front panel. The only minor grumble is the LCD front panel display. We've nothing against LCDs per-se, but they're not well suited to VCRs because of the low contrast – compared with fluorescent panels and LEDs -- and can be quite hard to read at a distance. A lot of people rely on their VCR's clock but this one – despite being backlit – is difficult to read in standby mode more than few feet away. It's not always easy to see what the VCR is up to either since the LCD is a single colour device (black on green) which makes it hard to distinguish mode and status displays.

 

A VCR that skips through commercial breaks is not exactly a new idea but Hitachi is the first – and so far the only – company to risk annoying the advertising industry. The feature is called Commercial Advance and it works by monitoring the broadcast video signal, looking for the momentary interruption that precedes the ad break, when ITV stations leave the network for their local advertising segments. This generates an identifier signal that's recorded on the tape. During playback, when the VCR detects the 'flag' it goes into fast picture search for the duration of the break. Unfortunately it only works properly on ITV and Channel 4, unreliably on Channel 5 and not at all on the satellite channels because they do not generate the necessary identifier signal.

 

Tape Navigation has also been around for a while, indeed, Hitachi first showed it in pre-production form five years ago. The Hitachi system is fairly simple – compared with some of the other tape library systems around at the moment. Every time the machine makes a recording the details (channel, time and date) are stored inside the machine and coded onto the tape. Additionally the user can specify programme type (movie, sport, music etc); details of up to 200 recordings on scores of tape can be catalogued in this way. Press the 'Nav' button and when a tape is loaded into the machine a list of what's on it appears on the screen, whether or not you watched it and how much free space remains on the cassette. If you want to see a programme just tap in the number, the tape winds to the beginning and starts replay.

 

Auto installation engages automatically the first time the VCR is plugged into the mains; it takes around three minutes to tune in the five terrestrial channels and sort stations into the logical order. On screen displays are a little basic but the graphics and menus are large and legible. Operationally the machine is very easy to live with and the remote – with its own LCD display – is easy to use. Extra points are awarded for the shuttle dial on the remote, and jog/shuttle on the VCR's front panel.  

 

PERFORMANCE

In general Commercial Advance it works well. It can be relied upon to do the deed eight or nine times out of ten, but occasionally it dropped out of picture search an ad or two too early, and C5 was very hit and miss. Picture quality on the FX880 is very good, samples we've seen managed to resolve just under 250-lines, with lower than average amounts of noise. Colour fidelity is very good too, skin tones are accurately rendered and there's little or no smearing or miss-registration, even in highly saturated areas. Whilst it has only a modest selection of editing features (multi-speed replay, jog/shuttle, front AV sockets etc.), it's a competent edit/copy machine and second generation recordings benefit from the low noise levels. Trick play is okay, we found still frame could be a bit stuttery at times, particularly on recordings made on other VCRs.

 

The frequency response of the stereo hi-fi soundtracks is wide and flat, bass is very solid and it carries Dolby Surround information with ease. Background hiss is well suppressed and it copes well with loud dynamic sounds.

 

VERDICT

The FX880 is a remarkable VCR that demonstrates most convincingly that there's still plenty of life left in analogue video in general, and the VHS format in particular. Commercial Advance is one of those features you'll wonder how you ever lived without. Tape Library is the same, though you can't help feeling that you could have done with a few years ago. Unfortunately it can't retrospectively catalogue all those 'mystery' tapes you've been meaning to sort out… Above all it's a damn fine VCR, ideally suited to home cinema but certainly no slouch when it comes to editing and copying either. Recommended.  

 

VCR SPECS

Make/model                         Hitachi VT-FX880

Tape format          VHS

Guide price                      £320

 

TAPE DECK

Max playing time           VHS: 8-hours (E240)

Timer                               Video Plus+ with PDC

Remote control               full function multi-brand TV

 

VIDEO

System         PAL, SP, HQ, NTSC

Replay speeds         variable search still frame, frame step

 

Main facilities

Slow motion          yes   

Multi-speed           yes   

Insert edit:          yes  

Jog/shuttle          yes

On-screen display          yes   

Video Plus+          yes

Index search          yes   

Intro Scan          yes

Instant timer          yes   

LCD remote          yes   

PDC timer          yes   

Repeat play          no

Record search          yes   

NTSC replay          yes

Quasi S-VHS replay          no     

Auto play          yes

Auto head cleaner          yes   

 

Additional facilities

Auto installation, Tape Navigation, Commercial Advance, Closed Caption reader, satellite control, Dynamic Picture Equaliser

 

AUDIO

Stereo hi-fi          yes   

Audio dub          yes   

Man level control          yes   

Level display          yes

NICAM sound          yes   

Line output          yes   

 

GENERAL

Sockets          rear: AV in/out (2 x SCART), line audio out (phono) Front: AV in (phono)

 

Front AV terminal                    yes   

Edit terminal           no

Microphone          no     

Headphones          no

SCART          twin   

Syncro edit          no

 

Weight

 

Dimensions                               435(w) x 99(h) x 278(w)mm

Weight                          4kg

 

PERFORMANCE          VHS

Resolution         <250-lines 

Colour fidelity         very good

Trick play stability         very good

Colour bleed         negligible

Audio performance         average

Edit functions         n/a

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money         9

Ease of use         8       

Performance         9

Features         9

 

RIVALS: JVC HR-S7500 £350, Panasonic NV-HD675 £350, Sony SLV-SE80 £290

 

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1999, 2012

 

 


 

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