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Fuji's latest Hi8 camcorder tape challenges accepted wisdom that metal evaporated tape gives the best picture quality, we've been putting it to the test...



Owning a Hi8 camcorder is not as easy as it looks and one of the problems most users have to face up to, is what tape to use. It's relatively easy with 8mm or VHS-C tapes, there's about a dozen different brands, and maybe three or four fairly distinct grades. With Hi8 equipment there's the added complication of metal particle or metal evaporated tapes. Hi8 camcorders and VCRs can use both types of tape, but maximum picture performance can only be achieved with metal evaporated (ME) tape, or so we've been led to believe That could all be about to change, following the launch of a new tape from Fuji, but first a little background to the story.


Metal particle (MP) and metal evaporated tapes are manufactured in an entirely different way. MP tape is similar to Hi8 ,normal ferric audio and video tapes, with a layer containing microscopic particles of magnetically-responsive metal, coated onto a thin plastic base film. ME tape is produced in a vacuum chamber by an elaborate process involving blasting ingots of cobalt-nickel with a high-intensity electron beam. The metal evaporates directly onto a plastic base film, depositing a later of pure metal just 0.2 micrometers thick, some fifteen times thinner than the magnetic coating on most MP tapes. ME tape has vastly superior magnetic properties, and most importantly, it can handle much higher frequencies than MP tape; in terms of picture quality a higher frequency response means more information can be stored on the tape, which translates as crisper, more detailed images.


So why don't Hi8 users just stick to ME tape all the time? It's not as simple as that, firstly ME tape costs significantly more than MP tape -- up to four times as much as regular MP tape, and twice as much as most Hi8 MP formulations; secondly, on some machines the difference between MP and ME tape can be very hard to spot; and thirdly, ME tape has had a poor reputation for dropout, though most manufacturers seem to be getting on top of that particular problem.


That brings us to Fuji Hi8 ME Position, an MP formulation that acts and performs like an ME tape. Fuji have configured the cassette's ident holes to fool the machine into believing that it's an ME tape, and adjust its recording circuitry accordingly. The ident holes are on the back of the tape, in the bottom right and left-hand corners. There's two sets of three holes, arranged in a triangular formation. These indicate the tape's formulation, and thickness, so as far as a Hi8 camcorder is concerned, this is an ME tape!


Spooled inside the cassette is a five-layer tape, based on Fuji's unique multi-coating processes. Working from the back to the front, the five layers are: a backcoat, to reduce friction and improve 'runnability'; base film; undercoating layer to bind the magnetic layers to the base film; non-magnetic, shock-absorbing layer and finally the magnetic layer, which contains Fuji's Super Metallix magnetic particles. To achieve ME-like performance the particles are up to 40% smaller than those in normal Hi8 MP tape, and the layer containing the finer, more densely-packed particles is only 0.5um deep, which is only slightly thicker than the magnetic coating on ME tape. The tough, oxide-resistant binder is very consistent, and less likely to shed particles, which cause the momentary loss of signals that result in dropout. which show up as random white flecks and flashes in the picture.


You can fool the camcorder, but can you fool the eye? We tried several side-by-side comparisons with Fuji's ME Position tape and a number of ME and MP Hi8 tapes. We used a Sony V6000 for these tests, it's one of the few machines that we have found is capable of showing up differences in Hi8 tapes and we have a stack of performance data from previous tests to compare with the results.


The first question has to be, is it as good as ME tape? The quick answer is no, but that needs some qualification. The differences were most significant when compared with Sony's latest Metal-E tape, and then only on static test patterns, which revealed a small increase in the amount of luminance noise in the picture. It was much harder to spot a moving picture,  you would have to be actively looking for it to see it. Compared with two other brands of ME tape (TDK and Maxell), the difference in noise levels was even smaller, though in both cases noise levels on the ME tapes were lower. As far as colour reproduction, and resolution were concerned there was almost nothing to choose between the ME tapes and Fuji ME Position. Alongside normal MP Hi8 tape ME Position has appreciably lower levels of noise, and a small increase in high-frequency response, which shows up as slightly sharper detail.


The variations in performance we're talking about here are actually quite small and in most cases are only apparent on test patterns, they're almost impossible to see when there's any movement in the scene, unless the recordings are repeatedly replayed and minutely examined, and that's not how it happens in the real world. In fact we doubt that it would be possible to tell the difference between ME Position and ME tape in a blind test of live recordings; it might be a little easier to tell ME Position next to MP Hi8 tapes, but only on top-end machines like the V6000, mid-market Hi8 camcorders will blur the differences even more.


That brings us to the bottom line, would we be prepared to use ME Position in preference to ME tape? If we were using  machines such as the V6000, VX1, EX1, A2 Hi, etc. then we'd still be inclined to stick to a top ME tape, and hang the expense. In most other circumstance, and on most other machines, we would definitely be tempted to try MP position, and compare it with a good quality ME or MP Hi8 tape, we suspect most users will be suitably impressed!



R.Maybury 1993 2211


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