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Panasonic's new range of 'Super Drive' VCRs incorporate a number of interesting new developments, we've been road-testing the mid-range SD40



Genuinely new VHS VCRs have been few and far lately. It's one of the signs of a mature technology; there's comparatively  little opportunity left for radical improvements so most manufacturers content themselves with updating or revamping existing models. One of the few exceptions are Panasonic who really have gone right back to the drawing board with their Super Drive range of VCRs. They've just launched two models, the SD30 and SD40, they will be followed by the SD100 in the early Summer. Externally they all look quite similar, and they share a number of common features; the SD30 is the entry-level model, it's a fairly basic 3-head machine; the SD100 is a mid-market stereo VCR with NICAM and hi-fi sound. The SD40, which is the focus of this review is a four-header, with mono sound, LP recording speed plus some editing facilities; it's in the shops as we speak, selling for just under 460.


We'll begin by taking a closer look at the Super Drive chassis, which is used in all three models. The solid top panel is a clue to one feature, a switched mode power supply. Most VCRs use conventional regulated mains power supplies (PSUs,) built around bulky transformers, rectifiers and smoothing capacitors; they're not terribly efficient and waste energy is expelled as heat,  hence the need  for ventilation slots in the cabinets of most VCRs. Switched mode power supplies have been used in TVs and other electronic devices for many years but are comparatively rare in video recorders because they're more complex and expensive to make. They work on an entirely different principle to a normal PSU; the net result is they're more efficient and produce very little surplus heat, so there's no need for ventilation slots, which also helps keep out dust, and that's good news for the mechanical bits inside. There is even a reduction in power consumption -- compared with previous models -- though before you get too excited it is very small and unlikely to show up on the average household electricity bill.


The new deck mechanisms have a number of interesting features; they have 30% fewer components, so there's less to go wrong. They uses helical  gears, for smoother and quieter operation, and there's an extra motor, to speed up the already fast mode-switching times. All of the motors, servos, sensors and tape management systems are microprocessor controlled, which reduces tape stress, improves reliability, and if something does go wrong, helps the customer and service engineer to diagnose the fault. Modular construction also makes disassembly and replacement much easier. When, eventually, a Super Drive VCR comes to end of its life all of the parts have been clearly labelled, so they can be grouped together for re-cycling.



Impressive stuff, but how does all this work in practice? The SD40 is quite an attractive proposition from the video movie-makers point of view. There's a useful set of editing facilities, which include insert edit, audio dub, a jog/shuttle dial and separate audio and video inputs. Unfortunately Panasonic have deemed it necessary to mount them on the back panel, but it's still better than no AV sockets at all. Oddly enough they have fitted a mic socket on the front panel.


Time-shifters will appreciate the SD40's Video Plus timer; it's the easiest programming system yet,  just punch in the Plus-Code, a one to eight digit number which appears alongside programme listings in newspapers and TV magazines and relax in the knowledge that this VCR will almost certainly record the programme you wanted to watch. It's no completely idiot-proof, but no system can or ever will be. Yes, Panasonic have finally bowed to the inevitable and dropped their awkward barcode system, four years after it was clear that it was going nowhere. They deserve full marks for persistence but phrases like flogging a dead horse spring to mind...


Panasonic haven't given in completely to common-sense, though, and they're still trying to get by without an on-screen display system, which might explain the strangely elongated characters on the front panel. They say it makes the display clearer, but so too would a pair of binoculars. An on-screen display would make life even easier for those of us who do not have 20:20 vision, especially when it comes to the complicated things, like setting the clock, tuning, mode confirmation, tape counters etc. etc. Panasonic VCRs can usually be relied upon to give a good picture but to make sure SD VCRs all have HE (high efficiency) heads, and an extra noise cancelling filter, called a PCC (picture clear circuit), which they claim improves the signal to noise ratio of the video signal, and reduces noise in the colour processing stages.


A couple of other features deserve a special mention. Quick view operates when the machine is fast winding, turning the shuttle ring puts the machine temporarily into fast picture search, so you can have a look-see at what's going on. The other one is the self-diagnostic servicing system, which is activated by turning the shuttle ring to its end stop, and pressing the eject button; the machine displays a two-digit code which tells the engineer what the problem is likely to be. Owners will carry out this simple check for themselves, and relay the information over the phone to the service engineer, who can then make sure they have the necessary tools and parts, before they make a house call. It sounds like a good idea and should help reducing servicing time and costs considerably.


Operationally there's very little to say. The main front panel controls are neatly laid out, and once you've got used to the shock of no fast forward and rewind buttons (it's controlled from the  jog/shuttle), and that it is very quiet, with none of the usual clicks and clonks, then it can be a very easy machine to live with.



The SD40 produces a noticeably better picture than most of its rivals. This is almost certainly due to enhancements like the PCC circuit and more efficient heads, but the new deck design and even the power supply must also have played a part. Horizontal resolution on our sample was just over 250-lines, producing the kind of clarity that we would have expected to see on machines costing significantly more. Most impressive of all, though, was the exceptionally low levels of picture noise, and in practice this has a far more drastic effect on perceived picture quality. Picture stability and trick-play performance are both very good, again comparable with more expensive models.


The SD40 can replay NTSC recordings on most recent PAL TVs, handy if you have friends or relatives living abroad. There was a very slight aberration on one of our two test TVs with some fold-over at the very bottom of the screen.


The VHS mono linear soundtrack on this machine is probably its least exciting feature. Having audio dub helps, and will make it a lot of friends amongst camcorder owners but it's the usual combination of a hissy background, and narrow frequency response. Fine for most routine recordings but stretched when handling music.



If you hadn't already guessed by now we're quite smitten by the SD40 which blows a very welcome

breath of fresh air through a near-stagnant VCR market. If you're seeking  reasonably-priced mono VHS VCR, with better than average picture performance, a range of useful features, plus the looks to match you would be well advised to save time and begin your quest the SD40



Make/model                   Panasonic SD-40

Recording format           VHS

Guide price                     459




Max playing time              8-hours  (E-240 tape, LP mode)

Timer                                8-events/31-days, Video Plus programmable

Tape speed (mm/sec)       23.39(SP), 11.70(LP)

Remote control                full-function IR



System                              PAL, SP/LP, HQ, NTSC replay (most PAL TVs)

Replay speeds                  11x, 7x, 5x, 1/5x, 1/7x, 1/10x, 1/20x, 1/30th normal speed, (both directions SP speed)



System                            mono linear

Main facilities                 insert edit, audio dub, auto head cleaning, quick review,

Video Plus timer programming, jog/shuttle dial, sleep timer



Sockets                           rear: SCART AV, video and audio in (phono) RF bypass, syncro edit; front: microphone


Size (mm)                        376 x 90 x 360

Weight                             kg




Resolution                      >250-lines

Colour fidelity                good

Trick play stability         very good   

Colour bleed                  none       

Audio performance        average

Edit functions                 good



Value for money           8

Ease of use                   9

Performance                 9

Features                       8



(c) R Maybury 1993 1305



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Copyright (c) 2005 Rick Maybury Ltd.