VIDEO CAMERA 1993

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FEATURE 

HEAD

VCR AND TV -- NINETY THREE

 

INTRO

In the first of this two-part investigation into the latest televisions and video recorders we look at some of the technological advances going on behind the screen, and tape loading hatch...

 

COPY 1.  TELEVISIONS

You may not have realised it yet but 1993 could turn out to be one of the most important years in the history of television. The future direction of television is being decided right now, and the likely outcome is that by the turn of the century the TV in the corner of your living room will look, sound and work in a quite different way to the one you are watching now...

 

Television, like most other home entertainment technologies is now committed to a digital future, where visual and audio information is conveyed to the TV as a series of numbers. Digital transmission and processing systems in television suffer less from the quality degrading effects of noise and interference, they use the broadcast bands more efficiently, moreover it paves the way for high-definition television, and even global compatibility! It's going to happen, the technology exists, the biggest hurdles now are economic and political, and they're going to take a while to resolve.

 

In the meantime analogue television technology is far from dead and in some quarters is still evolving. In the short term the biggest change is going to be the gradual change in the shape, or aspect ratio, of the TV screen, from the present 4:3 (i.e. 4-units wide by 3-units deep), to the 16:9 widescreen, similar in proportion to a cinema screen. You may already have seen widescreen TVs in the shops, and you will probably be aware of the increasing number of programmes and films shown on TV with black borders at the top and bottom of the screen. Widescreen sets can electronically enlarge so-called 'letterboxed' pictures to their full width, they can even stretch 4:3 pictures to fill a widescreen display, though slices at the top and/or bottom of the picture are lost in the enlargement process.

 

WIDE OF THE MARK?

Closer to home there are several camcorders with a widescreen facility. Most of them, notably machines manufactured by JVC have a pseudo 'cinema' mode with superimposes black borders on the picture. However, when these recordings are enlarged on a widescreen set there is a significant reduction in picture quality. Other machines, including several made by Hitachi use 'anamorphic' compression, to electronically squeeze a widescreen picture into the space occupied by a 4:3 recording. When shown on a normal TV the picture looks squashed, with everything appearing much taller and thinner than it actually is, however, when the picture is  'stretched' on a 16:9 TV, it fills the whole screen area, with minimal loss of quality.

 

The BBC and a number of European broadcasters are currently evaluating a system known as PAL Plus, which allows widescreen films and programmes to be broadcast using existing 625-line transmitters, the pictures would appear almost normal on 4:3 aspect ratio TVs, but additional picture information contained in the signal would enable suitable 16:9 sets to reconstruct the whole widescreen picture. There is also a lot of interest in widescreen movies recorded on video tape and disc, already a number of classic movies are available in letterboxed form, and the technology exists to compress widescreen movies onto normal tape, in fact quite a few VCRs built within the last two or three years are widescreen-compatible, though the supply of 16:9 software has been very poor in the UK.

 

THE CORRECT DEFINITION

It is important not to confuse widescreen TV with high-definition TV (HDTV), there's a world of difference between the two but vested interests have not always made the distinctions clear. Several HDTV systems have been developed, both analogue and digital, but in spite of the technical differences they all produce a picture with around twice as many lines as today's 525 and 625-line systems. This means a clearer, sharper picture, more akin to movie film than TV. Some of the confusion has arisen as a result of various attempts to increase the picture quality of  existing  PAL and NTSC systems and within the last five years we have see IDTV (improved definition TV) EDTV (enhanced definition TV), line-doubling (increasing the number of lines displayed on the TV screen), 100Hz displays (reducing the flicker of a TV picture), even 'digital' scanning, but the fact remains that regular HDTV broadcasts are still some way off, and it's unlikely to be an option for the average UK viewer for at least another five years; it will take at least that long for the broadcasters to adapt their studios and transmitters, let alone develop commercially viable TVs for the home.

 

Everyone hopes that there will be one world standard for HDTV, it is possible, even though the Japanese have gone ahead with their Hi-Vision system, developed during the early 1980's, well before digital HDTV was a prospect. The Europeans, fearful of having to adopt Japanese technology opted for an evolutionary approach based on the MAC transmission system, originally conceived for satellite broadcasting. HD-MAC was developed by a consortium of European electronics manufacturers with the help of EC funding but that has since dried up and its future remains unclear. In the wake of recent advances in digital HDTV both systems now look as though they may have been blind alleys. The Americans took a more pragmatic approach and wisely waited for digital technology to mature, before coming to a decision. Even as we speak they are now setting out the final detailed specifications for their digital HDTV system which could be the final nail in HD-MAC's coffin.

 

The implications and possibilities of digital television go far beyond high-definition and widescreen. Perhaps the most interesting, or worrying, depending on your point of view, is the potential to increase in the number of channels. The UHF band can only accomodate a limited number of channels within any given area, due to the threat of intereference from distant and adjacent transmitters. Digital transmissions are largely immune to this problem and where four or five analogue channels can co-exist now, there could be dozens of digital TV broadcasts How these channels would be funded, what they would show and whether or not anyone would bother to watch them is another question...

 

THE SMALL PICTURE

Not all of the most recent developments have been on the grand scale and small but worthwhile refinements to picture and sound quality are happening all the time. On the picture front TV screens continue to get flatter and squarer, to the point where it has created a new set of problems for the designers, not least an increase in unwanted reflections from windows and lights. Part of the solution has been to make the screens darker, and give them non reflective coatings, but even that has its limits and on the latest 'superflat' screens more drastic measures have been adopted. Both Ferguson and Mitsubishi have revived an old idea from the early days of TV, and their latest models have sensors to measure the ambient lighting conditions, which in turn automatically varies the screen's contrast and brightness.

 

In case you were wondering, we're still waiting for  flat hang-on-the-wall TVs; it's true to say that flat screens are getting bigger and better all the time, and there's talk of a 15-inch flat screen TV sometime this year, but don't be too surprised if it costs between three and five times as much as an equivalent-sized  tube TV. There's been some progress in projection TVs and they're getting a lot cheaper, especially the ones that use single LCD picture elements, but to be honest picture quality is still a bit grainy on anything costing less than 5,000, and unless you shell out half as much again for a special screen you will also need to watch it a semi-darkened room. 

 

The audio side of television has been improving in leaps and bounds since the introduction of NICAM stereo a couple of years ago. Now, at last set designers are starting to take TV sound systems seriously, and some of then almost (but not quite) qualify for hi-fi status, but there are still far too many stereo sets with small, close-set speakers beneath the screen. Such models cannot possibly project a credible stereo image more than a foot or two in front of the screen.

 

NICAM has been a powerful catalyst for the home cinema concept, which has been slow to take off in this country. An increasing number of stereo TVs, notably those made by Toshiba and most recently, Hitachi, now feature Dolby Pro-Logic decoders, and come with the necessary extra speakers to fully resolve the surround-sound information contained in the soundtracks of many movies on video, as well as a growing number of films and TV programmes broadcast from terrestrial and satellite stations. Quite a few stereo sets also have pseudo surround systems, and this can have a beneficial spin-off for home video-movie makers, giving home video movies a dramatic cinema-style sound.

 

BOX-COPY 1

FEATURES TO LOOK FOR

A front AV terminal, preferably with S-Video and stereo audio inputs (as well as composite video) should be at the top of every camcorder-owners list, unless of course you enjoy shifting heavy weights, and scrabbling around the back of TVs, looking for socket holes... Don't let anyone kid you, size isn't important, you should buy the biggest set you and your living-room can accommodate. If you're only looking for a second set, or a TV for the bedroom you should still look for one with a front AV terminal, but at the very least make sure it has AV socketry on the back, a surprising number of TVs with screens 16-inches or less do not.

 

If you're buying a NICAM stereo TV-- and you'd be mad not to, unless you're a partially deaf  hermit living in a weak signal area --  then think seriously about one with Dolby Surround, it's the simplest way of getting a home cinema system together, and it doesn't add significantly to the price. Even if you haven't got a stereo VCR or camcorder now you will at least be ready for the time when you do. When you're looking at stereo TVs pay particular attention to the position of the speakers, if they're detachable so much the better, but they should be as far apart as possible, and preferably with provision to connect a set of external speakers, or your hi-fi system. There's no point in paying extra for a stereo TV if  you can't hear it properly.

 

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COPY 2. VIDEO CASSETTE RECORDERS

The VHS format is coming up to its sixteenth birthday, which makes it positively old hat. It's a mature technology approaching the end of its life-cycle so radical new developments are few and far between. That doesn't mean the format is standing still, far from it, there's still a constant trickle of picture and sound enhancements, though the system has been close to its theoretical performance limits for some time and nowadays engineers concentrate on improving or updating convenience features, and styling, rather than making fundamental changes to the recording technology.

 

VHS is certainly not going to disappear overnight, decks and tapes will be with us well into the 21st century and JVC who originated the system are definitely not giving up without a fight. They recently announced son-of-VHS, or W-VHS (the W stands for 'wide', amongst other things). W-VHS video recorders are backwards compatible, so they can replay normal VHS recordings, but they key difference is that they can record high-definition TV signals, or, two seperate 525/625-line TV signals simultaneously, now there's a facility worth having! Some see W-VHS as a format in waiting, to take over from VHS when it reaches retirement age, though the smart money is on a purely digital system and we expect to see the first wholly digital domestic VCRs within a year or two.

VIDEO PLUS

Back in the here and now there has been one very clear trend in VCR design over the last year or so and that is Video Plus, the foolproof (well, nearly...) timer programming system. There's no messing about with start and stop times, dates or channels on Video Plus VCRs, just tap in the numerical code, printed alongside the program you wish to record, in newspapers and TV listings magazines. The code is the key to a computer algorithmn that tells the VCR what to do and when to do it. Video Plus has been a runaway success both here and abroad and VCRs manufacturers now ignore it at their peril; even the mighty Panasonic who struggled bravely for years with their barcode programming system have finally admitted defeat. Thus far most of the major companies have adopted the system, including Ferguson, Goldstar, Grundig, Hitachi, JVC, Mitsubishi, Nokia, Philips, Samsung, Sanyo, Sharp, Sony and Toshiba.

 

One of the other success stories has been the mid-mount deck and most new VCRs now have the casssette flap in the middle of the fascia, (or look as though they do....). These days it's purely cosmetic, though it started out as a performance feature on the premise that picture quality would benefit from the seperation of power supply and video processing circuits, either side of the deck mechanism, and that mid-mount decks would be inherently more stable. No one makes those kinds of claims any more, doubtless mid-mount decks will make way for the next fad in due course. That may be closer at hand than you think as anonymous square-shaped boxes are gradually being replaced by more rounded cabinets and fascias; if you stare at some of the latest machines hard enough you might also detect a whiff of Art Deco, that would fit in with the current penchant for retro-styling in top-end hi-fi, which seems to be working its way back through the 50s, at the moment. 

 

However, it's what goes on inside the box that really counts, and in addition to the sound and picture tweaks manufacturers have found a number of new ways to drum up interest in their products. The ideas we most welcome are automatic head cleaners, which give the head drum a quick wipe over every so often; energy efficient switched-mode power supplies; labelled parts for easier recycling; and improved on-screen menu control systems that cut down on the number of buttons and switches; designers used to go to a lot of trouble to hide them behind little hinged flaps, to avoid frightening grannies and technophobes.

 

There's not been so many gadgets and gimmicks lately but a couple of convenience features have caught our eye recently. The first is Mitsubishi's 'Rental IP' facility. It's fitted to three of their 1993 VCRs (M18, M48 and M58), and it works when the machine is used to replay rental tapes. Pressing the button rewinds the tape, then fast-forwards to the start of the soundtrack, skipping past all the boring stuff, like copyright warnings. Picture quality is automatically optimised for worn or noisy recordings, and when the recording has ended, the VCR rewinds the tape, and ejects it.

 

The second of those new features is fitted to the Ferguson FV74 which comes with a multi-brand satellite TV control system. It works in conjunction with the machine's Video Plus timer, which controls a set of infra-red emitters built into the deck. These send out IR control commands,  to switch on a nearby STV receiver, select the correct channel, and then turn it off again when the program has been recorded.

 

Sadly there's been little to excite the camcorder owner, in fact it seems as though fewer machines are being fitted with the kind of facilities we consider to be the minimum qualifications for an edit deck,  like a front-mounted AV terminal, audio dub and insert edit, though we have noticed a welcome increase in the number of machines with jog/shuttle dials and multi-speed replay. Most worrying of all is the absence of 5-pin  editing terminals on Panasonic's latest 'Super Drive' VCRs, and if they don't support it, who will?  The unexpected answer is Philips, who, we have learned, are considering putting a 5-pin edit terminal, and a Control L socket on a top-end VCR scheduled for launch early next year. As far as we can see the only VCR launched this year that is aimed directely at the camcorder owner is the Goldstar R-DD101 dual 8mm/VHS deck, you'll find a full review of this machine on page XX.

 

BOX 2 -- FEATURES TO LOOK FOR

VCR manufacturers know only too well that the first thing a British VCR buyer looks at is the price tag, which is why we're presently knee deep in boring budget machines, and many of the more interesting models are not launched here, or are sold in very small numbers. It's a different story in many other countries, where performance and facilities come first. However, there's still a few machines on the market to tickle the fancy of home video movie-makers, looking for a decent edit deck, and we'll be looking at them in more detail next month. In the meantime here's a list of the features we consider to be most useful. A front mounted AV terminal is a very promising sign, suggesting the designer has at least half an eye on using the machine with a camcorder. Audio dub is another near essential, if you take editing and post-production seriously, and we're always glad to see insert edit, this usually means the deck in question has a flying erase head, which will ensure crisp, glitch free joins between scenes. The jog/shuttle dial is a very convenient way of finding you way around a recording and is especially useful when the VCR in question is being used as a source deck in an editing set-up.

VCRs with stereo sound systems, and NICAM decoders cost only a little more than budget models, even if you haven't got a stereo TV they're still worth having as you can connect the VCRs audio output to your hi-fi systen, with the speakers placed either side of the screen. If you've got friends of relatives living in North America, or the Far East it's well worth considering any machine with NTSC replay, this facility works with any reasonably modern TV. f course, you could always get a machine with an on-board standards converter, there's one or two around, but we have found that the quality on the cheaper models leaves a lot to be desired and unless you have a real need for this facility, and are prepared to spend a couple of thousand pounds on a machine like the Panasonic NV-W1, it's probably not worth it. Several machines also have quasi S-VHS replay, which could come in handy if you want or need to occasionally replay Super VHS recordings, but if you have a high-band camcorder then you really should be thinking about a Super VHS VCR as well, and don't forget you'll need a TV with an S-Video input, if you want to get the full benefit from the system.

---end---

R.Maybury 1993 1208

 

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