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Channel 4 and Granada TV have announced that they plan begin widescreen PALplus transmissions in the South of England this Autumn, this could turn out to be a turning point in the development of widescreen TV; attention is now focused on the BBC and ITV companies, to see if they follow suit and give the system the rubber-stamp it desperately needs to succeed. The C4 trials are being co-funded by setmakers Nokia and the EU, and will consist of around 500 hours of programming up to the end 1995, the service will go national from January next year.


The PALplus system is fully compatible with existing PAL TVs, though viewers with normal 4:3 aspect ratio sets will see a letterboxed picture (thin black borders at the top and bottom of the screen), with a small reduction in resolution. These changes are fairly slight but an adverse reaction by the viewing public means that it is extremely unlikely that any broadcaster would consider introducing the system overnight; instead industry insiders expect that if the response is favourable it will be gradually phased in over a period of several years, by which time the price premium for 16:9 widescreen sets will have been eroded and viewers will be switching to the new format as they renew their main televisions.


So where does this leave digital TV? There’s little doubt that the future of TV and video lies with digital technologies but that’s still some years away. Most experts agree that the PAL system will be around in one form or another for another twenty years at least. The immediate benefits of digital TV are mainly concerned with increasing the number of channels, and new services, like video on demand and interactive TV. The necessary hardware, for both broadcasters and viewers, as well as the broadcasting and distribution infrastructure have yet to be finalised. Even it were, and digital TVs went on sale tomorrow it would take at least five years for prices to fall to mass-market levels. In the interim it’s likely that 16:9 and 4:3 TVs could be fitted with adapter boxes to enable them to display digitally originated transmissions.


The main selling point for PALplus is the widescreen picture, but 16:9 aspect ratio TVs have been around for five years, why haven’t they caught on? The simple answer is the lack of widescreen software. There are some letterboxed movies on tape and laserdisc plus a few movies and programmes on terrestrial TV, that can be expanded to fill the screen on a 16:9 TV, but this involves a significant reduction in resolution, ironically to around 405-lines. PALplus pictures look stunning, the display on a widescreen TV is every bit as sharp as a normal 4:3 television picture, and what’s more it will be free (once you’ve brought the TV...). So how does it work?


The theory behind PALplus is fairly straightforward, though the technology needed to accomplish the trick has only recently become economically viable. It starts with the widescreen source material -- video camera, VTR or telecine machine --  which has first to be re-configured, at the studio or the transmitter, so that the picture will look normal on a 4:3 TV. This involves stripping out every fourth TV line and re-arranging the order that they’re sent, so the extracted lines are stacked at the top and bottom of the picture. This part of the signal is then blanked out, so the lines appear as black bands on an ordinary TV.  Removing the lines in this way ensures that the linearity of the picture remains correct; in other words, although the picture started out as a widescreen image a circle in the centre of the screen will appear round, not squashed, even though it’s being shown with reduced height on a 4:3 screen. A PALplus TV however, picks up a special ‘helper’ signal that tells it how and where to re-insert the blanked off-lines, back into the picture, restoring it to its full height, so that it can be shown on a 16:9 screen.


Nokia are going to be the first manufacturer with a PALplus set on the market, they’re already involved with the technology in several other European countries, notably Germany, Switzerland and Austria where PALplus and widescreen broadcasts have already or are about to begin. Their first set will be the SFN-7296, a 28-inch 16:9 TV with on-board PALplus; the anticipated selling price, when it reaches the shops in October, will be just under £1300. In addition to PALplus it will also have Dolby Pro-Logic surround sound, a fastext decoder with a 512 page memory and one of the most impressive on-screen display systems we’ve seen. It’s based around the increasingly familiar ‘windows’ type graphic displays used on PCs, and the amount of detail and information on tap is such that Nokia jokingly suggested that they could do away with the instruction book. After having seen it we’re not so sure it’s a joke. The pop-up ‘help’ menu even includes high resolution images of the TV’s back panel, showing how to connect the set up to other devices. Nokia plan to introduce a range of PALplus VCRs in 1995, at the moment recordings of PALplus broadcasts taped on ordinary VCRs will replay as 4:3 pictures, even on widescreen sets, (though they have the option to expand the picture). Early adopters who already have widescreen sets will be able to buy a plug-in PALplus converter, Nokia also suggest that their adapter will work with other makes of 16:9 TV.


Finally, are there any implications for movie-making? The growth in the number of PALplus sets means owners of camcorders with 16:9 recording modes will finally have somewhere to show their widescreen movies. This facility is not to be confused with ‘pseudo’ cinema mode which superimposes black bars at the top and bottom of the picture. Electronic 16:9 recording works like an anamorphic lens, making everything in the picture appear elongated. When the recording is replayed on a widescreen TV the picture is stretched lengthways, restoring the picture to normal proportions.



Good news from Sony who have just announced a series of price reductions for some of their most recent camcorders, effective from November 1st. The FX200 comes down from £600 to £500, and the TR350 (reviewed next month) will also be £100 cheaper, selling for just under £550. The most interesting reduction concerns the TR450, which is basically a TR350 with a colour viewfinder, this will cost just £600. The price premium of just £50 for the colour viewfinder is the smallest we’re aware of, normally this feature adds at least £100 to the price; some manufacturers complain even that isn’t enough as it doesn’t reflect the true cost of the colour screen. As you probably know we’re no great fans of LCD viewfinders but this one sounds like a bargain. The fact that they give reduced resolution and are useless for focusing manually doesn’t matter in this case, the TR450 hasn’t got a manual focus control...



As we exclusively revealed two months ago Sony are about to introduce a new range of camcorders with swing-out side-mounted LCD colour monitor screens. We showed a sneak preview of the Blaupunkt version of the new machine, now we’ve got some more details about the Sony models. The first one is going to be the CCD-FX730 and it’s due to go on sale in a few weeks time for just under £800. The specification is quite basic, very similar in fact to the TR200, with smatterings of the TR323, and SC5 thrown in for good measure. The main features are:

* 12x zoom

* mono sound

* auto-only focus

* fader

* 4-lux low-light sensitivity

* 4-program autoexposure

* Control L edit terminal

* 2.5-in LCD screen (75k pixel display)


A test report is being prepared as we speak, hopefully we’ll have more details about this interesting new arrival next month.



All of a sudden the action is hotting up at the budget end of the camcorder market. Sanyo are about to try their luck with an innovative point and shoot machine, aimed at first-timers who have, until now, been put off the idea of owning a camcorder, because they’re too complicated, or too expensive, or both.


The VM-PS12 is a stylish 8mm palmcorder -- uncannily similar in shape and cosmetics to the Sony TR3 -- it’s very small and light, and it goes on sale in November for only £450! That’s around £100 less than most budget machines, so what’s wrong with it? The most obvious cost-cutting feature is an optical viewfinder, so there’s no possibility for on the spot replay. It can, however replay recordings, though only when connected to a TV by an AV lead or optional RF converter, and a small LCD data screen keeps the user up to date with mode and status displays.


Normally camcorders of this type have very simple lenses, so not surprisingly the one on the PS12 is quite basic; it’s a fixed-focus type (1 metre - infinity) but it does have a 3x variable zoom, which is connected to the optical viewfinder, so what you see is what you get. Doing away with an electronic viewfinder and fancy features saves a lot of power, Sanyo reckon it will record for around twice as long as a normal machine, that could mean an hour or more recording time between charges. The full PAL spec has still to be confirmed but we can reveal that all-up weight will be around 700 grams, it measures 94 x 108 x 182 mm, and it will have time/date insert, mono sound and a blank-search facility (very important if you haven’t got  viewfinder playback). By the time you read this we should have had a chance to fully evaluate this unusual machine, a test report should appear soon.



Philips have just announced a range of five new VCRs, (actually there were seven, but we’ve seen two them already (VR838 and VR948). There’s three mono machines (VR1541, 2547 and VR447), costing £250, £280 and £330 respectively, the 2547 and 447 both have Video Plus+ timers. The other two are the VR6547, which looks moderately interesting from our point of view as it has front-mounted AV sockets, and sounds like a reasonable deal at just under £400. The last one is the VR747, an upgrade of the popular VR727 and in addition to NICAM, stereo sound and Video Plus+ it has programme delivery control (PDC), a jog/shuttle and NTSC replay. It will be selling for £460.



Ó R.Maybury 1994 1708






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