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Engineers working for Sony's Magnetic Media Development Division have suggested that it is now technically possible to produce a three-hour 8mm tape, though whether one will be marketed in the foreseeable remains to be seen. A three hour tape would bring together Sony's pioneering work on ultra-thin metal evaporated (ME) tape and new materials, used in the construction of the cassette shell and its components.

The main thrust of Sony's development work is now concentrated on ME tape. They regard it as the most promising magnetic recording technology for future applications, including the proposed domestic digital video recording systems which are based around a 6.35mm (1/4-inch) ME tape. Metal evaporated tape is manufactured in a complex process that takes place inside a vacuum chamber; it involves depositing a thin film of vaporised metal -- just a few atoms thick -- on to a plastic base film. Conventional magnetic tape is made by coating a base film with a mixture containing microscopic magnetic particles. As a result the magnetic layer on metal evaporated tape is much thinner, and can store vastly more information, but it has not been without its problems, since the first Hi8 ME tape appeared in 1989.


There has been some concern about the higher level of dropouts on Hi8 ME tapes, compared with MP products, and this has been confirmed in our own tape tests over the past four years. It is caused by microscopic imperfections in the magnetic layer, but at a recent seminar Sony's scientists claimed that this was largely been due to faulty storage and handling, and is not inherent in the manufacturing process, and in any case is not a problem now. Needless to say we shall be monitoring the performance of Sony ME tape with renewed interest... 


In spite of on-going improvements in MP tape there are limits to what can be achieved; in contrast the future for metal evaporated tape appears open-ended and Sony are currently test marketing a new tape formulation in Japan, known as Hi8 Master ME, which they claim yields a 100% improvement in picture quality over current 8mm tapes. We're not exactely sure how the figure100% has been arrived at, but hopefully we will have an opportunity to try this new tape in the near future.



Sony have succeeded in producing a new recordable Mini Disc that will last for up to 74 minutes and 59 seconds (no, we don't know why...). The MD system is currently vying with the Philips digital compact cassette (DCC) as the sucessor to the compact audio cassette which most industry pundits agree is coming to the end of its life-cycle, as a recordable audio medium.


Previously the longest recordable blank MD lasted for 60 minutes, so in order to squeeze in the extra fourteen minutes and 59 seconds of running time, Sony have decreased the size of the reflective recording pits and narrowed the width of the spiral track to their theoretical limits. It has emerged that recordable Mini Discs, which utilise a magneto-optical process to record and erase digital data, have a finite life. Whilst each disc has the potential to record up to a million times, engineers have suggested that the information may only remain intact for ten years, though they point out that the technology has not been around long enough to test this theory, and that it only applies to recordable discs; pre-recorded discs are similar in construction to conventional CDs and as yet there are no concerns about their longevity.


MD technology has already spawned a number of spin-offs, including the MD Data system announced late last year, and more recently, a larger version, called Master Disc. This 5.25-inch disc has been designed for professional digital audio applications, and in particular CD mastering. For the past ten years this has been done using U-Matic video tape but Master Disc is a far more convenient  medium for storing high-quality 2-channel stereo audio in digital form. Each disc can hold up to 1.16 gigabytes of information, and has a high transfer-rate, to speed up the copying and duplication process.



We have an update on the Sony SC5 Vision Handycam, which is the subject of an exclusive preview next month. The quirky upright machine which has its own built-in LCD monitor screen, is expected to reach the shop in the Spring. When pressed a Sony spokesperson suggested that it could be as early as March. Pressed further to reveal the price the best we were told that if it was to go on sale now it would cost 'around £800', which sounds about right. One thing we're rather concerned about is the lack of a Control L edit terminal on this model. This would make it the first Sony camcorder (with the exception of a couple of aged record-only machines) not to have this vital facility.


We're a lot happier about the new Sony CCD-TR323, a new 8mm palmcorder due out about now (full test report next month). It's closely related to the TR303, though it has a switchable wide-angle lens, and stereo sound, in addition to program AE and a 10x zoom. It looks like good value too, at around £850.



Well done Vivanco! In response to our mutterings about their AV processors having only SCART sockets for audio and video interconnections, they've added a set of phono sockets to their latest product, the VCR-3068 'Audio Video Centre'. This is largely as a result of S-Video compatibility as it is basically an upgrade of the 3046 which we tested last August. The 3068 combines a 3-channel stereo audio mixer, video processor and SCART  switcher in one of their very distinctive consoles. Video features include adjustments for brightness, colour and contrast,  there's also variable picture sharness and noise reduction, plus a split-line display showing the before and after effects of any processing. The SCART switcher is a feature that is of benefit if you leave the unit plugged in all the time to your AV system. It will automatically route signals from a VCR, satellite receiver, disc player, etc. to the TV when they're switched on, useful on older TVs which often have only one AV input socket. The 3068 will be in the shops by the time you read this and will be seelling for around £XXXX.

Quick mentions for two more new Vivanco products. The first is a VHS head cleaner (model no. VCR100), which costs £XXXX. It's a wet-brush system which only cleans the head drum, using a soft brush on the end of an extending arm. The cassette has a simple mechanical timer which indicates the end of the cleaning cycle with a ticking sound. The brush is good for around 10 cleaning operations, it can be cleaned in a little soapy water and re-used. Finally,  we come to the ULR200, a universal remote control handset, designed to replace up to four conventional handsets. It a 'learning' system, to duplicate up to 124 infra-red commands. The ULR200 is unusual in that it has a 'macro' facility whereby it can send a sequence of several frequently used commands. For example, it can be programmed to switch on the TV, then the VCR, and set it to play, all with one button-push. Up to 10 commands can be strung together in this way, and any number of macros can be taught. The ULR 200 goes on sale this month costing £XXX.



ACT Electronics are proud of their no-frills approach to video post-production and the theme continues with the new VE4 image processor. Instead of flashy faders and fancy cases they've stuck to good old fashioned knobs and simple black boxes, which keeps their prices very competitive. Their products are no less sophisticated for all that, and the VE4 has adjustments for signal level or brightness, contrast, colour saturation, detail enhancement (with noise reduction), fade and split-screen; what's more it has true S-Video capabilities, with separate Y (luminance) and C (chrominance) processing throughout. As a consequence the VE4 can handle video signals with a resolution up to 500-lines. That's quite unusual, in fact few so-called 'S-Video compatible' processors can accomodate more than 300-lines, and fewer still the 400-line signals of Hi8 and Super VHS equipment. Video signal processing includes sync pulse and colour-burst restoration, to improve the stability of copies and edits. Leaving out the glitz pays dividends when it comes to pricing and the VE4 sells for just £99, a good deal less than similarly specified units.






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