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I am emigrating to Canada in the summer. We have a large collection of video tapes, which we would like to take with us and I am thinking of taking our Panasonic TV and VCR plus appropriate transformers. Would there be any problems using these as a 'stand alone' arrangement purely for viewing our videos? I would also need a sub-£200 PAL-capable multi-regional DVD player to play our DVDs that I currently watch on my PC, perhaps a Sony DVP-NS700V? I also have an Aiwa AV-D58 tuner, would this work?

Martin Dawe



As you know Canada, like the US has a 110/120 volt AC/60Hz mains supply and whilst you probably could persuade your current TV and VCR to work over there using a suitable ‘step-down’ transformer, it would be much easier, and I suspect cheaper and more convenient to sell your equipment and buy a multi-standard VCR like the Samsung SV5000, which can be found selling in the UK for less than £400 (http://www.spatialaudio.co.uk). This machine can play back any VHS recording, made anywhere in the world, on any PAL, NTSC or SECAM TV, moreover it has a universal mains power supply, so you don’t have to mess around with transformers. As for the DVD player, you should buy that locally to avoid problems with power supplies and NTSC playback. You can get all-region or ‘codefree’ players, as they call them over there, in Canada or from US on-line retailers like dvdoverseas.com and codefreedvd.com. There are not quite as many models on offer but prices are comparable with the UK. Inevitably your Aiwa tuner suffers from the same power supply problem, if you have a strong emotional attachment to it by all means take it with you but in the end it’s probably best to go native straight away and start with a clean slate.



A surprising number of DVD players do in fact have ‘universal’ or ‘dual voltage’ power supplies, switchable NTSC/PAL video outputs and region coding locks, though these options are often buried in hidden ‘service’ menus. This reflects the fact that DVD players have become an international commodity item and the same players – with a few relatively minor tweaks to the machine operating software or ‘firmware – can be sold anywhere in the world and this internationalisation has helped bring down the cost of DVD further and faster than almost any other consumer technology.




I am trying to get hold of some Smartfile labels for a Sony VCR. No one seems to do them anymore and if anyone could help me, it's probably your publication...

Duncan Clarke



Thanks for the vote of confidence. SmartFile was one of a small flurry of tape library systems that appeared in the late 1990s (see Quick Tip). It was technically the most elegant because data concerning what was on a tape was stored in a microchip embedded in the tape label, and this could be read and displayed on the TV screen by simply ‘swiping’ the cassette past a sensor on the front of the machine. However, at the time we noted that the labels were expensive (around £1.60 each), and since Sony was the only company using the system it was totally dependent on its continuing support for its survival. Interest in tape library gizmos turned out to be short lived and Sony stopped making the labels a year or so ago. You might be lucky and find a Sony Centre somewhere with a stash of labels gathering dust in a storeroom but the outlook is bleak. Rather than spending more money on an obsolete system it might be better to cut your losses now and invest your time and effort in a more reliable indexing system, a PC database or even the ultimate archiving solution, guaranteed to outlast all technical developments – pen and paper…



Tape library systems were all the rage a few years ago and Sony’s SmartFile was one of the most advanced but several other equally ingenious systems from the likes of Hitachi and Panasonic briefly captured our attention. Ultimately however, they were all doomed because of two simple flaws. None of them could catalogue tapes retrospectively – by the late 1990s most of us had huge tape collections just crying out to be indexed – and all of the systems were proprietary, so if the VCR packed up, or you changed machines your indexing system collapsed.





I would like some advice on buying a projector, which is the best for a short distance of around 4 meters away from the wall? I have a second question concerning progressive scan. The size of the image seems to be reduced, giving the appearance of a better picture. I personally do not believe in progressive scan, but if the picture is of poor quality to begin with, will the softening effect of progressive scan improve the image?

Frank Taylor



Sorry, we need to know a great deal more about your situation than how far the projector is going to be from the wall before we would attempt to make any specific recommendations. There are a great many other considerations including how large you want the displayed image to be, the ambient lighting conditions of your viewing room, how it’s going to be mounted, and how much you want to spend. You should arm yourself with as much relevant information as possible and visit to a couple of local specialist home cinema dealers, who should be able to narrow the field down for you. If you’re really serious you might want to have one of them work out a proper installation plan for you.


Progressive scan does two things; it eliminates flicker, and sharpens the picture. That’s because PS is more like movie film and each frame of a recording is a single picture. In a conventional video image each frame is made up of two interlaced ‘fields’ and the edges of moving objects can appear jagged, due to the slight differences between the two fields. At the moment progressive scan only makes a difference on Region 1 DVDs when played on suitable NTSC equipment. Progressive scan for PAL is a possibility but right now there’s only a tiny handful of expensive players and display devices.




Choosing the right video projector for your home cinema needn’t be difficult but you will need to get out the tape measure. First work out the maximum size of the screen area, and don’t forget to make allowances for the fact that a 4:3 display will require around 25% more depth than a 16:9 image. Then you need to know how far the projector is going to be from the screen or ‘throw distance’.

Several projector manufacturer websites have video projector ‘calculators’ to do the sums and help you draw up a shortlist of suitable models, have a look at:







I am looking into buying a large (42 inch) plasma TV but I've heard that the screens only have a life expectancy of about 5 years. Is this true, and if not, what is the true story? I like the compact size of plasma displays, but if the price versus life balance means that I need to replace the screen then I'd prefer a rear-projection TV.

Jonathan Banks



It’s true that in the early days fears were expressed about the longevity of plasma displays. This may have had something to do with the fact that a lot of panels were used for information displays, which were often running for between 16 and 24 hours a day and therefore tended to grow dim or expire after just a few years. The reliability of first generation panels may also have added to the story but the fact is there’s no significant difference in the longevity of plasma display panels (PDPs) and conventional cathode ray tubes (CRTs).


Manufacturers are naturally cagey about the numbers but if pressed usually quote a figure of between 25,000 and 30,000 hours, at which point the maximum brightness will have fallen slightly, by around 25 to 30%. More recently some manufacturers have started quoting 35, 000 to 50,000 ‘half life’ hours, at which point brightness has fallen by 50% but to put those numbers into context that means with an average viewing time of 6 hours per day there should be no significant change in picture quality in the first 8 to 12 years of use.




Here are some more plasma myths. PDPs do not emit harmful ionising radiation, and the electromagnetic emissions are considerably less than a normal CRT based TV or monitor. There are no significant differences between commercial panels, used for information displays and home plasma screens, the same panels and most of the internal circuitry are identical. A few dud or ‘lit’ pixels are considered acceptable provided they re not close to the centre of the screen. It is possible more will fail during the lifetime of the screen, often within the first three months of use.




I am considering buying a 32-inch widescreen TV. While all the sets I have seen have a facility to alter the size and shape of the on-screen image only the Panasonic ones have the very useful feature of being able to finely adjust the vertical size and shape of the image to fit the screen exactly. All others seem to have four or five fixed options with no room for further adjustment. Do you know of any other brands that may have this facility?




It’s an age old question, how much control should you have over your TV? Back in the 1970’s several manufacturers experimented with TVs that automatically adjusted brightness, contrast and colour settings to suit room lighting conditions. Needless to say the idea was a complete flop, we all like to have a fiddle and usually wind up the colour and contrast way past their correct settings... The same goes for picture size, these days there are so many different aspect ratios on broadcast TV video and DVD (see Getting Started), and very few of them precisely fit the 16:9 screen format. Nor are they meant to fill the screen exactly; a certain amount of ‘overscan’ is normal, to hide the fuzzy edges and fringes of the picture and to compensate for variations in shape and linearity errors. In theory there’s no need for manual intervention and the factory presets are usually the best compromise. Most manufacturers take the view that more controls mean higher prices and more to go wrong. The kind of comprehensive manual controls you are seeking are very rare and as far as I’m aware, confined to a handful of Panasonic models (reader updates welcome).





I’ve been researching 32-inch widescreen TVs, however some I have seen on display in shops had a surprisingly bad picture! One Panasonic model I looked at had very bad ghosting, even when watching a DVD over RGB SCART using a good cable. Would you expect the TV to perform better at home?

D Hale



It never ceases to amaze us how many shops and dealers still manage to get something so simple as displaying a TV set so badly wrong. Of course it should look better in your home, but how are you to judge? Unfavourable positioning close to large windows, strong overhead lighting and incorrect picture settings are bad enough but we’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve seen large home cinema widescreen TVs showing 4:3 pictures, or set to the wrong aspect ratio and then there’s the truly depressing sight of a bank of TVs fed with a weak or noisy signal. However, there’s absolutely no excuse for ghosting or indeed anything less than a perfect picture when a TV is connected to a DVD player by a SCART lead. It shouldn’t happen and there must be a fault somewhere, which suggests that the dealer concerned is unusually careless and really doesn’t deserve your custom.



A brightly lit showroom really is the worst place to try and judge the picture quality of a TV. Dealers who care about the way their products are displayed and want to show them to their best advantage will have a viewing room facility, that closely replicates the sort of conditions you’re likely to find in a typical living room. This will include low-level tungsten lighting, relatively few reflective surfaces and somewhere comfortable for you to sit.  Award extra points to any dealer who takes the trouble to asks you about your own room, viewing distances, furnishing etc.





I recently replaced my old speakers with a new set of Miller & Kreisel K Series speakers (three K-7 front and centre, a pair of K-5s on the rear) and a REL Q150 sub. I'm really pleased with the results so far! The issue I have is the setting for the front/centre speakers on my Denon AVD-2000 preamp/processor. The instructions suggest that if your speakers cannot reproduce frequencies below 80Hz, then you should set them to small. The frequency response of the K-7s is 80Hz - 20kHz. As you can imagine I am worried about damaging my costly K-7s but at the same time want to get the most out of them.

Ian Forster



The quoted frequency response of your speakers is not an absolute figure – it’s probably within 5% of the specs – but the point is they will not suddenly stop functioning at frequencies below 80Hz, nor will an incorrect setting on your AV processor cause the M & Ks to self-destruct. Technical specifications should be regarded as a useful guide to operation and performance but you really shouldn’t take them too seriously. Obviously you should always take heed of the warnings and cautions in instruction manuals, and always double-check connections before you switch on, but don’t be afraid to experiment. Hi-fi and surround sound are not exact sciences and the various adjustments and modes on the various components are there to help you tailor the sound, to the equipment, it’s surroundings and your own personal tastes.




I have a digital TV box and NICAM video both with SCART connections. I am looking to replace my old Sony mono TV with a new widescreen model, add on a DVD player and get surround sound. What I want sound-wise is Dolby Digital 5.1 for DVDs and Dolby Pro-Logic II to decode surround sound from the FreeView channels (also to enhance the NICAM signals from my video). DTS would be a bonus, but not essential. Can I connect the digibox, VCR and TV to an all-in-one home cinema box, to cover all these requirements? Also, I watch a lot of football, and reviews often suggest that 100Hz TVs do not cope very well with fast action, producing a 'smearing' effect. Would you suggest sticking to a 50Hz set?

Alan Matraves



If you want absolutely everything in one box then a couple of systems spring to mind. A particular favourite of ours (see HE November 2002) is the JVC TH-V70R, which does everything you want, and quite a bit more besides. The slightly cheaper Pioneer DCS303 is also worth considering; this also combines a well specced DVD player with an amplifier, 5.1 and Pro Logic II decoders, spatial processor and speakers. Connecting your system together won’t be a problem. The VCR and digibox can share one daisy-chained SCART input on the TV, with their stereo audio outputs going to the AV box, and this connect to the TV using a separate SCART or S-Video cable.


A lot of processing is involved in generating a 100Hz picture and some TV do indeed have problems coping with rapid movement. It’s getting better all the time though, and on some recent models – the new Philips Pixel Plus range is a case in point -- you would be hard pressed to spot any serious motion artefacts or smearing, but see for yourself and spend some time – preferably when there’s some footy on – in your local AV dealer’s showrooms and compare a few models.







Most of us are familiar with idea that TV screens come in two distinct styles or aspect ratios:  older models are based on the old cinematic ‘Academy’ or 4:3 format (i.e. 4 units wide by 3 units deep) and widescreen TVs are a 16:9 shape, but over the years the movie industry, and to a lesser extent television has used a mind-boggling array of picture sizes, here’s a few to be getting on with:


The widest screen format to ever make it into movie theatres was the short-lived Cinerama system, which tops the list as 3.0:1 and 2.7:1. This relied on three synchronised cameras and the movies were shown using three projectors on a wide and deeply curved screen.


Cinemascope comes in several sizes, progressing from 2.66:1 to 2.55:1 and eventually ending up at 2.35:1. Although other styles have largely taken over many famous movies, including the original Star Wars series were shot in this format.


Ultra and Super Panavision have an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 and 2.20:1 respectively and were used on many major films, including Ben Hur, Mutiny on the Bounty, It’s a Mad Mad World and 2001 A Space Odyssey, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


Since the 1970s Panavision has become the most popular format for shooting widescreen movies and television programmes, replacing the ageing Cinemascope format with aspect ratios of 2.35:1 and 1.85:1 (the latter usually expressed as 16:9).


Super 35 is a hybrid system that creates a widescreen image by cropping or ‘matting’ a frame of 35mm film to produce the characteristic widescreen shape. Sometimes, when older movies shot in this format are transferred to video you often see extra detail in the top of the picture like microphone booms, which you wouldn’t normally see on a cinema screen. Super 35 classics include Aliens, Terminator 2, True Lies and Titanic.





In theory plasma display panels (PDPs) should last as long as conventional CRT picture tubes but the eye-wateringly high prices means that it’s not something you want to replace any sooner than you have to. Fortunately there a lot you can do to slow down the ageing process and maintain a brighter, sharper picture for longer


Static images can cause ‘burn-in’ and in an extreme case this can result in permanent damage. The graphic elements in video games are particularly bad in this respect, so avoid keeping the same image on the screen for more than a few minutes at a time.


Some screens have a special screensaver mode that shifts the whole image by a few pixels every few minutes; make sure this facility is enabled. This helps avoid burn-in from the ‘Dogs’ (digital on-screen graphics) or channel idents broadcast by many satellite TV channels and Ch 5.


As far as possible use the display in widescreen mode, to even up phosphor burn over the whole screen; displaying a 4:3 image for prolonged periods can result in the outer edges of the screen aging more slowly and over time the borders may end up slightly brighter.


Keep the brightness and contrast settings as low as possible for the prevailing lighting conditions. High brightness levels accelerate phosphor ageing and can significantly reduce the panel’s life.


Plasma panels can get quite hot and overheating will reduce the life of some electronic components. Early PDPs had noisy cooling fans but many recent models rely instead on natural airflow through ventilation slots on the back so make sure these are unobstructed and finally, switch it off when not in use.




Ó R. Maybury 2002, 0101





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