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FEATURE

 

BUYING A VCR  

 

INTRO

Itís a jungle out there! If youíre in the market for a new VCR it might interest you to know that there are over 150 models to choose from at the moment, ranging in price from just under £200 to a little over £2,000. The good news is that thereís bound to be at least a half a dozen machines in your price range, with the kind of features you really need, but how do you sort the wheat from the chaff? Itís no good judging them by their front panels, they all look pretty much the same these days, and the specifications are not much help, unless youíre versed in the jargon. On the face of it prices are about the only distinguishing feature, but even thatís not necessarily a reliable indicator of performance or features.

 

Relax, itís not as bad as it seems, it helps to look at the big picture. Over the years VCR manufacturers have divided the market into four broad segments, that they consider match the lifestyles, aspirations and budgets of their customers; most of us can identify with at least one of them.

 

Starting at the bottom thereís the entry-level models; there are no official price breaks but the majority of VCRs in this category sell for less than £250. Theyíre mostly basic 2-head mono machines, relatively easy to use and a few -- very few -- of them have quite respectable picture and sound performance. Next, thereís the mid-range sector, with the widest choice of machines. Prices range between £250 and £400. The majority have mono sound, extra recording/replay heads (3 or 4 in total) for improved trick-play facilities and LP performance, plus more sophisticated timer-programming systems. The third group are the stereo hi-fi models. This is the main growth area, spurred on by the success of NICAM stereo sound, interest in AV integration and most recently home cinema. Almost a half of the VCRs on the market now have stereo sound systems. Prices start at under £400 but most of the ones worth having cost from £450 to £600. Lastly there are the advanced, top-end machines, costing over £600, and here we have the widest diversity of designs and technologies, as well as most of the top performers. This group also includes a half dozen or so Super VHS machines and the specialised editing VCRs, which are aimed at camcorder owners and video movie-makers.

 

Clearly thatís a very generalised picture of what is in reality a highly convoluted market but it makes choosing a machine a little easier. The trick is to decide which type of machine and price bracket youíre most comfortable with, and focus on that. To help you on your way weíve sifted through every manufacturers model range and come up with a selection of machines that we consider to be the leaders in their class. However, rather than limit ourselves to just the four basic categories weíve already outlined, weíve created some of our own, which we think better reflects the importance of timeshifting, satellite television, home cinema and video movie-making, and bridges some of the more obvious gaps that exist between the traditional divisions.

 

INSIDE A VCR

 

1. Revolving head drum or Ďscannerí, around which tape from the cassette is wrapped. The spinning heads scan across the tape in a series of diagonal stripes.

 

2. Full erase head -- wipes off previous recording in advance of a new recording

 

3. Automatic head cleaner -- keeps the recording heads clean by giving the head drum a wipe over every time a tape is inserted

 

4. Mono linear audio and control track heads; also audio erase head, on machines with audio dub

 

5. Tape capstan and pinch roller, for regulating tape speed

 

6. RF modulator (for aerial by-pass) and tuner front-end

 

7. Cassette carrier and loading mechanism

 

8. AV interface -- connectors and sockets for audio and video input and output signals

 

9. Mains power supply module -- housed inside a metal case for safety, and to prevent interference to other circuits inside the machine

 

10. Head amplifiers -- sensitive circuitry that processes the extremely weak signals coming from the tape heads

 

11. Motherboard -- main printed circuit board containing most of the primary electronic circuits, for controlling the deck and processing the audio and video signals. Smaller Ďdaughterí boards, responsible for specialised functions (stereo sound NICAM etc.) plug into the motherboard at various points

 

12. Cassette sensor, optical detector that tells the machine when a tape has been successfully loaded

 

13. Back-tension arm -- activates a braking mechanism (flexible white band around the left-hand capstan) on the supply spool, to regulate tape tension

 

14. Entry roller and slant pole, draws tape out from cassette and moves along guide slot to wrap the tape around the spinning head drum

 

15. Display and control electronics including infra-red receptor and remote control circuits

 

 

BUYING A VCR

 

* Stick with the well-known European and Japanese brands, theyíre generally have superior AV performance, theyíre usually more reliable and have better service back-up, if and when they go wrong. They might cost a little more but they also to last longer.

 

* If a VCR seems too cheap to be true, it probably is... Donít even think about buying a machine costing less than £250 unless youíre on a really tight budget, and not too fussy about picture and sound quality. Second hand VCRs are a gamble, donít risk it unless you know exactly what youíre doing.

 

* If you need a TV as well look out for special package deals --- quite often TVs and VCRs from the same manufacturer cost quite a bit less when brought together

 

* Try before you buy, and if the salesperson canít give you an clear explanation for all of the knobs, buttons and features give them, and the shop, a very wide berth...

 

* Look, listen and compare, there are big variations in picture and sound quality; play a tape in several machines and youíll quickly spot the differences.

 

 

INSTANT GLOSSARY

 

ASO

Active Sideband Optimum -- picture enhancement system developed by Nokia

 

HQ

High Quality -- a set of picture enhancements, incorporated into the VHS specification

 

I-HQ

Intelligent HQ (also S-I-HQ), tape tuning system developed by Akai

 

JOG/SHUTTLE

Combined tape speed and direction control.

 

OSD

On-screen display

 

NTSC

National Television Standards Committee, 525line colour TV system used throughout North America and the Far East

 

PAL

Phase Alternate Line, 625-line colour TV system used in the UK and throughout much of Europe, the Middle East and Australasia

 

PDC

Programme Delivery Control -- self-correcting timer system, to adjust for late schedule changes, currently only available on Channel 4 broadcasts

 

Quasi-SVHS

Replay facility on some mid-market VCRs than enables them to play S-VHS recorded tapes, though not at full resolution

 

TBC

Timebase Correction -- improves replay stability of old, noisy or worn recordings

 

TRACKING

Elecro-mechanical adjustment that ensures tape runs at the precise speed. Most machines now have auto-tracking systems. Even minor speed errors on stereo VCRs can cause loss of stereo soundtrack, clicking and buzzing noises

 

VHS

Originally Video Helical Scan but later toned down by JVC to Video Home System to make it sound more acceptable to the public. The VHS format was officially launched in Japan on September 9th, 1976

 

VIDEO PLUS+

Idiot-proof timer programming system, the user simply taps in a set of numbers -- relating to the programme they wish to record -- into the VCRs remote handset.

 

 

 

WHICH VCR? -- THE SELECTION

 

TIME-SHIFTERS

The success of the domestic VCR is almost entirely due to time-shifting, freeing owners from TV schedules, but research suggest that as many as three quarters of VCR users have difficulty programming their machineís timer. That should soon be a thing of the past, now that most new VCRs are equipped with Video Plus+ timers; however, not all manufacturers use it to its best advantage. For example, it can be awkward to use if the machine doesnít have an on-screen display system, or an LCD panel on the remote handset. The control systems on some VCRs and the instructions supplied with some machines can be difficult to follow -- always ask for a demonstration when auditioning models. VCRs with Programme Delivery Control (PDC) have the facility to correct timer settings for late schedule changes or overruns but so far only Channel 4 have adopted the system, fortunately it adds little to the cost these days so you might as well have it, if itís on offer. Several VCRs have text programming systems, that use data from teletext pages but in general theyíre no easier to use than traditional methods and only work for programmes a day or two ahead. Heavy-duty timeshifters should look for good LP performance and index/intro scan facilities, that help to search for individual recordings on a crowded tape.

 

SUGGESTIONS

 

Akai VS-G415 £330

The 415 is one of the first VCRs to feature Akaiís new S-IHQ picture enhancement system, which gives some of the best-looking LP pictures  weíve seen, in fact it works better than the SP recording mode on some other machines. Needless to say it has a Video Plus+ timer, and it has PDC as well, unusual on  a machine costing less than £350. Other useful features include better than average trick-play and front-mounted AV sockets. The only thing that counts against this machine is the mono sound system, otherwise itís just the job for thrifty archivists.

 

JVC HR-J610 £430

A clever design feature, now common to all current JVC decks, makes the J610 the video equivalent of a telephone answering machine. Timer programming is simple, thanks to Video Plus+ but when it comes to watching the recording this one has them all beat. When you come home youíre greeted by a flashing button  on the front panel, to show a recording has been made. Press it and the machine automatically switches on, rewinds and plays it back. Picture and sound quality are good too, only the curvy cosmetics are a touch over the top.

 

MITSUBISHI HS-M50 £430

In addition to a Video Plus+ timer the M50 has one of the simplest manual timer programming systems yet devised. It uses just one button to program in all of the time, date and channel information. The M50 is a breeze to set up as well, in fact thereís nothing to it, just plug it in and its auto set-up system does it all for you, adjusting the clock (checked daily) and tuning in all of the locally available stations. It has plenty of picture enhancements, including tape optimisation, time, index and blank search systems. No real bad points, though itís not going to win any beauty contests...

 

HOME CINEMA

This is the most demanding role for any video recorder, and the emphasis is firmly on picture and sound quality, everything else is of secondary importance. AV performance is entirely dependent on the care taken in the design and construction of the VCRs deck mechanism, and processing circuitry. Even small compromises will look and sound glaringly obvious when recordings on a mediocre stereo VCR are played back on a large-screen TV and through an AV system. The best decks donít usually make a song and dance about it; teccy-sounding video and audio enhancements can be a bad sign and may indicate that the designers have had to tack on loads of tweaks to get the thing looking and sounding halfway decent. Picture quality is fairly easy to judge; look for noise in the picture, especially in heavily saturated colours and at the top of the screen. Lines and edges should be sharp and well defined, with no after images or shadows. A stable still frame and steady slomo replay are good checks for deck mechanics and video circuits and digital auto tracking is essential. The stereo soundtracks should have a flat, uncoloured response, with minimal noise and definitely no clicks or buzzes. Listen carefully to recordings of a NICAM broadcast, if it sounds excessively hissy be on your guard. Check around the back, two, preferably three SCART sockets and audio line out sockets will make your life a lot easier, now, and in the future.

 

SUGGESTIONS

 

HITACHI VT-F350 £430

One of Hitachiís finest, a really neat little machine with above average sound and picture quality. Itís very easy to use, thanks to an unusually clear on-screen display system, and thereís no hidden controls on the front panel, what you see is what you get. It has good trick play facilities, aided by a shuttle ring on the remote handset, which controls replay speed and direction. Other items of interest include a Ďrental playí function which improves the look of pre-recorded tape. Only one complaint, no line audio output sockets, which might limit its flexibility in some AV set-ups.

 

PANASONIC NV-HD100 £460

Panasonic have produced some classic stereo machines in the past and the HD100 builds on that tradition, though itís not quite as innovative as some of its predecessors. Nevertheless itís still a very well specified machine with superb trick-play facilities, a fast and efficient deck mechanism plus NTSC and quasi-S-VHS replay features. Best of all, though, is the pin-sharp picture with crisp, vibrant colours, and one of the best stereo hi-fi sound systems in the business. Itís getting on a bit, and itís hampered by not having an on-screen display, but weíre disposed to overlook these shortcomings in view of its outstanding  AV performance.

 

PHILIPS VR-747 £460

The 747 is an upgrade of the popular and successful 727 which although only a year or so old is being pensioned off. The 747 is essentially the same beneath the skin but with improved deck control facilities, centered on a new a jog/shuttle dial. It has a good selection of useful facilities, including a versatile timer, NTSC replay and their fast Turbo-Drive deck mechanism. However, itís the machines AV performance which marks it out from the crowd, with a well defined picture and detailed, largely noiseless stereo soundtrack. The slightly idiosyncratic controls take some getting used to, but itís worth getting to know.

 

EASIEST TO USE

RTFM! You might hear that muttered in the background next time you phone a dealer or customer service department, complaining that you canít get your video recorder to work properly. Loosely translated RTFM means please ĎRead The Manualí and all will be explained. The truth is most video recorders are fairly easy to operate, once you get to used to them, but there is obviously a market for super-simple VCRs, for the technically challenged and everyone over the age of 65. VCR manufacturers appear to recognise this need but craftily concentrate their efforts on reducing the number of buttons on front panels, either by hiding them behind little flaps, or incorporating various functions onto on-screen display systems. This gives the outward appearance of simplicity, but you can end up with a difficult to use OSD, or more likely, a remote control handset covered in dozens of tiny buttons.

 

Fortunately most VCRs nowadays have a range of automatic features, including power-on-and-play, as soon as a cassette is inserted; some will even rewind the tape and eject it when the recording has finished. The initial set-up -- setting the clock and tuning in the stations -- is another problem for many users, but relief is at hand as a growing number of manufacturers incorporate automatic installation systems into their machines. Amstrad, Ferguson, Goldstar and Mitsubishi are leading the way in this area. However, in the end even the most unfriendly VCRs can be conquered with practice, and donít forget to RTFM!

 

SUGGESTIONS

 

FERGUSON FV81 £300

This is an unusually well specified mono machine -- maybe a few too many gadgets -- but the key feature is ĎAuto Installí which automatically sets the clock and tunes in all available stations at the press of a button. The on-screen display is also very easy to use, and it has an interactive Ďhelpí facility that proffers useful tips if you have difficulty using a particular function. The remote control is an unthreatening design, and it has the obligatory Video Plus+ timer for effortless time-shifting of both terrestrial and satellite TV channels. Eight out of ten on the granny scale...

 

SANYO VHR-774 £400

Sanyo appear to have cornered the market in compact, simple to use VCRs. They badge-engineer machines for Nokia and Thorn, amongst others, but they save the best for themselves. The 774 is a reasonably well-endowed stereo machine, it has a slightly bossy on-screen display that wonít let you use the machine until itís properly set-up, but it leaves little room for error and will take most people only a few minutes to master. The remote control is a model of simplicity and all other functions are efficiently handled by the OSD. No frills, few gadgets, good AV performance, and no faults worth speaking of.

 

MITSUBISHI HS-M20

Another basic mono VCR with an auto set-up facility, it also checks the clock against the teletext time signal each morning for you. Needless to say it has a Video Plus+ timer, and Mitsubishiís ridiculously simple Ďone-key-programmingí, plus an on-screen display with help facility. Another interesting feature is rental playback, which automatically rewinds rented movies (in case the last borrower forgot), fast winds to the start of the soundtrack, plays the film, and when itís finished, rewinds and ejects the tape. Not the most elegant VCR weíve seen this year, but good value, and it works well.

 

SATELLITE COMPATIBLE

VCR manufacturers have been agonisingly slow to recognise the synergy that exists between video recording and satellite TV. Recording STV programmes is difficult enough at the best of times, but time-shifting can be a real nightmare, involving setting two separate timers (assuming of course that the STV receiver has its own timer). There have been a few attempts to unite the two technologies, but these have not always been very successful, and there is the concern -- largely unfounded it has to be said -- that hybrid VCRs have a poor reliability record. The obvious solution is to have a VCR with a built-in satellite tuner, but itís not quite as simple as that. Manufacturers are mainly interested in global markets, theyíre understandably reluctant to produce machines solely for UK consumption, which would also have to incorporate specialised Videocrypt decoders, for which they have to pay a licence fee.  The alternative is to integrate the VCRs control systems with a satellite tuner; thatís reasonably easy to accomplish when both devices come from the same manufacturer, and are designed to operate as part of a co-ordinated system, but in practice most people buy their AV equipment on a piecemeal basis, ending up with Ďmongrelí systems. That has led to the development of several VCRs that can control a variety of different makes and models of satellite tuner, via multi-brand infra-red remote control systems, moreover the latest oneís have Video Plus+ timers, making them even easier to use.

 

SUGGESTIONS

 

FERGUSON FV88 £500

Designed by one Phillipe Starck this well-featured stereo machine can turn a nearby satellite tuner on and switch it to the correct channel using itís own multi-brand infra-red remote control system. The FV88 has a Video Plus+ timer, so itís just as easy to timeshift a satellite TV programme as one from the BBC or ITV. In common with other recent Ferguson machines it has auto install, and an interactive help menu. Thereís plenty more besides, including NICAM stereo, PDC, NTSC playback and a range of trick-play functions. The design is certainly striking, maybe an acquired taste but thereís no doubting it makes recording satellite programmes a whole lot easier.

 

HITACHI VT-F360 £450

This is the most recent arrival and like the Ferguson FV88 it works by controlling the satellite receiver using itís own IR transmitter, programmed with a library of codes, covering most popular makes and models. The timer is a Video Plus+ design, so itís almost idiot-proof.  Itís a well specified NICAM stereo machine, loaded with convenience features such as multi-speed replay, rental play (optimises picture on pre-recorded tapes) and it has a multi-brand remote that will work the on/off, volume and channel change on a dozen or more different makes of TV. Some of the set-up procedures are a bit long-winded, otherwise itís a peach!

 

SHARP VC-BS97 £650

The first and still the best VCR/STV combi machine. Itís been around for a while now, and although Sharpo have recently halted production we understand thereís still quite a few of them around. Sadly the specification is looking a little out of date, it doesnít have a Video Plus+ timer for example, and the STV tuner canít easily cope with the new Astra 1D channels but it is a stereo model -- with effective Wegner Panda 1 noise reduction and a built-in Videocrypt decoder -- otherwise itís still a very competent NICAM stereo machine, a little on the large side perhaps, but the simplest and most convenient way yet of recording satellite TV programmes.

 

VIDEO MOVIE-MAKING

Anyone who has a camcorder, or has endured a friend or relatives home video movie will understand the need for editing. Editing is the process whereby mistakes and long, boring sequences can be cut out or trimmed, leaving -- hopefully -- just the highlights. Video editing involves re-recording or copying wanted scenes, shot on a camcorder, on a video recorder. Almost any VCR can be used for editing, with the appropriate connecting leads, though the copying process inevitably involves some quality loss and the results on cheaper machines can be disappointing. The type of camcorder doesnít matter, recordings from 8mm and VHS-C camcorders can be copied or edited to VHS tapes with equal ease. Basic edit-friendly features to look out for on a VCR include front-mounted AV sockets, so you donít have to mess around the back of the machine and audio dubbing, which can be used to replace the (mono) soundtrack with music, or a commentary; by the way, if youíve got a stereo camcorder it makes sense to copy or edit to a stereo VCR. More advanced edit decks have insert edit facilities; this allows new scenes to be seamlessly incorporated into an existing recording. A few VCRs from manufacturers who also make camcorders, have Ďsyncro-edití sockets and edit terminals; syncro edit automates the transfer of single designated scenes from compatible camcorders. Edit terminals are used with computerised Ďassembleí edit controllers that automate the whole editing process, stringing a series of selected scenes in any chosen order. Several machines made by JVC, Panasonic and Sony have their own built-in edit controllers. Owners of Hi8 and S-VHS camcorders can maintain picture quality by editing their recordings onto S-VHS video recorders, though clearly recorded tapes can only be replayed on other S-VHS machines.

 

PANASONIC NV-HS1000 £1000

This is without question the ultimate edit VCR. Itís a highly specified Super VHS machine that is superbly well-equipped for all of the usual VCR jobs (timeshifting, home cinema etc.), but itís first and foremost an edit deck. The HS1000 has a built-in 10-scene edit controller that controls the replay functions on Panasonic camcorders fitted with edit terminals. However, it can also control Sony camcorders, and other makes (Canon, Sanyo Fuji etc.) fitted with Control L/LANC edit terminals, (though Panasonic do not officially acknowledge the facility exists...).  Picture and sound quality are both outstanding and it has numerous other edit-oriented features that will ensure it takes a healthy slice of the serious/semi-pro movie-making market.

 

SONY SLV-835 £850

Much favoured by Sony camcorder owners, itís a high-performance VHS stereo VCR with a number of specialised editing features. They include a digital PIP (picture in picture) facility which generates a series of miniature sub-screens on a monitor or TV. These simultaneously show the picture coming from the camcorder or Ďsourceí deck, and the image that is being recorded, which helps simplify and speed up the editing process. To fully utilise all of the machineís editing features it needs to be used with a compatible edit controller, so budget to spend an extra £300 to £500 for a complete system. A fine all-rounder and equally at home performing more mundane recording duties.

 

PHILIPS VR-948 £800

A generally well-specified edit S-VHS edit deck, though not nearly as versatile as the Panasonic and Sony machines. Nevertheless,  it has many camcorder-friendly features, including a flexible syncro-edit system that works with Panasonic and Sony camcorders, audio dub, insert edit, front AV terminal and microphone mixing. Theyíre in addition to better than average timeshifting and home cinema facilities. The 948 is slightly flawed, though, and it wonít work with some assemble edit controllers, which is rather unfortunate, but picture and sound quality on copied recordings look good and the price -- for a good-looking Super VHS video recorder -- is quite reasonable.

 

ALL-ROUNDERS

If youíve been putting off buying a new video recorder until the perfect machine comes along, youíre going to have rather a long wait. Video recorders have of necessity to be the consumer electronics equivalent of a Jacks of all trades. VCR designers are constantly having to cope with new broadcasting technologies and applications as they are developed, and thatís in addition to the succession of Ďme-tooí gizmos that keep appearing. However, itís not unrealistic to expect a VCR to combine good AV performance with the flexibility to handle the most commonly encountered recording jobs. A few such machines do exist, but inevitably there have to be compromises somewhere down the line, and donít expect to find any bargain-basement cheapies in this round-up. If you want a VCR thatís equally good at recording off-air TV programmes in stereo, satellite broadcasts, as well as making home video movies, youíre going to have to pay for the privilege, and be warned that this kind of flexibility demands that the owner makes more than a passing acquaintance with the instruction manual; grannies and technophobes need not apply. However, when all said and done the length of the features list is only one small part of the equation, if video and audio performance arenít up to scratch all the gadgets  in the world wonít help a mediocre video recorder cut the mustard in a home cinema set-up.

 

AKAI VS-G15 £480

Akai have laboured long and hard with their S-IHQ system and it has paid off, picture quality on the G15 is most impressive, especially in the normally flaky LP recording mode. It has an useful range of facilities, well suited to applications as diverse as home cinema, movie-making and recording from a satellite TV tuner. Whatís more itís very approachable, with an informative on-screen display that never leaves the user guessing. It has a good assortment of audio features, and itís unusual to find a sub £500 stereo machine with manual recording level and headphone controls.

 

PANASONIC NV-HD700 £800

At first glance this might seem to be a slightly odd choice for an all-rounder, Panasonic have designed the HD700 with video movie-making firmly in mind and itís most important feature -- a 10 scene assemble edit controller -- will only work with compatible camcorders. Needless to say itís an accomplished edit deck, but picture quality is unusually good, and the stereo sound is working at or close to the limits of the system with minimal noise. It deserves a wider audience and it wonít be found wanting, biding its time between editing sessions, as the core component in a home cinema, or timeshifting TV programmes. Mind you, itís not cheap...

 

 

SONY SLV-E80 £550

This highly acclaimed machine doesnít have any special talents, itís short on gadgets and with the front-panel closed the black-box cosmetics are nothing to write home about but when it comes to AV performance it leaves most of the competition standing. Sony have concentrated their fire on picture quality with a series of enhancements that include tape optimisation and sophisticated signal processing; together they produce a crisp, sharp picture with bright, lifelike colours and minimal noise. The E80 is a refined NICAM stereo machine, day to day operation is very straightforward, and it has the Video Plus+ safety net for timerphobes.

 

 

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1994 1011

 

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