IS YOUR VCR SMARTER THAN YOU?
The UK VCR market is saturated, but we still keep on buying
the things -- how do they do that?
Sales figures published
recently show that our appetite for VCRs was not dulled by the recession, or
even the fact that the market has long since reached saturation. Most of the
UK's twenty million or so households have at least one machine, a growing proportion
-- upwards of 25% -- now have two, and three VCR households are already into
These days most VCRs are
brought as replacements for ageing machines but few video recorders are
actually scrapped -- which says a lot for their reliability -- most old VCRs end up in semi-retirement in
the bedroom, or get given to the kids. That suggests most of the two and a half
million machines brought last year were unnecessary purchases; the VCR industry
would appear to developed a knack for selling us things we do not need.
VCR marketing is actually
quite low-key, when did you last see an ad for a VCR, and can you remember the
make or model? Probably not, but you may have a nagging suspicion that your
present machine is now horribly out of date, even if it's only a year or two
old. But do newer machines work any better than older ones? No. There's plenty of lemons around, but
picture and sound quality on a mid-market VHS machine from a well known
manufacturer, is about as good as its ever going to get. Are they any easier to
use? No, unless you count some recent improvements in timer-programming. Do
they look any better? No. A black box is a black box, is a black box. Are they
any cheaper? Yes, and this is one of the keys to the mystery.
In real terms VCR prices
have halved every three or four years since 1979, when the first VHS video
recorders went on sale; they've long since lost any status they had as luxury
items. That, coupled with a regular pattern of development and cosmetic change,
and new model ranges every year, has kept the product looking fresh, new and
exciting, and taken the concept of premature obsolescence to new heights.
Consider how much has
changed in 15 years. Heavy mechanical 'piano key' controls were replaced by
push-buttons, remote controls became a standard feature, top-loading mechanisms
were superseded by front-loading, VCRs became thinner, and we've only got
to1984. Then came the first major colour change, from silver to black; LP
recording became a standard feature, timers got easier to use with LCD displays
on the remote handset, and on-screen displays. VCR boxes sprouted dummy feet
and started to look rounder and smoother during the late eighties, digital
effects and picture-in-picture came and went, then the price of stereo VCRs
began to fall, and then plummeted when NICAM broadcasting began in 1991. Then
in 1992 mid-mount decks started to appear and Video Plus+ timer programming hit
The VHS system is now
approaching the end of its allotted span, and the first generation of digital
VCRs will be with us, possibly as soon as next year, so can we expect to see
any further design changes? You bet. It's going to take at least five years to
get digital video off the ground and there's still plenty of life in the old
VHS dog yet. Crystal balls are notoriously unreliable but a prototype VCR seen
at a recent trade show might give us a pointer to the future. The Panasonic
Mideo -- soon to go on sale in Japan -- is about half the size of a normal
machine, no larger than a mini hi-fi system component in fact. It can hardly be
a coincidence, there's a good case for including a VCR in a mini system stack,
now that AV integration and home cinema have finally happened. Panasonic, along
with most of the rest of the consumer electronics industry would have another
strong argument for us to upgrade once again, though this time they can
persuade us it's time to replace our hi-fi's as well!
If you doubt the VCR
manufacturer's resolve to keep coming up with new features here's a selection
from the latest crop of machines, launched this year.
AUTO INSTALL/ INTELLISENSE (Amstrad, Ferguson, Goldstar and
The ultimate granny-proof
feature, just plug it in and switch it on; the VCR will then set the time, day
and date, then tune in all locally available TV stations.
DIGITAL VIEW SCAN (Sanyo VHR-874 £500)
Sound bites, played at
normal speed when the machine is in the picture search mode. The sound coming
off the tape is stored in a memory buffer, and replayed in short snatches, it
even works when the tape is going backwards.
EDIT CONTROL (JVC HR-S6800 £1000, Panasonic NV-HD700 £800)
The RAE (random assemble
edit) feature on the HR-S6800 programs the machine to replay eight chosen
scenes, in any order, and then controls the record-pause function on a second
VCR, so the scenes will be linked together. The HD700 works the other way
around, controlling the replay of selected scenes on a camcorder, and operating
it's own record-pause function, however, it only works with Panasonic
camcorders (and Philips clones) fitted with a specialised 5-pin editing socket.
RENTAL TAPE PLAYBACK (Mitsubishi HS-M20 300, HS-M40 £350,
HS-M50 £430, HS-M60 £480 )
As soon as a pre-recorded
rental tape is loaded the machine automatically rewinds (in case the last
borrower forgot), then fast winds to the start of the soundtrack, to cut out
all the boring stuff. When the tape has finished the machine rewinds the tape
and ejects it. It would probably take it back to the shop for you if it had
SATELLITE VIDEO PLUS+ (Ferguson FV81 £300, FV82 £330)
The VCR's timer is
programmed with the Video Plus+ code for satellite TV shows; at the allotted
time it switches on the satellite receiver and sets it to the correct channel,
using a built-in multi-brand remote control system, and starts recording.
SUPER INTELLIGENT HQ (Akai VS-G417 £350, VS-G715 £400,
VS-G815 £480, VS-G2200 £600)
S-IHQ is an on-going development from Akai that seeks to deliver the
ultimate picture quality -- particularly on LP speed recordings -- by a combination of tape-tuning, noise
reduction and picture optimisation techniques.
GOOD AND BAD
Here's five features to
look out for when buying a new VCR
1. NICAM and stereo Hi-Fi sound -- well worth the extra £50 or so it adds to the price ticket these
days. Essential if you're thinking about home cinema.
2. Video Plus+ timer programming -- if you can't use this virtually idiot-proof system you might as
well give up
3. On screen displays --
squitty little front panel displays are hard to see across a room, and none of
us are getting any younger...
4. Integrated or unified remote controls -- many new VCRs come with 'multi-brand' remote
handsets that can work the TV as well.
5. Twin SCART sockets --
you'll need at least two, if you want to record from your satellite receiver
and get the best possible picture quality.
And five features you can
tell the sales-person what to do with ...
1. 16:9 or widescreen compatible -- there are no specially coded widescreen tapes or TV transmissions
for the system to work with, not in this country at least
2. PDC or program delivery control -- the BBC and ITV companies may adopt the system which self-corrects
timer programming for late schedule changes or overruns, and then again they
3. Multi-lingual on-screen displays -- unless you're thinking of selling your machine abroad...
4. 'Satellite compatible'
-- whatever that means...
5. Any feature fronted by a TLA (three-letter acronym) -- ask the
salesperson to explain it, and if they say it's technical stuff and you
wouldn't understand it, they don't either and you don't need it!
IF I HAD MY WAY...
1. Ad zapper. VCRs would either cut out the ads altogether
on time-shifted recordings, or automatically fast forward past them during
replay. The technology exists...
2. Telephone programming, so you can just dial up the VCR
when you're away from home, to tape a program you'd otherwise miss.
3. A simple one-button erase system, to wipe tapes that have
become cluttered, and you can't remember what's on them anyway.
4. A system to read a hidden code recorded on rental movies.
The code would relate to the certificate and or content and prevent the machine
from operating without a parental PIN number being entered. At the very least
it would shut up the paranoid media...
5. Remote locator, for finding lost handsets, rather like
those keyring gizmos a couple of years ago, that bleeped when you whistled
FRONT AV TERMINAL
A front AV terminal simplifies temporary camcorder hook-ups,
for editing or copying recordings. The three phono sockets are normally
colour-coded, yellow for video, and red and black (or red and white).
CENTRAL DECK MECHANISM
Originally touted as a performance enhancement,
centrally-mounted decks are a largely cosmetic feature these days. They're
supposed to suffer fewer stability problems, are less prone to vibration and
interference, though this is only plausible if the power supply and video
processing and tuning circuits are separated by the deck, many are not.
NICAM AND STEREO HI-FI SOUND
NICAM or near-instantaneously companded audio multiplexing,
is a digitally-based stereo transmission system, used by the BBC and ITV
companies and now available to between 90 and 95% of TV viewers. Quality is
very good and the signal is very resilient, often coming through loud and clear
when the picture is unwatchable. Stereo TV sound is recorded by default on the
machine's stereo hi-fi sound tracks. Mono FM TV sound is usually (though not
always) recorded on the VCR's mono soundtrack.
The Hi-Fi stereo recording system uses a technique known as
DFM or depth frequency multiplexing to record analogue stereo sound, deep
within the tape's magnetic layer, beneath the video signal.
VIDEO PLUS+ TIMER PROGRAMMING
Simple to use timer programming system reliant on 'plus
codes', published alongside TV program listings in newspapers and magazines.
Each program is allocated a plus code, a string of numbers 2 to 8 digits long,
this is entered into the VCRs handset. The code is the key to a computer
algorithm which the VCR uses to set the date, channel, start and stop times for
the programme to be recorded. To further simplify operation shorter plus codes
are used for popular programmes, shown at peak viewing times
PDC or programme delivery control is designed to eliminate
timer programming errors, caused by late programme changes or overruns. The
broadcaster transmits a signal, carried in teletext data, that tells the VCR if
the program is starting late, or even going to be shown on another channel. So
far only C4 are using the system, other broadcasters have been reluctant to
follow suit, though both the BBC and ITV have indicated they may do so one day.
AUTO HEAD CLEANING
Every time a tape is inserted a tiny cleaning brush or
roller gives the spinning head drum a gentle wipe-over. Clean heads mean
sharper pictures, contamination from dust and dirt, brought into the machine on
cassettes can have a disastrous effect on picture quality. VCRs with auto head
cleaning generally maintain a better picture longer, and require less routine
Many recent VCRs can replay NTSC tapes, recorded in the USA
or Japan, on ordinary PAL TVs. Some sets may show a reduced height picture, and
it doesn't work at all on older TVs (more than five or six years old) A very
useful facility for those with friends or relatives living in North America.
Many VCR remote control handsets can also operate the main
functions on a TV (volume up/down, channel change etc.). An increasing number
also have multi-brand facilities, to control a variety of different makes of TVs
from other manufacturers.
The LCD panel on the remote handset serves a number of
purposes, including displaying time and date, and timer programming data. This
can be checked, and corrected if necessary, before it is sent to the VCR.
In case you were wondering it stands for Syndicat des
Constructeurs d'Appareils Radio Recepteurs et Televiseurs. It's a
standardised 21-pin connector system used on TVs, VCRs, satellite receivers, video disc players etc., sold
throughout the EU. The connector carries a variety of picture, sound and
control signals and is used to link devices together. These days at least two
SCART sockets are essential, to connect the VCR to the TV and a satellite
receiver. Picture and sound quality will normally be much better than using the
aerial lead connection
y 1994 1205