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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 double figures.


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 Probably not, but you may have a nagging suspicion that your present machine is now horribly out of date, even if it's only a year or two old.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key' controls were replaced by push-buttons, remote controls became a standard feature, top-loading mechanisms were superseded by front-loading, VCRs became thinner, and we've only got to1984.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 streets.


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 Mitsubishi)

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.



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 legs...


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.



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 may not


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!





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






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).



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 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.



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.



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 maintenance.



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



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