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FEATURE

 

IS THIS YOUR LAST EVER VCR?

 

INTRO

Will digital tape and disc render VHS obsolete? Some say the format is fast approaching its sell-by date but Rick Maybury reckons it will be around for some time to come...

 

COPY

A few years ago, during the launch campaign for DCC (remember that...?), Philips let slip one of the consumer electronics industry’s best-kept secrets, that audio and video formats, systems and standards have, on average, 25-year life cycles. It began as a natural process of technological evolution; wax cylinders gave way to discs, LPs replaced 78 rpm records, CD took over from LP, 405-line TV was superseded by 625-line systems, the list goes on, but the timely appearance of DCC and Mini Disc revealed the existence of calculated corporate euthanasia. VHS video recorders first went on sale in the mid 1970’s, the format will be coming up to its 25th birthday in the year 2000. So it’s goodbye VHS, nice knowing you, or is it?

 

The dismal failure of DCC and Mini Disc to kill off compact cassette shows that big business doesn’t always get its own way. Nevertheless whiskery old analogue VHS will find it increasingly difficult to survive in a world dominated by digital technology. Work began on a replacement in the late 1980’s, when it became obvious that audio and video would both eventually go digital, but it didn’t crystallise until a couple of years ago, when ten of the world’s leading consumer electronics companies agreed on the outline specification for the digital video cassette or DVC format. The first DVC camcorders have just gone on sale.

 

All things being equal DVC should have a clear run at the home video recording market, but for the quite sudden appearance of two high-density digital video disc (DVD) systems. A brief spat between two rival formats last year has been settled resulting in an agreed specification for a CD-sized disc with sufficient capacity to hold a full-length movie, but most importantly, the system has the potential to record video. The trouble is, digital recording systems are too good, and the movie industry is concerned that DVC (and DVD) will be used to make near perfect pirate copies of copyright material. This has slowed the marketing of DVC video recorders and recordable DVD home decks, at least until the copy protection issue has been resolved

 

VHS is not going to be pensioned off so easily and although there’s little left to be squeezed out of the format -- at least as far as performance is concerned --  manufacturers are continually coming up with new features and facilities. They’ve had plenty of practice. During the 1980’s VCRs sprouted an increasingly bizarre assortment of features. Models appeared with built-in video monitor screens, talking remote handsets, digital playback effects, bar-code tape identification and timer programming systems, then came the inevitable backlash. It focused on the difficulty many people had with what should be the simplest of tasks, programming the timer. It became a standing joke. Video Plus+ put paid to that, and nowadays most models have easy to use menu-driven on-screen displays, that take care of the secondary functions and reduce the number of knobs and buttons making VCRs appear -- superficially at least -- a lot less threatening.

 

But what of the future?  VHS picture quality is at or near its theoretical limits and consumers have shown they’re unwilling to pay for improved performance -- look what happened to S-VHS and ED Beta --  so it seems likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of those ‘added value’ features. Lining up in the wings are ShowList and ShowGuide. VCRs equipped with Show List automatically store the title of the programme they’re recording in a microchip memory, and tapes are electronically tagged. Whenever a tagged tape is loaded its contents are displayed on the screen, and by moving a cursor to highlight a recording, the VCR will wind to the selection and begin replay. Show List gets its information from ShowGuide, an electronic schedule and listings service from Gemstar (the people who brought us Videoplus+), now being broadcast by ITV companies. In addition to program information it allows VCR users to choose programmes to time-shift, by time segment, channel or category, whilst at the same time continuing to watch another TV channel on an inset sub-screen.

 

Here’s a few more new ideas to look out for. With the increase in the number of channels one VCR is simply not enough; Sharp have developed a machine that records two channels at once. The PAL versions of the VC-BF70 and BF80 are due to reach the UK later this year (1996). VCRs are getting smaller, midi machines are becoming the norm but a couple of companies have shown prototype mini-sized machines, that can stack with mini hi-fi components. Philips have revived an idea, based on their D2B or domestic digital bus technology. Easy Link unites the control systems on compatible VCRs and TVs, so, for example, pressing the play button on the video recorder also switches on the TV and selects the correct AV input. If you want to record the TV channel you’re watching, just press the record button on the remote, the VCR switches on, selects the correct channel and starts recording.

 

VHS has built up a considerable inertia and VCR owners with substantial tape collections will not be easily persuaded to switch other formats. Digital VCRs and disc recorders are coming but it will be a long time before they’re as cheap as VHS machines are today, and years before there’s anything like the range of software.

 

 

BOX COPY 1

DO I REALLY NEED ALL THIS?

 

* Video Plus+  -- VCR timer programming couldn’t be simpler. No need to worry about start and stop times, date or channel, just tap in the Pluscode that appears alongside TV programme listings in magazines and newspapers and it’s done. It’s as near idiot-proof as it can get, and ShowGuide -- coming soon to a VCR near you -- should make it even easier

HE USER RATING            9

 

* PDC -- programme delivery control will ensure that even if there’s a late schedule change, overrun, or even a change of channel, you won’t miss the end of a time-shifted programme. Channel 4 have been using the system for a couple of years, now the BBC and some ITV companies have joined in.

HE USER RATING            7

 

* Auto Set-Up -- a growing number of VCRs will automatically program their tuner,  set the clock and date, as soon as they’re plugged in, or after pressing a couple of buttons. It certainly makes life a lot easier, and as a bonus these machines check their clocks on a regular basis, and automatically adjust for Summer and Winter time changes

HE USER RATING            9

 

* Tape tuning/optimisation -- it sounds like a good idea, quite a few mid-market machines automatically adjust their recording/replay circuitry to suit the grade of tape used, but if you stick with good quality standard grade tapes, they generally have little effect. Maybe worth thinking about if you do a lot of archiving at LP speed on high grade tape

HE USER RATING            7

 

* NTSC and S-VHS replay --  the NTSC facility is definitely worth having if you’ve got friends or relatives living in North America, who send you home movies, or keep you supplied with pre-recorded tapes, but the only use for quasi S-VHS replay is if you’ve got, or know someone with an S-VHS-C camcorder

HE USER RATING            7

 

* Sockets, and plenty of them -- look for machines with at least two SCART AV sockets on the back panel, this will simplify connections to other pieces of AV equipment, as and when they’re added to your system. A set of AV sockets on the front are useful too, for temporary hook-ups with camcorders and video games

HE USER RATING            9

 

* Fancy editing facilities -- unless you’re seriously into video movie-making, with all the gear, you’ll probably never need stuff like edit terminals, insert edit, RA editors, syncro edit and timebase correctors. In any case, edit controllers, (used to automate camcorder replay) work with almost any VCR, that has infra-red remote control

HE USER RATING            6

 

 

BOX COPY 2

CURRENT CHAMPS

 

1. Ferguson FV98, £500

* Satellite compatibility: the on-board controller is easy to program and it will operate most popular makes and brands of satellite receiver

* Ease of use: one of the oddest on-screen displays, with bouncing balls, and a very strange remote handset, but they work!

* Designer styling: inspired by top French designer Philippe Starcke, flat grey, featureless, ergonomically suspect but minimalists will love it

* Connectability: there’s a pair of SCARTs on the back, plus line-audio outputs, and it’s one of only a handful of machines these days to have a headphone output

* Camcorder friendliness: very friendly in fact, with front-mounted AV sockets, syncro edit, insert edit and audio dubbing

Ferguson Ltd, Telephone: 0181-344 4444

 

 

2. Hitachi VT-F460 £430

* Satellite compatibility: full satellite control, in conjunction with its VideoPlus+ timer, all major makes and brands are covered

* Ease of use: it has a fairly conventional on-screen display but the Title Index feature is a must for anyone who makes a lot of recordings, and then forgets what’s on the tape

* Designer styling: not really, a small, plain dark grey box...

* Connectability: acceptable, it has twin SCARTs and line audio outputs on the back, quite sufficient for most home cinema set-ups

* Camcorder friendliness: quite matey in fact with front AV sockets, remote pause/syncro edit socket, audio dub and an unusual video dub feature

Hitachi Home Electronics, telephone 0181-849 2000

 

PART TWO

 

BEST S-VHS

If Super VHS had taken off we might not have been talking about a replacement for ordinary VHS quite so soon, or digital tape and disc for that matter. S-VHS picture quality -- especially on pre-recorded material -- looks great, almost as good as Laservision, but the format failed, mostly due to a the cost of equipment and the lack of pre-recorded software, so now there’s only a handful of machines left on the market. These days it’s mostly used by video movie-makers with S-VHS-C and Hi8 camcorders, for copying or editing recordings. S-VHS recordings of off-air TV programmes look only slightly better than top-end VHS, but if you want the best, there is no alternative.

 

* JVC HR-S7000, £700

Only a couple of new S-VHS machines have been launched in the past year, the S7000 is one of them. The specification will appeal in equal measure to home cinema enthusiasts and video movie-makers. For the latter there’s a built-in edit controller with 8-scene memory, insert edit, audio dub and front-mounted AV sockets. JVC have made extensive use of digital processing to reduce picture noise and the audio system features their newly-developed zero cross-switching noise reduction system. It has all the usual convenience features as well, including Video Plus+ with PDC, jog/shuttle control and twin SCARTs. The cheapest S-VHS machine so far!

JVC UK Ltd, telephone 0181-450 3282

 

* Mitsubishi HS-M1000, £800

An old favourite, the silvery M1000 has been around for a couple of years and Mitsubishi have decided to keep it on for another year, even though it is beginning to look a little dated. Nevertheless, it is a very easy machine to live with. The on-screen display is still one of the best, though timer programming is a bit awkward, moreover it doesn’t have Video Plus+ or PDC. There’s a fair sprinkling of editing features, though some of them depend on the machine being connected to another compatible Mitsubishi VCR. AV performance is very good though, and the price remains competitive.

Mitsubishi Electric UK Ltd., telephone (017072) 76100

 

* Panasonic NV-HS1000, £1000

This is definitely the one to go for if you’ve got a camcorder, though only if it has a Control L or RMC 5-pin edit terminal. The HS1000 has an on-board 10-scene edit controller, that operates the camcorder -- via the edit terminal -- replaying the selected sequences which it automatically reassembles into a new recording. There’s even a timebase corrector, for stabilising noisy or wonky recordings. It has just about every other convenience feature too, including Video Plus+ with PDC, multi-brand TV remote, front AV sockets. Picture and sound quality are both excellent, ideal for home cinema applications but first and foremost an editing machine.

Panasonic UK Ltd., telephone (01344) 862444

 

BEST TIME-SHIFTERS

Video Plus+ has done more to simplify VCR timer programming than all of the dozens of bright ideas in the past twenty years put together. It has also brought an equality of sorts to the VCR market; all Video Plus+ video recorders are relatively easy to use, but some are easier than others. Extra bonus points are awarded to machines with satellite receiver control. The least friendly machines, those without on-screen displays, show the Pluscode on the VCRs front panel readout. The next best thing is a LCD display on the remote handset, but we prefer a proper on-screen display, accessible with a minimum of button presses, that’s intuitively easy to use and correct, when the inevitable happens.

 

Ferguson FV97 £450

Big and bold, another Philippe Starcke inspired NICAM machine. There’s not much to see on the outside, but inside it’s packed with loads of useful features. The on-screen display has been very well thought out, clear, easy to read, and if you do get into a tangle, it’s reasonably easy to get out of whatever you’re doing and start again. Auto installation is particularly good, it helps with the sometimes tricky satellite control set-up, and it comes with a handy multi-brand TV remote. Picture quality is good, so is the sound, and the price is realistic

Ferguson Ltd, Telephone: 0181-344 4444

 

Hitachi VT-F450/F460, £400/430

Take your pick, this pair of compact NICAM machines are both very capable time-shifters with satellite control. They have a multi-brand remote controls, a useful assortment of movie-making facilities, and better than average AV performance. The on-screen display is incredibly simple, no frills, no fancy graphics which means little opportunity for mistakes. The extra thirty quid for the 460 buys a clever title indexing system, that automatically stores details of every recording made on the machine. It’s well worth the extra if you’re a disorganised collector, though be aware that Show List machines, when they arrive, will be even better at cataloguing recordings.

Hitachi Home Electronics, telephone 0181-849 2000

 

Mitsubishi HS-521 £280

Hot off the production line, this very affordable midi-sized, two-speed, mono VCR is currently the cheapest Video Plus+ machine to have satellite control as well. The spec is also very similar to their stereo models, performance should be of a similarly high standard as the agile ‘swift-servo’ tape deck and much of the video processing circuitry is common to all models in their range. It has automatic set-up with daily clock check, a very straightforward on-screen display system, multi-brand TV remote, tape tuning system and a rental playback facility, that improves the look of old, noisy or worn recordings.

Mitsubishi Electric UK Ltd., telephone (017072) 76100

 

BEST IN THE BEDROOM

Chances are, if you’ve got a TV in the bedroom it’s a mono model with a modest sized screen, ergo, there’s little point in buying a high performance stereo VCR to use with it. VCRs in the bedroom tend to lead fairly sedate, undemanding lives. The smaller screen means you can get away with fairly average picture quality, and you won’t need a lot of sophisticated features. A lot of people simply retire their main VCR to the bedroom when they upgrade. You might even consider buying a second-hand machine, provided you have it thoroughly checked before parting with any money.

 

Amstrad VCR300, £199.99

Words like cheap and cheerful spring to mind but so what, the VCR300 performs as well as some machines costing a £100 or so more, and it’s what Amstrad do best. It’s well equipped too, with up to date features like Video Plus+ , on-screen display, auto-tuning and multi-speed replay. It has a few small quirks though, the remote control is a bit of a swine to use in the dark, lots of titchy, similarly-sized buttons;  LP picture and sound quality are a bit iffy too, but otherwise it’s a reasonably good-looking, well behaved machine at an attractive price. 

Amstrad, telephone (01277) 228888

 

Mitsubishi HS-520, £250

Another newish model from Mitsubishi, their latest entry-level mono two-speeder looks like excellent value for money, and one of the cheapest machines from a top-name Japanese manufacturer. It’s a fully-featured midi-sized VCR that shares many key components with its more expensive stablemates. They include the fast ‘swift-servo’ deck mechanism, on-screen display, Video Plus+, one-key timer programming, index search, a tape-tuning system and rental playback -- handy if you watch a lot of movies in bed. The remote control features colour-coded buttons, which identify key functions, making them easy to find in the dark, and it will control Mitsubishi TVs.

Mitsubishi Electric UK Ltd., telephone (017072) 76100

 

Philips VR151, £199

Philips broke ranks when they became the first major manufacturer to market a mono two-speed VCR for less than £200. It was designed with precisely this application in mind. It is very simple to use, there are few superfluous features and it looks unobtrusive. The downside is that it is very basic, it doesn’t even have Video Plus+ or an on-screen display, the headline facilities are a 4-event timer and fast deck mechanism. There is a step-up model with a more advanced timer (VR157) but this is only sold as a package, with a TV. In spite of its meagre features performance is generally quite good.

Philips Consumer Electronics, telephone 0181-689 4444

 

BEST HOME CINEMA ALL-ROUNDERS

Forget the gadgets and frills, picture and sound quality should be the number one consideration when shopping around for a home cinema VCR. After that --  in no particular order -- look out for the following: NTSC replay, twin SCART sockets, 16:9 replay, manual recording level control, multi-brand TV remote and satellite control. Most mid-range and top-end NICAM machines now have Video Plus+, PDC and on-screen displays as standard these days, though watch out for a few older machines that may still be hanging around, they’re only worth considering if (a) you’re not fazed by VCR timers, and (b) the price is right. 

 

JVC HR-J825 £530

JVC are back on top-form with this peach of a machine. AV performance is outstanding, pin-sharp pictures, crystal clear sound and one of the smoothest deck mechanisms we’ve seen for a very long time. It’s a shame about the lack of a manual recording level control, and JVC must be one of the few manufacturers still producing VCRs without on-screen displays, though it gets by reasonably well without it. There’s not much in the way of widgets, a few editing facilities and a neat auto set-up system that checks the clock every hour but who needs gadgets? When you watch a movie it’s what’s happening on the screen you’re interested in, not the box it’s playing on...

JVC UK Ltd, telephone 0181-450 3282

 

Panasonic NV-HD600, £400

Panasonic are the lumbering giant of the VCR world,  their machines are consistent top-performers but don’t go looking for the latest features, they’ve only just got around to on-screen displays and Video Plus+. When we first saw the HD600 last Summer it looked a little dull beside some of the other highly-featured NICAM machines then coming onto the market, but it has grown on us. It’s not especially good-looking, and the closest thing to luxury features are auto install and a multi-brand remote but if you can ignore the lack of glitzy facilities and focus on the low price, sharp picture and very clean sound, it’s well worth considering. 

Panasonic UK Ltd., telephone (01344) 862444

 

Sony SLV-700 £500

The SLV-700 doesn’t look substantially different from its predecessor, the E70, nevertheless it is a new machine, with a faster, more responsive deck mechanism, Video Plus+, auto install, PDC, multi-speed replay with a jog/shuttle dial on the remote handset, and tape tuning. That might not sound like a lot , especially on a VCR costing the best part of £500, and we’re still somewhat surprised by the fact that it doesn’t have NTSC replay, but Sony have concentrated on performance, ease of use, and build quality. It’s an ageless design, few cosmetic fripperies, precisely targeted at the home cinema market but above all it works extremely well.

 

HE BEST BUYS

It’s cards on the table time, with our three favourite NICAM VCRs over the past twelve months. It has been a difficult choice, there are a lot of very good machines around at the moment, prices have remained steady, so when you take into account the abundance of added-value features, on-going refinement and technical improvements, VCRs are still a pretty good deal. Inevitably the all-singing, all-dancing flagship machines command the most attention, but they sell in comparatively small numbers, so to more accurately reflect the way the market is structured, we’ve picked one budget model, a mid-range machine and a top-ender. Here they are.

 

BEST BUDGET VCR (under £400)

Aiwa  HV-FX1500, £350

The FX1500 has firmly established Aiwa as a contender the NICAM VCR market. It’s a fine little machine with Video Plus+ and PDC, on-screen displays and a useful auto-set-up facility. It has twin SCART sockets and a front-AV terminal, fair to middling trick play and one-touch playback. Picture and sound quality are both good, it’s not about to break any performance records but they’re perfectly adequate for most home cinema applications, but what sets this machine apart is the astonishingly low price. It costs just £350, that puts it in the same price bracket as some top-name manufacturers mono machines

Aiwa UK Ltd, telephone 0181-897 7000

 

BEST MID-RANGE VCR (£400 to £600)

JVC HR-J825 £530

We’ve already singled out the 825 as one of the top home cinema machines, so it should come as no surprise that it turns up again as one of our all-round best buys. In addition to superb-looking pictures and some of the cleanest sounds we’ve heard on a VHS hi-fi machine, the deck is incredibly nimble, able to change from one direction to another in a fraction of a second, without any fuss or grinding of gears. Okay, so it’s not a facility you’ll use very often -- unless you’re a real sports fan -- but it says a lot about the kind of precision engineering that has gone into the deck mechanics and doubtless contributes to the outstanding AV performance.

JVC UK Ltd, telephone 0181-450 3282

 

BEST TOP-ENDER (£600 plus)

Panasonic NV-HS1000, £1000

Editing is one of the most demanding jobs a VCR can do; a successful edit deck depends on the best picture and sound quality, precision mechanics and operational flexibility. The HS1000 has all that in spades, and they just happen to be the ideal attributes for a home cinema VCR. It’s truly an awesome machine, though as the price suggests its talents go well beyond everyday recording and playback, not that it cannot do such mundane things brilliantly well, but the main features -- which account for the price -- are quite specifically targeted at home video movie-makers with suitably equipped camcorders.

Panasonic UK Ltd., telephone (01344) 862444

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1995 1411

 

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