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HINTS AND TIPS DECEMBER

 

QUERY OF THE MONTH

 

TIRED TELLY

Name              Trevor Hale, Tenterden, Kent                           

Kit                   Philips 5594 66cm stereo TV      

Problem            Almost every time Trevor switches on his TV the picture flashes and wobbles around for the first few minutes, captions appear smudged and the colours are all over the place. It settles down eventually, but he has noticed that it has been doing it more recently. Is there an easy cure, or are these the first signs of senility, he asks?

 

Expert Reply            That model was introduced in 1989, so Trevorís set could be seven or eight years old by now. Thatís quite a good age for a TV. An eight-year working life is typical, some TVs plod on into double figures, but by that time major components are liable to fail, and the cost of replacing them becomes prohibitive. In Trevorís case the tube is almost certainly suffering from low emission.  He might be able to coax it along  for another few months by lowering the contrast (and watching it with  the curtains drawn). Most TV engineers have access to gadgets that can temporarily rejuvenate picture tubes, but in the end Trevorís going to have to decide between a new CRT or a buying a replacement TV. It wonít be a difficult decision, a new TV will be much cheaper!

 

MEET YOUR MAKER

 

PACE MICRO TECHNOLOGY plc

 

Seems like theyíve been around for ever.

In fact theyíre a very young company, founded in 1982 by David Hood, who imported and distributed computer software.

 

Software to satellites, thatís a bit of a jump?

It didnít happen quite like that. In 1985 they began manufacturing a low-cost PC modem, called the Nightingale. Their first satellite receiver didnít appear until 1987, at the start of direct-to-home broadcasts from SKY television on the Astra satellites.

 

Didnít Amstrad have that market pretty well sewn up?

At first, but being relatively small Pace were able to move quickly. They introduced a succession of smart-looking models, including one of the first with a built-in Videocrypt decoder, in 1990. They also secured valuable overseas contracts for satellite receivers in Asia and Australia during the early 1990ís

 

The world and his wife were making satellite receivers back then, what made Pace special?

In 1993 they set up an in-house development team, specifically to work on digital satellite systems. In 1994 they signed a joint venture agreement with NTL (National Transcommunications Ltd), to develop digital systems for the world market. The digital receiver production lines start rolling in March 1995 following a deal with Australian broadcaster Galaxy

 

Was that the start of something big?

And how! 1995 was a very good year for Pace. Their production plant in Shipley, West Yorkshire was innindated with orders. They won contracts to supply digital receivers to Thailand, South Africa, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Pace set up offices in key countries and the Department of Heritage adopted recommendations made by Pace, for the development of digital terrestrial TV in the UK.

 

Whatís happened since then?

More orders for analogue and digital receivers. In April 1996 they sought a listing on the London Stock Exchange, shares went on sale in June that year. They received even more orders for digital satellite systems and became involved in joint ventures with several major companies.

 

And now?

More orders, and in November 1996 they made their 500,000th digital satellite decoder. Yet more orders, in April this year Pace are named as one of the suppliers of digital set-top boxes for the UK digital terrestrial TV system; Pace plan to begin volume production early next year. Oh yes, and theyíve got a load more orders from French, South American and Italian broadcasters...

 

TV, VCR & SATELLITE QUERIES

 

THX -- BUY OR WAIT?

Name                          Ian Higgins, Newbury, Berkshire                  

Kit                               Toshiba V-855 VCR, Sony KVX2983 TV, Yamaha DSP-A2070 DPL AV amp, Polk RM5000 AV speakers

Problem                      Having lived with what Ian describes as a Ďvery respectable little systemí for the past year, he wants to move on to bigger and better things, namely THX.  However, before he parts with the plastic, he wants some reassurance, that heís doing the right thing. Is the THX route ultimately a dead end, if so should he wait for DVD with its promise of AC-3 and/or MPEG audio?

 

Expert Reply              THX isnít an audio system as such, itís a set of tight technical standards applied to amplifiers, processors and most importantly, the speakers in a surround-sound system. It is meant to more closely replicate the theatrical experience in the confines of a typical living room, so many of the requirements for the amplifiers and speakers hold good, for any type of multi-channel surround system, including AC-3 and MPEG Audio. The two technologies are not mutually incompatible, but it is sensible to prepare for any future changes. If Ian decide to buy THX then he would be wise to get an upgradable AV amplifier, that can handle the five full-bandwidth and one sub-woofer channel used on both digital surround systems.

 

SCREEN SAVER?

Name              Heather Greerson, Woodchester, Glos.

Kit                   Thinking about a projection TV, worried about repair bills

Problem            Heather is in the fortunate position of having a large living room, she actually describes it as Ďvastí which means ordinary TVs -- even big screen models -- tend to look a little lost. She has decided to get a big back-projection model, but which one? Sheís concerned about the picture in bight daylight -- her room gets a lot of sun -- and has also heard that projection TVs are expensive to run as bits wear out more frequently than ordinary televisions. Is that so?

 

Expert Reply            The picture on most back projection TVs look a lot brighter and sharper in subdued lighting. She will also find that most of them have a much shallower angle of view, compared with a tube-based TV. Itís just something you have to live with. As far as maintenance costs are concerned, yes, it is true that some parts will need replacing on a regular basis, and some of them can be very expensive. The high-intensity CRTs used in some back projectors have a limited  life of a few thousand hours and some tubes can cost a couple of hundred pounds each to replace. Itís difficult to be more specific,  but that could translate to a working life of just two or three years, depending on viewing patterns. CRT-based projectors may also require periodic adjustment, though most recent models now have automatic alignment systems. For heavy users LCD-based projectors could be a better bet. The projection bulb (or bulbs) also have a limited life and on a well-used set they eed to be replaced every two or three years. They are a lot cheaper though, costing from about  £20 to £100 or so.   

 

ON THE CARDS?

Name              Reg Appleby, Enfield, Middlesex                             

Kit                   Grundig GRD300 satellite system           

Problem            The picture keeps disappearing and the message Ďplease insert your cardí appears on the screen after Regís satellite receiver has been running for more than a couple of hours. A gentle tap on the case normally restores normal operation, but heís worried that something is loose inside, that isnít going to get better on its own.

 

Expert Reply            It might be something as simple as dirty contacts on the viewing card, or the contacts on the card reader. Reg can clean the card himself by gently wiping the contacts with a soft dry cloth, donít be tempted to use any cleaning solutions as they could do horrible things to the card. If the contacts inside are dirty you shouldnít open up the case, the card read is normally an enclosed module. Instead -- and you do this at your own risk -- use the card as a template to make a simple cleaner, out of a piece of thin cardboard. Insert it into the slot a couple of times, this should remove any stubborn gunge from the contact fingers, but be very careful, theyíre extremely delicate. If that doesnít do the trick then it will have to be looked at by a service engineer.        

 

OFF THE WALL

Name              Simon Leech, Farnborough, Hants                         

Kit                   Buying advice on flat-screen TVs    

Problem            Simon says he has been reading about flat-screen, hang on the wall TVs for as long as he can remember, but he is still waiting, and becoming more ticked-off with each passing year. He asks whether or not these new fangled plasma screens are ever going to reach the shops, and if they do, will he be able to afford one? 

 

Expert Reply            Like Simon weíve been following the flat-screen saga for many years but thereís a real feeling in the air now, that they may have finally arrived. Plasma screen technology is leading the way. At trade shows over the past two years weíve seen numerous prototypes, pre-production screens, and even  a few production models. And very good they are too, mostly producing a picture thatís on a par with CRTs, in some cases even better. The big problem is going to be cost, though. Our best guess is that the first plasma screen TVs -- 25-inches or more across --  will be selling for between £4000 to £5000, when they reach Europe, probably early next year. The reason theyíre so dear is simple. They are being produced in very low volumes, in expensive new factories, that are still having to cope with relatively low yields. There are dozens of CRT manufacturing plants world-wide, making a product with a history that goes back more than 100 years, so all the wrinkles have been ironed out. Theyíre made by the million, so the economies of scale are enormous.  It will take several years for Plasma screens to make even a slight dint in a massive world market for TVs, we expect prices to fall quite slowly, so Simon had better start saving now.    

CAUGHT IN THE NET

Name              Mick Radley, Thornton Heath, Surrey                        

Kit                   Cambridge satellite receiver, Sanyo 28DN1 TV, NetStation internet set-top box           

Problem            A day after installing his NetStation internet box on his AV system Mick discovered that the remote control on his satellite receiver appeared to stop working, unless it was placed right up to the front of the unit. He has replaced the batteries, cleaned the emitter and receiver windows but to no avail. He then discovered it worked properly again when the Net Station was turned off. Heís baffled, and wonders if itís anything to do with the two boxes both being connected to the TV?

 

Expert Reply  This one foxed us at first so we tried to replicate the fault, using a NetStation with an Akai satellite receiver (also made by Cambridge, and lo and behold, there was an interaction. We discovered that facing the NetStation away from the seating position also helped. We contacted NetStation who were mystified but they did say the unit had an IR emitter, that was for a future upgrade, but as far as they knew, it had been disabled. Thereís a set of emitters are mounted next to the card slot on the front panel, so we stuck a piece of Duck tape over the window. Hey presto,  the satellite receiver remote worked normally again. We still donít know the exact cause but it seems probable that the supposedly disabled IR emitter on NetStation is putting out an IR signal, that somehow blocks or interferes with the one on the Cambridge receiver.The cure is a short strip of tape. 

 

BOX COPY 1

GETTING STARTED

HEAD COUNT

Look through the ads and brochures and youíll see VCRs described as 2, 3 or 4 head machines, but what does it mean, and is it a case of the more heads the better? All VHS VCRs have at least two recording/replay heads, mounted opposite one another, on a spinning tape head drum. Thus, you may deduce that two-head machines tend to be the most basic, moreover they only have mono soundtracks. Three-head VCRs are becoming a bit of a rarity these days. The extra head -- mounted alongside one of the other heads, is used to improve still frame stability. Four-head VCR are rapidly becoming the norm, the extra set of heads improve both trick play facilities and LP reproduction.

 

NICAM stereo VCRs are almost always 4-head machines though they have two extra heads on the drum, for stereo hi- fi audio recording and playback. A handful of VCRs, intended for video movie-making, have a flying erase head. This precisely erases the video track, ahead of a new recording, to ensure thereís no disturbance at the beginning and end of new sequences inserted into the middle of an existing recording.

 

BOX COPY 2

STEERABLE SATELLITE DISHES

Geosynchronous television broadcasting satellites encircle the earth in a single  orbit, 36,000km above the equator. Itís known as the Clarke Belt, named after Arthur C of 2001 fame, who dreamt up the idea back in 1945. From the UK the Clarke Belt describes an arc across the Southern sky, rising to around 30 degrees above the horizon at its apex (viewed from London, it sinks lower the further North you go). The Astra satellites are in a tight group at 19.2 degrees East of due South; either side there are a score or so satellites with Ďfootprintsí or transmission patterns that reach all or part of Britain. To receive many of those  broadcasts the dish needs to be quite large -- 1.5 metres across at least -- and it must accurately track across the arc, using a specially-designed bearing system, called a polar mount.

 

The dish is propelled by a servo motor or actuator, that generates a series of pulses, as it moves. The pulses are fed back to a controller unit, to tell it precisely where the dish is on its travels. This information is used in conjunction with pre-programmed data -- relating to the position of various satellites -- to enable the controller to steer the dish to the correct position. Some controllers also have Ďauto focusí systems, that checks the signal strength of the received transmissions, to fine-tune the alignment of the dish.

 

DVD, LD AND OPTICAL STORAGE QUERIES

 

DISC DECISION

Name              Ken Prescott, Faversham, Kent                           

Kit                   A laserdisc player to go with a Philips widescreen TV and Technics DPL system           

Problem            Ken wants to buy a laserdisc player but heís torn between the Pioneer CLD-D515 and the CLD-925. He notes the latter is a couple of hundred pounds dearer, but want to know if it is worth the extra. He also asks whether or not there will be any compatibility issues with his present system, and what are the options for future upgrades

 

Expert Reply            Both players now have AC-3 RF outputs, so if Ken decides to go down that route, he will have no problems finding more things to spend his money on. The two decks also have dual standard PAL/NTSC playback and can play both sides of a disc. There are a few operational differences between the two models, but nothing that will affect operation with the rest of his equipment. We reckon the most important difference between the two players are the lack of an S-Video output on the D515, and better NTSC replay capabilities of the D925. S-Video is definitely worth having, it does  have a noticeable impact on picture quality and colour resolution, so from that perspective the D925 is worth the extra.

 

THE NIK OF TIME

Name              Steven Haleem, Carshalton, Surrey                        

Kit                   Ferguson T68N TV, Mitsubishi HS-551 VCR 

Problem            A friend has offered Steven a Nikkodo VCD-800 CD Video player for £300. He says he hasnít come across the brand before. He wants to know if weíve heard of it, and whether we think itís any good. He would also like to know what sort of discs it can play, and it can be upgraded?

 

Expert Reply            This is a bit of a rarity. The VCD-800 had a number of special features that set it apart from most other Video CD players. They included pitch shift, echo and voice mute, which point to it being a karaoke machine first, home cinema component second. It can play a wide range of discs, including Video CD, CD-G, CD-EG as well as normal audio-only CDs. The price Stevenís friend is asking seems a bit steep, considering the Video CD formatís somewhat bleak prospects. It might be worth a few bob as a museum piece one day but there are plenty of more useful things you could do with the money, including putting it towards a proper laserdisc deck, or DVD deck. 

 

SOUNDS BEST?

Name              Edward Learman, Burnley                                  

Kit                   An eager but confused DVD fan        

Problem            Heís sold on the concept but Edward has one simple question, given that thereís now likely to be two audio systems -- AC-3 and Musicam/MPEG audio -- which one is best?

 

Expert Reply            Thatís hard to say, until weíve had a chance to review a lot more software. We have listened extensively to both systems, but unfortunately the limited number of  recordings available at the moment are mostly confined to material that presents the format at its very best. In short they both sound very good indeed. However, from a technical point of view, AC-3 or Dolby Digital soundtracks will probably be the closest to the theatrical release in that no additional processing is necessary, to get AC-3 onto DVD. MPEG audio data on the other hand will have to be re-coded from the AC-3 original, which may or may not make a difference. The answer is we donít know, itís too early to say, but simple logic says that MPEG cannot be any better than AC-3, from which it will normally be derived from, on most recordings.     

 

LEADING QUESTION

Name              Terry Halford, Basildon, Essex                         

Kit                   Sony MDP-850 laserdisc player, Toshiba 2857 TV, Panasonic NV-HD600 VCR   

Problem            Could the SCART leads Terry uses to connect his system together be the cause of a noisy and sometimes unstable picture from the Laserdisc player. He wants to know leads with gold-plated contacts could provide a cure?

 

Expert Reply            Very unlikely Terry. The quality of SCART leads does vary, but unless the contacts are visibly corroded, the noise they generate and any effect on picture synchronisation, is insignificant. Changing to gold-plated leads probably wonít make a blind bit of difference, but try another regular SCART cable first. Assuming that the discs are clean and free of scratches, and that youíre not suffering similar problems with the VCR, then thereís something more fundamental wrong with the laserdisc player. After youíve tried it on another TV, to confirm it is the source of the problem, have it looked at.   

 

VIDEO VARIATIONS

Name              Alan Hussein, Redhill, Surrey                        

Kit                   Video CD, or is it CD Video?     

Problem            Alan wants to know what, if anything, is the difference between Video CD and CD Video. He has come across both sorts of disc in his local second hand record store and wants to know what sort of deck he needs to play them?

 

Expert Reply            Historically CD Video came first, in 1988. They contain a short analogue video Ďclipí normally lasting just a few minutes, plus three or four audio-only CD tracks. The video clip can be played on the handful of special CD Video decks launched by Philips; regular CD decks recognise them as normal CDs. They can also be played on a few laserdisc machines, made at aroudn the same time. Philips promoted CD Video as a music medium, intended for fans of pop videos. Video CD first appeared in 1991, it is an entirely different kettle of fish, with digitally compressed video, and digital audio, for movies etc. It was a forerunner of DVD, though with much lower capacity, and inferior picture quality. Video CDs can only be replayed on suitable Video CD and CD-i decks, fitted with FMV (full-motion video) playback circuitry.  CD Video never got off the ground, Video CD isnít quite dead yet, but it wonít be long. Both kinds of disc could well become collectorís items in years to come.         

 

SECOND TIME AROUND?

Name              Samantha Camerleri, Sutton, Surrey                                   

Kit                   Is Pioneer CL-2950 a good buy?

Problem            An advert in Samanthaís free newspaper is offering a Pioneer CLD-2950, with six discs, for £350.  She wants to know if this is a good deal, and what to look out for, when buying second-hand Laserdiscs and equipment?

 

Expert Reply            The 2950 was a bit of a classic and was being sold until quite recently for up to £700, so if itís in really good condition,  and the discs are something you want to watch, then £350 sounds like quite a good deal. Compared with a VCR, say, thereís fewer mechanical parts to wear out. You should be able to make a fair assessment of its condition from a demonstration of picture and sound quality, and its general appearance. If in doubt have it checked over by an engineer.

 

BOX COPY 3

REPAIRING DAMAGED DISCS

Compact Discs and Laserdiscs are extremely durable -- far more so than vinyl records or magnetic tape -- but theyíre certainly not indestructible. Even a slight scratch can be enough to render a disc unplayable on sensitive or touchy decks, though in general most CD and LD players can tolerate small amounts of lost or corrupted data. Dirt and fingermarks can be wiped away using a damp cloth and mild detergent.  Light scratches can often be removed away using a gentle household polish, though avoid any containing agents that attack plastic -- the canister should say whatís inside -- if in doubt donít, or try it on an old disc that doesnít matter first.

 

Deeper scratches need to be treated carefully, with a proprietary cleansing and polishing compound, like Crystal Disc, or similar optical disc care products. A new surface treatment, called CDFender has just come onto the market. It is a thin polycarbonate film, that sticks to the surface of the disc. The idea is that the adhesive fills any scratches, and the film protects the disc against further damage. As the film is made of the same material as the disc, with the same optical properties, it has no effect on playback. We havenít tried it yet, but you can find out more fromOpti-Disc Ltd, on (0410) 790 956.

 

BOX COPY 4

COULDíVE BEEN A CONTENDER

 

CVC, isnít that something to do with Panasonic VCRs?

No dummy, thatís crystal view control. CVC originally stood for the Compact Video Cassette

 

Never heard of it!

Well, I was starting to become quite well known back in the early 1980ís when Technicolor and Funai got together to develop the format.

 

Tell me more

Well, the system used cassettes about the same size as an audio compact cassette, and they also used the same bog-standard 1/4-inch ferric tape. The recorder was about the size of a fat laptop PC and was slung over the userís shoulder. It was used with a hand-held camera, cassettes lasted for 30 minutes.

 

Were you any good?

Yes, better in fact than the portable VHS and Betamax decks of the day, and I was the first format to have proper still frame and slow-motion replay

 

If you were so wonderful why didnít you make it?

A year or so after I hit the streets, along came compact VHS or VHS-C, and there was a rumour Sony had developed a portable cassette system using 8mm tape, that all of the big companies had endorsed. There was also talk of combining the camera and VHS-C or 8mm recorders into something called a camcorder... 

 

That was it then?

Not straight away, several companies expressed interest in the format. A few badged prototypes appeared, there was even one made Grundig, but it never happened and I was last seen in Londonís Edgeware road in 1989, when the last few PAL decks were sold off for £100.

 

---end---

” R. Maybury 1997 2409

 

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