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GROUP TEST

 

HIGH END NICAM VCRS

 

HEAD

TAMING THE TAPE

 

COPY/INTRO

According to recent market research the average VCR owner has a collection of more than 60 video cassettes. If Mr or Mrs average is anything like the rest of us they probably have absolutely no idea of what is on at least half of them, or the amount of blank space available. That can be a real pain when you're scrabbling around to find a tape to record a programme. Okay, you can look smug if you're one of those annoyingly well-organised individuals, who always use the sticky labels, but for the rest of us life's too short. The downside is that we end up with piles of mystery tapes that may or may not contain something interesting, that we may or may not have seen…

 

What we need are VCRs that make it easy to find recordings or better still, automatically remember what we’ve recorded, and preferably makes a note of whether we've watched it or not. Guess what, it's been done, and not by just one manufacturer, they're all at it (well, almost all…) and VCRs with sophisticated tape library systems are coming out of the woodwork. Thus far all of the systems work in quite different ways and are incompatible with one another, moreover most of them do not work retrospectively. In other words they can't do much about your existing tapes, but if you get one of these machines you need never worry about your video collection ever again, well, that's the theory. Whilst not being ungrateful for this obvious technological wonder we can't help thinking it's a shame they didn't think of it sooner!

 

Tape library systems are featured on five out of the six VCRs in this group test, which is actually focusing on top-end NICAM machines, (though the odd one out does have some rather fancy timeshifting facilities), but it is a clear indicator of the way the VCR market works. In the past it was possible to draw very clear distinctions between the various types of VCR. Previously at the bottom of the ladder there were budget 2-head mono machines, followed by 3 and 4-head mono models with improved LP and trick-frame performance. Next came budget or 'entry-level' NICAM VCRs, after that 'step-up' NICAM, with a few extra bells and whistles, them there was the mid-market 'home cinema' sector, and on the top rung the all-singing, all-dancing super-whizzo edit decks. That's all changed, 3-head mono VCRs have completely disappeared, 4-head machines are going the same way and 2-head mono models probably won't be around much longer since budget NICAM VCRs can be brought for £170, or less. The mid-market NICAM segment has shrunk, now that entry-levels models are so well specified, and manufacturers have been trying hard to make their high-end machines look a bit more interesting, which is where those tape library and navigation features come in.

 

Spending an extra £50 or £100 on a NICAM VCR – over and above the cost of an entry-level machine -- usually brings additional benefits. Other features you are likely to find on machines higher up the price scale include things like satellite control -- to make time shifted recordings from satellite receivers – and small but worthwhile improvements in picture quality. These are mainly concerned with better noise reduction but it has to be said that the picture performance of some budget NICAM VCRs is very good and nowadays you have to look quite hard to spot any differences. These machines usually have more convenience features as well such as multi-brand remote controls, better trick play facilities and on-screen displays. Incidentally, on the subject of satellite control it is worth pointing out that this generally only works with analogue receivers, as far as we are aware only one VCR (Panasonic NV-HD675) can control digital set-top boxes. 

 

Since home cinema is one of our main areas of interest you may be wondering why we haven't mentioned audio quality. There's a good reason for this; the DFM stereo system used on all hi-fi VCRs is a bit of a curate's egg. The bandwidth is good and wide (20Hz to 20kHz), well inside the home cinema ballpark and up to the job of recording Dolby Surround information, for decoding on Pro Logic equipment, but the system is inherently noisy. Over the years manufacturers have tried various noise reduction schemes but judging by the comparatively small differences between the various models, it's not something they can do a lot about. To be fair in normal use it's not a problem and we have lived with it quite happily for the past ten years because there was no alternative (aside from Laserdisc), but now, there's DVD and VHS hi-fi stereo is starting to sound just a bit whiskery.

 

The bottom line is that if sound and picture quality on movies is your main consideration then DVD is the only way to go. However, until we get an affordable digital disc or tape recording system, capable of out-performing VHS at taping off-air broadcasts – analogue tape is going to be with us for a while yet. If you're concerned about buying into a technology that's on the way out, don't worry, we're confident all of the machines we are about to look at in this group test will still be earning their keep well into the next millennium. In any case, how else are you going to watch all those tapes you've collected?  

 

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

Tape library systems are all well and good but what really matters is the picture on the screen, and course what comes out of the speakers. The video tests are very straightforward; we use a combination of test recordings and electronically generated test patterns to assess resolution – how much fine detail a VCR can record and reproduce – noise levels (chrominance and luminance), dynamic range, colour accuracy and picture stability. The results give us a good idea of a VCR's general recording and replay abilities but the real test comes next and that's to see how well they cope with real-word conditions, namely making off-air recordings and replaying pre-recorded movies. The films we use are heavily biased towards the action blockbuster genre; we choose sequences with big and fast changes in brightness levels, plenty of movement and detail, in other words lots of extremes that really stretch the test machine to its limits. The fact that we also like watching things being blown up and space aliens getting their comeuppance is purely coincidental… Loud explosions and space battles are also a good test of a VCRs sound system, but we also play the odd quiet scene as well, to check for things like background noise and high and low frequency response.

 

THE TESTS

 

HITACHI VT-FX880,  £320

VERDICT *****

Hitachi was the one of first manufacturers to launch a tape library VCR in the UK last year, in fact the system used on the FX880 was demonstrated in prototype from almost five years ago but for one reason or another it ended up on the back burner. Library data is stored in the VCR memory; it electronically tags tapes and can catalogue details of up to 200 manual or time-shift recordings. And very good it is too, with the on-screen display showing the date, time, channel and programme type, along with an indicator to show whether you've watched it or not, and blank space remaining on the cassette. The chipset used for the Tape Library system is also responsible for another of the FX880's special talents; it can read Closed Captions or 'Movie Text'. They're subtitles for the aurally impaired, buried inside the recordings on a lot of recent movies on tape (and transmitted alongside TV programmes). 

 

However, Tape Library and Closed Captions are not what this machine will be remembered for. The star feature has to be Commercial Advance it generated quite a lot of publicity in the national press when it was first announced in the spring. Basically it's what we've all been waiting for, when you replay a recording of an ITV or C4 program, when you get to the ad break the FX880 automatically goes into fast picture search mode and whizzes through the commercials – brilliant! It works by detecting a brief interruption in transmission that occurs when an ITV station and C4 goes regional for its local advertisement slot. We found it was quite reliable and worked most of the time (four times out of five usually) but occasionally it acted a bit strange on C5 and sometimes dropped out of picture search a bit early. Unfortunately it doesn't work at all on satellite channels since they don't have the necessary 'identifier'. 

 

As for the rest of the machine, it is a well-specified home cinema model with satellite control, auto installation, front-mounted AV input sockets and a multi-brand remote control. It can also replay NTSC tapes and it has a good set of replay options, for around £320 that's not a bad deal!  The silvery casework is eye-catching but the green LCD front panel display is a let-down. The trouble is it's just not that easy to read, and if you rely on your VCR clock – it's usually the only one in the house that's right – then you'll curse this one. The remote handset is a fair size but it has a jog dial for controlling replay speed and direction and its own LCD panel, for confirming Video Plus+ and timer data, before it's sent to the machine. The on-screen displays are a little crude by current standards but they are clear and legible. For the record auto installation went without a hitch and it took around three minutes to find and store all five terrestrial channels.

 

Our well-used early sample managed just under 250-lines in the resolution checks, and very clean lines they were too, with lower than average levels of picture noise. Colour fidelity and picture stability were both very good as well. The stereo soundtracks had the customary background hiss but it was no worse than any of the others in that respect, the soundtracks had a crisp, open response and had no trouble at all with the noisy bits. The FX880 it stacks up very well as an accomplished home cinema performer and the Tape Library is one of the simplest to use but it's Commercial Advance that steals the show and nudges this VCR very close to the top of our pile!

 

Hitachi 0181-849 2000

 

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Features

NICAM stereo, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, Commercial Advance, Tape Navigation, auto installation, multi-speed replay, satellite control, multi-brand  TV remote, NTSC replay, Closed Caption reader

           

Sockets          

Rear: 2 x SCART AV in/out, line audio out (phono), aerial bypass (coax). Front: AV in (phono)

 

Picture             *****

Sound              ****

Features            *****

Ease of use            ****

 

BOX OUT

The FX880 is a real stonker. Tape library is simple and easy to use, picture quality is great and Movie text is a boon if you're hard of hearing but if you hate ad-breaks on ITV and C4 the killer feature has to be Commercial Advance 

 

Captions

·        All shiny and silvery, not bad looking at all but that green LCD panel is a pain, if you rely on your VCR clock

 

·        All of the basics around the back with twin SCARTs and line audio out, there's also a set of AV inputs on the front

 

·        The remote is quite a handful but it does have its own clock and the jog dial is great for picking your way through tapes

 

 

PANASONIC NV-HD675,  £350

VERDICT *****

Panasonic introduced its Tape Library system late last year on the HD680, and very good it was too, and this latest version is even better. It is similar to the one developed by Hitachi and stores information about what is recorded on the tape inside the VCR. However it has a number of extra features, including automatic titling -- using teletext (or electronic program guide EPG) data -- library sort by tape number, title date or category, plus it can store details of up to 999 tapes. The only thing the owner has to do is number their tapes.

 

Tape Library works as soon as a tape is inserted, if it is recognised by the VCR the contents are displayed, just select the recording you want to see, press the Search button and few seconds later its on the screen. Alternatively a programme can be selected from the main library list and the machine will tell you which number tape to load.

 

Unlike the Hitachi machine it doesn't indicate whether you have watched a recording or not but the system is very easy to use and thanks to the high-speed deck mechanism, you never have to wait very long to get to the program you want to see. Another new feature -- related to the Tape Library function -- is a Closed Caption reader, for displaying hidden subtitles recorded on a lot of recent movies and the HD675 is one of only a small handful of VCRs that can record teletext subtitles.

 

Satellite control is another one of the HD675's top features but Panasonic have taken it one step further. They are the first VCR manufacturer to include command codes for a range of digital set-top boxes, including its own SKY Digital receiver and those made by Grundig, Pace and Amstrad, plus the Philips DTX6370 ON Digital decoder. It has lots of useful home cinema goodies, like a multi-brand TV remote, front-mounted AV sockets and NTSC replay, surprisingly it has only a modest selection of replay speeds but the deck mechanism is genuinely fast and can wind through a 3-hour tape in just 58 seconds.  The fast deck is used to good advantage with Intro-Jet Scan, a kind of supercharged intro scan that displays the first few moments of every recording on a tape, but in double quick time.

 

Installation is remarkably swift too. Our sample took just 35 seconds to store all local stations (possibly a new record), when it has finished it gives the user the option to record PIN-code protected data – name, address, postcode etc. This might help the police restore the machine to its rightful owner if it is stolen and later recovered.

 

Not that we expected anything less from Panasonic but resolution is approaching the limits of what VHS is capable of at a fraction over 250-lines. The picture is sharp too, with very little noise thanks to the extensive array of picture processing systems on this machine, headed by Crystal View Control (CVC). The picture is stable at all replay speeds and colour fidelity is on the button, resulting in one of the best pictures we've seen in quite a while. Background noise on the NICAM and hi-fi soundtracks are well controlled and the response is flat and wide, ideal in fact for home cinema use. Audio dub is an added bonus for camcorder users.

 

The HD675 probably won't be winning many beauty contests, the silver trim looks a bit tacky and we suspect it won't wear well moreover the round control dial on or sample felt as though it was going to fall off.  However, under the bonnet there's a slick, smart and very capable machine that has the makings of a home cinema classic. Recommended.

 

Panasonic (0990) 357357

 

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Features        

NICAM stereo, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, Tape Library, auto installation, subtitle recording, satellite control, multi-brand  TV remote, NTSC replay, Q-Link, repeat play, audio dub, Owner ID, Closed Caption reader, SCART cable included

 

Sockets          

Rear: 2 x SCART AV in/out, line audio out (phono), aerial bypass (coax). Front: AV in (phono)

 

Picture             *****

Sound              *****

Features            *****

Ease of use            ****

 

BOX OUT

Top grade pictures and sound but it's also a machine for the hard of hearing since it can read Closed Captions on many recent movies and it's one of only a small number of VCRs that can record teletext subtitles

 

Captions

·        It would be better in black, the silver finish feels thin and the round control dial on our sample felt insecure

 

·        Two SCARTs on the back and a set of AV inputs on the front, connectivity is good

 

·        Following on from some really nasty remotes Panasonic this one is a gem, small, light and easy to use

 

 

PHILIPS VR900,  £330

VERDICT ****

Philips is one of the most recent converts to tape library and the VR900 is one of the first of its VCRs to have it. Tape Manager, as it is known works along the same lines as the Hitachi and Panasonic systems in that the VCR stores tape data in an internal memory, and recordings are automatically titled, using teletext data. It's not quite as sophisticated as the other two though. For example the library can only cope with a maximum of 150 tapes, (or 320 recordings), it doesn't indicate whether or not a recording has been viewed and it only works on virgin blank tapes. Recordings where no programme data is available can be manually titled and Philips thoughtful includes a set of numbered sticky labels in the box. It can also do something the others can't, and that's copy Tape Manager data across to another VCR. Well, who knows maybe it will come in handy one day…?

 

Of more immediate interest are the small but nicely rounded assortment of home cinema facilities. There's multi-speed replay, NTSC replay, multi-brand TV remote, automatic satellite recording and a 3-mode picture softener). A couple of other features might be of interest to camcorder owners; they include front AV sockets, syncro edit and audio dub. The remote handset has it's own jog/shuttle dial and several of the buttons light up. 

 

For Philips it is an unusually conservative design, the cosmetics are very restrained, there are no buttons on the top, sockets on the side or bulbous control knobs, it is almost normal! Almost, but not quite, like most previous Philips VCRs it has an annoying habit of switching itself off after a few minutes inactivity, the instruction manual is horrible and unlike just about every VCR that has been made since the year dot, it doesn't automatically play tapes with the anti-erasure tab removed.

 

Auto installation is engaged as soon as the VCR is plugged in for the first time, the opening screen congratulates the new owner and tests their intelligence by asking them to press the OK button. When it has received a positive response it gets stuck into a lengthy set-up routine that took almost five and a half minutes on our sample. It appears to trawl through several broadcast bands, most of which are not used in the UK, but it is very thorough and our test machine managed to find no less than 10 channels, sadly only five of them were watchable, but it shows determination.

 

On previous occasions Philips deck mechanisms have usually won hands down when it came to fast wind speeds, not this time the best the VR900 could manage was 85 seconds for an E-180, almost half a minute behind the Panasonic HF675. 

 

The picture softener (Smart Picture) didn't do much for us; it was either too harsh (distinct mode) or too fuzzy (soft). In the default Neutral setting resolution was well over 240 lines. Even so the picture still managed to look a little bit fluffy; it is possible some heavy-handed noise reduction was at work. Background hiss on the hi-fi soundtracks is suppressed and the response is evenly balanced with good bass handling.

 

Performance is generally satisfactory, we have seen better but we'll put that down to our sample being a very early production model. The Tape Manager is okay, it does the job but it's fairly rudimentary compared with some of the others. The VR900 is a bit of an oddity. Philips VCRs have become almost civilised in the past few years but this one is a bit too normal for our liking. What has happened to all of those annoying and endearing little quirks and foibles that made Philips VCRs so endearing?

 

Philips 0181-689 2166

 

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Features        

NICAM stereo, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, Tape Library, auto installation, auto satellite recording, multi-brand TV remote, NTSC replay, audio dub, syncro edit NexTViewLink, repeat play, child lock, SCART cable included

 

Sockets          

Rear: 2 x SCART AV in/out, line audio out (phono), aerial bypass (coax). Front: AV in (phono), headphones & syncro start (minijack)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ****

Ease of use            ****

 

BOX OUT

The Tape Manager system works well but unlike some of the other systems we've looked at it only works with virgin blank tapes, and the VCR memory capacity is limited to storing the programme information on around 150 tapes, or 320 recordings

 

Captions

·        A remarkably restrained design from Philips, normal-looking knobs and buttons, plain cosmetics, what's going on?

 

·        A standard assortment of AV socketry on the back but on the front, in addition to the AV inputs there's a headphone jack and a syncro-edit connector

 

·        The large multi-function knob in the middle and the TV volume and channel change buttons light up

 

 

SANYO VHR-889,  £230

VERDICT ****

Sanyo are one of the great stalwarts of the VCR industry -- even though it began by backing the Betamax system -- it was an early convert to VHS and has since made several important contributions to the technology. Ironically the headline 'new' feature on the VHR-889 first appeared around ten years ago. The 889 marks a revival of the digital picture effects that were briefly popular on high end VCRs during the late 1980s and early 90s. Like those earlier 'digital' VCRs the 889 generates miniature sub-screens or 'PIPs' (picture in picture), with an inset off-air/off-tape/external source picture, a sequence of 'snapshots' of each channel or a 'menu' of stills taken from the start of each new recording on a tape.

 

That's just one of a whole raft of advanced features on this intriguing little machine and like the digital effects most of them have been seen before, but have been updated for this model. They include Tape Library (now the 'Deluxe' version), pseudo surround is reincarnated as Super Active 3D Sound and the improved digital picture control tape tuning system is now known as DPC Plus. There are a few new features, including automatic satellite recording – this relies on the timer in the satellite receiver to 'switch on' the VCR via a SCART lead – power consumption is low (2 watts in standby) and it has a new and friendlier on-screen display system. Other features worth a quick mention include glow in the dark transport buttons on the remote, NTSC replay and audio dubbing.

 

The Tape Library system is not terribly sophisticated since it only works properly on time-shifted recordings, the instructions recommend that you set aside tapes just for that purpose. Compared with the other systems it's also a bit of a palaver to use as the machine doesn't store any details and has to search through a tape to build up a contents list, on a well used cassette that can take a while. 

 

On the plus side it is very easy to set up. The auto installation system took only 70 seconds to do its business. The deck is responsive and does what it is told, Sanyo seem to think the fast wind times are good but our sample took over 2.5 minutes to scoot through an E-180, which we count as very average. The on screen displays are clear and easy to read but the button layout on the handset makes them more difficult to use than they need to be. The cosmetics are a bit in-your-face, the fascia looks really quite aggressive but it'll look right at home alongside any of Sanyo's current mini hi-fi systems, and we're quite taken with the light-up button cluster on the right side of the front panel. 

 

Picture quality is very reasonable. Resolution was a shade over 240-lines and picture noise is satisfactory, it responds well to higher grade tapes and the DPC makes a big difference, so much so that there seems little point in having an on/off button (other than to allow dealers to show it off…). Colours are clean and natural looking and overall it doesn't look too bad. It doesn't have much in the way of trick play facilities but picture; slomo and still frame are all quite steady. The stereo soundtracks are the standard offering with a wide dynamic range but a fair amount of background hiss, however not enough to put you off using it for home cinema.

 

The VHR-889 has got a lot going for it, some things, like the Tape Library could have been better implemented and AV performance lacks sparkle, but you are getting a lot of VCR for your money and those digital effects are a lot of fun to play with.

 

Sanyo (01923) 246363

 

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Features        

NICAM stereo, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, Tape Library Deluxe, repeat play, ­3D sound, digital effects (PIP, channel scan, index scan, multi PIP strobe), auto satellite record, audio dub, NTSC replay, tape tuning

 

Sockets          

Rear: 2 x SCART AV in/out, line audio out (phono), aerial bypass (coax). Front: AV in (phono)

 

Picture             ***

Sound              ****

Features            *****

Ease of use            ****

 

BOX OUT

Aggressive in-your-face styling and lots of winky lights but what really sells this machine is the abundance of convenience features, headed up by the digital effects system. Tape library is useful, but a little awkward to use and it only works on time-shifted recordings

 

Captions

·        Put your fingers in there and it'll bite! A lean, mean silver machine, but its really quite friendly…

 

·        Twin SCARTs, line audio out and front AV sockets, all the right connections for life in the home cinema

 

·        It looks docile enough, until you use it, button layout on the handset and control logic both have some room for improvement

 

SONY SLV-F900  £380

VERDICT *****

From technical and functional points of view Sony's SmartFile tape library system is the most elegant of the lot. From an economic perspective it's a bit of a pain since you'll have to buy extra tape labels if you own more than five cassettes.

 

SmartFile is really ingenious. Information about what has been recorded on each tape is stored in a microchip embedded in a specially designed cassette spine label. The information is read and recorded whilst the tape is inside the machine, or the tape can be 'swiped' past a sensor on the front panel, to show what's on it. The bad news is that you only get five labels with the VCR, if you want more they cost £8.00 for five, which is £1.60 each, or not much more than the cost of some 3-hour blanks!

 

That's a real shame, because it is so simple to use, and virtually foolproof since it doesn't rely on the VCR keeping tabs of what's on the tape. The SmartFile label can also be used to protect recordings, and like the Panasonic system, it uses teletext data to create a title (along with the time, date and channel the recording was mode on), so there's no confusion. What's more it's the only system with a manual labelling function, so you could in theory create an archive of old recordings. 

 

Aside from SmartFile the F900 has a fair assortment of home cinema features, such as NTSC replay, a multi-brand TV remote, multi-speed replay and front mounted AV input sockets. Installation is the second fastest in this group, taking only 38 seconds to tune the channels and set the clock. Sadly the same cannot be said of the tape mechanism. Sony decks have a reputation for being fairly relaxed and this one is no exception taking a leisurely 2 minutes 40 seconds to fast wind a 3-hour tape.

 

Sony doesn't usually go in for a lot of widgets on its VCRs so the F900 isn't going to do a lot for gadget fans. It does have a security function, though that stores a personal code that might help identify the machine if it's stolen. This is a once only operation and it cannot be changed once it has been set.

 

Arguably it is one of the best-looking machines in this roundup, no frills or fancy curves, it's black, the cosmetics are restrained and it looks and feels like it's built to last.  The tape hatch is covered by a hinged flap that opens to reveal a set of secondary controls and the front AV sockets. The remote handset 's not bad looking either and unlike earlier Sony designs it has a conventional one-sided layout, the buttons are clearly labelled some of them even glow in the dark.

 

Video performance is very good, it resolved a gnat's under 250-lines and if the tape tuning system is allowed to do its stuff, picture noise levels are well below average. Colours look bright and lifelike and the image is very steady. Noise on the stereo hi-fi soundtracks are no worse than normal and the response is very clean with pin-sharp treble, that's well suited to Dolby Surround material.

 

On the face of it the SLV-900 doesn't look like particularly good value for money, and having to buy extra cassette labels is a real cheek, but Sony rarely tries to compete on price and the brand carries it's own unique kudos. If you are a Sony devotee you'll need no further bidding from us, and you might even convince yourself that £8 is a fair price to pay for five sticky labels with built in microchips. The F900 is actually a very good machine and SmartFile is very clever indeed but we can't help feeling that in this case it's an expensive luxury.

 

Sony (0990) 111999

 

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Features        

NICAM stereo, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, SmartFile, auto installation, multi-speed replay, multi-brand TV remote, NTSC replay, SmartLink, Personal Security code, power save function, OPC tape tuning, glow in the dark handset buttons, SCART cable included

 

Sockets          

Rear: 2 x SCART AV in/out, line audio out (phono), aerial bypass (coax). Front: AV in (phono)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            ***

Ease of use            *****

 

BOX OUT

Technology gone mad, or the answer to a real problem? Sony's SmartFile system certainly works very well but it could turn out to be an expensive habit, especially if you get through a lot of tapes

 

Captions

·        The front panel is clean and uncluttered, the tape hatch, AV sockets and secondary controls are behind the hinged flap

 

·        Home cinema ready with twin SCARTs and line audio output sockets on the back panel

 

·        An uncharacteristically compact remote control from Sony, and the number buttons glow in the dark

 

 

THOMSON VPH-7090,  £300

VERDICT ****

The VPH-7090 is the odd man out in this group in that it hasn't got a tape archiving facility. However, it more than makes up for that with a juicy top-end specification that includes several interesting features like NaviClick, and some unusual audio options but more about those in a moment. In common with previous Thomson VCRs the hand of minimalist designer Philippe Starck is clearly evident, there's a short list of credits printed on the side of the machine with Starck getting top billing for Art Direction and one S. Vergneau listed as the Designer, pretentious or what? Apart from the silver livery the design is actually fairly conventional by Thomson standards. It has a drop-down front panel containing most of the main transport controls, behind it there's the tape hatch, front AV sockets and the display panel.

 

NaviClick is an advanced time-shift feature, not dissimilar to the old teletext programming systems that were popular a few years ago. Press the NaviClick button on the remote and a few moments later a menu appears with all of the day's programmes for that channel. Simply scroll down the list using a highlighted cursor and when you come to the programme you want to tape, press the OK button. It is simple, quick and virtually foolproof. Of course it also has a VideoPlus + timer and you can make timed recordings manually, should you so wish. Other handy home cinema-oriented widgets include satellite control, a multi-brand TV remote, NTSC replay and a manual recording level control.

 

Camcorder owners are very well catered for as well. There's audio dub and insert edit, front AV connections (including a microphone input), it can replay S-VHS tapes and there's a built-in 6-scene edit controller. The idea is you pop your original 'master' tape into the 7090 and use the transport controls to identify the beginning (edit in) and end (edit out) points of each scene. The VCR then plays them back automatically and at the same time controls the record-pause function on a second VCR.

 

It has a fully automatic set-up routine that takes just 50 seconds to tune, sort and label all available channels, and set the time and date. It's fast and efficient and even managed to get it right with a deliberately weakened signal. Fortunately it is very easy to set up and use since the instruction manuals look a bit daunting. There are two of them measuring almost one and a half inches thick! In fact the English bits are up the front and reasonably intelligible but they're really not the sort of thing you want to see when unpacking a VCR for the first time…

 

We were relieved to see that the remote handset is almost normal (some Thomson designs have been a bit, well radical…). The on-screen menus are easy to follow, the only operational niggle is that you have to manually select S-VHS replay every time you want to use it.

 

Replay quality is fine with resolution coming in at just under 250 lines, noise levels are low, and colours are faithfully rendered and accurately located with minimal smear. All trick play modes are steady with no instability on still or slomo. Stereo hi-fi sound has a flat and reasonably clean response and the manual level control is a welcome bonus for those who want to use the machine for taping musical programmes or audio-only recording.

 

We're suitably impressed with NaviClick, it's even easier to use than Video Plus+ though only for timeshifting programmes on that day. AV performance is good and the movie-making features are well thought out, but they're only useful if you have an S-VHS-C or VHS-C camcorder. Good value and well worth thinking about if you're looking for something a bit out of the ordinary.

 

Thomson 0181-344 4444

 

UP CLOSE

 

Features             NICAM stereo, Video Plus+ timer with PDC, auto installation, multi-speed replay with jog/shuttle, multi-brand TV remote, subtitle NTSC & quasi S-VHS replay, NexTViewLink, NaviClick recording, 6-scene edit controller, audio dub, insert edit, manual recording level control, continuous play, security code, child lock, multi-system tuner, SCART cable included

 

Sockets            Rear: 2 x SCART AV in/out, line audio out (phono), aerial bypass (coax). Front: AV in (phono), headphone & microphone (jack), syncro start (minijack)

 

Picture             ****

Sound              ****

Features            *****

Ease of use            ****

 

BOX OUT

The 7090 has a multi-system tuner which basically means it will work in most EU countries, including those using the SECAM colour system (e.g. France). It can also work with cable TV systems and the on-screen display can be configured to work in any of 8 languages

 

Captions

·        Very distinctive styling, inspired by French minimalist Philippe Starck

 

·        A standard set of rear panel sockets but on the front it has a microphone input

 

·        An almost normal remote, and it's easy to use

 

 

THE VERDICT

Judging by the speed at which tape library systems have proliferated on mid-range and top-end VCRs over the past year there is little doubt this could quickly become a standard feature in other sectors of the market. Regrettably the feature has come a bit too late to have much of an impact on most people's tape collections. Indeed if it had happened a few years earlier we may even have the fun and games of a mini format war but that now seems unlikely since cross-brand compatibility only becomes a consideration when the time comes to replace or upgrade a VCR. A VHS video recorder brought today is likely to last for five or six years – possibly even longer – and that takes us into the misty future of home video, possibly to a time when analogue recording formats have become a dying breed.

 

That raises the obvious question, should you even be thinking about buying a VHS VCR, let alone considering spending the extra on a top-end machine, with the prospect of digital video recording systems just around the corner? The pat answer is yes. Recordable DVD and even D-VHS equipment may only be a few months away but you should always hang tight until a new technology has established a firm foothold and all of the outstanding technical issues have been resolved, and that could take another couple of years, at least.

 

These six VCRs are in the shops right now and prices are at an all time low, so what are you waiting for, if you need one now buy it. No one machine stood out in terms of AV performance and specification but if we had to select a winner it would have to be the Panasonic NV-HD675. Apart from great picture and sound it also has a couple of other tricks to tempt your credit card out of your wallet. It's the first VCR we've seen that can control digital set-top boxes and the set-up routine and tape deck work like greased-lightning! The tape library system is also one of the easiest to use and if you're hard of hearing the Closed Caption reader could be a valuable asset.

 

We were also suitably impressed by the tape library feature on the Hitachi VT-FX880 – it was the first and is still one of the best systems on the market -- but that's not the reason we'd buy this machine. Commercial Advance is quite simply the most innovative and useful new feature that we have seen in a very long while and Hitachi is to be congratulated for being brave enough to introduce it, though surprisingly it seems to have caused little if any adverse reaction from the advertising industry.   

 

Sony has also been quite brave with the SLV-F900 but for different reasons, Smart File is a technical triumph, its only failing is the need to buy expensive tape labels and we guess that might put off some would-be purchasers, especially heavy-duty tape users. Nevertheless it's still a most accomplished VCR capable of excellent results and it deserves to be considered.

 

The Sanyo VHR-889 also gets a high commendation, firstly for bringing a little fun and frivolity back into video recording with those digital picture in picture effects and secondly for the low, low price. The tape library feature is not as versatile as the others but its still worth thinking about if you do a lot of timeshifting.

 

Philips has tried hard to catch up with its tape library system but it lags a little behind the others and again, like the Sanyo VHR-889, it's mainly be of interest to dedicated timeshifters. It is a decent enough home cinema machine but maybe not as glitzy or instantly appealing as some of its rivals.

 

Finally we come to the Thomson VPH-7090 which also stacks up very well in the home cinema department but it's special talents extend into other areas, notably movie making. Since it doesn't have a tape library system it would be unfair to compare it too closely with the others but if you are concerned about AV performance and facilities, and fancy something a bit different you should certainly include it on your shortlist.

 

BEST IN TEST

 

PANASONIC NV-HD675,  £350

We can usually rely on Panasonic VCRs delivering top-class picture and sound performance but this one goes a good bit further. The tape library system is a definite improvement over the previous version but that's only part of the story. This machine is superbly well engineered, the super fast deck mechanism makes most other VCRs look slow and tired by comparison and control codes for digital set top boxes is another clear sign Panasonic has its fingers on the home entertainment pulse.

 

HITACHI VT-FX880,  £320

Hitachi has assured itself a little place in the history books with Commercial Advance. It remains to be seen how many other manufacturer's follow will its lead – we sincerely hope they all do – but apart from anything else it shows that the VHS format can still turn up the odd surprise. The tape library system is also one of the better examples we've seen and although it was just pipped by Panasonic's super clean picture the FX880 wouldn't disgrace any AV system

 

SANYO VHR-889,  £230

We can hardly believe Sanyo have packed so many advanced features in to such a small box, for such a low price. We looked long and hard for the catch, but there doesn't seem to be one. Admittedly the tape library system isn't terribly sophisticated and AV performance isn't quite up to the standard of its dearer rivals, but we're talking about fairly fine distinctions here and this little machine is a real cracker.

 

RIVAL BUYS 210

 

GRUNDIG GV-8400, £280

If you're not interested in a lot of bells and whistles and you prefer your VCRs to sit in the background and get on with the business of playing and recording tapes then this little grey box could be just what you have been looking for. It has enough AV features to qualify as a home cinema component, performance is fair to middling and the styling is smart, without being intrusive.

 

JVC HR-S7500, £350

Now into its second year and still going strong this is the VCR that brought Super VHS back from the edge of extinction. Although S-VHS isn't going to make your off-air recordings look substantially better there are some small but worthwhile are improvements to be had. Look at it this way, you're getting the very best that VHS technology has to offer for not much more than the cost of a bog-standard VHS video recorder.

 

TOSHIBA V829, £280

The home cinema is the natural home for Toshiba VCRs; this model is its latest top-end NICAM machine and as usual don't go looking for glitzy extras because there aren't any. It has all the basics though, including a multi-brand TV remote, satellite control, foolproof set-up, NTSC replay and multi-speed playback, under the control of a jog/shuttle dial. As usual it's solidly built, easy to use and conservatively styled.

 

 

JARGON BUSTER 330

 

DFM

Depth Frequency multiplexing, the deep-layer FM audio recording system used on VHS hi-fi VCRs that 'buries' the sound signals on a low frequency carrier, deep in the tape's magnetic layer. The video signal recorded over the top a fraction of a second later. The signal bandwidth is wide (20Hz to 20KHz) but the process of reading the audio signal through the top layer video signal generates a significant amount of background noise

 

CHROMINANCE

The colour information contained in a video signal, also known as the 'C' component

 

LUMINANCE

The brightness information in a video signal, also known as the 'Y' component

 

NICAM

Near Instantaneously Companded Audio Multiplexing – the digital stereo audio system used by UK terrestrial broadcasters to transmit TV sound

 

NTSC

National Television Standards Committee – US organisation responsible for developing the colour television system used in the US and Japan and parts of the Far East. An NTSC colour picture is made up of 525 picture lines with a 60Hz refresh rate

 

RESOLUTION

The amount of fine detail a video system is able to capture, record and display, usually measured in horizontal lines or defined as the upper frequency response of an analogue video system, expressed in megahertz. Resolution is a key factor in determining how sharp a video image looks though other parameters, such as noise can have as much if not more impact on actual picture quality

 

 

BOX COPY

TOP TAPES

 

It never ceases to amaze us that perfectly rational people willingly spend several hundred pounds on a top class NICAM VCR then try and save a few pennies buying the cheapest blank tapes they can lay their hands on. Whilst it is true to say that most standard grade video tapes are pretty good these days – from the major manufacturers at least – it is worth spending just a little more on higher grade tape formulations. HG and Super HG tapes generally have more efficient magnetic coatings plus extra protective and lubricating layers which means less noise and increased longevity. NICAM VCRs with tape tuning and noise reduction systems really do work better with HG tapes, but at the very least lower noise levels means more signal gets on to the tape, and that produces a sharper cleaner picture.

 

The blank video tape market has changed little in the past year and we're happy to repeat previous year's recommendations. Three tapes we've used, with consistently good results are: Fuji SXG HiFi, Sony HiFi Excellence and TDK EHG, if you're using a Super VHS VCR you can't do much better than JVC's own SE-180SC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ã R. Maybury 1999 0907

 

 

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