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Name              Andrew Bennett, via E-mail                        

Kit                   Buying a new VCR    

Problem            Rumours that recordable DVD and D-VHS are just around the corner and news of a tasty new S-VHS VCR is making it difficult for Andrew to decide. Should he buy a regular NICAM video recorder now, or hang on a bit longer for the new formats?


Expert Reply             Simple, Andrew should buy the equipment he needs now. Recordable DVD is still at least a couple of years down the line and that's by no means certain. We still haven't figured out what -- if anything -- it will be good for. The recording quality is unlikely to be much better than analogue VHS, blank discs are only going to last for a couple of hours and they'll probably be ten times the cost of a 3-hour tape, at least to begin with. The first D-VHS video recorders should arrive in a few months but they're designed to work in conjunction with digital TVs and set-top boxes. They will be able to record analogue TV channels, but only in analogue recording mode -- i.e. standard VHS quality. They can also record and replay existing analogue VHS tapes, but again the quality will be no better than an ordinary VHS video recorder. The 'high-band' Super VHS recording system is a better bet, especially now with JVC virtually 'giving away' the HR-S7500 for only £350. It's a boon for camcorder owners; editing or copying recordings to S-VHS minimises quality losses but sadly off-air recordings hardly benefit at all. Most of the time the pictures look no better than recordings made on regular 'low-band' VHS video recorders. Since the HR-S7500 costs no more than many mid-market NICAM VCRs it's definitely worth shortlisting but hurry, it may not be around for much longer…



Name                          Sean Kelly, via Email              

Kit                               Buying a satellite system

Problem                      Sean's local cable operator (Cable & Wireless) has just stopped carrying the Italian TV channel Rai Uno, which both he and his Italian wife enjoyed. Now he's thinking of getting a satellite system, and wants to know if he were to sign up for a Sky Digital set-up, would he be able to connect a Manhattan ST-1000 receiver to the Sky dish and see all the free-to-air stuff?              

Expert Reply             In a word, no. The free-to-air channels Sean refers to -- including Rai Uno -- are transmitted from the group of medium-power Astra satellites located at 19.2 degrees East of South. Sky Digital comes from a digital Astra satellite at 28.2 degrees East of South. Most digital dishes are only 43cm across, compared with the 60 - 90 cm dishes need for analogue broadcasts. So, not only will the Sky Digital dish be pointing in the wrong direction, it's too small to get a good analogue signal. It should be possible to rig up a motorised 90cm dish that can track between the two positions. It won't be a pretty sight though -- probably not the sort of thing Sean wants dangling from the side of his house -- and we suspect it will cost several hundred pounds to install. The only practical way to get the free Astra channels is to set up a dedicated dish and treat digital satellite TV as a separate entity. In any event it might be good idea to hang fire on digital TV for a little while longer and let the dust settle. There's already indications that some first generation set-top boxes will have future compatibility problems with D-VHS video recorders, and the question of interoperability, between satellite and terrestrial decoder boxes has still not been satisfactorily resolved.



Name                          Andrew Wilson, Newcastle                  

Kit                               Philips 28-inch widescreen TV, Matsui VCR

Problem                      The picture quality Andrew's getting from his present TV and VCR set-up leaves a lot to be desired, so he's in the market for a new video recorder. He had just about settled on the new JVC Super VHS machine when he spotted a mention in HE regarding the S-VHS-ET format, which can record Super VHS quality signals on ordinary VHS blank tape. He wants to know when S-VHS-ET video recorders will be available, if we have any idea of the price, and whether or not they'll be able to play back his old VHS tapes, and rental movies. For good measure he also asks what we think about the picture and sound quality of the new format?


Expert Reply             Manufacturers curse us for mentioning new developments and technologies that may be some way off. S-VHS-ET is one of them. Don't get too excited, S-VHS-ET -- the ET stands for extended technology -- as you have gathered, is a way of recording S-VHS recordings on VHS tape, but this is not what you would call a major breakthrough. In fact we managed to do something similar a few years ago; drilling a hole in the bottom of a standard VHS cassette will fool a Super VHS VCR into thinking it is using a higher performance S-VHS tape. The resulting recording looked almost as good as one made on S-VHS tape. S-VHS-ET is basically capitalising on the fact that standard VHS tapes have improved so much in the past few years that they're almost as good as S-VHS tape. With a little jiggery-pokery Super VHS video recorders can be persuaded to use standard tape, thus saving users a few bob on the cost of tapes. We wouldn't be at all surprised if S-VHS-ET video recorders started appearing in the autumn, but we doubt very much that they will be anything like as cheap as the JVC HR-S7500. As far as quality is concerned, we haven't had a proper chance to try out the new format yet but we suspect it will look every bit as good as S-VHS. However, as we've said many times before, Super VHS recordings of off-air TV programmes look no better than normal VHS, and there are no pre-recorded movies. The most compelling reason to buy a S-VHS or S-VHS-ET video recorder is to edit home movies, or because it's cheap… 



Name                          J. P. Resende, via E-mail            

Kit                               Hitachi 2995 DPL TV, Panasonic HR-D610 NICAM VCR

Problem                      Being a careful sort of chap 'JPR' has been doing his homework before buying a new NICAM VCR. He concludes that our tests don't really 'grade' VCRs against each other, which he finds perplexing. All he wants to know is which home cinema machine offers the best picture and sound quality for less than £400? It must also have NTSC replay, but he doesn't need satellite control or editing facilities.


Expert Reply             It would of course be wonderful to come out and say that a particular VCR is the very best one of the market, but as JPR's letter indicates that's impossible because we're all looking for something different. Using JPR's criteria, if the best performing VCR costing less than £400 didn't have NTSC replay we would have to recommend the next best machine with that facility. We always try as far as possible to compare like with like in our group tests. We do 'grade' the results -- i.e. rank them by performance, specification or value for money -- but it is difficult with so many different criteria and in the end it's up to you, the consumer to decide -- after reading the reviews -- which model comes closest to meeting your specific requirements. Okay, enough fence-sitting. The three VCRs we suggest JPR puts on his shortlist are the JVC HR-S7500 costing £350, our current favourite budget VHS NICAM machine, the slick little Sharp MH-731, £300, and the very well specified Hitachi VT-FX770, which costs £340.



Name              Terry Russell, via E-mail                        

Kit                   Toshiba 2555DB TV and Amstrad NICAM VCR

Problem            The Amstrad VCR has got to go, says Terry. His old machine is becoming increasingly unreliable and chewing his tapes, so he's looking for a new NICAM model. However, he is confused about a feature called NexTViewLink, which he's seen on the front panels of a lot of machines. What is it, he asks, and what is it good for?    


Expert Reply             Terry's confused, we're confused, even manufacturers are having a hard time explaining it... The idea is that suitably equipped VCRs and TVs can communicate with one another via a SCART cable (see Beginners Guide opposite for a fuller explanation). The key features are Auto Power on and Play, Direct Rec and Follow Tuner. Auto power on and play works when you insert a tape into the VCR, it sends a signal to the TV to switch it from standby mode, select the appropriate AV input, start replay and the picture appears on the screen. Direct Rec is also known as 'wysiwyr' or wizzywire -- what you see is what you record. Pressing a single button on the VCR remote handset automatically sets the machine to record whatever channel you are watching on the TV. Follow Tuner comes into play when you install a new VCR, instead of the video recorder having to search for TV channels it simply downloads tuning information from the TV, so both tuners have an identical set-up.


That's all fairly easy to understand, the problem is the manufacturers who use the system have all called it a different name, and in some cases add their own refinements and embellishments to the system. The bottom line is that it only becomes relevant if both the TV and VCR have it. Terry's Toshiba TV is at least three years old and it isn't compatible so he needn't worry too much about the feature at the moment. However, sooner or later he will replace his TV, and it doesn't add anything to the price, so he might as well have it as not, but it needn't be a deciding factor.




The idea of electronic appliances talking to one another or a central controller isn't new and over the years there have been a number of so-called 'home bus' systems. However, they have all floundered on the fact that it depends on cross-brand compatibility, in other words a number of major consumer electronics and manufacturers would have to agree upon a common technical standard, something that they've been famously reluctant to do over the years. Back in the early 1990s Philips had another stab at it with a system called the Domestic Digital Bus or D2B, and this was also be compatible with several other home bus systems then under development at the time. It was a fairly modest system that allowed home AV appliances to interact using a special connector lead. Philips envisaged that eventually everything from toasters and washing machines would be sending control signals to one another and one day you would be able to switch on your lights, program the VCR timer and switch on the dishwasher by phone, using a remote commander. Philips launched a couple of TVs with D2B sockets but it fizzled out due to lack of interest from other manufacturers. Nevertheless Philips persevered with it and D2B evolved into something called Project 50. This used a spare pin on the SCART leads to send control signals. Other manufacturers licensed the system from Philips, under the name AV Link, but incorporated their own improvements, over and above the basic AV link protocols. The system is generically known as NexTViewLink. Philips added a few refinements of their own and now call their system EasyLink & NexTViewLink. Grundig also went its own way and uses the name Megalogic. Panasonic started with NexTViewLink, but added some more features and now call it Q-Link. Sony's system, also with extra facilities, is called SmartLink, and so on. The bottom line is that all AV Link equipped TVs and VCRs can do simple tricks, like switch on when a cassette is loaded into the VCR, and you can record whatever channel you're watching by pressing a single button. Ultimately digital TVs and VCRs will be controlled from on-screen menus tied into advanced teletext systems like the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) but don't hold your breath… 





Name                          Robert Muneton, via E-mail            

Kit                               buying a DVD player

Problem                      Robert has been doing some research into DVD players and has boiled down his choice to the Panasonic A350 and Sony SP715. He is very keen and has already brought his first DVD, the movie Contact, but has subsequently learned that this disc uses a technique known as RSDL that can cause a 'blip' during playback on some decks. He would like to know what it is and which players are worst affected?


Expert Reply             RSDL or reverse spiral dual layer is the method disc manufacturers use to squeeze longer movies -- lasting more than around 130 minutes -- onto a single DVD. Dual layer playback is a common feature on all DVD decks. The data on the disc is contained in two separate layers on the disc and at the point when the laser switches from the upper layer to the second later there is a momentary pause in the playback. DVD laser pickup heads start playback from the centre of the disc, working their way on a spiral track outwards to the edge of the disc where the changeover point occurs. The laser then starts back in, following the second spiral track, which winds in the reverse direction. At this stage it is difficult to say how much of a problem it will be, if at all, as so far only a handful of RSDL discs have been launched in the UK. Contact is one of them and we understand L.A Confidential, due to be released about now is also dual layer, the other is XXXX. In the latter case there was a brief glitch, lasting only a fraction of a second, when played on the Panasonic A350. It's something we'll be keeping a very close eye on from now on. We would be very interested to hear from readers with any views or experiences with dual layer discs. In the US, where DVD has an eighteen-month lead and a much larger software base there are Internet web sites that lists affected movies, and the time when the jump occurs. You can find details of 52 titles at: http://sdinfo.com/glossary/glossary-r.html though this only relates to Region 1 discs; maybe someone will compile a database for Region 2 releases, if so we'll be happy to pass on the details.  For a more detailed explanation see the Beginner's Guide.



Name              Ian Kilby, via E-mail                                        

Kit                   Sony DVP-S715 DVD player   

Problem            Several discs in Ian's collection briefly change to slow motion replay, lasting for just two or three frames. The worst affected is a Region 2 copy of Contact, where it happens four or five times, and always at the same points. His player has been converted to all region playback but he doesn't think this is a factor as he has heard of other people with the same problem. He has changed the disc but the problem persists, most other discs play back without any problems, so what is going on?     


Expert Reply             We have heard of a number of discs having playback problems on certain players. Lock-ups and 'stuttering' are not uncommon and there are a variety of causes but we haven't come across this particular effect before and neither had Warner Home Video or Sony, so it is a bit of a mystery. The most likely explanation is that there's a problem with the disc, it may be that Ian's replacement came from the same batch, but it is difficult to be certain without seeing it for ourselves. If anyone else has had problems with this combination of disc and player please let us know.   



Name              D. Robinson, Doncaster, Yorkshire                               

Kit                   Philips DVD730 player 

Problem            Mr Robinson was intrigued by a friend's experience with his DVD player. When his friend returned the guarantee form he was sent a disc that upgraded the player's operating system. He would like to know if the regional coding could be changed in a similar way?            


Expert Reply             Not as far as we're aware, but that said, we are constantly amazed by the ingenuity of DVD owners who have come up with a wide range of 'hacks' and tweaks, that will allow some players to play Region 1 or all region discs. A few players have the capability built-in, and switching regional playback can be as simple as pressing the right combination of keys on the remote or font panel, or maybe flipping a switch or moving jumper connections inside the machine. Other decks are dedicated to a single region and conversion involves making component level changes to the circuit boards inside the deck. In all cases this kind of tinkering will invalidate the manufacturer's warranty, and there's no guarantee all or any discs will be playable.



Name              Paul Coultrup, Milton Keynes                                  

Kit                   Panasonic TX-29AD TV, Panasonic DVD-A100 DVD player   

Problem            Having invested a considerable sum on a new TV, DVD player plus a number of discs, Paul is a mite irritated by the fact that several movies, including Mars Attacks, are recorded in a wide screen letterbox format. He wants to know if all DVDs are made in widescreen or will the producers wake up and realise that not everyone has a 16:9 TV? Paul also wants clarification on the legality of buying Region 1 discs since an importer near to where he lives was recently raided by Customs and Excise. He specifically want to know what would happen if he purchased a disc over the Internet, having paid all necessary taxes. Would he be breaking the law?    


Expert Reply Tricky one this… The point is movies are made to be shown on big wide cinema screens, the eventual release on videotape or disc is inevitably a secondary consideration for the Director and producers. The arrival of 16:9 TVs a few years ago led to a demand for movies on tape to be released in their full widescreen glory, but puffing up a letterboxed movie on tape to fill a widescreen display results in a big drop in picture quality. Then along came DVD, which has significantly better video performance and can cope with a variety of formats. On Batman & Robin for example you can choose between a conventional 4:3 screen filling display, a letterboxed version or an anamorphically compressed picture. Whether or not these and the many other options DVD has to offer are available depends on a number of technical and commercial factors (see also Beginners Guide). This could be anything from the length of the movie to the artistic temperament of the Director. When it is not possible to include all display options the best compromise for the film company is to go for the widescreen original. Producing two versions of a disc, one for 4:3 TVs and the other in widescreen simply wouldn't make economic sense. With a widescreen presentation you get the whole picture on a 4:3 TV and those with widescreen sets can electronically enlarge the picture, without anything like the same loss of quality as tape. The other point to bear in mind is that within a decade, probably less, most people -- including Paul -- will have replaced their TV and be watching a 16:9 set, so look upon buying widescreen movies now as a little bit of future-proofing.


As far as importing Region 1 discs from the US is concerned, as we understand it there is no law against it, providing all necessary duties have been paid, it is for your own use, it doesn't infringe any copyright or obscenity laws and is not for resale. If you buy DVDs by the crate load and then try selling them, then you are going to get into all sorts of trouble, not least because they will not have the necessary BBFC certification.



Name              Russell Blandford, Malvern, Worcs                        

Kit                   21-inch Panasonic NICAM TV and VCR, Yamaha DSP-A592 amplifier

Problem            Being a student on a budget Russell is thinking seriously about importing a DVD player from the US, where he understands they are a lot cheaper. He has also be told by a sales assistant in his local Curry's that he can buy DVD movies by mail order from the US, through ads in the back of hi-fi and video magazines. Do we have any advice and details he asks?


Expert Reply Yes, don't do it! DVD hardware prices are a little bit lower in the US and in the early days it was the only to get hold of equipment but UK dealer's shelves are quickly filling up. At the last count there more than 20 different models available with prices starting at less than £350. In any event, by the time Russell has paid import duty and VAT there's unlikely to any savings. It could even end up costing him more as he will also have to buy a step-up transformer, to run it on a UK mains supply, and that's assuming he gets one with the necessary PAL playback facilities. If it doesn't work or goes wrong he'll get little or no sympathy or help from the manufacturer's UK representatives as they'll be under no obligation to honour the US warranty on what is effectively a 'grey import'. And then we come to the thorny subject of Regional Coding. This is becoming much less of an issue as the DVD software industry gets into gear. The desire to own a multi-region player is far less compelling nowadays, however, if that's what Russell wants then there are several UK based firms that can supply him with converted machines, and it'll probably still work out cheaper than importing an all-region player from the US.


Any British company selling imported Region 1 software is breaking the law, unless the titles have received BBFC certification and none have, or are likely to. Buying DVDs from the US by mail order or over the Internet is okay but there are risks. Russell will have to deal directly with the American companies; the quality of NTSC discs played back on PAL TVs can be poor, some won't play at all on some machines.       




Dual layer discs, as the name suggests have two data tracks, one below the other. The lower one is read through the upper semi-transparent layer. The ability to play back dual layer discs is part of the DVD specification and all players must be able to do it. This is a relatively recent innovation, as more DVD mastering plants now have the facility to produce dual layer discs.


Essentially there are two types of dual layer disc: parallel track playback (PTP) or opposite track playback (OTP), also memorably known as Reverse Spiral Dual Layer (RSDL)… Parallel (PTP) tracks are used when the software requires that the player has to be able to switch between data streams. This could be for interactive playback etc., where the recording 'branches'. Alternatively it's used on discs that contain two versions of the same movie, for example, where there are both letterbox and anamorphic widescreen options on one disc. OTP or RSDL layers are used to extend playback times beyond the normal 120 - 130 minutes a single side of a DVD can hold, to around 4 hours. When the player reaches the end of the upper track  (DVD players, like CD decks read discs from the inside out), the laser pickup changes focus and automatically starts to read the lower RSDL track. On some players and discs the switch-over can be almost instantaneous and impossible to spot. On others the picture can freeze for a moment, from less than half a second, to several seconds. However, how long the disturbance last isn't entirely down to the player; the disc mastering process can also be a factor, so it is difficult to generalise on how much of a problem it can be.  



Ó R. Maybury 1998 1311




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