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Sony tries to fight back with Beta ED

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Sony tries to fight back with Beta ED 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers

To its many competitors, the giant Sony Corp. must seem like the pretty girl who is afraid to get up and dance. If she would only try, she could be the belle of the ball.

Sony has been afraid to dance with its new version of Beta video ever since the revised format was introduced more than a year ago. Perhaps the company has been smarting over the licking it received from Panasonic and other manufacturers in the VCR wars, when the old-style Beta system was driven from the market by VHS.

Or maybe Sony is satisfied with the professional acclaim its newest version of Beta has garnered, and feels that consumers don't want something as advanced as Enhanced Definition (ED) Beta.

For whatever reason, Sony has decided to remain a wallflower in the battle for the next generation of VCRs—at least in North America, which is the world's largest single market for video recorders.

Instead of offering the range of new ED Beta recorders now being sold in Japan, Sony is promising only one ED Beta VCR here. It's a model selling for more than $2,000. The price leaves it far from the reach of most consumers.

And only one ED Beta camcorder will be available here. Details of the new camcorder were recently released by the Journal of the Electronics Industry of Japan. No price was given, although the camcorder is likely to cost as much as the VCR. Nor was there any indication of how soon the new camcorder will be at Sony dealers here, but the article in JEI provides a fascinating glimpse of the brilliance of Sony's video technology.

ED Beta recorders and camcorders are not compatible with standard Beta or Super Beta VCRs, although the tapes are the same size. ED Beta tapes are "metal" (actually, plastic coated with pure metal particles instead of metallic oxide, as in standard tapes), and ED Beta recorders lay down a signal on the tape that can only be decoded by other ED VCRs.

The frequency response of ED Beta machines is nearly 10 megahertz, which is about twice the response of even the best of the previous Beta recorders. What this means in everyday viewing is a picture with much more detail and sharpness than ever before—more than the current champion in the ultra-high-quality VCR sweepstakes, Super VHS.

Sony's lone ED camcorder in this market will be the EDC-50. It marks a number of innovations in consumer versions of combined camera/recorders:

  • The camera section can be detached from the VCR section so each can be used separately. This also means an authorized repair shop could replace a faulty camera or VCR section within minutes. The customer could be given a temporary loaner while the malfunctioning section is being repaired.
  • Lenses can be replaced just as they can on Sony's professional camcorders or on 35mm still cameras. The bayonet mount on the EDC-50 makes lens swapping a snap.
  • The solid-state imaging system is shockproof and just about impossible to damage by pointing the lens at a bright light, as in most other modern camcorders. But the EDC-50's dual-chip, charge-coupled device imaging setup provides what Sony says is unique in consumer video—high resolution (meaning the picture has a lot of detail) along with low video noise, which shows up as "snow" on the screen.

The JIA report says the EDC-50 has a horizontal resolution of 550 lines, which is equal to the quality of broadcast video equipment. A Beta Hi-Fi circuit that is fed by a stereo microphone above the lens provides stereo sound. The Hi-Fi section of the camcorder is good enough, in audio terms, to allow anyone to make stunning on-location stereo recordings that could rival the quality of professional efforts.

How does the lone Sony ED Beta camcorder compare with the dozens of different Super VHS camcorders already available? Its picture quality is likely to be slightly better, and the flexibility of detachable camera and VCR sections is a strong plus in Sony's favor.

But that's where the advantages end. The biggest drawback is the non-availability of tape. If Sony could be convinced that ED Beta has a future in North America, it would supply all of its stores with blank ED metal tapes. They would even show up on the racks at supermarkets.

But that's not likely to happen. Sony is apparently putting its VCR research and development money into two other areas -- 8mm video, which may stage a comeback with the introduction this year of high-definition (and higher cost) 8mm camcorders, and recordable laser-disc video.

Sony is touting the new 8mm system, called High-Band 8mm, but is saying nothing about its research into recordable/erasable video discs. If past practice is any indication, you'll hear about Sony's laser video recorder when it's ready—but you might not be able to buy it until Sony decides to take to the dance floor.

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