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How to tell good video tapes from bad ones

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

How to tell good video tapes from bad ones

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

How can you tell good videotapes from bad ones?

This is one of the questions called in by readers after my last column, on video tape quality vs. price.

I had pointed out testing by Consumer Reports confirmed my own findings that expensive tapes don't necessarily work better than cheap tapes. And I had also noted that ultra-cheap tapes should be avoided, since they could make your VCR jam and could even ruin the recorder's spinning heads.

This brought up the obvious question: Is there a way consumers can tell which tapes are just cheap and which are both cheap and poorly made?

Yes, there's a simple inspection you can make. You don't even need to put the tape in a VCR.

Just examine the slipcase—the outer box that the videocassette comes in. Because none of the makers of ultra-cheap tape would dare spend anything extra on packaging, all poor-quality tapes come in cheap cardboard slipcases. It's their mark of non-quality, if you will.

You can tell cheap cardboard easily—it's soft and rough. It's so soft, in fact, that it tends to shed tiny paper fibers. They fall into the cardboard slipcase and work their way into the cassette shell.

Then, when you put the tape into your VCR, the cardboard debris acts just like sandpaper. The moving parts in your recorder can be damaged with just a few playings.

No reputable manufacturers use cheap cardboard slipcases. Most use plastic, although some have turned to heavy cardboard that has been coated to keep it from flaking. By the way, don't be afraid to take the shrink-wrap off a cassette before you buy it. There's no other way to find out whether the slipcase is made from cheap cardboard before you get to the cash register.

Another reader asked whether some video tapes are less likely to jam or break than others. The answer is in the "yes, but" category.

Yes, there are cassette designs that put less stress on the tape. These are the hard-to-find "short-play" tapes in such lengths as 30 minutes and 60 minutes (T-30 and T-60).

Manufacturers usually place larger-than-usual hubs inside these cassettes—partly to make them look less empty, and partly to reduce the pulling force exerted on the tape each time you switch the VCR into play, record or one of the fast-wind modes.

The principle is the same as idea of bigger and smaller gears on a 10-speed bike. A large hub slows down the transport's responses and makes them gentler.

However, if you are having trouble with cassettes that jam, you should have your VCR checked. A properly operating recorder won't cause a normal tape to jam.

Another question: How long will videotape last?

The answer is not clear. Experts at some of the tape companies say videotapes that are kept in so-called "archival" conditions—a cool room, apparently—should last for 80 years. But others doubt that tapes will last for more than 20 years.

If you have priceless tapes, you'd be wise to make copies of them every five years or so.

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