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S-VHS: The final shot that killed Beta VCRs

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule



S-VHS: The final shot that killed Beta VCRs 


By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

In the mid-1980s, the executives of the giant Sony Corp. knew they had a problem that wasn't going to go away. Their once-dominant Beta video-recording system was dying, and they needed something to bring it back to life.

They placed millions of dollars of corporate funds on the line. Research engineers were told to spare no effort.

Their goal: A new kind of Beta recorder that would capture the videophile market—one that would out-play and out-record anything that Sony's rivals in the VHS camp could offer.

Sony's gamble turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the electronics industry. The VCR that Sony developed—called "ED Beta"—did nothing to hold back the tide of VHS.

ED Beta was Sony's last volley in the war over the standard-size VCR. Ads for Beta recorders haven't appeared for years, and the company is now selling VHS recorders with the Sony brand name alongside its Beta machines.

The big gun that shot down Sony's last chance for technical superiority was fired by JVC, its longtime nemesis. While Sony was working on ED Beta, the engineers at Japan Victor Co. were showing prototype versions of a new VHS system to select members of the electronics press.

By the beginning of last year, the Beta-killer went public around the world. The new system, Super VHS, won raves from the testing organizations and consumer magazines.

Super VHS also won on the shelves of retailers throughout North America. Sony's ED Beta VCRs could hardly be found, while the new VHS recorders showed up even at small stores in rural towns.

But Super VHS is more than a weapon in the war between the two Japanese innovators. JVC and the other backers of Super VHS—including Panasonic's parent company Matsushita, which owns half of JVC—hope that the new format will provide a bridge between current video recorders and the ones that will arrive with High Definition Television.

That may be too ambitious a goal, since the two truly revolutionary aspects of HDTV—its wide screen and the photographic-slide sharpness of the picture—are missing from Super VHS. But the new super VCRs do provide at least one exciting link to HDTV: They allow you to make your own recordings that are better than anything you can see on broadcast TV.

Because Super VHS VCRs are not limited to the medium-resolution pictures that are sent over the airwaves, they hold a unique place in a home video system. Unlike, for example, home audio, where the best recordings are the ones you buy, the best home video tapes can now be the ones you make yourself.

But there are a couple of catches.

First, you'll need a TV set to match the quality of the Super VHS recorder. This means you'll want either a direct-view set with Super VHS video inputs or a large-screen projection TV. (Super VHS divides the picture information into separate color and brightness signals. TVs with Super VHS inputs use this pair of signals to show a super-sharp picture. Projection TVs, if they are properly designed, will show most of the benefits of Super VHS without needing to use the special signals.)

Second, you'll have to find an ultra-high-quality signal source. In other words, you'll need either a new-generation laser video disc player (and you'll have to hunt for some of the few truly high-quality disc recordings available), or you'll have to buy a Super VHS-compatible video camera.

The second alternative is the easiest, especially since you can take advantage of a package deal from many manufacturers. For a price of $1,400 to $1,900, you can pick up an entire live-recording Super VHS system—camera, power supply, battery, VCR and all the necessary cables.

Why haven't you heard of this package deal before? Actually, you have, but you probably didn't look at it as a camera-and-VCR package. What I'm referring to, of course, is a Super VHS camcorder, a camera-recorder combination. Camcorders are usually thought of as cameras with built-in minirecorders, but the best of them are the equal of stand-alone VCRs in nearly every way.

All that's missing among the important VCR features in a typical camcorder is multispeed recording and playback (most run only at standard speed, which is what all commercial tapes are recorded at anyway) and a built-in TV tuner. If you already have a standard VCR, this is no drawback at all, since you can feed the first VCR's TV signal straight to the VCR in the camcorder.

Do-it-yourself video with such a high-quality camcorder can be an exciting experience. I borrowed the latest Super VHS model from Philips (the "Explorer" model J810AV01) and spent a couple of weeks taping kids, seagulls, houses, lakeside jetties, passing traffic and everything else I could find.

I viewed the results on the six-foot screen of my projection TV. To be blunt, my TV never had it so good.

The playback was breathtaking. I'll have a complete nuts-and-bolts report on my tests of the Philips camcorder in another report, but you don't have to wait to find out that the high-tech camera-recorder I borrowed sold me on the idea of Super VHS. It also made me disappointed in the picture quality of my regular VCR.


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