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Early S-VHS camcorder is outstanding

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Early S-VHS camcorder is outstanding 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

The seagulls acted like I was the one who was flighty.

I was stretched out upside down on the rocky beach while pointing a big gray box at them. An orange light on the front of the box began blinking every time I pushed a button.

It was nearly twilight, with hardly enough light to see by. Yet the birds stood out against the deepening blue of the sky and a nearly full moon was rising behind them. I could only get the picture I wanted by flattening myself on the sand and shooting the camcorder up at a low angle.

Later, when I looked at the video footage on my projection TV, I noticed something my eyes had missed: The seagulls were dirty. Their feet had picked up mud and their wings were flecked with spots of tar.

I would never have seen those tiny features in a regular video tape from an ordinary camera. But what I was watching was as extraordinary as you could imagine—a Super VHS cassette recording made on a Super VHS camcorder. Both were super expensive, as well—the blank tape costing about $20 and the camcorder about $1,800 -- but they provided performance that was hard to measure by dollars alone.

I had seen Super VHS (also called S-VHS) displayed at last summer's Consumer Electronics Show, and I'd noticed that all the tapes that the major manufacturers were showing were specially made videos. What about the kind of tapes you and I make at home? Would they be as stunning?

There's no longer any question. The do-it-yourself videos I made with a borrowed Super VHS camcorder were the best I'd seen.

Philips sent along its "Explorer" camcorder, model J810AV01. It lacks only one feature to qualify as the best combined camera-recorder I've ever used.

That single drawback is shared by nearly all other camcorders. The Explorer can only record and play at the standard VHS "SP" speed. If it had been able to at least play back at the two slower speeds, the Explorer would have won the prize. As it is, the Philips camcorder is merely amazing instead of incredible.

The Explorer's picture ranks as higher-than-broadcast quality. I checked it in two ways—directly from the camera and in playback from a Super VHS tape. There was little difference. Resolution (the amount of fine detail in the picture) was about twice as good as a standard VHS recording and colors were stable. Reds didn't "bleed" like they do with normal recordings.

I set up a simple live-vs.-recorded test using a wooden bowl full of apples, grapes and oranges. When I switched from the tape playback to the live picture and back again, the only difference I could see was a slight shadow against some of the images—caused, apparently, by a circuit in the recorder that tries to make outlines look sharper.

Unlike most camcorders of any kind, the Explorer has a color viewfinder. It's a tiny LCD (liquid crystal diode) color TV that has a flip-up magnifying eyepiece. Its color rendition was surprisingly good for such a small screen (an inch or so), but its resolution was terrible.

I suggest that Philips equip the Explorer with a black-and-white viewfinder also, so buyers can use one for those times when judging color is most important and the other for those times when being able to see what is being taped matters most.

Many of the Explorer's other features are more-or-less standard on high-priced camcorders. These include a built-in loudspeaker with a volume control, an 8-to-1 zoom lens, automatic focus, automatic color balance, a macro capability (which can focus down to the surface of the lens), a 10-second timer so you can get into the picture before the tape starts, and a built-in clock.

It does not include VHS Hi-Fi stereo sound, and, as mentioned earlier, cannot record or play back at the two slower tape speeds. This means you can't play any tapes that you've recorded at those speeds, although you can use the Explorer to play all commercial tapes such as the kind you rent.

With its built-in power supply and the connecting cables that come with the camcorder, the Explorer can serve as a home VCR as well as a camcorder. You can even use it to record TV programs if you have a VCR with a TV tuner built in. All you'd have to do is connect the output of the VCR to the input of the Explorer.

But taping TV programs seems to be a waste for a Super VHS camcorder. No TV show is going to tax its abilities. If you choose to buy the Philips J810AV01, leave the living room behind and look for your own subjects to tape. You might find it very rewarding—even if the birds end up telling themselves you've lost your cool.

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