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The right way to clean VCR heads

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

The right way to clean VCR heads

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

Did you watch a dirty movie last night?

If you did, it might be time to clean up your act—and your VCR along with it.

A tape that is dirty can ruin your recorder. It can happen in just one playing, as Consumers Union discovered recently when it was testing videotapes. When it recorded a program on one of the off-brand tapes its buyers had purchased, the shoddily made tape wrecked the heads on CU's expensive test machine.

All it took was one playing and the machine was damaged.

Consumers Union had a reason for trying a bad tape—it wanted to find out just what happens when you choose a tape that hasn't been approved by JVC, the company that invented VHS video recording.

But you won't want to use the same kind of excuse, especially not at the price you'll have to pay. Fixing a VCR can cost $85 or more each time you have a problem.

You can avoid a trip to the video doctor by following a couple of simple rules when buying blank tape. And you can apply a little preventive medicine yourself by using a safe video head cleaner.

The first rule for tape buying could be a line from a song: Look for the little logo. JVC requires every licensed manufacturer of VHS tape to stick to certain quality standards. Only when the tape meets those standards does JVC allow the company to put the VHS logo on the box. The logo (a word taken from the old printing term "logotype," meaning letters joined to make a company symbol) is a round-cornered rectangular box with "VHS" inside it. The letters are distinctively oriental-looking, at least to me—the crossbar on the "H" is much lower than usual, and the "S" is odd in being symmetrical; in English lettering, the "S" is usually bottom-heavy.

I am going into all this detail on the logo because the tapes that are guaranteed to give your VCR a stuffed head often have an imitation logo that looks a lot like the real one. The fake logos, however, won't be exactly like the genuine article, since none of the Asian tape-clone companies want to tangle with JVC's lawyers.

Here's a tip: If you see, as I have, the wording "for V-type systems" or something similar, you can almost be sure you are looking at an unlicensed tape. This sort of silly wording is nothing more than an attempt to avoid saying "VHS." A second rule is to stick with manufacturers' brands. Avoid store brands.

Maybe the cassette box labeled "Big Jim's Super High Performance Stereo VHS tape" is a great bargain at $2.99 at your local Big Jim's store, but maybe it isn't, too. And if you want to be a guinea pig at $85 a pop, you need more than a blank tape to solve your problems.

Manufacturers' brands are easy to spot, since the names are the same no matter where they are sold. (You can bet that "Big Jim's Super High Performance" tape is the same stuff sold down the block as "Travelin' Dan's Extra High Grade" tape.) Names to look for include TDK, Maxell, Fuji and Scotch.

There are other worthwhile tapes that fall into a third category. These are brands such as Kodak and RCA. Neither Kodak nor RCA make videotapes, so they don't have quite the same stake in the quality of the tapes they buy from other companies to sell under their own names. But you may find these tapes to be quite satisfactory. (Kodak's tape apparently is made by TDK, while RCA's tape appears similar to Panasonic stock.)

When your VCR starts misbehaving, you might be able to avoid a big repair bill by running a cleaning tape through the machine. These tapes are way overpriced, but you don't have much choice in the matter. Buy a good one and use it every so often.

I'm A stick-in-the-mud when it comes to which type of cleaner to recommend. I say you should stay away from wet cleaners. Each wet cleaner comes with a little bottle of fluid that you dribble onto an area of the tape before running it through your VCR. The fluid can make the tape sticky, and sticky tape is great for masking off paint, but it makes a life of misery for a VCR.

Use a dry tape only. The one I prefer is made by Scotch, and is called the Scotch Head Cleaning Videocassette. All you do is play it. When your heads are clean, a message on the screen tells you to push the "stop" button.

What could be easier?

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