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What to look for when you shop for a VCR

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

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What to look for when you shop for a VCR 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

The letters and phone calls usually start the same way.

"I want to get another VCR. What do you think I should buy?"

Readers used to ask what they should look for in their first video cassette recorder. But VCRs are like toasters these days. Just about every household already has one, and so buyers are now looking either for a VCR to add to their home television system or they're looking for a new one to replace one that is wearing out.

My answers haven't changed, however. Whether you are buying a VCR for the first time or not, the first thing you should consider is this: What do you want that VCR to do?

Look at it this way. If all you do is play rented video cassettes, you won't care about a lot of features that expensive VCRs have, such as four or more heads, fancy recording timers and so on. But if you do a lot of recording, the following list of features could be very important.

All VCRs have the ability to record and play TV signals, and all of them have a built-in clock with a recording timer. Most of the rest of a VCR's features are optional on various models.

Here's what a basic VCR should include:

  • A remote control. I haven't seen any on the market without a remote of some kind for a couple of years, but if you see one, stay away from it.
  • A cable-ready tuner. This kind of tuner will let you record any cable channel without a converter box (unless you subscribe to scrambled premium channels, like Showtime or The Disney Channel). Why is is that important? Because you won't be able to select more than one channel for timed recording if you use a cable box.

Most TV and video fans should consider these features as well:

  • VHS Hi-Fi audio capability. Most new commercially recorded video cassettes have hi-fi sound tracks, which sound much better—even if you listen in monaural (single-channel) sound—than the sound track of a standard VCR. (Avoid VCRs with stereo sound if they don't have VHS Hi-Fi stereo; they're outmoded and don't sound good.)
  • Battery backup for the VCR's clock-timer. This is a minor feature—until the power goes out.
  • Automatic tracking adjustment. Manufacturers give this feature various names, such as "auto tracking" or "digital tracking." I consider it a necessity for serious users.
  • Four or more video heads. Don't let someone confuse you by telling you that two video heads plus two audio heads (the minimum needed for any VCR) add up to four heads. We're talking about the magnetic heads for the picture here. Multiple heads generally improve the picture.
  • Fast-action transport. Many VCRs now use a variation of a quick-acting transport first designed by Akai to make faster shifts from stop or rewind to the play mode. Once you get used to it, you'll never want to be without it.
  • On-screen programming. I like this feature for just one reason: It's easier to see big letters on the TV screen than the tiny ones on the front of your VCR.

And here are some features that you should consider if you want to go first class:

  • Super VHS. Picture quality in most ways equals laser disc video, and copies from one S-VHS tape to another are outstanding.
  • Up-front jacks for the input and output cables. They make copying to and from another VCR or a camcorder much easier.
  • A jog shuttle. It lets you zero in on a single video frame easily.
  • Digital enhancement. Features vary, but in many cases digital circuits can improve the picture and sound.

Finally, there are a few features you can safely avoid.

One is a mid-mount tape transport, which is supposed to make for a better picture by keeping vibration at the center of the VCR's chassis. I haven't seen any proof that this works.

Another is a circuit that lets non-S-VHS recorders play Super VHS tapes. The resulting videos don't look any better. Besides, you're not likely to have any S-VHS tapes if you don't have an S-VHS recorder, anyway.