In the late 70s and early 80s, video recorders were considered something of a luxury. Nowadays, it's rare to find a household without a VHS video recorder, and consumers are investing in DVD players in ever increasing numbers.
Current DVD players can't record but what does the future hold for home video recording? The answer, as with most electronic gadgetry, can be found in the digital domain. Unfortunately there isn't one clear technology that will take over. Instead, we are about to be flooded with a wide variety of new formats. Some of these rival technologies will survive side by side - but not all of them.
So why the confusion? Manufacturers of household electronics are falling over themselves to find the digital video format that will most suit the consumer. Unfortunately this open market leaves us, the customers, in quite an awkward position. Nevertheless, we spoke with some major players, including Sony, Pioneer, JVC, Sharp, Philips, Samsung and Panasonic, in an effort to make a little sense of the impending digital video invasion.
One thing most technologies have in common is they use the Mpeg-2 format to store video. This is the system already being used on existing DVD videos. Mpeg-2 compresses the huge amount of data in a video and yet it still gives great picture and sound quality - normally much better than VHS quality.
You may already have a DVDRom drive in your PC or a standalone DVD movie player unit connected to your TV. These machines are playback-only devices so you cannot record to them - yet.
For a long time, CD was a play-only format, but recently CD recorders have become common among PC users. DVD is destined for a similar overhaul. In fact, there are already a few PC-based recordable DVD drives creeping on to the PC market. Dedicated DVD video recorders aren't too far behind.
DVD is a great format for storing large chunks of data such as films because, although DVD discs look virtually identical to CDs, they can hold much more data (anything between 4.7Gb and 17Gb on a single disc).
With DVD video already a popular playback format, it makes sense to back a recordable version of the same standard as the future of home video. However, it's not as simple as that. For starters there are three rival recordable DVD formats with different manufacturers ploughing time and money into each one.
First up is DVDRam. With this format, the familiar DVD disc is encased in a not-so-familiar caddy. This is because the DVDRam is more delicate than its read-only cousin and any scratches or smears can render a disc unreadable. The caddy is likely to put people off the format - early caddy-based CDRom drives were quickly phased out.
Although there are already some PC-based products that work with this format, these cost more than £4000. Samsung has plans to release a DVDRam video recorder later this year. Its DVDR-2000 is probably going to be the first recordable DVD video machine to arrive on these shores. No prices have been issued but it is likely to be way above most budgets. The DVDR-2000 uses 4.7Gb DVDRam discs, which are capable of storing up to 120 minutes of video each.
Confusingly, the other two DVD formats are called DVD-RW and DVD+RW. The DVD Forum, a standardisation body for DVD, has approved all three standards. However, the RW formats have no caddy and are more likely to be compatible with existing DVD players.
Pioneer has launched a DVD-RW recorder in Japan - the DVR-1000 is selling like hotcakes for around £1500 and could hit UK stores by the end of this year. Again the machine uses 4.7Gb disks to record between two and six hours of Mpeg-2 video, depending on the quality setting. Apart from sparkling clear picture and sound, the DVD-RW format also allows for a few extras such as user-defined menus with thumbnail images for each programme you have recorded.
Given the advantages of the DVD-RW and DVD+RW formats, it's hard to see anyone opting for anything else. The recorders and the discs will probably be cheaper than any competing format, largely due to the technology being adopted by the major manufacturers. Sony supports both RW formats, although it has no plans to introduce either product to the UK consumer market. Meanwhile, Philips, Sharp and Pioneer all have DVD-RW machines in the pipeline.
A rival to recordable DVD is D-VHS (digital VHS). This is essentially a digital version of the old-fashioned VHS tape format but with all the benefits of digital picture quality and sound. A big advantage over DVD is the same machine can play all your old VHS tapes. D-VHS tapes look identical to VHS cassettes and can hold eight hours of video, or 21 hours in the long play-style LS3 mode.
We had a look at JVC's fully working HM-DR1000 D-VHS machine. The bulky, brushed gold recorder was incredibly simple to set up, mainly because it works in exactly the same way as a VHS machine. It also has an automatic feature that finds TV signals and assigns channels to them.
The HM-DR1000 has plenty of inputs and outputs. There are S-video and composite video in and out sockets, analogue audio in and out sockets and two Scart connections (a type of connector used to hook together devices such as televisions and videos). There's even a DV input terminal so that you can transfer footage from your digital camcorder straight onto a D-VHS cassette with imperceptible quality loss.
Sorely missing, however, is the digital audio outputs that are a familiar sight on the rear of most DVD players. Without these you can't make the most of the digital audio tracks by pumping them through a home cinema decoder and amplifier. In addition, the machine's tuner only receives analogue broadcast signals (albeit with Nicam stereo sound), so you'll need a separate box to watch digital TV.
The downside to D-VHS is that, regardless of its better picture and sound quality and extra features, it is still a tape format. You'll have to rewind and fast-forward, while your disc-based neighbour will be able to skip straight to the exact point they want on his or her DVD deck. As with other tape formats, there's the risk of the tape being 'chewed' by an aggressive machine.
Although the picture quality is excellent, even on old analogue recordings, it's hard to see D-VHS hitting the big time. The HM-DR1000 has some great features but is expected to cost around £1000, with the eight-hour tapes costing about £17 each. This is far too expensive to tempt many buyers, but because the players have much in common with VHS players, costs could fall dramatically. Unless this happens, the D-VHS format isn't likely to appeal to the majority of people.
Hard disk recording
Another option is to record digital video onto a hard disk like the one in your PC. With hard disks getting larger, faster and cheaper it's obvious why many consumer electronics manufacturers are looking to this kind of technology as a possible solution to the video storage issue.
With a hard disk inside your TV, you can archive your favourite recordings in one place rather than on a shelf-load of individual cassettes. Naturally, they'd all be stored as digital information, which again means that the format would benefit in terms of picture and sound quality. You would also be able to search through menus that tell you exactly what you've recorded on your disk and would be able to skip directly to any programme you wanted to watch without having to rewind or fast forward.
Two companies in the US, TiVo and ReplayTV, have announced products called personal video recorders. ReplayTV is working with Sony and Sharp to produce a unit containing a hard disk that can be used to store several hours of video in the Mpeg-2 format.
One of the attractions of these devices is the ability to treat live TV broadcasts as you would videotape. If your viewing is interrupted by a phone call, for example, you'll be able to 'pause' a programme and then resume watching whenever you're ready. This is achieved by the hard disk's ability to read and write at the same time, essentially continuing to record your programme even though you've already started to watch it. You'll also be able to record several programmes at the same time. Effectively putting the viewer in charge of the schedules so there should always be something you want to watch at a time you want it.
TiVo has teamed up with Sky and Philips to produce a similar service for the UK market. No date has been set as yet but personal video recorders are on their way.
One disadvantage of such a system is the limited capacity of hard disks. This means this format is fine for short-term storage, such as recording a few programmes when you are out and watching them a few days later, but it's not suitable for building up a library of hundreds of your favourite films - this demands too much disk space. Also, it's all very well having something recorded on a hard disk, but what if you want to lend it to your mate for the weekend?
We are going to be spoiled for choice with digital video recording, but this isn't necessarily a good thing. As well as the three different recordable DVD formats, hard disk recording and D-VHS will all be on sale soon. And other recording technologies may appear later. The chaps at Sharp see a future in the video market for other forms of optical disk, as well as the same kind of static memory that's used in digital cameras and MP3 players.
To add to the confusion, there will be the option of video on demand services provided by companies such as Sky and Home Choice. These will allow you to pay to have a film transmitted to your home at the time you want to watch it - this helps remove the need to record at all. And maybe as soon as we are all linked up to the internet with high-speed connections, all our films will come from the web.
Which recording technology format will prevail? Unfortunately, we won't know the answer to that for a while yet. For commercial reasons, the system that becomes most successful may not be the one that has the best technology but the one that has the best marketing. Once one system becomes popular, it will make sense to buy that, if only because it will make it easy to swap recordings with friends.
Many experts believe the future lies in combining two or more of the types of devices we've mentioned in this feature. For example, your TV of the future might contain a built-in digital broadcast decoder, a huge hard disk for temporary recording, and a recordable DVD drive for archiving films and TV programmes. If this familiar, that's because all you have to do is add the screen and it begins to sound rather like a PC.
Since most of us still can't get to grips with programming our VHS recorders, isn't all this new technology just going to overwhelm the consumer? The manufacturers promise the new equipment will be easy to use. Indeed, the Philips sees the future as a blend of various integrated portable and household devices, "that look nothing like anything you've seen before". These machines will have intuitive menu systems and may even be voice controlled. "These devices will all have massive computational power but there won't be a keyboard in sight," a spokesman told us.
One thing is for sure: VHS isn't going to disappear overnight. Regardless of all the whizzy new features these formats will have to offer, the majority of the population is quite happy with good old VHS. Despite its faults, VHS has been with us for more than two decades. It's cheap, easy to use and most people are more interested in the content of the programmes they are watching, than the format they're watching it on.
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