Whether you want to watch rented movies or tape your favorite programs,
a VCR is an essential part of your home theater. Today's VCRs offer a
wide range of great features to make your video viewing better and easier,
from slow-motion replay, one-touch VCR+ programming, and automatic tracking,
to hi-fi stereo audio and high-resolution S-VHS video capability. Use
our guide to common features and formats to find the right model for you.
Gone are the days of clunky VHS and Betamax VCRs--today's video cassette
players offer high-quality picture and audio with easy-to-use interfaces
and affordable prices. The VCR is the mainstay of most home video setups;
virtually all major (and many minor) movies are released on VHS, making
it the standard format for video. VCRs let you record your favorite programs--no
rushing home to catch the latest episode, and you can fast forward through
VCRs range from basic players with minimal extras to home theater machines
with S-VHS, special effects, hi-fi stereo and a host of other advanced
features. Our buyer's guide will help you sort through the features and
ratings to find the VCR that best fits your needs.
Picture quality: it's in the numbers
An important indication of a VCR's playback quality is the number of heads
it uses. Many lower-cost VCRs are equipped with only two heads, the minimum
number needed for playback and recording. A four-head VCR includes an
extra set of heads, which will give you a superior picture. In addition
to cleaner playback, four-head VCRs perform special functions better than
two-head VCRs; freeze-frame, fast-forward, and slow motion are significantly
cleaner on a four-head VCR at any playback speed.
One of the most important decisions you need to make before buying your
VCR is what sound quality you're looking for. The lowest-priced units
usually only offer mono sound compatibility, which can be satisfactory
for non-audiophile users. However, if you plan to use your VCR in a home
theater setup, you will probably want to invest in a VCR with hi-fi stereo.
With sound that approaches CD music quality, a hi-fi stereo VCR can deliver
audio that makes you feel like you're in your local movie theater. Most
current home video movie releases are recorded in hi-fi stereo, so the
extra investment is worth the money. To experience your tapes in stereo,
however, you'll need to connect your VCR to either a stereo TV or home
stereo system. If being able to record is not important to you, then you
might consider looking at a DVD player instead of a VCR. While a bit higher
in price, DVD players offer unsurpassed digital video and audio for the
ultimate home theater experience. To view our DVD player selection, click here.
Audio/video output and input
If you plan to connect an additional device to your VCR, such as a camcorder
or video game system, you should look for a unit that allows convenient
access to the audio and video input and output jacks. Many newer models
are now including front panel jacks so that you can hook up additional
components without having to pull out the VCR to reach the back of the
unit. If you plan to hook up multiple devices, then look for a unit that
has more than one set of audio and video input and output jacks.
Do I need S-VHS?
Super VHS is a technology that offers an increase in picture quality over
standard VHS players. S-VHS provides over 400 lines of resolution compared
to 240 lines in VHS. This improvement will be most noticeable when you
tape from high-resolution sources, such as a direct satellite system or
DVD video player. However, this feature is not essential unless you expect
to connect your VCR to digital sources that take advantage of the capabilities
of S-VHS. In the near future, you'll also be able to get D-VHS machines
that are specifically made to record digital video signals from the emerging
HDTV broadcast format.
Most VCRs offer on-screen programming, which allows you to record your
favorite programs ahead of time by following a series of on-screen instructions.
Usually, you program a recording by inputting the desired channel and
program time with your remote control. The amount of advance programmability
varies unit-by-unit. Some VCRs allow you to record a program as far in
advance as a year, while others only let you record programs up to a week
ahead of time.
Cable viewers should make sure that the VCR is correctly
connected to the cable tuner--many people make the mistake of setting
the VCR to record a broadcast channel when they actually intend to record
a cable channel. For example, if all of your cable programming arrives
through channel 4 on your TV set, then you may need to use that channel
to record all cable channels. If this is the case, then you will also
need to set your cable tuner to the desired channel during the time the
program is recording.
Setting your VCR to record your favorite program--a seemingly simple task--can
be amazingly difficult for most of us. Fortunately, many VCRs now come
with VCR+, a technology that makes programming your VCR a snap. Most local
TV listings and TV Guide magazine now publish a VCR+ code alongside each
program listing. Simply enter this code and hit the program button on
your remote control; the program will automatically be recorded when it
Are you suffering from remote control overload? If you are like many of
us, you probably have multiple remote controls cluttering your living
room. Some VCR models come packaged with a universal remote control, which
can be programmed to function with your TV and other devices as well.
While some universal remote controls work only with hardware devices that
are made by the same manufacturer, most will operate across multiple brands.
Even if they don't include a universal remote, most VCRs come with at
least their own remote control.
While it is recommended that you clean your VCR heads periodically, many
players come equipped with a built-in head cleaner. This feature automatically
removes debris from the tape heads whenever your VCR enters the play or
record mode. If you don't clean your VCR heads, dirt and dust particles
will accumulate and deteriorate your picture quality; the automatic cleaning
feature can be useful in maintaining a clear picture.
It happens to just about everyone--you pop a rented movie in your VCR
but the picture is obscured by fuzzy static. What do you do? If you have
a VCR with auto-tracking, you do absolutely nothing--the VCR will recognize
the problem and correct it. Most video players also allow you to manually
adjust the tracking control. This is an essential feature of any VCR,
since it is common for different machines to record and play back at slightly
different speeds. The visual distortion results from these slight variations.
When you use the tracking feature, you are adjusting the playback head
speed on your VCR to match the speed in which the tape was recorded.
In addition to standard rewind and fast-forward functionality, some VCRs
now come with search features that allow you to advance to a specific
portion of the tape. For example, Time Search allows you to enter a specific
time on the tape that you wish to advance or rewind to. The VCR will automatically
seek out that area of the tape and begin playback. Another common search
feature is Index Search, which adds an electronic tag on a tape as you
record. In many cases, this tag is searchable so a viewer can seek and
find a specific point on the tape. Many VCRs also contain Auto Blank Search,
which automatically bypasses the blank portions found at the beginning
of a tape.
Other advanced features
There are several advanced features to consider when making your VCR purchase.
For example, many machines now come equipped with a power backup feature,
which is enabled during a power outage or surge of electricity. This feature
will preserve your clock and programming settings for a limited amount
of time, should the power be interrupted.
Some units also feature a jog shuttle dial, which
makes it easier for you to advance or rewind through a tape by turning
the dial to the right or left. The dial is often located on the front
of the VCR unit and/or on the remote control.
If you're a sports fan, you can take control of sports
action replays by taping your game with a VCR that includes a variable
slow-motion option. This feature allows you to control slow-motion speed
at your own pace. Auto repeat features allow you to view your favorite
scene again and again without having to touch the controls. Our favorite
feature is Commercial Skip, which automatically skips past commercials
on taped programs. The VCR automatically begins to play at the conclusion
of the commercial break.
Last but certainly not least, many video players
now automatically set your VCR clock. This is welcome relief to those
of us who have spent the past decade with a blinking "12:00" above our
A no-frills VHS machine (mono sound, two-heads, no recording functionality)
can sell for as little as $50 to $70. Most standard four-head VCRs with
hi-fi stereo sound sell between $85-120. With additional features, such
as Commercial Skip and VCR+, expect to pay between $120-250. If you are
looking for a top-of-the-line video experience, prices can be even higher.
S-VHS units now begin at $99 and go up from there, while the new D-VHS
VCRs begin at $400.