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Buying Guides - VCRs
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 the commercials.

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.

 Glossary

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.

Sound quality
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.

On-screen programming
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.

VCR+
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 begins.

Remote control
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.

Head cleaners
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.

Tracking
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.

Search functions
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 TV sets.

Pricing
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.

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