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I’ve been having a bit of a clear-out recently, and I think the time has come to let go of my old Hitachi VHS Video Cassette Recorders.

But before I do that, I decided to take one last look at them, and write about some of the pros and cons, compared to the technology that replaced them — the DVD Recorder.

I also made a short video, which focuses mainly on how long it takes to begin playing a tape or DVD.

Two Hitachi VCRs
My two Hitachi VCRs, from around 15 and 20 years ago

The Old Days

The first video cassette recorder that I owned in the early 90s was a fairly basic JVC machine, which had a very slow fast-forward speed. The picture quality was nothing special, and it only had low-quality mono sound. I’m pretty sure it was even less sophisticated than my parents’ first video recorder in the 80s, which was made by NEC.

Later in the 1990s, I got an Hitachi F540E, with HiFi stereo sound, and a ‘super’ fast-forward and rewind speed — it was a massive improvement in speed and quality.

Hitachi F540E VCR
Hitachi F540E VCR, which dates back to the late 1990s

Testing it recently, it rewound a 100 minute video cassette in just over a minute, giving an average of about 80x normal play speed, which is still quite impressive for a 20 year old machine. When seeking forward with picture, it manages about 9x normal play speed, which is fairly respectable. That makes it feel quite fast to use.

The newer of my two machines, an Hitachi FX980E from about 15 years ago, is supposedly even faster, with the front panel boasting 400x drive — but I’d imagine that’s only when using long play mode.

Hitachi FX980E VCR
Hitachi FX980E VCR, from the early 2000s

This model also has a tape navigation feature, where the machine helps you to locate your own recordings. However, that means that it has to identify what tape you’ve inserted, and I always found the associated delays to be quite annoying.


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Slow DVD Recorders, Menus and Copyright Notices

I can’t deny that pre-recorded DVDs have a much better picture quality than VHS video cassette. However, I’ve always found DVD recorders to be rather slow and irritating to use.

Over the years, the amount of software used within products has increased enormously. And that’s a major reason why DVD recorders are so much slower to use than video cassette recorders.

First, you have to wait for the machine to wake up and recognise the disk.

Next, you wait for a menu to appear.

DVD Warning Message
It’s annoying to have to wait through warning messages every time you insert a DVD!

Finally, you sit there, unable to skip, while it shows you a copyright or warning notice.

(Why do they punish people who buy the proper DVDs like this? I can’t imagine people who use pirated disks being made to read such messages!)

Fast Video Recorder Start-Up Time

When testing my old video cassette recorders, it’s been quite refreshing to have full control over which part of the tape I’m watching.

I simply put the tape in, and it starts playing almost immediately.

And I can fast-forward at ANY point in time — the machine has no idea what it’s playing, so it just gets on with its job.

Not only that, but if I take the tape out, then put it back in, it will continue playing from where it left off, in SECONDS!

With DVD, if you re-insert the disk, you have to endure that same annoying wait, while it reads the disk — and displays the menu and copyright notices — all over again.


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Picture Quality

During my recent tests, I found that the video recorder’s picture quality is not as bad as I expected — especially for a 20 year old machine. It’s not anywhere near as good as DVD of course, but it’s still quite watchable.

Perhaps watching low-resolution YouTube videos has made me more tolerant when it comes to picture quality…

Home Recordings

When making home recordings, the video cassette recorder has the option of using long play mode, which gives up to 8 hours of recording time on a 4 hour tape. Quality is still reasonable in long play mode, and the recording time beats the DVD recorder by a long way.

Wharfedale DVDR24HD DVD Recorder
Wharfedale DVD Recorder

With the Wharfedale DVD recorder that I have now, there are four quality settings. The two highest quality modes give good results, but the others are really quite poor, with blocky pictures and strange artefacts. That limits the maximum recording time to a mere 2 hours with DVD.

In the past, I had a Panasonic DVD recorder which could provide a user-specified recording time/quality, and that still gave acceptable results at about 3 hours per disk. But that’s still a lot less than with a video cassette recorder.

Modern Alternatives

These days, DVD and video cassette are both old-tech, and it’s a long time since I made daily recordings using either format.

I’ve not bothered switching to Blu-ray, because I think the days of using spinning disks are approaching an end. Instead, I now watch most things using a TiVo box, Google Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV Stick, with an occasional DVD here and there.

Final Thoughts

I won’t be going back to using VHS video cassettes, but it’s been good to take a look back.

[Edit] I’ve not really mentioned the robustness and longevity (or otherwise) of the media, and I hope to write more about that subject in future. For now, I’ll just say that both can be damaged by careless handling or faulty equipment.

It’s a shame that many newer video technologies are slower to use in some respects compared to video cassette; it’s like we’ve lost something along the way. But as processor speeds continue to increase, things do seem to be improving — my new TiVo box has much quicker menus and start-up time than its predecessor. Hopefully, one day, we’ll end up with the best of all worlds.


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