With the advent of the DVD player many theater enthusiasts now hold the video tape recorder in great disdain. I personally feel that this is nothing less than prejudice. Okay, I fully admit that the quality of the DVD is far superior to the VCR but still, there are many movies of great merit that are at this time only available on tape. I have seen over the course of my life many new technologies that were supposed to completely replace the previous technology. The Phillips Cassette Tape, the music cassette tape we all know, was supposed to be the end of vinyl records. (yes, I'm old enough to remember vinyl). The predicted replacement did not occur and vinyl held on until the CD. TV was predicted to be the end of movies. That also didn't happen. For the foreseeable future the DVD and VCR will exist side by side. To be as complete as possible we can not present a site on home theater without something about VCR. Many people are now moving to hard drives for the TV, such as TiVo. I have a section in progress about this new technology if you are interested click here.
The main advantage of the VCR is 'recordability'. Right now, DVD burners are in their infancy and the media is very expensive. The VCR is still the primary means of time shifting, recording a program to view later. The VCR also provides access to many independent films not available on DVD. There are also many people, myself included, that have rather large libraries of VCR tapes with favorite films on them. Here we will consider the most popular features of the video cassette recorder.
There are three speeds available on a VCR; SP (standard play) LP (long play) and EP or SLP (extended play). For a normal size tape SP provides 2 hours, LP four hours and EP six hours. As the speed decreases from SP to EP the quality diminishes. Most purchased tapes are recorded in SP mode. Most VCRs will playback all three speeds although many newer models now can record only in SP and EP. Tapes are available to permit up to ten hours recording in EP mode.
All VCRs permit you to program way in advance of the actual show time you want to tape. Be realistic here. Do you really need to program a year in advance? Even a month ahead is more than most people need. A week or two is enough. Look for an easy menu to program. The on screen display should be clear and easy to read and understand. Most modern recorders have VCR+. With this system you enter a long, cryptic number found in the TV Guide next to the program you want to tape. It automatically sets the date, start time and duration. This system takes some initial set up time since you have to enter in the channel numbers for all stations. Once this is done the rest is very easy. Occasionally there are errors in the codes so always check to make sure the resultant information is correct. You should also be able to record on the fly. Again, most systems allow you to limit the duration of the tape event either by directly entering the length of time or by inputting the actual time to stop recording.
Older models used an arbitrary digital count to locate material on the tape. This is now mostly replaced with an actual time counter that displays the actual elapsed time of the program.
Unlike the DVD with it's chapters, the VCR tape has to be positioned by using the tape counter to get to the portion of the tape you desire. Most models now have a means to return to the 0 position of the counter. Many modern recorders also have a means to position the tape to the start of a program when there are several programs on a single tape. This system places a special magnetic marker at the start of the program (done automatically when you hit record) and the recorder can then search for this marker to position the tape at the start of that program.
Most recorders now have several inputs. One should be a coaxial input for cable television. The others should be sets of three RCA jacks, red for right audio, white for left audio and yellow for video. At least one of these sets of jacks should be located on the front of the unit to permit hooking up a video camera or to make dubbing from one recorder to another easier.
Stereo Hi-Fi sound is about the best you can hope fore here. A stereo VCR can play Dolby ProLogic tapes provided you are hooked up to a ProLogic or Dolby Surround receiver. Expect some pops and tape hiss especially in EP mode.
Freeze frame, slow motion etc. are all available of most recorders. Don't worry about them. You'll hardly ever use them and they damage the tape. One feature that you will find useful is the ability to jump to a specific program on the tape. This seems to be standardized since I have a couple of VCRs and the marking used to denote the start of a program can be read by another VCR.
When setting up your VCR make sure any speakers near by are magnetically shielded. Most home theater speakers now are but make sure. Not only will an unshielded speaker degrade a tape it can magnetize the tape head causing bad recording and playback.