HD Advisor Flashback

Posted Fri Sep 11, 2009 at 12:00 PM PDT by

Editor's Note: Our HD Advisor is taking a much-needed vacation this week. During his absence, rather than run a new Q&A, we're digging back into the archives. Way back. All the way back to this week in September, 1985. Picture the scene with us, if you will. It was a time painted in neon colors and propelled to the electronic beat of a synthesizer soundtrack. A time when a man could look his most masculine wearing a pink T-shirt under a white designer suit and loafers without socks. A time when it simply wasn't possible to own enough Swatches.

It was also a time when High Definition was still the stuff of science fiction. Nonetheless, people needed advice with their TVs. So hop in your DeLorean, gun it to 88 mph, and take a trip back in time with us for this special Flashback Edition of the "TV Advisor."

Answers by Joshua Zyber

Betamax vs. VHS

Q: Dear TV Advisor, I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but which is better, VHS or Beta? I know it will be totally rad being able to watch movies at home whenever I want, but the machines are so expensive. I can't afford to spend $500 a piece on both of them. Which format has better quality, and which do you think will win the format war?

A: In terms of picture quality, Betamax has an advantage over VHS. Beta tapes have slightly higher resolution (250 lines vs. 240) and less crosstalk. However, VHS tapes can record longer. When it comes to pre-recorded movies, that's shouldn't be too big of a deal. But if you plan to record a lot of TV shows yourself, VHS is probably the better option.

At this point in time, VHS has a dominant lead over Betamax in sales. Sony is a stubborn company, so I'm sure Beta will stick it out for a while longer anyway, but in most likelihood VHS will eventually win the format war.

With that said, if you're really looking for the best picture quality, you should look into laserdisc players. LDs have much higher resolution than either tape format (425 lines). On the downside, laserdisc players can't record. Also, due to their limited capacity of 1 hour per side maximum in CLV format or 30 minutes per side in CAV, most movies need to be broken up to at least 2 or 3 sides. Flipping and swapping discs can be an inconvenience, but it's worth it for the improved picture.

Antenna Input on TV

Q: TV Advisor, I really want to buy a VHS machine, but the back of my TV only has connections for its antenna. Could I still hook up the VHS, or do I need to buy a fancier new TV first?

A: The standard A/V output for most VCRs is the coaxial connection. That's the cable with the spiky end and the screw-on connector. If you head over to your local Radio Shack, you should be able to find an adaptor that will allow you to connect a coaxial cable to your TV's antenna inputs. It shouldn't cost more than a dollar or two.

"Letterbox" Bars

Q: I just bought a copy of 'Manhattan' on laserdisc. I think it's defective. It has weird gray bars covering parts of the picture. I exchanged it at Tower Records for another copy, but still have the same problem. What's going on here? Why can't I see the whole movie? Is my LD player broken?

A: There's nothing wrong with your player or the disc. It turns out that the 'Manhattan' laserdisc is one of the first movies to be released in a new format called "letterbox." They call it that because it kind of looks like you're watching TV through a narrow mail slot.

Apparently, Woody Allen himself requested this. You see, when you go to a movie theater, the screen there is much wider than your TV. The movies are photographed to fit that wide screen. When most movies come to TV or video later, they're put through a process called "pan and scan" where essentially the sides of the picture are cut off so that the middle will fit your TV screen. Sometimes you lose a lot of picture this way, up to half.

The "letterbox" format attempts to compensate for this by shrinking the size of the wide movie image until the whole thing fits on your screen. Of course, that will leave empty space above and below the picture. That's what the bars are. You're actually not losing any picture on the top and bottom; you're getting more on the sides, but the picture has to be smaller.

"Letterbox" may take some getting used to. Give it a try and see if you can learn to ignore the bars. Personally, I think it was a mistake for the people who transferred 'Manhattan' to make the bars gray. I think that's a little distracting. I hope that future movies in the "letterbox" format use black bars instead.

How to Get a CED out of the Case?

Q: I recently picked up a SelectaVision player at a yard sale. I know the format was discontinued recently, but the player was so cheap I couldn't resist. I figure I can collect some inexpensive movies for now while I save up for one of those cassette tape machines. The seller even threw in a few free movies. Here's my problem: I can't figure out how to get the movies out of those darn plastic cases, or how to put them in the player. Help!

A: Actually, you're not supposed to take the CED disc out of its plastic caddy yourself. You insert the whole caddy into the machine. The player will remove the disc, and then you can extract the caddy. When it's time to take out the disc, put the caddy back in the player.

Digital Audio on Laserdisc

Q: I thought laserdisc players could also play CDs? My rich friend has a CD player and likes to rub it in everybody's face. He gave me a Thompson Twins CD for my birthday, even though he knows my family doesn't have that kind of money to buy a CD player. That's like $800! Do you know how many Swatches I could buy for that? Anyway, my school recently got a Pioneer laserdisc player (model LD-V4000). I thought I could listen to the CD on that, but I tried it and it didn't work.

A: In order to play a CD, you'll need a laserdisc player with digital audio capability. CDs are a digital audio format. Unfortunately, not all LD players have that ability.

When the laserdisc format was first created, it only supported analog audio. Digital audio is a recent development. Many movies released on the format these days contain both analog and digital versions of the soundtrack.

With the Pioneer brand, you can tell whether a player supports digital audio by its model number. Digital models will begin with a "CLD" prefix, which indicates that they're CD/LD combi players.

The LD-V4000 is an industrial model sold to corporations and schools. Sadly, the industrial models still do not support digital audio.

Homework Assignment: You Be the TV Advisor

The TV Advisor knows many things, but he doesn't know everything. Some questions that the TV Advisor receives are best answered by our readers. If you can help to answer the following question, please send your response in a letter to TV Advisor Headquarters. Your advice and opinions matter too!

Cable TV Remote Control Boxes

Q: We recently had cable TV installed. I can't believe how many channels there are to watch. We have over 30! And the picture is so much less wavy or snowy than it was with our antenna. We just have one problem: when our kids run around the house, they keep tripping over the remote control's cord. I'm afraid they're going to break it. The cable company says they don't make a cordless version. Do you have any tips for what to do with the remote control box so that it's still convenient to change the channel, but not always in the way?

That will conclude our Flashback column. The HD Advisor will be back to his normal schedule with brand new questions and answers next week. If you have home theater questions you need answered, send an email to HDanswers@gmail.com. To browse through previously answered questions, visit the main HD Advisor page. In the meantime, keep those questions coming.

Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.

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