Home Electronics: VHS Still on Deck

<< Back to Robb Report, October 2002

I realize that people tend to lose track of time as they get older, but has it really been that long since the introduction of DVD? It has only been a couple of years since the medium really took off, but the next advancement in home theater has already arrived, and it is significant enough to catch the eye of the most dedicated videophile.

The new technology is called Digital-VHS, or D-VHS. Currently, it is the only technology that allows you to record and replay high-definition material from television. JVC, the company behind D-VHS, hopes to satisfy a niche market in home theater while at the same time extending the life of the VHS format, which has been losing favor to DVDs faster than Secretariat coming down the final stretch. For true HD enthusiasts, D-VHS is, at the very least, an attractive stopgap until HD-DVD becomes available.

Fortunately for JVC, tape is the only readily available (and popular) medium for recording high-definition, feature-length movies. A D-VHS tape can hold up to 44 gigabytes of information, enough to record four hours of movies shot in high definition or 24 hours of standard-definition material. Conventional DVDs, on the other hand, are limited to just a few gigabytes of storage and can display only standard-resolution images. Other devices, such as hard drives and personal video recorders, can capture and replay broadcasts in HD mode, but their inability to accommodate removable media, such as discs and tapes, limits their usefulness.

To be sure, D-VHS has its disadvantages. As with standard VHS tape, D-VHS tape will degrade over time. Also, taping is a linear process, so the random access feature (in which a viewer can cue a specific scene in a movie) that is so popular with DVD viewers doesn’t exist with D-VHS.

But for those who want to record or view high-definition material, D-VHS holds an unassailable advantage, at least temporarily: It’s available now. D-VHS machines are already on the market and can play the older tapes, too. Just when HD-DVD will become available is uncertain, because DVD manufacturers have agreed only in theory on a new standard, dubbed Blu-ray, which will permit DVDs to store feature-length film in high definition. Hollywood isn’t waiting for a consensus on Blu-ray, however. The studios are salivating over a version of D-VHS, called D-Theater, which prevents people from duplicating prerecorded material. Four major studios have announced the release of limited titles in D-VHS, including Terminator 2: Judgment Day, U-571, Independence Day, and Die Hard. More will surely follow, and to take advantage of the strength of high definition, they will likely be films that feature heavy doses of special effects.

Ironically, if D-VHS proves popular, it could hasten its own demise. The adoption of HDTV in the United States has not been as rapid as the industry anticipated and is still considered to be somewhat of a niche market. But at $2,000, the price tag of a D-VHS machine, such as JVC’s HM-DH30000U, may be reasonable enough to accelerate the transition. That could spur DVD makers to work even more expeditiously to catch up. Holding all things including picture quality and hardware availability equal, it’s not hard to imagine HD-DVD swiftly overtaking its tape counterpart.

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