Consumer Reports calls it 'a buyer's market,' and indeed, stalking the wilds of today's VCR jungle can turn up bargains galore - but for those with big bucks to spend, it's a haven as well.
With intense opposition and exploding technology, the best VCR values for the average consumer seem to be in the less expensive models, the $200 to $400 range, which now have many luxury features previously available only on top-of-the line products.
Most units in this price range offer remote control, one-touch recording, on-screen programming (a big plus for many who find this a perplexing function) and the HQ, or higher quality, feature that reduces video noise and makes for crisper picture edges. Some have stereo.
But if you want to move up, there's plenty of room at the top. With prices ranging up to $2,000, there are gadgets galore on these upper echelon models.
High-tech features include pulse-code modulation (a recording technique similar to compact disc players), digital noise reduction, hi-fi with MTS decoder, multi-playback, special motion effects and digital-enhanced freeze action, simulcast (FM and TV) recording capability, easier on-screen programming with bar codes and pen lights, strobe for stop-action frames and picture-in-picture, which on some models divides the screen into nine sections.
The new Super-VHS format, delivering a much sharper, better detailed picture, has eclipsed many of the more elaborate standard VHS models. JVC, which invented Super-VHS, recently introduced its latest model, loaded with glitzy features, priced $1,299. There is also a comparable Enhanced Definition Beta format.
The trend is toward digitalization and more sophisticated, integrated audio-video systems, with an added accent on sound, especially enhanced stereo and surround sound, to capture more of the theater experience at home.
With the proper equipment, you now can watch 'Top Gun' or 'Star Wars' in surround sound and swear you were at the movies.
Prices for a sound system vary widely, from several hundred to several thousand dollars. One deep-pocket example is an 'instant theater sound right out of the box,' as Video Magazine described the new HTS Theater Reference System, with its logic decoder, five speakers, sub-woofer and other equipment, selling for $9,600.
New TV models are appearing on the scene with built-in extras to vastly improve VCR sound, some with surround decoding. Others, with digital chips, are displaying sharper, higher-definition images on their big screens.
A dual-deck VCR, from Go-Video Inc., with several innovative copying and editing capabilities, is expected to hit the market in the coming months. Combination TV-VCRs, grouped in a single unit, are on the market now.
For pure portability, there's a battery-operated unit with a 5-inch screen fed by 8mm tape. It can fit in a briefcase.
As an alternative, the durable laser videodisc, with excellent picture and sound quality but without recording ability as of now, is making inroads into the VCR market.
With so many models to choose from, the buyer could easily get confused. The first determination to make is how will it be used and how much do you want to pay.
If you are basically interested in 'time-shifting,' recording a TV program for later viewing, either VHS or Beta is fine. If you want to watch motion pictures and other pre-recorded material, you likely will opt for VHS since rental films in that format are easily found, while Beta movies are not.
It almost seems like an understatement to say the VCR has revolutionized home entertainment. It struck a responsive chord with millions of Americans, giving them an incredible freedom of choice. Back then, Time magazine called it a 'video jukebox.'
Now in its second decade, it is one of the fastest evolving of all consumer products. A recent Gallup poll indicated that about 65 percent of American homes now have at least one VCR and one in 10 has more than one.
Sony was first with its Beta format, then came VHS, which now holds a commanding 10-1 edge. Since 1975, there have been an estimated 62.6 million VCRs sold in this country.
VCRs also spawned a satellite industry, the thousands of video stores in every nook and cranny of America, stocked with all the latest movies. Surveys show the average VCR owner routinely rents one a week.
Hollywood, which initially feared the new electronic toy, has found a friend in the VCR and makes virtually all productions available on videocassette, sometimes earning more from sales and rentals of a movie than from its theatrical run.
Then there is that rare mega-hit, like 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,' which had advance home video sales of more than $250 million, a figure that reportedly exceeded what MCA-Universal made from all its theatrical movies over the past two years.