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Will your video tapes do a vanishing act?

There's no label saying so, but be warned: VHS tapes don't last forever. Those personal, irreplaceable videos--be they of the big game, the birth of a child, your wedding, baby's first steps--one day could break down. It probably won't happen, though, because today's VCR tapes are too good and ways to extend their lives too easy. The trouble is, no one seems to know exactly how long those tapes will remain operable.

"You have to keep an eye on your tapes," notes Bill Drysdale, Fuji's Consumer Video Product Manager. "But if they're stored properly, they should last 20 years or more."

"There's no absolute answer to how long your tapes will last," indicates Bob Fontana, TDK's Manager of Customer and Technical Services. "But it's safe to assume that, with proper care, 25 years or more can be expected. The real question is whether or not the hardware will exist to reproduce the recordings."

"It all depends on how they're stored," explains Patricia Glotzbier, Maxell's Technical Applications Specialist for Consumer Products. "Under optimum conditions, a tape can last more than 30 years.

"Actually," adds Andrew Mougis, Sony's Senior Vice President of Consumer and Professional Tapes, "it's very difficult to say. No one really knows for sure. I have Beta tapes from the late 1970s that I'm still using now. I've heard a lot of numbers tossed around; a decade, 15 years, 20 years. You can't really say. The industry's still new. It hasn't gone through the test of time."

All the manufacturers USA Today spoke with, however, do agree on one thing--the best way to store VHS tapes. They should be kept upright in airtight containers (or at least their jackets) in a cool (55-70 [degrees] F) spot with low relative humidity (40-60%). It's that simple. It is best to fast forward and rewind the tapes at least once a year (every six months is even better). Of course, for fail-safe insurance, make a copy of your most precious tapes. True, it's a bother, especially for individuals with extensive video libraries. And, as a hard-bitten consumer, you probably deserve a package warning--some sort of written alert from the manufacturers--but none is forthcoming. So save yourself from anxiety overload and make the dupes--now! Moreover, take heart, because, for all its annoying pitfalls, modern technology has given Americans the most advanced home theaters in the world.

"Tape technology today certainly is better than it used to be," Maxell's Glotzbier points out. "The most important advancements have occurred in the binder systems. It's not the oxide particles on the tape that break down, it's the binders that adhere the metal particles to the tape. When they become rear-ranged, you lose information. Moving a tape from hot to cold or vice versa causes condensation between the layers, and thus the breakdown."

All tapes are the same

"Fundamentally," points out TDK's Fontana, "all tapes are the same; they come from virtually the same raw materials. Film bases, too, are universal. Where that sameness ends is in the know-how of the individual manufacturer. There's the coding technology, the slitting operations, the molding process. Remember, though, that all manufacturers must meet minimum standards set down by the industry itself, not the government." Naturally, the further above the minimum standard, the better--especially for the consumer.

"About two years ago, Fuji came up with a double coating process," says Drysdale. "The particles on a tape are different sizes. Most manufacturers mix them all on one layer. We decided to separate them into two distinct layers. One layer is totally devoted to the video signal, and the other to the audio signal."

"The consumer has fewer choices concerning video tapes as compared to audio tapes," SONY's Mougis indicates. "VHS tapes are all oxide, no matter whose tapes you're talking about. Some are high energy, like our V tapes. In general, the oxide particles have become smaller and smaller, which makes the resolution better. In the past, you had to buy a high-grade tape to get real quality. Now, all tapes are of pretty good quality."

For its part, says Glotzbier, "Maxell now uses black magnetic particles in a third of the tape. This enhances the magnetic energy of the tape and helps the over-all clarity of the picture."

"From a longevity point of view," TDK's Fontana points out, "VHS tapes are about the same as five years ago, but picture-quality wise, there has been noticeable improvement. Regardless, tape is not a true medium for archiving material. It's not permanent. It can be erased. Repeated plays and the conditions under which the recordings are played can have an effect. Wha happens by the year 2000 depends on digital technology and the marketplace. Archiving in the true sense of the word will mean transferring recordings to the newer, mainstream formats."

"I don't know how quickly consumers would be willing to turn over new technology," Maxell's Glotzbier notes. "Unlike the 8-track, or LPs, people are very satisfied with their VCRs. Still, I wouldn't be shocked to see video-tape giving way to laser disks in 10 years."

"I'd give it more than 10 years," Fuji's Drysdale predicts. "Just look at the size of the market. VCR sales are still experiencing double-digit growth [which may help explain why videocassette recorders for high-definition television are on the nearby horizon]. The reality is, tape is a complex item that's very simple to operate. In today's world, ease and simplicity go a long way."

Digital era is here

According to Mougis, however, "the digital era of video recording is already here. Analog is no longer the thing, at least in the professional side of the industry. It's almost like comparing the CD and the vinyl record--there is no comparison. For instance, future technology will grant the consumer random access. If you don't want to watch the next 20 minutes of your recording, you can jump right into the next segment--in the blink of an eye. Now you have to fast forward, and that takes minutes instead of seconds.

"Let's face it, there are only a handful of reasons for technology to change: making the product less expensive; better quality; smaller, more efficient storage; and copyability." The latter means that "digital copies will be perfect--exact replicas. We don't have that today."

Nor do VHS tapes have metal backing, an element found on camcorder eight millimeter tapes. Instead, they make do with an oxide coating, which can flake off with time. Remember, though, that the camcorder can serve as its own VCR. "You can't compare the two systems; it's apples and oranges," explains Sony Public Relations Manager Brian Levine. "The mechanics of the camcorder require metal coated tape."

Adds Mougis, "Eight mm is one-fifth the size of standard VHS tapes, and you get a better image. It's one phase beyond VHS. Eight mm decks are available, but they're a small part of the business." He then concludes: "No one is complaining about VCR and VHS quality, but that's because they haven't seen the future yet."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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