The venerable VCR is one of the unsung casualties of the move to digital television. Consumers who have used the devices for years to record over-the-air or cable channels will soon be losing key features as both systems go from analog to digital transmissions. They will be left to choose from a few jerry-built or pricey solutions.
"What we're witnessing is that the VCR is becoming a little bit more obsolete," said Amina Fazlullah, a legislative counsel at the U.S. Public Interest Resource Group who has focused on the transition to digital television.
VCRs have been on the way out for years, of course. DVDs replaced video tapes long ago at video rental stores. More recently, cutting-edge consumers have moved on to DVRs or to watching video directly downloaded or streamed from the Internet.
But the VCR is still a prized piece of equipment for many Americans. Some 72 percent of U.S. households with a TV also have a VCR, according to research group Nielsen. While the number of homes with a VCR has been declining, it's still much larger than the number of homes with DVRs. Just 24 percent of TV-owning households have one of the newer recording devices.
The humble VCR has hung around because many consumers had few reasons to upgrade and good reasons not to. DVD recorders came out years after the first DVD players — and were pricey to boot. DVRs are usually designed to work primarily with pay TV systems, and even then are typically available only with a monthly fee.
In contrast, there are no fees for using VCRs, and they do a decent job of recording analog television. Plus, video cassettes are cheap. Many consumers have built up sizable libraries of personal and Hollywood-produced videos on tape. Those are not easily transferable to other formats, and they're costly to replace.
"What you find in a lot of homes " is they've got a wonderful tape collection, and they need a player to play it on," said Michael Greeson, president of The Diffusion Group, a technology research and consulting firm.
But the VCR will lose some of its usefulness, thanks to the transition from analog to digital transmissions. Broadcasters nationwide are slated to shut off their analog signals by mid June. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, Comcast plans to move all channels, except those from local stations, to digital transmission by the end of the year.
Only the latest models of VCRs have digital tuners, so most can't be used to tune in digital signals, whether they're coming in over the airwaves or via a cable provider. To continue to record television with their VCRs, most consumers will have to use a cable set-top or broadcast converter box to translate digital signals into analog ones the VCR can understand.
Not only does that add another box to consumer's entertainment centers, but also prevents them from watching one program while recording another. What's more, VCR owners won't be able to program the device to record particular channels at specific times.
There are work arounds, but they can be convoluted. For instance, VCR owners could watch one program and record another if they hooked up a second converter box to the same television, with the second box sending its signal directly to the TV instead of to the VCR. Such a setup not only requires yet another box in the living room, but also would likely require extra equipment. They might need a device to split the incoming video signal, as well as a switch to choose between the two signals going to their TV.
San Francisco resident Linda Lee threw up her hands after struggling to figure out how to connect her older VCR to her new digital converter box and her older television.
"I don't understand the wiring," said Lee. "There's got to be an easier way."
Consumers may find it easier to replace their VCRs with new equipment. But that can be pricey — and they still may lose key features.
Swapping out an old VCR with a new one that has a digital tuner, for instance, doesn't solve the problem of not being able to watch one program and record another — unless you swap out an older television for one with a digital tuner as well. And the digitally-enabled VCRs typically won't tune in digital cable, because you generally can't find one that can decode the scrambled signals.
Hayward resident Frankie Soliven-Meglin, 64, swapped out her old VCRs for new ones that have built-in digital tuners. But she's frustrated that with the new digital signals, she can no longer watch one program while recording another.
In talking about the transition to digital broadcast signals, the federal government has told people all they need is the converter boxes, she noted.
"What they're not telling people " is that you won't be able to record as you normally did," she said.
Comcast's analog customers — who represent about 20 to 25 percent of the company's total customer base in the Bay Area — face even fewer options than over-the-air viewers as the company upgrades to digital transmissions. Pretty much the only choices for folks who want to be able to record the digital cable signals directly are the company's own DVR, which costs about $16 a month to rent; a DVR from TiVo, which costs at least $300 plus another $12 a month; or a computer with a cable decoder, which can easily run more than $1,000.
"We don't have the perfect solution yet," for VCR customers affected by the digital transitions, acknowledged Megan Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry trade group. But Pollock expressed faith that if consumers make an issue of these lost features, the manufacturers will respond.
``The marketplace will adapt," she said.
Contact Troy Wolverton at email@example.com or (408) 920-5021.
Why your VCR may be downgraded
The move to digital transmissions by over-the-air broadcasters and Comcast cable may hinder what you can do with your VCR.