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Watching brief

Coming soon: videos that can tell you what's on each tape and then find your programme. George Cole reports

* Imagine being able to wave a video-cassette in front of your video-recorder and have the tape contents instantly displayed on your television screen. It may sound futuristic, but Sony has developed such a system. Known as SmartFile, it could be a boon to anyone who has piles of unmarked tapes.

SmartFile video-recorders are available in the United States, but will reach Britain later this year. SmartFile uses an ultra-thin memory chip inside a cassette label (that's right, the label). Whenever a video recording is made, the time, channel and duration of the programme are automatically stored in the memory chip.

By placing your cassette near one of two sensors mounted on the VCR (one is at the front of the machine, the other inside), your television set will reveal what recordings are stored on the tape. If you move an on-screen cursor to the programme you want to view, the tape winds on to find it.

There are two types of SmartFile recorders. The most basic requires owners to add the title to the programme information stored in the memory chip. Titles are manually inserted by using keys on the video-recorder's remote control handset. But a more sophisticated SmartFile recorder automatically adds the title.

There is just one fly in the ointment: in the US, a system called TV Guide transmits all the relevant programme information. In Britain, another system, Program Delivery Control (PDC), works in a similar way but is only available on Channel 4 and some BBC programmes.

A few ITV channels occasionally carry out PDC tests. However, many people expect PDC will become more widespread because most new videos are equipped with PDC circuitry.

The PDC system is used to ensure that the video recording timer only starts working when the programme is transmitted, which is handy if the programme starts later than the published time.

SmartFile also lets you see at a glance how much recording time is left on a tape, and recordings can be selected and "locked" so that they cannot be recorded over accidentally.

Sony's SmartFile videos will also feature SmartLink, a system that allows a television and video-recorder to communicate to each other via a special cable. Using the SmartLink system you can download the television channels into the video's tuner so that both machines share the same programme settings.

And if you are watching a television programme and suddenly decide that you want to tape it, you can just press the video's record button. The SmartLink system will automatically change the channel on your video so that it matches the television channel - so you won't accidentally record the wrong programme because your video is set on a different channel.

It seems that at long last, the foolproof video recorder is almost here.

s Sony, The Heights, Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey KT13 0XW. Tel: 0181 784 1144

* Ever have trouble locating the video recorder's remote control handset? Sharp has developed remote control pagers and is expected to launch them in Britain this year. If you can't find your remote control, just press a button on the front of the video and the handset will flash and beep.

Another new arrival will be Digital Versatile Disc, a system which stores high-quality moving video pictures and sound on a CD-sized disc. The idea is not new: the video CD system, launched several years ago, stores films on CD. But their capacity and quality are very different.

DVD holds from seven to 30 times more information than a video CD. As a result, it can store better sound and picture quality (DVD pictures are clearer than VHS, video CD and even laser-disc video discs). Each side of a DVD disc can store 135 minutes of video, and there are also discs that can hold twice this. Dual-layer discs are also being developed which will put two separate layers of video on each side of a disc.

DVDoffersmulti-channel sound, multiple language soundtracks and sub-titles, and there are even interactive titles that let you, for example, select different camera angles. Unlike music CDs, which can be bought and played anywhere in the world, DVD players and discs are not internationally compatible. An American disc, for example, cannot be played in a European DVD player.

The reason is that Hollywood studios want to protect the system whereby films are released around the world at different times (it's not unusual for a film to appear on video in America before it reaches British cinemas).

DVD players will be launched in Britain by many of the leading electronics companies from late spring. The players will cost between pound;500 and pound;700. The first DVD titles will be films, and are likely to cost between pound;20 to pound;30 each.

Some people believe that the system will ultimately replace VHS for people watching pre-recorded video. DVDs don't wear out and it is easy to find a specific scene or sequence (there's no need to wind through metres of video tape). But do not throw away your video just yet because the first DVD players available will not be able to record.

However, recordable machines have been made, although they can only record about two hours of video. But discs with longer recording times are being developed.

For many years, pundits have predicted the demise of the VHS recorder. That is still a long way off, but the arrival of the DVD system could herald the beginning of the end for the video tape recorder at home and in school.

* Sharp, Thorpe Road, Newton Heath,Manchester M10 9BE. Tel: 0161 205 2333

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