Hardware FAQ

Topics loosely related to the Japanese animation hobbies.

(G.C 06.04.00, revised 19.08.06, 28.1.07, 19.10.10)

Oct 2010.  I digitised a huge pile of anime videotapes using a “Dazzle” Digital Video creator 90 USB- connected device (the EasyCap USB device works almost as well), and Microsoft’s Windows Movie Maker software (part of Windows XP, but this tape-digitizing version dropped from Vista and  W7)  This produces a .wmv file at whatever resolution and bitrate you like. I wrote a longer post on this in the Blog (Home).  I used a Pentium 2.8 – a fast processor will let you software encode in real-time which avoids a great deal of grief.

Q. What is NTSC?

A A TV standard with 525 lines and a frame rate of 60Hz, used in USA and Japan.

Q. What is PAL?

A: A TV standard with 625 lines and a frame rate of 50Hz, used in the UK and Europe. PAL is a development of NTSC, with a slightly better resolution and better colour stability when used for broadcasting.

Q. What is SECAM?

A. A TV standard used in France with 625 lines and a frame rate of 50 Hz. SECAM is a development of NTSC and differs from PAL in the method of colour encoding.

Q. What is NICAM?

A. A technique for digital stereo broadcasting, used for TV broadcasting. NICAM VCRs also use a digital audio signal recorded and replayed by helical scan heads to provide hifi stereo. All modern “Stereo”, “HiFI Stereo” or “Nicam” VCRs use this technique, but this was not always the case, and tapes exist which were recorded with two linear stereo tracks – definitely not hi-fi!

The digital hi-fi stereo recording system works under both PAL and NTSC and may be found on the more expensive multi-standard VCRs as well as on NTSC-play-on PAL machines (q.v).

Q. How can I play back a NTSC tape?

A. You use a NTSC VCR and a NTSC TV. If you live in the UK, this is really not the answer you want to hear, and in fact much UK market equipment comes equipped to work a clever technical fudge called “NTSC-Play”, or “NTSC Play on Pal TV”. You need to understand a few things, the first being that it is just a Play fudge, and you cannot use it as a standards converter, or for recording. Essentially, what happens is that part of the NTSC colour information is discarded, and the remainder used to make a replica of a PAL colour signal (4.43 MHz) that the PAL TV circuits will decode. The frame rate remains at 60 Hz, not 50 Hz, but most modern TVs don’t mind this, and the height and frame lock are seamlessly adjusted so that you don’t notice anything odd. The result is not perfect, but sufficiently good that only the most
fanatic viewers will want to invest in a proper NTSC VCR/TV lineup. TV sets that accept a true NTSC (3.58 MHz) colour signal are neither common nor cheap in the UK. (but see note on DVDs)

On some VCRs, selection is automatic, while in others you have to set switches.

Q. Can you recommend a good VCR for playing back NTSC tapes (for UK market)?

A. It’s not practical to do so; there are dozens of candidates in production, and the manufacturers update their ranges every few months. It’s also worth bearing in mind the following: a few years ago, it was possible to buy VCRs on the UK market that would record and play in true NTSC (3.58 MHz) as well as the 4.43 Mhz NTSC – to – PAL fudge. These two versions of NTSC cause immense confusion among “near-expert users”, not least because of the amount of automatic switching built into the equipment. Now, a few exotics excepted, the only way you can get the capability to record in true NTSC is to buy one of the “Multistandard” or “Export” VCRs available from London dealers, or track down one of the old Panasonic UK models.

Q. Are there any snags attached to buying a “Multistandard” VCR?

A. Yes. They tend to be a little more expensive, and servicing may be a problem, especially if it turns out to be a “grey import”. I tried to get a fault mended in my Sharp do-everything VCR, and the local repairers, after making confident noises, eventually just handed the machine back unrepaired.

Q. What is Laserdisk?

A. This is a quite old technology (as old as VHS tape), very popular in Japan but not much seen elsewhere, where video is recorded in the form of tiny digital pits recorded in a spiral on a large (30cm dia) silvery disc. Originally the sound was analogue, but now the sound is analogue and digital, or digital only, a fact that may cause some vexation to purchasers of laserdisc players. In common with exotic tape formats like Hi-8 and SVHS, the colour is recorded at a high frequency rather than being transformed to a low frequency as in domestic VHS. This accounts for the superior quality of laserdisc (its principal selling point). The sound is two-channel hi-fi stereo. Both PAL and NTSC laserdiscs exist, but as far as anime is concerned, all laserdiscs are NTSC. The players cost from £300 upwards (and if you think that’s expensive, I’ll remind you of the old saw “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it”).

Q. What is DVD?

A. This is a disk-based system using CD-sized (5 1/4″) disks, which is emerging from a clutter of incompatible and confusing standards as a competitor to sell-through VHS tape, and laserdiscs. This is a digital system, using new-generation storage technology to store about 4 gigabytes of data (several times the capacity of a CD-ROM) on a CD-sized disk. Advanced compression technology is also used. In video terms, they play for about 75 minutes, depending on the degree of compression used. Potentially, the quality is said to be much better than laserdisk, in a smaller package, but one suspects that the compression will be set to give VHS-type quality and a longer playing time. The disks already on sale sell at a $2 premium over VHS tapes. The companies involved will try to use region-specific encoding to stop you playing, for instance, a USA (Region 1) disk in Europe (Region 2). Note that Japan and Britain are both region 2, hovever.

Q. How can I play back a NTSC DVD? (UK based)

You need a player that plays NTSC DVDs AND can play back DVDs of the relevant region (usually R1 for US releases).
In fact many UK market players do play back NTSC. The problem is then what exactly do they output, and is it compatible with your equipment. Some convert the NTSC to PAL-60, just as VCRs used to do, and your TV will almost certainly accept this. Some (e.g. most Sony) just output pure NTSC, and unless you have an upmarket TV (e.g. a Sony) that accepts this as a line input, you will have a problem! Some responsible retailers (e.g. Amazon.co.uk) will flag this as a potential problem, but other retailers may not even be able to advise you! Another way around this problem that may work is to cable RGB video from the player direct to the RGB socket on the TV. This has the further benefit of improving the picture quality very noticeably.

There is still the question of the sound. DVD players offer both analog and digital sound, so it is worth checking what exactly your kit and the player do, particularly if you want hifi stereo, Dolby, or surround sound. Beware of DTS sound, offered on some new DVDs and supported by many recent players, as unless your DVD player AND your AV amplifier support it, the result may be silence!

Please note that the question of playing the relevant region is a completely separate issue -see below.

Q. Can I get a DVD player that plays all regions?

Players with an “all regions” setting do exist. However DVD players sold in your High Street will be local region only – that’s R2 for the UK and Europe. If you buy by mail order you can probably find the same models, but offered in an all-region converted form, for a similar price. It is common to meet with machines in which the region setting can be changed via the remote control handset, using a “secret” code. Somewhat surprisingly, almost all machines are manufactured with this multi-region capability, and are then locked into one region before leaving the factory. The “all regions hack” then consists of un-doing this factory dis-ablement. In most cases, a dealer can be found who will supply machines hacked with the relevant all-region hack for a premium of about £50 UKP. ($75). Sales of all-region, hacked or hackable DVD’s apparently comprise about 60% of sales in the UK, as buyers give the finger to regional encoding!

Q. What does an all-region hack consist of?

It depends on the manufacturer. (Search the Net using the name of a machine you want to buy, and you may find details of the hack for it). In some cases you just enter a special code with the tray open, to access a menu. In others you just solder in a link on the PCB. In others the information is in an EPROM or EEPROM memory, and defeating it means a messy hack and soldering another chip under the board.

Q. What is “Surround Sound”?

A. This is a technology for using multiple speakers to reproduce the effect of ambient sound, usually in conjunction with video. Currently in “Dolby Surround”, signals are decoded from two input channels into “left”, “right”, “Center” (one speaker each) and “Rear” (two speakers, one signal), but this is being replaced by a system using five discrete channels. For best results, it is essential to use a discrete amplifier and five or six special (and fairly expensive) speakers. As for the results, most anime tapes give some sort of surround effect, even when they don’t have “surround” on the cassette box. And a few give stunning results that would sell a surround system to anybody. (While not cheap, Surround is well worth having. If you rely on the TV sound, you are not getting full value out of your tapes or DVDs.

Q. Can I use a DVD recorder to convert my old VHS to DVD?

You can, but note that as of Jan 2007 this isn’t yet a mature technology. There are significant differences in the
performance of different brands, and I have heard of various problems.

One problem is that of serious unreliabity of the writing laser assemblies. There are models that you just should not buy without researching their user feedback thoroughly on the Web (Philips DVDR880 for instance). Another is the lack of disc standardisation, with DVD+R, DVD-R, DVD+RW. DVD-RW, recorded in DVD-Video or DVD-VR, not to mention the excellent but expensive DVD-RAM disks.
If you record on one machine and then try to play back in a different player, whether it works or not is a lottery.
Another problem is how quickly the machine gets going when you want to make a recording. Buy the wrong one and you’ll miss the opening minutes of a lot of programmes!

Tips – be prepared to pay for quality – Panasonic models are good, they record in DVD-VR and can finalise to DVD-Video, and they start recording in about 1 second. They give results that are quite good in LP (4hrs on disk), and even better on SP.
A friend swears that the tapes copied to his Panasonic look better than the originals (it has input processing).

It can be difficult to establish if a DVD recorder will record in NTSC, but some do. My Panasonic does, but it’s not multi-region.

Oct 2010 comment: You can record tapes to DVD-r nicely using a Panasonic recorder.  But making a proper job with titles and menus is a slow task.  If you have a huge collection of tapes to convert, consider instead converting them to mpeg4 and directly to computer hard drive storage.

Q. What can I do with a PC-TV card?

A: You can watch TV (+ Teletext) on your PC screen. This only works properly, in practice, if your PC is fast enough, which generally means a P166 or better. If it’s on the slow side, it will only work in a tiny window. You also need a high quality aerial; a set-top aerial will NOT work.

The other thing you can do with a PC-TV Card is to capture stills and video clips (and Teletext). For stills, an older Pentium or maybe a 486DX2 will suffice. I recommend the Hauppauge cards and their software; buy anything else and you may well find that it just doesn’t work properly. The Hauppauge cards cope with multiple video formats, i.e. PAL, NTSC etc. They cost from about £60 / $90, which is great value.

Q. What about capturing video to my hard disk or writable DVD?

A You can. You might be happier using a set-top hard-disk recorder.

Notes on using older PC-TV cards:

1) beware of old cards that don’t have Win XP drivers. They may be fine with Win98, but if you try to upgrade them to XP you may enter a “driver hell” and spend hours achieving nothing.

2) Part of “driver hell” is that there are two series of drivers for video cards: VFW and WDM, and they aren’t compatible. Some video capture and editing programs work Ok with VFW and some with WDM.

3) Some cards have MPEG1 & MPEG2 hardware compression built in (any other kind of hardware compression eg divx is very rare). Fast PCs eg 2GHz won’t need it, very slow ones eg 500MHz will require it.

4) You can also do avi recording – means various uncompressed and compressed formats including MPEG4, divx, xvid but not MPEG2.

5) AVI recording can be the first step in an editing and re-recording process.

6) On the other hand you can record straight from tape to avi, eg. to xvid. This can be very convenient. I found that this “just worked” – all I had to do was select the compression codecs which were on the computer anyway.

7) If you try avi recording, and it doesn’t look too good, be aware that with some cards, notably Hauppauge, the maximum resolution for avi recording is set by the drivers at something like 320×240, even if the card hardware supports higher resolutions. In the case of Hauppauge this is not documented, and I only found out about it after some hours of surfing for information.

8.) There are drivers available for bt848 and bt878 based cards that let you encode avi at the full hardware resolution, e.g. “btwincap”, “conexantbtpci” but these are writen by third parties. I tried the btwincap driver, downloaded from Sourceforge, and it did seem to encode at 640×480, but the Hauppauge WinTV2000 app would not work with it.

9) Nero have a video capture & DVD creation app. called Nero Vision Express which you may have already in an OEM software bundle. Try it and see if it works for you.

10) Don’t assume that even with a PVR with MPEG2 hardware encoding the prosess of making a playable DVD will be painless – you may, especially with earlier products like the Hauppauge PCI PVR for Win98, have to do some fiddly re-encoding first.

11) Be cautious with USB-based products as the USB connection is a throttle. USB1 is best avoided and USB2 limits the data rate so that some recording won’t work as well as with a PCI card.

12) There is much information on the Net about various products e.g. Hauppauge. Much of it discusses problems…

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