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Commercial Killing VCR Performs

By Jim Bray

The machine that started the video revolution, the VCR, is under assault.

As a movie playback medium it’s being challenged – successfully – by DVD’s, and as a TV recorder it’s beginning to take heat from “hard drive-driven” boxes like those from RePlay and TiVo.

As marvelous as they are, however, neither of these newer technologies will play back all those VHS tapes you’ve collected over the years, so as long as you have them taking up shelf space in your home there’s still room for the “old fashioned” VCR.

Hence RCA’s $229 VR702HF, a fully featured VHS unit that’s cheap enough to be nearly an impulse item, yet which performs about as well as most people could want.

About the only thing it won’t do is record and/or play S-VHS tapes, which is too bad. The high quality S-VHS never really caught on, however, so if they’re going to ditch a feature this is probably the right one.

On the other hand, RCA included one of the niftiest features I’ve ever seen on a VCR: Commercial Advance.

Commercial Advance is how I spell “relief.” Available on some RCA, ProScan and GE VCR models of the past few years, it almost completely frees us from the clutches of the Eveready Bunny and Mr. Whipple.

It works by poring over your freshly-made recording, seeking out and marking each commercial break. Then, when you play back the tape, it finds these markings and fast forwards through the commercials, turning a four minute advertising assault into about thirty seconds or so of fast-scanning bliss.

Of course, it means you have to go to the bathroom really, really quickly!

Commercial Advance isn’t perfect, but it’s close. It would occasionally play a commercial or promo, and once in a while it would zip through part of the show by mistake, but for the most part it was a legitimate blessing.

It even skipped RCA commercials!

Another nifty feature, though it didn’t work as well, is “Movie Advance.” This is designed to fast forward through the promos many studios now inflict upon the video movie-consuming public, and cue the tape up to the beginning of the feature itself.

I tried this on two different pre-recorded tapes and it only worked well on one of them. On “Star Wars,” it skipped the promo but, instead of finding the movie’s start, it cued itself up to the George Lucas interview (perhaps this was “The Force” at work?). On another tape, however, it cued to the very first shot of the film, even bypassing the opening logos.

The VR702HF also includes such relatively standard VCR features as four video heads, Hi-Fi stereo audio, the VCR Plus+ “easy” recording feature, and auto clock set. This last feature is a boon for people who could never get that infernal “12:00” to stop flashing at them from the front panel.

RCA throws in a few other nifty toys, too, including a partially back lit universal remote control and an automatic head cleaning system. I couldn’t figure out how to get my head into the tape slot, however, so I can’t comment on how well the VCR cleans.

The initial setup routine, accessed via onscreen menus, is very easy, and the VCR will search for and automatically program all available TV channels. There are also trinkets like front panel audio/video jacks, an energy saving setting, and you can lock your kids out of the VCR so they’ll go read a good book or something.

Okay, they’ll probably just play yet another video game…

One thing that didn’t really turn my crank was the VCR’s lighted buttons. Sure, they make it easy to find what’s what on the front panel, even in a dimly lit room – but since you almost always use the remote control anyway (and since the power button always stays illuminated) it’s unnecessary and a tad obtrusive.

All in all, the VR720HF is a pleasant and easy VCR to use. Its audio and video quality are about what one expects from the VHS format, which means it made me pine for my DVD player (there just isn’t that much worth taping from TV these days).

If, however, your old VCR’s getting a bit long in the tooth, or you need a second unit for any reason, this RCA will undoubtedly do the job for you.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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Updated January 14, 2021