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Analog Angle Blog

Goodbye VCR, We’ll Miss What You Did for Us

You've probably heard that Funai, the last manufacture of video cassette recorders – better known as VCRs – has decided to end production at the end of August, supposedly due to difficulty of obtaining key components (see here and here for two reports with some numbers). Let's be honest: we knew this amazing product would get its “end of life” notice sooner rather than later, as digitally based recording (DVRs and web) has taken over, and fewer and fewer VCRs are in use. (I'll admit it: I still have a VCR and use it with my CRT display and digital-TV over-the-air converter box; you might call it a modest way of walking the walk and living a more-analog life.)

My intention here is not to lament the VCR's passing, as its time had truly come and gone; such is progress. Nor will I say that the VCR was superior in image quality or longevity to today's digital recording media because, frankly, it isn’t. Finally, I won’t opine on what the VCR meant to society and how it freed viewers from the dictates of a broadcaster setting the time you had to watch something (meetings and community events were sometimes re-scheduled to avoid conflicting with top-rated shows, which is now so hard to believe). Sociologists (I do not use the term “social scientist”, because most of it is not “science,” IMO, sorry) have published countless studies on the impact of the VCR on society and individuals, and there no need for me to add my comments to the pile.

But from an engineering standpoint, the VCR represents an amazing triumph of electronics and mechanical engineering. If you have ever looked inside one of these units (what? you haven't?) especially while it is loading a tape; winding it around the capstan, tension rollers, and head; and doing what it has to do, you have to be amazed at the electromechanical complexity of this consumer device. Prices started around $1000 when they were introduced, but followed the trail of semiconductors down to under $100 in the following decades. While I can understand how that price decline was done with the ICs, it amazes me that the vendors were able to do that on the mechanical side, considering the extremely sophisticated and precise rotating-drum head assembly, and the complex mechanical linkages and limit switches within the box.

On one hand, the story of the VCR is one of engineering and manufacturing triumph in inventing and perfecting such an amazing device and bringing it to the masses. On the other hand, it's also a sad tale, as relentless price pressure drove the costs – and the quality – down in tandem, see here. The last few VCRs I purchased in the recent ears died early, and each successive unit suffered from elimination of useful features such as basic user front-panel display. Even worse, they embodied what I will politely call “marginal” quality in design and fabrication (see “Modeling and shrinking design margins “). It was a shame to see what was once a much-heralded symbol of the success of electromechanical technology prowess reduced to such pitiful circumstances, sort of like a once-glamorous mansion which has been neglected by the current generation of family owners and is now in a sad, shabby state.

As a final insult, the Funai-made combination VCR/DVD player I presently own (and sold under their own label) has the most user-hostile remote control I have ever seen, and I have seen many remotes. Whoever laid it out was probably told to get the design done by the end of the day, so the buttons are arranged with no logical order, and their labels are tiny and almost illegible (see pages 6 and 7 in the user manual here for all the gory details). It's almost as if the vendor wanted to somehow say to the foolish soul who bought this obsolete technology to give up and get up-to-date with more-modern technology.

Did you still have a VCR? Can you think of any other mass-market, low-cost consumer product with comparable mechanical and moving-part complexity that achieved such success, and at such low cost? Only the hard-disk drive (HDD) comes anywhere close. Did you grasp the sophistication of integrated electromechanical engineering and production it required, backed by a complex supply chain?

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Modeling and shrinking design margins

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3 comments on “Goodbye VCR, We’ll Miss What You Did for Us

  1. Mr. Fixed it
    September 21, 2016

    Being a bright young lad in high school in the early 80s; I said to myself “The man that sells VCRs and repairs them will get rich!”  

    It was '82 and I was a sophmore in high school and I already decided my career path.  I wanted to be a electronic technician (a great field at the time) and I was going to specialize in VCRs.  Long term the plan was to start my own retail electronics store where sales were backed up with service.  

    And so this is the path I took.  I was good at what I did but even though the plan seemed bullet proof by the mid 90s I was looking for a career change.  The electronic service business was floundering.   What I planned to specialize in went from retailing for $1000 to around $100 in a decade.  The VCR became a throw away item.  In the mid 90s I said goodbye to my chosen career and switched to office products.  Yeah, fixing laser printers and fax machines.  This was child's play compaired to compoent level repair.  When it failed, it spit out an error code that told you what was wrong.  What VCR or TV ever did that?  

     

  2. vbiancomano
    September 22, 2016

    Much as with you, Bill, I still have several VCRs in service, and my VCR vocabulary will not include the words “end of life” until I myself am “in the box.” And lifetime reports to the contrary, I have yet to lose a single tape to damage/breakage. Beyond that, I strictly oppose “planned obsolescence” for products that can still run. No harm comes from it and one can derive a positive good from it—-the great memories that we don't lose until it doesn't matter anymore.

  3. trumpetrousers
    November 3, 2016

    As you alluded to but did not confirm, when the VCR was introduced the VHS system was indeed (advertised) as the most complex peice of consumer electronics ever offered for sale. Factories were built with isolated sprung floors as the precision of the mechanics was an order of magnitude greater than anything previously required. The beauty of the helical scanning system was quite something to see in 1979. 5Mhz bandwidth on a tape plus audio and control tracks – 180 mins of video. This was an engineering miracle, the electronics were a little less impressive. The late seventies was also the dawn of  the microcomputer. Those first VCRs had the absolute minimum of digital processing, possibly from memory only the display clock was digital. Within 5 years all machines had a processor to run vital functions. Well, we all know the story, but this is now the fastest the human race has ever run, things are changing so fast. 37 years since the humble VHS recorder with its piano keys was a peer with the 8080 and 6502 –

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