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High Definition on Digital-VHS (D-VHS)

A high definition recordable video tape format


article last updated on 5.7.2003| printer-friendly format click for printer-friendly format   

If you are one of the lucky few who owns a High Definition Television (HDTV) and receives high definition broadcasts, don’t you wish you can record these high definition shows?  Time shift them until a time that’s convenient for you?  Relive the excitement and glory of the Superbowl and the Olympics?  Or don’t you wish you can view pre-recorded movies in stunning high definition?

Digital-VHS logoWell, you can have your HDTV and record it too.  You can also have pre-recorded movies in high definition.  Believe it or not, a video cassette tape format based on the old analog VHS format can record and playback HDTV today.  Just when you thought the old video cassette recorders (VCRs) have died for good, it makes a come back re-incarnated in digital and in high definition.  The high definition-capable format is called Digital VHS or D-VHS.  It is capable of recording up to four (4) hours of HDTV programming at either 1080i or 720p resolution.

While typical HDTV broadcasts use data rates of about 25 Mbps, D-VHS can record up to 28.2 Mbps.  That’s more than sufficient to ensure every bit of detail is recorded.  All Digital Television (DTV) formats can be recorded with its original Dolby Digital audio track, for up to 5.1-channel of surround sound.  D-VHS encodes Dolby Digital at a data rate of 576 Kbps versus DVD’s 384 Kbps and 448 Kbps data rates.  This can mean higher fidelity sound, since less compression is used for the D-VHS Dolby Digital soundtrack.

JVC, the inventor of the VHS format, re-invented the VCR for high definition with technical inputs from Hitachi, Matsushita (parent company of Panasonic and Technics), and Philips.  Sony also contributed to this format by way of the i.LINK (IEEE 1394) interface.  Sony’s contribution essentially seals up any possibility of a format war.  Those of you who are old enough to remember the Betamax vs. VHS home video format war in the early 1980s will know what I am talking about.  In fact, there are some 13 major VCR manufacturers who have shown support for this format.

JVC D-VHS video tape (click to enlarge)As with VHS, Digital VHS offers a number of recording speeds depending on the resolution of program material you are trying to record.  For High Definition, you would use High Speed (HS) recording to capture up to 28.2 Mbps.  The nice thing about D-VHS is that it can hold up to 50 GB or four hours of high definition programming.  Though the 4-hour D-VHS tape is not available yet, right now a blank 3.5-hour D-VHS tape (DF-420 video tape) is available and runs about $25.  For Enhanced Definition (ED) programming, you can use the STD speed which captures 14.1 Mbps for a total of 7 hours of record time.  There are four different Low Speed (LS) modes.  At its slowest speed, LS7, you can get 49 hours of analog VHS-quality recording on a DF-420 tape!  See the table below for the various recording modes (speeds) and their associated data rate, record time, and equivalent picture quality.
 

Digital-VHS recording modes, data rates, and record times
based on a 3.5-hour DF-420 D-VHS tape.

  Recording  
Mode
  Data Rate  
[Mbps]
  Record Time  
[hours]
Picture Quality
HS 28.2 3.5 High Definition (HD)
(720p or 1080i)
STD 14.1 7 Enhanced Definition (ED)
 
LS   LS2   7.0 14 DVD-Video quality (480i),
Standard Definition (SD)
  LS3   4.7 21 equivalent to S-VHS
quality (400i)
  LS5   2.8 35  
 
  LS7   2.0 49 equivalent to VHS
quality (240i)

 
D-VHS VCRs can also record and playback the analog VHS and S-VHS video tapes.  For DTV sources, you will need to use a D-VHS tape and record in one of the D-VHS modes shown in the table above.  You cannot use a VHS or S-VHS video tape to record in D-VHS mode.  These days, you can buy a D-VHS VCR for under $600.  When they first came out in Spring 2002, they were about $1,500.  We’ll cover more on D-VHS VCRs a little later.

D-Theater: Pre-Recorded High Definition Movies

D-Theater logoSome pre-recorded high definition movies are available today on this tape-based format.  JVC in partnership with four studios, Artisan, DreamWorks, Fox, and Universal, has developed a copyright protection scheme for the D-VHS format, called D-Theater.  D-Theater prevents copying and pirating of the movie studio’s precious high definition digital video transfer.

So far, the number of D-Theater movie releases has been small.  Most are re-releases of movies that were already released to DVD-Video.  Ice Age is one of few movies that are released to D-Theater day and date with their DVD-Video releases. As of Spring 2003, some D-Theater movies include:

  • Artisan: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, First Blood, Glengarry Glen Ross, Standing the Shadows of Motown, Basic Instinct, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, and others for a total of 12 D-Theater titles

  • DreamWorks: Galaxy Quest, The Haunting

  • Fox: Ice Age, The Transporter, Courage Under Fire, Cast Away, From Hell, Die Hard, High Crimes, Kiss of the Dragon, Planet of the Apes, Fight Club, Behind Enemy Lines, Men of Honor, Don’t Say A Word, X-Men, Entrapment, Independence Day, and others for a total of 17 D-Theater titles

  • Universal: Being John Malkovich, K-Pax, Spy Game, The Bone Collector, Backdraft, U-571, and others for a total of 10 D-Theater titles

Typical D-Theater movies cost about $30 - $45 and can be found at Best Buy, Circuit City, and Sears retail stores.  Online, D-Theater video tapes can be purchased from DVHSMovieGuide.com and Crutchfield.com.  Right now, we know of no national video rental chains that offer D-Theater rentals.  So for now, it is a sell-through format only.

Ice Age on D-Theater D-VHS video tape     Fight Club on D-Theater D-VHS video tape    U-571 on D-Theater D-VHS video tape

A few D-Theater D-VHS  movie releases: Ice Age, Fight Club, U-571
(pictures courtesy of Crutchfield)

D-VHS VCRs

Right now, there are only two D-VHS VCRs that feature the D-Theater copy protection.  The first of its kind is the JVC HM-DH30000, originally introduced in the Spring of 2002.  It originally sold for $1,500, but now goes for around $600 (as low as $549.88 at JandR.com).  It can play and record in the S-VHS and VHS tape formats as well.  Marantz just introduced its Marantz MV8300 D-VHS VCR with D-Theater early in 2003 for $1,600, with similar features to the JVC model.  In fact, it is based on JVC chassis, with some Marantz-unique electronics.  Mitsubishi offers two D-VHS VCRs without the D-Theater feature, the Mitsubishi HS-HD1100U and Mitsubishi HS-HD2000U (not sold online).  Mitsubishi currently has no plans to license JVC's D-Theater system.

    JVC HM-DH30000 D-VHS VCR with D-Theater
JVC HM-DH30000 D-VHS VCR with D-Theater ($600)

(click on image to enlarge)

 
 
  Mitsubishi HS-HD2000U D-VHS VCR (with no D-Theater)
Mitsubishi HS-HD2000U D-VHS VCR (with no D-Theater)

(click on image to enlarge)

D-VHS VCRs do not currently include a DTV receiver.  To record Digital TV programming, these VCRs require a bi-directional i.LINK (IEEE 1394 “Firewire”) connection to a set-top DTV receiver or an integrated DTV (with a built in DTV receiver) to get the DTV signal.  The problem is only a few set-top DTV receivers or integrated DTVs come with the needed bi-directional i.LINK connection.  We do know that Mitsubishi's Platinum, Platinum Plus, and Diamond series of integrated HDTVs do come with the needed bi-directional i.LINK connection.  Most DTV receivers or integrated DTVs have i.LINK connections as inputs only and cannot pass out the DTV signal.  For D-VHS VCRs to be a practical device, it needs have a built-in DTV receiver.  This seems to be a major oversight by D-VHS VCR manufacturers.  We suspect this is a cost issue, since standalone DTV receivers currently cost between $400 and $800.  Eventually DTV tuners will become far more affordable, and D-VHS VCRs will then integrate this essential functionality.

Market Acceptance

Will the D-VHS format, together with D-Theater pre-recorded high definition movies, gain wide market acceptance or will it always be a niche product popular with early adopters and HDTV fanatics?  Should you consider adopting this format?

Because of the linear tape format, D-VHS lacks the random and direct access that many of us have quickly gotten accustomed to with the DVD-Video format.  After each viewing, you have to rewind the D-VHS tape.  If not, you have to rewind it the next time you view it.  Remember that hassle and the wait?  D-VHS also lacks DVD-Video’s multi-audio tracks (for multiple languages and audio commentaries), multi-angle capability, and multi-subtitles.  Ultimately, the D-VHS tape format is a few steps backwards from the DVD-Video optical disc format in terms of convenience and interactivity.

From a collectible format perspective, D-VHS suffers the same problems of the VHS tape format.  The magnetic particles degrade over time and the tape wears and stretches with repeated use, limiting its useful shelf life to about 5 to 10 years. Movie collectors do not want to replace their expensive movie collection!  In comparison, optical disc formats like DVD-Video should last 30 years or more.  D-VHS is also sensitive to strong magnetic fields, which can partially or completely demagnetize the tape.

Another factor in market acceptance is the growth and popularity of HDTVs and availability of HDTV programming.  If the availability of HDTV programming continues its slow growth, that is likely to pace the adoption rate for D-VHS as well.  If there is not much HDTV programming, why would consumers need an HDTV recorder?  And this assumes that you can connect to a DTV receiver or integrated DTV with DTV output via i.LINK.

Another threat to the wide market acceptance of D-VHS is competition from the forthcoming High Definition DVD (HD DVD) optical disc format and hard drive-based personal video recorders (PVRs) like TiVo and ReplayTV.  Someday HD DVD will offer everything DVD-Video has to offer, and will add high definition picture and recordability.  This would put HD DVD heads and shoulders above the D-VHS format.  In late 2003 or early 2004, it is expected that PVRs will offer the capability to record DTV and perhaps even HDTV, as hard disk drive capacities go up and prices come further down.

As far as the D-Theater movie releases, we think Artisan, DreamWorks, Fox, and Universal, will continue to release a small but steady stream of D-Theater titles aimed at HDTV and serious home theater enthusiasts.  But we think the everyday consumers will continue to embrace the DVD-Video format, at least until the HD DVD format goes mainstream.  At least one studio has admitted that the D-Theater format for high definition movies is expected to be a niche product.  Though we suppose that as long as the high definition video transfer and D-Theater tape replication costs are covered, the studios probably don’t mind selling more versions of the same movie.

Our current assessment: D-VHS and D-Theater will remain a niche format catering to serious HDTV enthusiasts and videophiles for the time being.  In about five years' time, we think D-VHS may go by way of the LaserDisc.  It is likely to be supplanted by the forthcoming HD DVD format, assuming the manufacturers can get their act together and agree on a single HD DVD format.

But in all fairness, D-Theater has only been out for only about one year.  It takes three or four years before a real assessment can be made.  How long will the D-VHS format and the D-Theater high definition movie releases continue will directly depend on the introduction and success of the HD DVD format.  Until then, for those who are HDTV-capable, it’s all about options.  Having an option to record and time shift HDTV programming is a wonderful thing.

For now, we are cautious on the D-VHS format and the associated D-Theater movies.  For those with a generous home theater budget and a finer appreciation for all things high definition, our cautious perspective need not apply.
 

Notation: Throughout this web site and in this article, we use 1 GB to mean 1,000,000,000 bytes.  Likewise, 1 Mbps is 1,000,000 bits per second. These are not the computer usage where 1 Kilobyte = 1,024 bytes.

 

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