PAL Television

 What Is PAL TV ? DVD Video Symbol With PAL Format VHS PAL DVD PAL Most of us are used to seeing VHS PAL and DVD PAL labels on VHS cassettes or DVDs, but what does PAL  mean? It stands for Phase Alternating Line and is a technical term indicating the colour system that is used which applies to analogue Television signals. Back in the 1950s when black and white TV was king, RCA of America developed a colour Cathode Ray Tube which meant colour TV was on it's way! Colour TVs would be very expensive to begin with and so millions would still be watching black and white for a while until mass production brought prices down. So how do you send the colour signal to the privileged few who could afford colour without effecting those who had black and white? Luminance and Chroma The black and white TV signal is also called the Luminance signal and is used to drive the CRT in varying intensity depending on the picture. You would need to keep this signal so that those with black and white TVs

Camera for Video

 The First Cameras

Portable consumer video cameras had been around since the early 1980s. These had to be paired with portable video recorders that were carried over the shoulder. A thick lead would tether the video and audio from the camera to the recorder, which would have had a full size VHS cassette, mostly made by JVC or Ferguson. The sensor in the camera was a vidicron tube, a bit like a CRT in reverse. Effectively, it was a 'picture valve', just like the CRT was a valve.


This arrangement was cumbersome and inconvenient. The answer was to combine the camera with the recorder which had already been achieved on a professional level with Sony's Betacam and the like in the late seventies. There was actually industrial action that took the ITV network off air for many weeks in 1979 because of these 'electronic news gathering' cameras. Unions were worried that the transition from 16mm film to the new electronic format would cost jobs. That's another story and we digress!

Video Format War

Some may remember the video recorder format war in the early 80s. There were actually three systems to choose from. Most will remember VHS headed by Panasonic, JVC and Ferguson, and Betamax promoted by Sony and Sanyo. The Betamax cassette was smaller than the VHS cassette and the picture quality seemed slightly better on the Betamax. Philips hoped to compete with the Video 2000 system. The picture quality was almost like broadcast and you could flip the tape over to record on the other side which you couldn't do with VHS or Betamax tapes. 

Video recorders were not new. Philips had brought out the 1500 in the early 1970s and the 1700 in the mid 70s. These machines were big and bulky and very expensive for the average Joe, but many were sold and the picture quality was close to broadcast. Incidentally, it is reported that English comedian Bob Monkhouse owned a number of these video recorders and used them to record many programmes that were thought to have been lost such as early episodes of the talent show 'New Faces'. Hundreds of cassettes were discovered in an outhouse after he died.

Back to the Format War, who won? VHS did! How? The companies that promoted the VHS system pulled off a clever trick. They struck deals with film distributors to have as many titles as they could on VHS. It worked ! I was working as an engineer in a TV shop which also had a video library on the premises. You could get nearly every title of film available on VHS, but Betamax only had a relatively small selection. I remember seeing many disappointed faces of Betamax owners when they were told the film they wanted to rent was not on that format. Word soon got around that VHS was the system to buy or rent, just for the fact that more films were available on VHS. Philip's 2000 system didn't even get a look in! So VHS - Video Home System, became the video recording format of the 80s and 90s.


VHS C Adapter to use in full size VHS Video recorder
VHS C Cassette With Adapter

There were full size VHS camcorders manufactured around the mid 80s, but these were expensive and too big to appeal to the average consumer. They did however, help to promote new industries - 
Videography. Weddings and other occasions could now be captured on tape with sound, a big step up from silent cine films.
   Cine to VHS conversion. A lot of new companies started offering to put your collection of cine films onto VHS. 

Manufacturers knew that camcorders needed to be smaller and the standard VHS tape was too big for a camcorder.
They came up with the VHS C or 'Compact' format. This was ingenious, because rather than develop a new format, by means of an adapter, the smaller compact tape could play in a standard VHS machine. The  best of both worlds! Consumers now had a camcorder that was not too big to carry around, but also the footage could be played on their TV through the VHS video.

JVC camcorder VHS compact tape
 JVC VHS C  Compact Camcorder

Video 8

Sony being Sony wanted to be different, with good reason. They thought they could do better than the VHS C system. With camcorders, there was no specific format to adhere to as users were making their own films. Sony came up with the video 8 system which composed of a 8mm video tape in a cassette that was slightly bigger than an audio compact cassette. Sony's system offered 1hr recording time while the VHS C gave only 45 mins. You could record in long play on both systems which increased the recording time to 90 mins on each, but video quality suffered at the slower speed.

Amstrad Video 8 Camcorder
A Rare Amstrad Camcorder Using Sony's Video 8 System

Hi 8 and SVHS

With technology and competition moving ever forward, the next generation of camcorders focused on improving video resolution. Sony expanded on the video 8 format and brought out the Hi 8 giving crisper, more detailed video. The same went for the VHS C system when S Video came along and introduced higher resolution due to the fact it could record more TV lines like the Sony system.

By this time, Television receivers were also keeping up with new gadgets like video recorders and camcorders that could be plugged in. TVs now had a selection of different sockets on the back according to the method of connecting external equipment. Initially, TVs just had a yellow 'Video In' and a black 'Audio In' to connect the video recorder or camcorder, which saved the user from having to go through a 'modulator' and tune in a channel that the video was on. Picture quality was slightly improved as the composite video signal was more direct and not passing through the TV's tuner.

To benefit fully from Hi 8 and S Video picture quality, a TV would have to be capable of receiving the Luminance, black and white, and the Chrominance or Colour signals separately. This required a different lead altogether from the phono type yellow video in. A four pin S Video lead connected the camcorder to the TV. Most Hi 8 and S Video camcorders still provided a single video out socket, but the resolution wouldn't be as good as using the four pin S Video lead that carried the separate luminance and colour signals. Not many TVs had this input at the time so many users who had purchased these camcorders lost out on experiencing the full potential.

Digital Camcorders

In the Mid 1990s, technology had moved along further allowing digital camcorders to be available to consumers at a reasonable price. Digital enabled the the video signal to be compressed which meant a more detailed picture could be recorded with less bandwidth. Picture quality was excellent even with entry level camcorders. Some high end models were even used for broadcast.

Computers were becoming more powerful at the same time and could be used for editing. Many none linear editing programmes became available which gave digital camcorder owners the ability to create highly polished professional looking movies without any degrading of the original footage.

Firewire 1394

With digital came a new way of connecting the camcorder. Most digital camcorders still had the analogue video and S Video for connecting to a TV, but the chosen digital connector was the firewire 1394, or i link as Apple called it. PCI cards with a 6 pin 1394 connector became readily available so that a digital camcorder could be connected to a computer and the footage 'captured' to the hard drive for editing. Windows 98 second edition had the driver for the DV or Digital Video format that digital camcorders used. Many Apple Mac computers were produced with a firewire port built in with many serious video editors preferring these over Windows based machines.

Sony Digital Camcorder DCR- TRV15E
Sony Digital Camcorder DCR-TRV15E. 

Mini DV and Digital 8

Most manufacturers including Sony adopted the Mini DV tape format. This made sense as the tape was tiny in comparison to previous formats which meant camcorders could be made smaller like the Sony DCR-TRV15 as shown in the picture above. This could fit into your hand, had a flip out LCD screen as well as a colour viewfinder that slid out from the main body. Although only SD, the 3 CCD produced a fantastic picture for a small camcorder.

Sony also kept the 8mm tape system and called it Digital 8. It could use Hi 8 tapes as these were a higher grade than standard Video 8 tapes. The main reason for this was that it was back compatible with previous 8mm formats. This meant that tapes that contained Hi 8 and Video 8 content could be played through the Digital 8 camcorder. Not only that, but the camcorder could convert the analogue tapes into digital in real time for it to be captured on computer via Firewire.


Digital camcorder firewire DV port and analogue output sockets.
Camcorder Digital And Analogue Sockets

If you look at the picture above, you will notice the DV OUT socket which enabled the digital content on the tape to be downloaded to the hard drive of a computer. 
But here was a problem. 
The video could be edited, transitions and other filters added to make the finished product look professional without any degradation from the original.
How do you get it out of the computer?
DVD burners were still very expensive at that time. You could burn a video cd or even a SVCD, but you would lose video quality, defeating the object of having a digital camcorder with the higher resolution.

Wouldn't it be good if the edited video could be sent back to the camcorder to record on a blank tape?

Indeed, it was noticed that same model camcorders sold in the United States and other countries not only had DV OUT, but also DV IN !  How impressive it would be to record the edited movie back on to tape, take the camcorder to friends or relatives and show your masterpiece in all it's high resolution glory.

So why DV IN for some countries and not others? 

It had to do with EEC taxation in European countries. Any equipment that could record video from an external source was classed as a video recorder and so was subject to a higher tax.
Manufacturers knew that they would have to pass this tax on to customers, which may have put some off from buying a camcorder. They got around this by disabling the DV IN facility by settings in the software, so they were essentially just a camcorder. What customers didn't know about wouldn't hurt them. They were happy to purchase a digital camcorder without knowing about this 'hidden' feature.

It wasn't long before users in Europe and America were downloading and comparing HEX dumps of same model camcorder firmware settings. I suspect perhaps with a little help from manufacturers and engineers that the HEX codes and addresses to enable DV IN on European models became available.

If you look at the above picture again, you will notice a LANC socket. This is actually a service port to gain access to the camcorder settings. The equipment Sony service centres use to interface with this is  a RM95, which, as you would guess, is very expensive and only available to approved service centres.

Some clever people devised a RM95 emulator which could be downloaded onto a computer. A simple lead connected between the LPT printer port and the LANC socket. In just a few clicks of the mouse, a European DV OUT only camcorder now had DV IN!

But that's not all !   Sony went a step further with Digital 8 camcorders. Because these were back compatible with analogue recorded tapes, they needed to have a analogue to digital converter. What Sony did was to make the analogue video output a video input in DV IN mode, which meant that the camcorder could be used to convert analogue video from any source into digital. There is even more, because Sony also threw in a very effective timebase corrector into the mix. This is still my preferred method of converting analogue VHS videos into digital as the picture quality is excellent. 
A popular Digital 8 camcorder that could do this and, of course, be a great camcorder is the Sony DCR-TRV120. Now over 20 years old they are still selling on auction sites for hundreds of pounds.

DV IN Solutions

IN 2002, I could see the potential this had and how I could help camcorder owners throughout Europe to realise and unlock the hidden features of their digital camcorders. I set up DV IN Solutions as a sideline to the TV and Video repairs. I made up leads and instructions covering different makes and models so that owners could enable DV IN themselves. Some customers didn't want to chance doing it themselves, so I was happy to enable the ones that were sent in.

 It wasn't just DV IN that could be enabled. There were also features that were available on more expensive models such as Zebra White Exposure, Colour bar generator and time lapse.


Sony Camcorder DCR-TRV130E showing service port
Sony DCR-TRV130 Service Port. 

These two models of digital 8 camcorder were different from the others in that they didn't have a LANC socket, so how could DV IN be enabled?
They did have a service port under the LCD screen which connected to a 'Docking Station' that a service centre would have had.
I managed to obtain the service manual for the TRV130 and compared it with one for another model that did have a LANC socket. I did a bit of reverse engineering and successfully made an interface that connected to the service port of the TRV130, which was also the same as the TRV140.
With that, and using the RM95 Emulator, I enabled DV IN on these camcorders. While I was at it, I also enabled other features mentioned above. These models are not back compatible with analogue video which means there is no analogue to digital hardware present, but DV IN worked fine.

As enabling DV IN on these camcorders was not something owners could do themselves, I offered this as a service with customers sending in camcorders from all over Europe.
These were great times supplying leads and instructions as well as enabling camcorders that customers had trusted me with. I got many emails from happy customers who couldn't believe that they could record back onto the camcorder.

That window of opportunity came and went so quickly as technology moved along and the DV format along with Firewire lost favour and gave way to the SD card and mobile phones that had cameras.

Compare audio and video recording tapes. Compact cassette, VHS,VHS C, Sony 8mm, mini DV
 Camcorder Recording Tapes 

Picture above shows the different camcorder tapes that were used over 3 decades  including full size VHS, VHS C, Sony 8mm, and Mini DV. On the right is a BASF Compact Cassette audio tape for comparison.

Mobile Phone Vs Camcorder

So which is better, a mobile phone or a camcorder?

The mobile phone wins easily. The latest phones offer fantastic picture quality considering they have a small sensor. The iPhone 15/14 pro have video stabilization that makes it look like the footage has been taken with a gimble, but no, just clever software. And then there's the 4K resolution at 60fps along with HDR. 

It used to be that the only way to take videos was with a video camera or a camcorder and these were a separate piece of kit that had to be carried around perhaps when going on holiday in addition to taking along the still camera for photographs. Now the mobile phone has all of this which itself can be carried in your pocket so you have it with you at all times to capture any moment in high quality. Why would you want to lug a camcorder around if you can do it all with your phone?  

It all depends on what you want to use it for. For most people, using your phone to point and shoot and send the video to family and friends will be as far as it goes and the mobile phone is ideal for this.They even take great videos to upload to the likes of You Tube and TikTok. 

For many videographers, using a mobile phone just wouldn't look professional, especially if they are getting paid to shoot weddings or other occasions. If they turned up with just a mobile phone, you could argue that you could have gotten anyone to do it. Mobile phones are capable of taking great wedding videos, even models from a few years ago. The trick is to capture memories, no one will question what device it was captured on.

Thanks to advances in technology, we all have the means to capture those precious moments in great detail and stereo sound. For most of the time, we are all carrying a high quality camcorder right there in the palm of our hand.


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