Since only a relatively few American video lovers have gotten a handle on Sony's 8mm format, the Japanese company is willing to supply one. Its new 8mm videocassette recorder--the smallest yet--has an actual handle, emphasizing the idea Sony wants to get across about its 8mm equipment: that it's "video-to-go."

The EV-S1 model VCR, which will come with a detachable handle when it becomes available in U.S. stores this fall, is just one of the new products the Japanese company is introducing to prove that--despite some dire predictions in the industry--the 8mm format has a strong future.

Not all of the experts agree that 8mm is in trouble. Some, in fact, point out that 8mm camcorders--the first 8mm gear to get a big push--have competed well with VHS-format camera-recorders.

And, of course, one of the observers feeling bullish about 8mm was a Sony spokesman at the Consumer Electronics Show recently in Chicago. "Eight-millimeter has definitely established itself as a viable format," claimed Michael Meltzer, Sony vice president of consumer video products. "Most of our customers own VHS home decks, but in purchasing a camcorder they wanted the lightest and best model available. And with our new 8mm products, we're taking this beyond the first stage and establishing the format as video-to-go."

Of course, VHS manufacturers are also developing their own light-and-small products. With VHS' dominance in the market, they have an edge. In Sony's favor, though, is that its format is best suited to compactness and, therefore, the portability so important to many young Americans.

Eight-millimeter's main selling point is size. Sony's camcorders are extremely lightweight compared to the conventional VHS and Beta cameras that were the standard for years. The smallness was possible because 8mm cassettes are tiny--even smaller than standard audiotape cassettes.

In fact, it looked for a while as if Sony might run off with the camcorder market--until JVC responded with VHS-C (for VHS-Compact) camcorders. They use a special reduced-size VHS cassette that fits into a small camcorder for recording, then is placed in a regular-size VHS shell for playback on a VCR. (However, the cassette holds only a limited amount of tape, and thus gives less recording time than an 8mm cassette.)

VHS has such a strong lead over 8mm and Beta--also invented by Sony--that some industry analysts think 8mm has too much of an uphill fight to live for long. Still, Sony seems ready to make its biggest effort yet to persuade you that your next VCR purchase should be an 8mm machine.

With its trimness, the EV-S1 could win over a lot of potential customers. When the handle is attached, the unit can easily be carried on vacations, or from room to room. It measures only 11 inches wide and 8 inches deep, and it weighs in at a mere 5 3/4 pounds.

Besides compactness, 8mm's chief selling point is probably its audio quality. The EV-S1 and other 8mm gear feature PCM digital stereo, a system that delivers near-compact-disc-quality sound. Of course, VHS machines equipped with hi-fi also have excellent sound. Meltzer claimed that "8mm is superior in both audio and video," but JVC has contested that view and test results by independent labs have been conflicting and inconclusive. One debit for 8mm: If you own an 8mm camcorder and a VHS home deck, you have to dub your recording onto a VHS tape, losing a certain degree (one generation) of picture quality. But that's one reason why people may want to add an 8mm deck to their video-gadget collection.

The EV-S1 will also feature MTS (which decodes broadcast stereo), a built-in "surround-sound" function (Sony calls it "theater mode"), audio dubbing, a 152-channel cable input with 99 presets, a two-week, three-event programmable timer, a 10-key wireless remote control, special effects (freeze-frame, slow motion, etc.) and a suggested list price of $900.

Around the same time or a bit later, Sony will also introduce three combination television/videocassette recorders. Two of these are regular Trinitron color TVs with built-in 8mm VCRs. Sony is promoting the model with an 8-inch screen as a "sports motion analysis video system"--for golfers, etc. to review their motions. The model with a 5-inch screen (the EV-DT 1) is being called suited "for desktop personal video applications."

Perhaps most innovative, though, is a TV-VCR combo that may--at least until something even smaller is developed--be Sony's video equivalent of the Walkman.

Just as the Walkman was publicized as "personal audio," a prototype 8mm VCR/TV with a 2.7-inch display is being called a "personal video" unit. (It has no model number yet and probably won't be sold in America until next year.) The color LCD screen--which doesn't have as good a picture as a regular set--is a compromise of sorts, Meltzer admitted. However, the prototype on view at the Consumer Electronics Show had a brighter, sharper image than previous LCD televisions we'd seen.

Sony supplied no weight specifications, but this video Walkman is small enough to be carried about easily. Of course, we've seen battery-operated LCD TVs before that are even smaller, but they've generally had black-and-white screens and, of course, don't include a VCR of any format. When the Sony model is marketed, you'll be able to do the same thing with it that you can do with the audio Walkman--play your own tapes (as well as receive broadcasts).

Will the 8mm VCR enter enough U.S. homes to ensure the survival of the format? Can it share the stage with VHS? No one really knows, but Meltzer is optimistic. "There's room enough for everybody," he said confidently.

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