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Zap them with a two-tape VCR

I've always been against the idea of dual-deck VCRs. They're bulky, taking up a lot of valuable real estate next to your TV. And they've never been able to do anything you couldn't do on your own by hooking together two, much-cheaper, solo VCRs.

Until now. SONICblue's (SBLU ) latest line of Go-Video dual-deck VCRs includes a killer new feature that makes the concept mighty attractive--and definitely worth the $50-or-so premium for buying two VCRs in one. It's called Commercial Advance.

The technology, which marks the ads in TV shows and fast-forwards through them on playback, has been used by VCR makers in the past. The Go-Video machines take the next logical step. After they record your show, they automatically copy the first tape to a second one, eliminating the commercials.

LESS MESS. I've been playing around with the mid-line, $250, DDV2110 model for a few weeks. I had some concerns as I wedged it in among the other black boxes in my system. For one thing, it's huge. Picture two VCRs side-by-side, and you'll get an idea how big it is. But my big concerns were whether it could zap all the commercials and how badly picture quality would suffer.

Yowza! It worked as advertised. I recorded six shows, ranging from half-hour sitcoms to two-hour-plus movies. By and large, it got rid of 99% of the clutter--and all of it in shows of an hour or less. It's easy to dispatch what remains with the fast-forward button. (You can fast-forward through the ads in any videotape, of course. But, if you're like me, you're fumbling around with the remote control so much that you usually miss the exact instant the show returns.)

Commercial Advance works by scanning a recorded tape and looking at the black levels between the broadcast segments, such as when the picture fades to black just before an ad, and for the 15-, 30-, and 60-second time patterns of typical TV ads. It then makes an educated guess as to which segments have got to go.

FUZZIER. With the Go-Video dual VCR, you insert two tapes and program the VCR to record a TV show. After the recording is finished, the tape rewinds and the deck starts scanning for commercials. It takes about 15 minutes to identify and mark the ads in an hour's worth of programming. Then, the tape rewinds again, and the machine copies the program to the second tape. When the first deck fast-forwards through a commercial, the second deck pauses so the ad isn't copied. Because the commercial-skip feature more than doubles the time it takes to record a show, you're better off using it to capture programs that air when you're gone or in the middle of the night.

Most of its guesses about commercials are right on. It doesn't look at the first or last two minutes of a recording, and it misses any commercials longer than a minute. In my case, all the instances where it failed to spot a commercial came in movies I was taping from cable channels, such as TNT, Lifetime, or USA Network. Those channels often run two-minute ads or commercial breaks that run longer than four or five minutes. Either will defeat the system.

All dual-deck VCRs offer other advantages. For the many people who confess to having problems programming a single VCR, wiring two together is a bit much to ask. It was a snap to hook up the Go-Video machine, without the rat's nest of cables I need to hook two machines together when I'm trying to copy a tape, say. And with Go-Video, copying a tape is a one-button affair: You don't need to choose the inputs and outputs, and press the "Play" button on one and the "Record" button on the other.

A word about picture quality: Yes, the finished product looks like a copy of a copy, with slightly fuzzier edges and that typical color-smearing you see in homemade videotapes. However, there's a trade-off here. To me, the picture is acceptable, and all the more so because I can watch it uninterrupted, free of commercials.

By Larry Armstrong

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