User Experiences


Good News and Bad News…

I just got a new Sony DVD/VCR combo. It allowed me to remove two pieces of hardware (a VCR and a DVD player). I wanted a combo box, so that either a DVD or a video could be played eaqually easily. This is especially important nowadays, as video rental stores are starting to heavily favor DVDs. I needed the ability to get all of the regular features of a VCR, such as tape recording and cable TV tuning. I could care less about recording DVDs.

I like Sony. They have good quality, so I selected a VCR that fit my needs, at a reasonable price ($150 US), Despite having the features I need, it has a remote control that is akin to a space shuttle cockpit. I would have preferred a simpler remote.

First, the good news:

They finally allow a recording to start when the VCR is still on! I have never been able to justify the fact that VCRs don’t execute a programmed recording unless the VCR is off at the time the program begins. I understand why they do it, from a technical and customer service point of view, but it has resulted in my not recording shows that I really wanted on tape. Sometimes I had accidentally left the VCR on (I’ll get to that in a minute), and sometimes I was watching something else at the time the recording was supposed to start.

In software development terms, this is a “data loss” situation. That means that something is lost through the error or planned behavior. In this case, what is lost is the show that I wanted to record, and that I spent so much time setting up. I would have much rather had the VCR suddenly switch away from the program I was watching, than I would have it miss the program I set. I was overjoyed to see this VCR do exactly that. Yeah, it’s a bit disconcerting, but worth it. This was an unexpected bonus. I had no idea that the VCR did this, as Sony chose not to make a big deal out of it.

Remote Control from Heck

Next, the bad news:

This VCR makes the same mistake as the last couple of VCRs I’ve owned: They don’t let you use the number keys to change channels while programming the VCR. You must use the up/down buttons.

This means, that if you are at Channel 80 when you start programming, the default channel is set to the one you are watching (80). very nice, but you want to record a show on Channel 2. No, you can’t enter “2” via the numbers. Nor can you enter “02,” or even “002.” No, you need to go up to the up/down buttons, and click on “Down” until your thumb falls off. In today’s world of 500-channel digital TV lineups, that is BAD. The solution that most people would probably hit upon is to get out of Program Mode, use the numbers to select the channel, then go back into Program Mode.


In my opinion, any consumer device that requires its users to develop any kind of workaround for one of its main core functions (remember what I considered a “Must Have” for purchasing the device in the first place), is an illustration of the poor emphasis on usability in today’s products.

More Whining:

This VCR is no different from others I’ve owned, in that it is very difficult to tell, from across the room, whether or not it is on. The display is faint, and displays the time in either case. The only difference is a couple of icons that show up around the time, and the display is slightly brighter when it is on.

I tend to turn the TV off, and leave the VCR on. In my previous VCR, this was a big problem, because it meant that programs I had entered would not be recorded. This VCR avoids that issue by starting a recording whether or not the VCR is on (yay!) However, if you are an energy-conscious person, or want to watch the TV by itself (the VCR causes interference when it is on, even when the TV is directly accessing the antenna), then you may be annoyed. True, these are merely small annoyances. It is a matter of squinting across the room at the little display, seeing a couple of extra characters, grunting “Darn!” and turning the VCR off. However, these small annoyances are cumulative. Each one is a strike against the product. The sad rule is that people tend not to notice it when you make their lives easier, but really notice it when you do something that annoys them. I doubt very much that any other bloggers are dancing around celebrating the fact that the VCR starts recording at any time, but they will go to great lengths to complain about the annoyances.

Here’s what I mean. Look at the VCR when it is off:

The VCR When Off

Now, look at the VCR when it is on:

The VCR When On

Big difference, huh? I deliberately made the pictures small, blurry and badly lit, just like my living room at night, when I’m watching TV.

Face Plant:

The buttons that you would naturally believe should work (the number buttons) don’t work.

Okay, you’ve had your routine interrupted by the number buttons not letting you change the channels. You have to cycle through all the channels with the up/down buttons.

Suggested Solutions:

I hate it when people complain without suggesting solutions. Here are my thoughts on how I would improve the product. One thing that you have to take into consideration when designing consumer products, is that small things can make a big difference in price. Margins on these devices are incredibly thin. Extra testing and adding extra components (even very cheap ones) can make a big difference. For this reason, these solutions might not work.

Allow the numeric keys to be used in selecting a channel while programming the VCR.

The costs incurred here would be extra testing. The software inside the unit would probably be fairly easily modified to support this. However, it would open up a whole bunch of new “trouble nodes” for testing.

Add a clearly visible light somewhere on the unit to indicate an “On” status.

The extra cost here would be the component (an LED), the extra step in the construction process to add it, and the test step.