Digital Dilemmas In which MONEY offers some opinionated guidance on the purchase of stereo TVs, VCRs and other things that go beep in the night

(MONEY Magazine) – If flakes of silicon are swirling about your head like snow during the final frenzy of holiday shopping, welcome to the blundering herd. Digital dilemmas! Electronic enigmas! Big-ticket blues! The array of choices -- more than 50 different autofocus cameras, some 300-plus types of TV sets, no fewer than 350 VCR models -- is all but beyond the processing powers of the human brain. To the rescue come MONEY's simple answers to this season's most convulsing consumer conundrums. Read it and beep.

Should I still buy a compact disk player, or is it true that something called digital audiotape will make CDs obsolete? The most dramatic audio development of the decade has been the arrival of digital sound. Essentially a recording method that transforms musical vibrations into numbers, digital sound reproduces music with startling clarity and tone. Until recently, compact disks (CDs) -- little five-inch-diameter super-records that are read by a laser beam instead of a phonograph needle -- have been the only source of digital music. Now digital audiotape (DAT), a new kind of tape that carries digitalized sound, has emerged, threatening to encroach on CDs as cassette tapes did on LP records. But this time it's a bluff. Here are several excellent reasons not to wait for a DAT: -- DAT machines are not yet available in this country, and their arrival date is uncertain. Indeed, because DAT can copy studio master tapes so perfectly, the recording industry is leaning on Congress to ban its importation altogether for fear it would be used by audio pirates. -- You cannot copy CDs onto DAT. Wary of controversy, manufacturers have designed their decks in a way that prevents direct digital-to-digital copying. -- Finally, the cost would be sky-high. Marantz and Sony, two firms that now make DAT decks, have set their suggested retail price at $2,000, and discounts would be rare in the launch period. By contrast, CDs capable of exquisite sound now sell for about one-tenth the anticipated cost of a DAT deck. At discount electronics stores -- which usually sell their wares, including the products in this story, at 10% to 50% ^ below the list price we quote -- CD players like the GE 11-4800 and Sanyo's CP 700 run about $200 and Sharp's DX-R750 about $250. Some CDs cost more than $1,000, but unless your audio system is very sophisticated, you won't notice much difference between low- and top-priced models. Extra features are the main justification for the costliest models. Example: Sony's elaborate CDP-710 ($420) offers a remote control and a programming button that lets you select up to 20 tracks in any order for play. A few competitors, including the Pioneer PD-M70 ($600) and Sony's CDP-C10 ($800), have disk changers that will keep music rolling for hours, but so does Sony's more economical CDP-C5F ($450). Although many people prefer a tape format for their car, Alpine, Kenwood, Pioneer, Sony and Yamaha make highly satisfactory CD players designed specifically for the dashboard. Price: $500 to $1,400. Durability is the other plus for CDs. Even the best tapes, including DAT, are subject to sound-distorting wear. You can wash smudges and dust off a CD easily, and nothing touches it during play except that beam of laser light.

Are the new, handier laptop personal computers as good as desktop models? The Chronicles of Computing will record 1987 as the year the PC hopped off the desk and into the user's lap. Several companies, including Datavue, NEC, Radio Shack, Sharp, Toshiba and Zenith, now field models that weigh less than 12 pounds -- and a new, svelte challenger from Toshiba weighs only 6 1/2 pounds. All run on rechargeable batteries, have LCD screens and are compatible with the IBM PC. The laptops of yore often failed to please because of incompatibility and dim screens that would strain the eyeballs out of an owl. Recently, though, the increasing diminution of digital guts, the advent of the sturdy 3 1/2-inch disk drive and several advances in LCD technology have resulted in a breakthrough vintage that packs nearly the full might and majesty of a regular desktop computer into a sleek unit the size of a shirt box -- perfect for the family that needs a computer but not a computer room. The Zenith Z-181 is probably the best of the laptop lot. At 12 pounds, it can be toted about with the same ease as a slimline portable typewriter. The Z-181 runs on rechargeable batteries for up to five hours, has 640 kilobytes of memory and two 3 1/2-inch disk drives (which offer more capacity than the standard 5 1/4-inch drives) and operates faster than IBM PCs in the same price range. What else? The Z-181 beams its display in crisp, easy-to-read blue letters on a LCD backlit, 80-character, 25-line, full-size screen mounted inside the lid of its clamshell case. Zenith's sticker price for the Z-181 is $2,400, but it is widely discounted to around $1,800. None of Zenith's laptop rivals offer a full-size display, but the new 6 1/2- pound Toshiba 1000 ($1,200 list) is the clear pick if you have to lug your machine around every day and don't mind a little squinting (the 9 1/2-inch-by- three-inch screen can be tough to read). Of course, if you are not using it for heavy-duty word processing, you may not care.

Should I buy a stereo TV? Yes. If you are planning to spring for a new set soon, it may be worth the $100 to $300 extra to get the stereo model's noticeably superior sound and circuitry. This year more than half of the 300-plus new models boast a built-in stereo receiver and at least two speakers -- a setup that should provide sound equal to FM stereo radio. Networks and cable channels offer more than 150 hours a week in stereo, and the total is growing by the year. Even nonstereo programs sound more dulcet on a stereo TV. Beyond good audio, stereo models are also likely to include a noticeably sharper picture -- though nowhere near as sharp as the high-definition TV images that will be introduced in the early 1990s. Almost all major manufacturers, from Aiwa to Zenith, now feature stereo. Sticker prices start around $500 for smaller screen models like the Sanyo AVM 220 and RCA's FPR560R. Most 20-to-30-inch sets, including RCA's 26-inch GPR2630T and the 27-inch Sony KV2780R, retail for $800 to $1,100. Models with a 35-inch picture tube, like the Mitsubishi CK355R and Sharp's 35LD956, command $3,400 and $4,000 respectively. If you are not ready to get rid of your old TV, consider a stereo signal decoder, such as Recoton's FRED III ($170), which comes with plugs for connections to your own speakers. These stereo adapters work with most TV sets, no matter how ancient.

Are those tiny TVs really worth the money? For watching instant replays in the stadium or catching Wall Street Week on a late commuter train, a battery-powered portable TV is the 100% solution. Many now weigh less than a pound, fit into the pocket of an overcoat and can deliver a bright, clear picture and even stereo sound -- with headphones. No single brand has it all, however. / The best Lilliputian color sets by far are Panasonic's CT-333S and its newer CT-311E and CT-312B models. Their only drawback: a $500-plus tab. All show remarkable brightness and clarity on a three-inch screen, and they operate indefinitely with an AC adapter or a car adapter, which you plug into the cigarette-lighter socket. Battery power for up to 10 hours comes from either a rechargeable pack or from regular alkaline batteries. At about two pounds, the CT-333S comes with a built-in stereo AM-FM radio. The CT-311Es and CT-312Bs weigh less than a pound and also have a stereo radio. If you are willing to lower your standards a little on picture clarity, particularly when outdoors in strong light, you can save a bundle. Casio's TV- 400 color set, which has a two-inch tube, runs about $210. Perhaps the most sensible compromise to date is Sony's new Watchman FD-270, a black-and-white model with a 2.7-inch screen. With a list of $160, the FD- 270 is about the size of a scrub brush and operates for about two hours on two AA-size alkaline batteries.

Which VCR should I buy? It all depends on how you want to use it and what you are willing to spend. By now, most people realize that the VCR format wars are over. The VHS commands nearly 90% of the market and is the only practical choice, especially if you want to rent movie tapes or swap them with friends. The rival beta and 8mm formats offer a few advantages if you are primarily interested in taping shows off the air, but beta rental tapes are becoming more scarce, and only a few movies are available in 8mm. The state of the VCR art is a new standard called super-VHS. This machine delivers the sharpest picture available plus stereo hi-fi sound. Such bliss is costly, however: JVC's new HR-S7000U lists at $1,200; also, you will spend $20 each for the special blank cassettes needed to take full advantage of the technology. Unfortunately, there are no S-VHS rental movies as yet, and a regular VHS tape will look no better on a supermachine than it did on the old. Further, most TV sets cannot display all the detail in the S-VHS signal. To get the full picture, you need a high-resolution TV set called a monitor-receiver with special connections on the back for the S-VHS signals. By late December, major manufacturers, including Hitachi, Magnavox, Panasonic, RCA and Zenith, should have their own versions of S-VHS in stores. But the competition may not affect price for a while. Hitachi's VT-2700A has a $1,500 tag. Sony makes a superbeta, the SL-HS 1000 ($1,700), but its picture is not up to the super-VHS mark. With the arrival of super-VHS, the middle VCR retail range -- $500 to $1,000 -- becomes almost unjustifiable, and the best shopping advice is to buy high or buy low. The main advantage of the midrange models has been hi-fi stereo sound and modest improvements in picture clarity, but unless you find some deep discounts, you would be better off postponing your purchase until the super-VHS is marked down. If economy is a key concern, a standard VHS machine is probably all you need. Selling for as little as $200 -- roughly half of their list price -- in discount electronics stores, these workhorse models let you play any standard VHS rental tape and set a timer to tape four programs off the air automatically. How do you choose among some 200 models? Go for the lowest price on a major brand. Current consumer-friendly, few-frills models include JVC HR-D180U ($400), NEC N-916U ($420), Magnavox VR9610AT ($400) and Panasonic PV-2700 ($400).

What's the best camcorder? First, be aware that you do not have to buy a model that uses the same tape format as your home VCR. Any of the new breed of camera-recorders, better known as camcorders, can play back on any TV or copy your home video onto another VCR tape format. In most cases, both operations require only one simple connection to your VCR or TV.

The class of the field at the moment is almost certainly RCA's full-size super-VHS model CPR 350 ($1,700). With both the super-VHS picture and hi-fi stereo audio, this machine has the best eyes and ears available. But it weighs 7.1 pounds with two-hour batteries. Performance notwithstanding, such full- size units are simply too heavy for most people to shoulder for more than half an hour. Far more practical are the two compact, lightweight formats, VHS-C and 8mm. Both are small enough to carry unobtrusively, and at 2 1/2 to four pounds they are easy to operate one-handed. The sharpest picture among the compacts comes from the three-pound super-VHS-C models made by JVC, Panasonic and RCA. They cost between $1,500 and $2,000. There are some limitations, though: the smaller VHS-C cassettes last only an hour and require an adapter to play back on a standard VHS VCR. Eight-millimeter models made by Aiwa, Canon, Olympus, Pentax and Sony also weigh less than five pounds -- some as little as 2 1/2 pounds -- and use a two-hour tape that is about the size of a standard audiocassette. Most have a small, built-in monitor that enables you to screen what you tape and edit as you go. With virtually all 8mm models, you get excellent picture quality -- though not up to the level of super-VHS -- and solid sound from a hi-fi monophonic microphone. Probably the greatest value in the smallest package is Sony's CCD-V9 Handycam Pro ($1,650), which weighs less than three pounds, including 45-minute batteries, yet has a multitude of useful features like a power-zoom lens, freeze frame and a variable-speed electronic shutter for stop-action playback.

Can't I just buy a one-brand ''rack'' audio-video system and be done with it? Sure. You will sacrifice some performance quality, but then again, not everyone will notice. Many major audio and video manufacturers, including JVC, Panasonic, Pioneer, RCA, Sony and Technics, now assemble all-in-one packages for $1,500 to $5,500. Typically, a basic single-brand AV system includes a combination receiver-amplifier, dual cassette deck, a turntable, a CD, a 25-inch color TV set and a VCR. Costs go up, of course, when more components and more elaborate models are added. But high end or low, a comparable array assembled with components from a variety of manufacturers would probably run 25% more. Two more advantages: simplicity and easy operation. In most cases, one remote control operates all components, whereas with different brands you often need two or three. Appearance is also a consideration: one-brand components fit together neatly to form a handsome, compact electronic rack. Most audio-video systems come with a first-rate TV monitor or monitor- receiver, but before you buy, make sure the VCR has all the features you want. Most dealers will substitute a better model made by the same manufacturer -- for an appropriate price hike. Speakers are the Achilles heels of one-brand entertainment systems. Though often adequate for undemanding listeners, the speakers in a packaged system rarely stand up to several top American brands, such as the ADS L570 ($450 a pair), Boston Acoustics A70II ($300 a pair) or the JBL 630 ($450 a pair). So consider cajoling the dealer into selling the system without speakers.

Will one of those little auto-everything 35mm cameras do everything my clunky old single-lens reflex does? No, but does it matter? The new flat-faced cameras such as the Nikon One Touch, the Minolta Freedom or the Vivatar PS-35 offer autofocus, auto-loading, automatic metering and a pop-up autoflash -- all features probably unavailable on your old Pentax. But the real tools of fine photography -- adjustable shutter speed, F-stop and a top-quality lens -- are sacrificed on the pocket, auto-everything camera for simplicity's sake. Mind you, that's no problem for many shutterbugs. The old SLRs were probably too much camera for them anyway. During the 1960s and 1970s, those matte black, bug-eyed beauties became the next step up for the enlightened consumer from the declasse 110 Brownies and Instamatics. But the step was a seven-leaguer, and many found themselves still lopping off their mother-in- law's head with a camera meant for a professional. Now the new auto- everything offers the consumer essentially Brownies with a college education. While there are auto-everything versions of the standard SLR (for example, the Olympus OM 77AF, the Minolta Maxxum and the Canon Eos), they are in the $400-plus bracket. For most routine picture-taking the pocket-size models will do nicely. They use 35mm film, are extremely rugged and really do allow you to just point and shoot. Most of the newer ones even wind the film automatically and rewind when the roll is shot. Disadvantages: the lenses are not the best (many are plastic), and you can't control depth of field. Most of them use zone focusing, which programs them at several pre-selected ranges, and if your subject happens to fall between focus points, the result is a slightly rough picture. Among the most satisfying models are the Ricoh TF-500 (list price is $350), which has a built-in 70mm telephoto lens, the Nikon One Touch ($260), with macro, a closeup capability that will bring objects only 18 inches away into focus, and the Canon Sure Shot Supreme ($310). All three of these cameras are widely discounted and can cost less than $200. The Sure Shot Supreme sells for as little as $120 at some shops.

What's hot in electronic toys this holiday season? 'Tis the season to shoot your television set. That, at least, is a major theme in many of this year's electronic games, though some parents and psychologists object to the idea of children forming any closer ties to the tube. Captain Power by Mattel ($35) puts a ray gun shaped like a jet plane into the eager hands of children so they can shoot at bad guys on network shows or | on special videotapes ($10). Tiny microprocessors in the guns sensitive to invisible (and harmless) infrared light signals emanating from the TV keep score. The Zapper Light Gun that comes with the $180 Entertainment System Deluxe made by Nintendo is designed for a duck-hunting game. In the Master System by Sega of America ($100), the gun, which is wired to the TV, is known as a Light Phaser. You'll need it to play Safari Hunt, although some 50 other Sega games will also work in this machine, including 3-D Missile Command. For $225, Fisher-Price's PXL-2000 video camera can turn that innocent child of yours (age eight to 12) into a TV news team. A black-and-white camera designed for rugged use, this model can record up to 11 minutes of video on modified audiocassettes and play them back on any TV set. The camera operates up to five hours on six AA batteries. All of which is not to say that silicon chips cannot be cuddly too. A talking doll named Julie made by Worlds of Wonder relies on a full-fledged 64K computer chip for her voice and 100-plus word vocabulary. In this case, talk is not cheap: Julie costs $100. Axlon Toys offers an entire menagerie of furry talking animals from bears to mosquitoes. Cost: $10 to $250. Baby Heather ($120), made by Mattel, even laughs when you tickle her, and, unlike most of her recipients, can be programmed to sleep and wake up at civilized intervals.