How can you tell good videotapes from bad ones?

Expensive tapes don't necessarily work better than cheap tapes, but ultra-cheap tapes should be avoided because they can make your videocassette recorder jam and even ruin the machine's spinning heads.Is there a way consumers can tell which tapes are just cheap and which are both cheap and poorly made? Yes, you can make a simple inspection without putting the tape in a VCR.

Just examine the slipcase - the outer box that the videocassette comes in. Because none of the makers of ultra-cheap tape would dare spend anything extra on packaging, all poor-quality tapes come in cheap cardboard slipcases. It is their mark of non-quality, if you will. You can tell cheap cardboard easily - it's soft and rough. It's so soft, in fact, that it tends to shed tiny paper fibers. They fall into the cardboard slipcase and work their way into the cassette shell.

Then, when you put the tape into your VCR, the cardboard debris acts just like sandpaper. The moving parts in your recorder can be damaged with just a few playings.

No reputable manufacturers use cheap cardboard slipcases. Most use plastic, and some use heavy cardboard that has been coated to keep it from flaking.

By the way, don't be afraid to take the shrink-wrap off a cassette before you buy it. There is no other way to find out whether the slipcase is made from cheap cardboard before you get to the cash register.

Are some videotapes less likely to jam or break than others? The answer is in the "yes, but" category.

There are cassette designs that put less stress on the tape. These are the hard-to-find "short-play" tapes in such lengths as 30 minutes and 60 minutes (T-30 and T-60). Manufacturers usually place larger-than-usual hubs inside these cassettes - partly to make them look less empty and partly to reduce the pulling force exerted on the tape each time you switch the VCR into play, record or one of the fast-wind modes.

The principle is the same as with bigger and smaller gears on a 10-speed bike. A large hub slows down the transport's responses and makes them gentler.

- WATCHING A HOME MOVIE can be fun. But sometimes it would be nice to have a still print of something precious you've captured on videotape.

Hitachi offers a new printer that can do that, but it won't come cheap.

With Hitachi's video printer (VY-15A), you can make a video snapshot from any TV, VCR or camcorder.

The first step is to freeze the image that you want to turn into a videoprint by pressing the "pause" button on the printer.

A memory chip inside the printer "freezes" the image on your television, regardless of whether the source of the image is a VCR, camcorder, laser disc or over-the-air television broadcast.

Once you're set on the image on the screen, you press the print button. The printer grabs the video frame and within 100 seconds makes a 31/2-by-5-inch print.

The printer also is capable of inserting dates, titles, illustrations or messages in any of eight different colors that are then superimposed on the video frame.

The printer retails for $999.95, which includes a Thermacolor video print kit developed by Eastman Kodak. The kit includes enough thermal paper for up to 30 prints and a color cartridge. The prints are similar to (but not as sharp as) 35mm still photographs, and will resist curling. - Stephen Advokat (Knight-Ridder)VIDEO QUESTION

Q: I have seen movies on TV that I really enjoyed and then rented to show to friends, but I've been embarrassed to find them loaded with obscenities and overly sexy scenes. Why can't I rent the edited TV versions of films instead of R-rated versions? They must exist if I see them on TV.

A: "Edited for television" films exist solely for the convenience of TV broadcasters, not because of consumer demand. Only in rare instances do film distributors have an interest in releasing several versions on video. Even if a video store had the option of carrying them, I doubt that it would be profitable. Why not tape your favorites next time they're shown?