Time waits for no man. Just ask the poor sap who attempted to record his favorite TV show last night but failed to program the darn VCR properly.

What a shame: Hundreds of dollars, perhaps thousands, tied up a TV set, a cable connection and a VCR, yet it all can add up to zilch in the face of a tricky timer.It's no small curse. Survey after survey finds that about half of all VCR owners have never learned how to set the machine for a recording in absentia. Many have given up and don't bother to record at all, content to use it as a playback-only movie machine.

VCR makers are well aware of the perpetual complaints that timers are too difficult to use, and over the years they have dreamed up a variety of ways to simplify them. One of the most surprising was a talking Beta unit sold by Sony in 1983. The robotic tones of a voice-synthesis chip talked the user through each step, then stated the time, day and channel by way of confirmation. The novelty was short-lived, although Panasonic revived voice confirmation on two models just last year.

Toshiba tried an equally high-tech solution when it came up with the light pen and pictogram technique. In this variation of on-screen programming, the TV would display a calendar page and a clock face. The user touched the pen - which was tethered to the VCR - to the appropriate points on the screen. Although it was as simple as pointing, it perpetuated two couch-potato bugaboos: having to budge from the viewing chair and having to turn the set on.

Despite the ingenuity of Sony, Panasonic, RCA and many other big names in the VCR business, it now appears that the biggest breakthrough in timer technology has come not from their engineers but a new company in Pasadena, Calif. In November in Los Angeles, New York and many other cities, Gemstar Development Corp. introduced the VCR Plus, a remote-control keypad that looks very much like any other remote. Essentially, it's a device for turning on the VCR, and, if necessary, the cable converter in your absence.

This is far from a new idea. Since 1985, such accessory-makers as GE and Memtek have marketed universal remote control devices that not only memorize the specific infrared codes of any video component, but also contain clocks. When programmed properly, these remotes can turn themselves on and carry out a sequence of commands - turn on the VCR, tune in a certain channel, begin recording, and (ultimately) turn off the VCR.

But the set-up is laborious, requiring many keystrokes and, therefore, many chances for miscues. A single "typo" produces disaster.

Gemstar's technological coup was to condense these multiple programming steps into a universal electronic shorthand of just four to eight digits. Thus, instructing the device is as easy as dialing a phone number. In another inspired stroke, the company then arranged to have the codes for many shows supplied to TV listings services for eventual publication in the program grids of newspapers.

VCR Plus is sold in department and electronics stores in about 75 areas around the country, and indications are that it's a hit. Although the company does not divulge its sales, one published report says that its original goal of selling one million units in the first year has been upped to three million. What's more, its popularity and limited supply have so far made it immune from the usual price slashing that's endemic in electronics. If you want a VCR Plus, you pay the list price of $59.95.

Coincidentally, VCR Plus is becoming available at a time when VCR programming has never been easier. During the last few years, almost every major VCR brand has adopted on-screen programming, in which a press of the key summons up messages on the TV screen that walk the viewer through the process to select the day, the channel, time on and time off. After all the information is entered, a status report can be displayed at the touch of a button so you can double check what you've told it to do. About the only way to screw this up is to neglect to put a tape in the VCR.

For even more convenience, some manufacturers (including JVC, Hitachi, Sharp and Gold Star) offer programming on a small liquid crystal display (LCD) screen built into the remote itself so you can set it up when the TV is turned off or when you don't want to interrupt your viewing. You can even sit in another room with your TV listings and plan your recording for the week. A simple push of the transmit button transfers the data from your remote control to the VCR.

Sharp adds yet another wrinkle for its upscale Optonica series of VCRs: The remote can talk. Like that Sony Beta from years ago, the Voice Coach feature prompts you through every step and then summarizes the data.

Another way to program a VCR without having to kneel at its front panel and push tiny buttons is the bar-code scanner system, which was introduced by Panasonic several years ago and adopted by Magnavox and Philips. The scanner is a wand that you wipe across a sheet of printed bar codes, much as bar-coded food packages are read by scanners at the supermarket checkout. The code sheet for days, channel numbers and hours is supplied with the VCR.

Again, once the information is safely logged into the wand, hit the transmit button to zap it into the VCR's memory.

Bar-code programming works well, but there's always the danger of losing that code sheet. Another drawback: Panasonic's vain hope that newspapers and magazines such as TV Guide would include specific codes with their listings. According to Bill Mannion, a video-product manager for Panasonic, the space needed to print the codes was more than most publications wanted to use.

Panasonic is sticking with bar codes, but next month, says Mannion, the company is adding a companion feature, the LCD Program Director. It will be included with two new VCR models but will also be sold as a separate accessory ($49) that can be used with earlier and current bar-code-compatible models.

The Program Director is a remote control with six small LCD windows, and next to each is a thumb wheel. As you rotate the wheels, the days, channel numbers and hours pop into view in the appropriate windows. When the ones you want are displayed, point it at the VCR and press transmit. You're programmed.VIDEO QUESTION

Q: I have a six-year-old VCR that is not working at all. I have been quoted by phone a price of $100 to repair it. Is it worth it or should I buy a new one?

A: The price does not strike me as unusually high. But if I had a six-year-old machine that wasn't working, I'd be tempted to shop for a new one. - Andy Wickstrom (Knight-Ridder)