More than a year ago, S-VHS, the improved version of the VHS home video format, was announced. Shortly thereafter, ED Beta was introduced. Both format enhancements offered major improvements in picture quality over earlier versions. But that meant that the fledgling 8mm video format was relegated to a distant third place in the video format wars - at least in picture quality. S-VHS offered 425 lines of horizontal resolution, compared to only 240 lines for the "standard" VHS format. Beta had already undergone an improvement from 240 lines of resolution to 300 lines with the introduction of SuperBeta. ED Beta raised the resolution ante with its picture quality of over 500 lines.

That meant 8mm's 240 lines of resolution needed to be improved - just to keep pace. The only selling points left for 8mm were its small size and its digital audio capability. 8mm video uses a tiny tape cassette - less than half the size of a VHS cassette. The smaller cassette allows the design of handy camcorders and compact VCRs.The trade papers speculated over a year ago that a "super" version of the 8mm video format was on the way and that it would offer over 400 lines of resolution. And, indeed, Sony has just announced that its version of this improved 8mm system will be in the stores in May.

So as not to be confused with the Super-8 film format, the enhanced version of the video format is called 8mm Hi-Band. Sony calls its 8mm Hi-Band product line Hi8 and points out that, like S-VHS and ED Beta, Hi8 is meant to augment, rather than replace, the current "standard" 8mm video line. The first two Sony Hi8 products to hit the stores will be a camcorder (model CCD-V99) and a home VCR (model EV-S900).

The camcorder carries a full complement of top-of-the-line features. It is equipped with an 8 to 1 power zoom lens, the ability to shoot in low (4 lux) light levels, and a new automatic white balance system. Its picture quality should be excellent because Sony uses a sophisticated, solid-state device to convert the image for storage onto videotape. For you techies, it's a Charge Coupled Device (CCD) pickup with 380,000 (effective) pixels. The most impressive feature is an adjustable shutter speed of up to 1/10,000th of a second. At that setting even the wings of a hummingbird will be stopped in perfect detail for slow-motion replay.

The CCD-V99 also has some built-in special effect features, including freeze frame, slow-motion and frame-by-frame advance. A digital storage system will allow the videographer to load an illustration, title-card or graphic into the camcorder, and then superimpose that stored image over any scene while it is being shot. Another feature allows titles to be scrolled (both up and down) across the picture.

Like other high-end camcorders, the CCD-V99 is equipped with a flying erase head for better editing transitions. It also can put invisible index marks on the tape, to facilitate finding specific scenes at a later date. To help the serious home video-maker, a control jack is included to interface with editing controllers. Several sets of input and output jacks are provided, including the new S-Video plugs, which allow the camcorder to be connected to a wide variety of other video gear, including both TV sets and VCRs, for viewing, copying or editing.

When Sony's CCD-V99 hits the stores in May, it will carry a suggested retail price of $2,200.

For those who wish a home VCR in this new, improved 8mm video format, Sony will offer its Hi8 EV-S900. This unit, loaded with all the latest and greatest features, is sure to delight the 8mm video fan. Besides featuring a jog/shuttle dial for easy control of tape movement, the EV-S900 can record digital stereo soundtracks (35-15,000 Hz frequency response, over 90 dB dynamic range). Like the camcorder mentioned above, the VCR has a flying erase head, offers the ability to make invisible index marks and, because of its special "control" plugs, can interface with an editing controller.