With hard-disk and DVD recording now commonplace and hi-def recorders just around the corner, VHS may seem like an antiquated concept.
But just as vinyl lives on despite the popularity of MP3 downloading, the millions of video tapes still being hoarded has granted VCRs a stay of execution.
To satisfy the lingering demand for the format, Toshiba has included a few VHS combis in its current range, including models with built-in HDD and DVD recorders. But the deck on test here combines a DVD player with VHS playback and recording, enabling you to watch your DVDs and tapes all from one convenient unit. But the best part is its price tag, which on paper, makes it a very cost-effective proposition.
It's also reasonably attractive, styled in glossy black with a limited smattering of buttons on its fascia.
Despite its dual capability, the socket selection is limited. The highlight is a component video output, which only works for DVD playback and offers PAL progressive scan. It's joined by two Scart sockets, one of which outputs RGB pictures from DVD and composite pictures from the VCR, and one which accepts a composite signal for recording.
On the audio side you'll find an electrical digital audio output that fires Dolby Digital and DTS bitstreams to your AV receiver, while the front panel sports composite and stereo audio inputs for hooking up external devices for recording.
There's no HDMI though, so don't expect any upscaling, and the lack of a digital tuner is also disappointing, making the deck seem outdated, especially with the digital switchover in October. The built-in analogue tuner is robustly efficient, but it doesn't mask the deck's old-fashioned feel.
Meanwhile, the DVD section fares better, with DiVX playback (including ondemand video) being the main attraction.
For DVD playback you'll find all the usual trickplay features such as a three-stage zoom, multi-angle, bookmarks and subtitles. The VCR side offers merely Nicam stereo, an eight-event, one-month timer, auto tracking and a long play mode.
Ease of use
The remote control is robust and attractively styled, but most of the buttons are far too small and fiddly and the layout feels cluttered. Having said that, it is well labelled and the menu control keys are sensibly placed.
The VCR setup menu (like the technology itself) is basic with blocky white text on a blue background that takes you back in time, as does the laborious lack of automatic channel tuning.
By contrast the DVD setup menu is nicely presented and intelligently laid out, although it's sluggish to respond to remote commands.
The VCR's playback is easy to control: when forwarding or rewinding, the tape stops instantly when you press play without zooming past the desired point.
DVD picture quality is solid. Superman Returns piped to a TV via RGB Scart or component is rich and vibrant, with the bold primary colours of Superman's outfit looking deep and dazzling during outdoor scenes.
Handling of subtler tones is also impressive, making Brandon Routh's and Kate Bosworth's peachy complexions look consistently convincing, even during the more dimly-lit scenes.
Shots of the busy Daily Planet newsroom and Superman's mid-air plane rescue demonstrate plenty of clear detail. A touch of noise, however, means it falls short of some dedicated DVD decks, and HDMI may have made the picture look sharper, but as far as analogue pictures go, this is a fine effort.
What's more, DiVX files play back with no fuss and the resulting pictures are smooth and stable.
Testing the VCR functions gave us the chance to dust off our gold Star Wars Special Edition VHS boxset and we weren't disappointed with the results.
Colour reproduction is bright and feisty, making the blue skies of Tattooine look fundamentally vibrant, although their purity is sullied somewhat by clumps of grubby, flickering noise.
Detail reproduction isn't bad by VHS standards. You can make out the texture and shadow detail contained in the movie's dusty desert landscapes, which makes the picture enjoyable to watch despite the format's inherent softness.
As for the quality of internal recordings, the combination of tape and an analogue tuner results in soft, unstable pictures that don't really do justice to today's top-quality TV material.
VHS sound quality is crisp and undistorted with some audible hiss but nothing too drastic. The cacophony of lasers and explosions in our Star Wars tape is delivered with a pleasing amount of punch, dialogue is clear and stereo DVD/CD playback is also impressive. But for the full sonic experience, hook up the optical digital audio output to a decent amp and speaker system and take advantage of the deck's superb 5.1 surround sound.
Our only grumble is the absence of WMA playback, which is limited to MP3 only.
At first glance, a combined DVD/VCR unit for £90 represents extremely good value for money, particularly from a reputed brand such as Toshiba. But in this day and age, where upscaling is common on even the cheapest players, we'd have expected HDMI output and a digital tuner, at least. Internal recordings, meanwhile, aren't particularly impressive. These shortcomings are amplified by the fact that you can buy a DVD recorder for the same money online.
Clearly the SD-38VB is aimed at people who want a DVD player, but aren't quite ready to leave their VHS tapes behind and it serves that purpose well. DVD playback is impressive and the VCR section delivers decent picture quality from shop-bought tapes, all of which makes it worth a look.