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DVD Recorder Buying Guide

The essential guide to standalone DVD recorders

article last updated on 7.15.2003 | printer-friendly format click for printer-friendly format   

If you’re ready to toss out your VHS VCR in favor of a DVD recorder, this Buying Guide is for you.  Nothing beats the optical disc format when it comes to direct and random access, digital video and audio quality, and long-term durability.  VHS VCRs can’t touch DVD recorders in these areas.  As a removable medium, it beats the hard disk personal video recorders (PVRs) like TiVo and ReplayTV in terms of virtual capacity.  You simply insert another blank disc.

By now, you should be aware that there are three DVD recordable formats: DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, and DVD-RAM.  If not, read our Recordable DVD Tutorial before continuing on with this Buying Guide.

DVD recorders can record any of the following material:

  • analog TV via over-the-air broadcasts, cable, or satellite

  • standard definition digital television (SDTV), same quality as DVD-Video (480i)

  • analog camcorder video (8mm, Hi-8, VHS, and VHS-C formats)

  • digital camcorder video (miniDV and Digital-8 formats)

DVD recorders can not record high definition television (HDTV) signals.  For HDTV, you can use the Digital-VHS VCRs available today, or wait for the high definition DVD (HD DVD) recorders to come out.  If you want to do extensive video editing and create a professional looking DVD for your home videos, you should use a computer with a recordable DVD drive and a video editing and DVD authoring software package.  For more information about DVD authoring on a computer, read our answers to these frequently asked questions (FAQs).

Now that you know what a standalone DVD recorder can and can not do, we will cover the following topics in this Buying Guide for standalone DVD recorders:

Must-Have Features

As a basic replacement for the VCR, standalone DVD recorders must have an NTSC analog TV tuner and an electronic program guide (EPG).

NTSC Analog TV Tuner. To pull in TV channels, you need a built-in NTSC analog TV tuner.  Just like your VCR, this allows you to program recordings for different channels.  The tuner receives analog TV channels via antenna or cable.  If you have a satellite system, you should be able to use the DVD recorder just like you’re using a VCR today.

GUIDE Plus+ Gold logoElectronic Program Guide (EPG). To make programming the DVD recorder to record your favorite shows as easy as possible, an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) is essential.  Sometimes, it is called an Interface Program Guide (IPG).  Many DVD recorders make use of the Gemstar-TV Guide’s VCR Plus+® Gold system, which has been available for VHS VCRs for a number of years.  Some are using the newer GUIDE Plus+® and GUIDE Plus+® Gold systems.  The EPG puts up a nice graphical display of the TV programs on various channels for different times, up to eight days in advance.  You can interactively sort by various categories to quickly locate the show you want.  Once you find the show that you want to record, push one button and voilà, the DVD recorder is programmed to record that show for you.  These EPGs are free and the EPG data/ signal should be be available through most cable providers.

A sample screen shot of the GUIDE Plus+ EPG (click to enlarge)

A sample screen shot of the GUIDE Plus+ EPG
(picture courtesy of Gemstar-TV Guide)

Additionally, since all DVD recorders can play back pre-recorded DVD-Video in addition to their respective recordable DVD format(s), our buying advice for DVD-Video players apply equally.  In fact, a DVD recorder would replace your primary DVD-Video player in your primary viewing environment (home theater).  While you are upgrading to a DVD recorder, look for these features when it comes to playback functionality:

Some of these features are covered below.  Click here to read our DVD-Video Player Buying Guide.

Nice-To-Have Features

Now comes the “bell and whistle” type of features that will narrow the playing field.

Progressive Scan. If you have a Digital TV capable of displaying 480 lines of progressive scan video (480p), or if you're planning to buy one in the not-too-distant future, look for this feature.  It converts the interlace scan signal inherent in DVD-Video to progressive scan.  The result is a brighter image, with no visible scan lines and fewer motion artifacts (stair-step edges on moving objects).  Some high-end DVD recorders will employ a Faroudja deinterlacer, for the best possible progressive scan performance.

Variable Bit-Rate (MPEG-2) Recording. Instead of recording the video with a constant MPEG-2 video bit rate, a variable bit rate approach is used to reduce the amount of data in the compressed video stream.  An on-board video processor analyzes the complexity of the picture in real-time and adjusts the video bit rate used in MPEG-2 compression.  Simple scenes would use a lower bit rate, while more complex scenes would take advantage of higher bit rates.  The result is slightly longer recording time, since less data is used, with the same or even slightly improved picture quality.

Video Pre-Processing Circuitry. Some DVD recorders incorporate video pre-processing circuitry aimed at improving the picture quality the incoming source material.  For example, 3-D comb filters and some sort of time–based corrector are commonly used.  Others use a noise reduction filter or a video noise equalizer that balances and equalizes the picture.  Depending on the type of circuitry and manufacturer, these may or may not have user adjustments.  While this circuitry will not make a poor picture perfect, it can bring new life to degraded pictures on an old VHS tape, for example.

Simultaneous Record and Play. If the read and write data rates of the recordable DVD disc are fast enough, DVD recorders can literally record one program, and playback the same or another program at the same time.  What this means is that you can let your DVD recorder start recording “Survivor” at 8 PM while you tuck your children in for the night, and come back at 8:20 PM and start watching the recorded “Survivor” off of your recordable DVD disc, while your DVD recorder is still recording the rest of the show.  Panasonic calls this feature “Time Slip”.  Another advantage of simultaneous record and play capability is that you can play back your recorded “Survivor” program, while your DVD recorder makes another recording of a show currently being broadcasted.  This capability is far beyond what any tape-based VCRs can do.  Cool, huh?

Linear Editing Features. Linear editing is the traditional method of editing video when using linear formats such as video tape. You have to find the source segment that you want, record it to the new medium, then locate the next source segment, record it to the new medium, repeat until you’re done.  This is very time consuming especially when your source medium is a tape-based format.

Simple Non-Linear Editing Features. Non-linear editing is the ability to cut and paste video segments in any order that you wish.  This is a powerful video editing technique that saves a lot a time over linear editing methods and creates professional-looking results.  For advanced non-linear editing, you need to edit on a computer-based DVD authoring package. Read these FAQs for more details.

Titling Functions. If you plan to transfer your home video from VHS to recordable DVD discs, a titling function would allow you add some basic titles to your video footage.

Menu Creation Feature. Taking it one step further, some DVD recorders allow you to create simple menus such “Chapter Selection”, for quick direct access to your favorite scenes.

Cable Box Interface. If you have a cable set-top box for pay-per-view programming or digital cable, or a satellite TV set-top box, you will need this feature so that your DVD recorder can change the channel on your cable/satellite set-top box and record the desired TV programs.

Hard Disk Drive. Some of the more fancier DVD recorders incorporate a built-in hard disk drive, allowing the DVD recorder to make recordings without a recordable DVD disc.  When you want to archive the recorded program, you can insert a recordable DVD disc and the program can be transferred from the hard disk to the recordable DVD disc, for off-machine archiving.  Another use of a hard disk drive is that it can continue recording a program even when the recordable DVD disc runs out of space.  Lastly, a built-in hard disk can also allow the machine to multi-task with simultaneous record and play functionality.

Connectivity: Inputs and Outputs

Consider the following types connectivity, to ensure that your DVD recorder has the most flexibility to meet your needs for video recording.

IEEE 1394 “Firewire” interface (also known as “i.LINK” or “DV input”). This digital connection allows for pristine digital transfer of video and audio from a digital camcorder (e.g., miniDV, Digital-8).  This interface should be located on the front panel of the DVD recorder for easy access.  For output to a digital TV, this connection should be used whenever possible. Generally, the IEEE 1394 interface comes with either a 4-pin or 6-pin jack.  Usually a 4-pin jack is used with DVD recorders and digital camcorders.  Computers may use either or both the 4-pin and 6-pin jacks.  Make sure you have the Firewire cable with the right jacks at both ends.

Component video inputs and outputs. If a digital video connection cannot be established with the IEEE 1394 connection, then component video offers the best video transfer in the analog domain.

S-Video and composite video inputs and outputs. If you have an analog camcorder (e.g., 8mm, Hi-8, VHS, VHS-C), use the S-Video connection if there is one.  As a last resort, you can use the composite video connection.  The S-Video and composite video inputs should also be located on the recorder’s front panel for easy access.

Digital audio outputs. For DVD-Video playback in 5.1-channel surround sound, DVD recorders include either an optical or coaxial digital audio output, for connection with a Dolby Digital or DTS-capable home theater receiver.

Analog audio outputs. If you don't have a home theater receiver, simply use the analog audio outputs to connect them to your TV set.

Which Recordable DVD Format?

So which of the three major recordable DVD formats (DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, DVD-RAM) should you choose?  If you agree with the idea that recordable DVD discs should be backwards compatible with existing DVD-Video players and computer DVD-ROM drives, then as we discussed in our Recordable DVD Tutorial, the write-once DVD-R format seems to offer the best chances of backwards compatibility, though not quite 100%.  We have seen one industry source that says DVD-R backwards compatibility is better than 90%, though that number remains unconfirmed.

None of the rewritable formats (DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM) offer that level of backwards compatibility.  We have seen claims that rewritable DVD-RW and DVD+RW discs offer about 65% backwards compatibility with existing DVD-Video players and DVD-ROM drives.  The rewritable DVD-RAM disc is only compatible with Panasonic DVD-Video players made in 2001 or later, plus a few other brands’ models.  Therefore, if you plan to share your DVD recordings with family and friends, it is best to use the write-once DVD-R format.

For daily recording and time shifting of TV shows, your best bet is to use one of the rewritable DVD formats.  This allows you to record, erase, and record over again on the same disc.  If sharing of recorded TV programs is a desire, then try DVD-RW or DVD+RW.  If you don’t need to share TV programs with others, then any of the rewritable formats will do.  Even DVD-RAM is a viable option. Another use for rewritable media would be home security systems or any other type of recording that you won't need to keep forever.

Most DVD recorders use a single recordable DVD format. That is, they record to one of the following formats:

  • DVD-R/RW format, with its write-once DVD-R and rewritable DVD-RW variants

  • DVD+R/RW format, with its write-once DVD+R and rewritable DVD+RW variants

  • rewritable DVD-RAM format*
    *Some DVD-RAM recorders can record to DVD-R, offering a write-once format option with backwards compatibility with existing DVD-Video players and DVD-ROM drives.  The Panasonic DMR-E50 DVD-RAM/DVD-R recorder is one of these.

    Panasonic DMR-E50 DVD-RAM and DVD-R recorder ($500)
Panasonic DMR-E50 DVD-RAM and DVD-R recorder ($500)

(click on image to enlarge)

But some dual-format DVD recorders are starting to show up on the market.  One example is the Sony RDR-GX7 recorder ($800), which can record in the DVD-R/DVD-RW and DVD+R/RW formats.  These emerging dual-format DVD recorders offer some hedge against obsolescence, in the event DVD-R/RW or DVD+R/RW goes out of favor.  Eventually, we suspect that all-format (“universal”) DVD recorders will be available. But until then, there is still some risk with buying a DVD recorder since there is currently no clear standard in the realm of recordable DVD formats.

    Sony RDR-GX7 dual format DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW recorder ($800)
Sony RDR-GX7 dual-format DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW recorder ($800)

(click on image to enlarge)

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