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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
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
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
digital camcorder video (miniDV and Digital-8
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
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:
As a basic replacement for the VCR, standalone DVD recorders must have an
NTSC analog TV tuner and an electronic program guide
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
Electronic 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
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
A sample screen shot of the GUIDE Plus+ EPG
(picture courtesy of Gemstar-TV
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
Some of these features are covered below. Click here to read our DVD-Video Player Buying
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.
(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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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+R/RW format, with its write-once DVD+R and rewritable DVD+RW
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)
(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
Sony RDR-GX7 dual-format
DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW recorder ($800)
(click on image to enlarge)
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