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DVD Recorder Buyer's Guide

By SmartHouse Team | Friday | 20/10/2006

Is one brand of DVD recorder better than another? Certainly, yes. But overall we advise you to ignore the brand but focus instead on buying the best technology.

DVD recorders are the 21st Century's equivalent of the VCR, but while virtually every VHS tape would work in your machine, it's not the same with DVD players or recorders. With DVD+R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM formats, VR modes and dubbing options, choosing a DVD recorder can be a hit-and-miss process. Brands and model numbers come and go, so in this 'how to arrticle we aim to guide you through the technology points you should consider.

Hard drive recording

The biggest development in DVD recorders has been the addition of built-in hard disk drives (HDD), enabling them to compete with hard disk based personal video recorders (PVRs) like Foxtel IQ. These enable you to store programmes on the hard disk so you can watch then delete them, or edit and keep them by burning your favourite bits to DVD. We reckon DVD/HDD recorders are definitely the way to go, as they're more flexible when it comes to recording. They can store hours more programming that you could possibly fit on a single recordable DVD. You can also use the hard disk to store edited versions of frequently watched programmes, giving you an instant but controllable source of viewing. The only drawback to HDD/DVD recorders specifically and DVD recorders in general, is that there are currently no models in Australia with a built-in digital TV tuner - which means you'll still need to hook up any recorder you buy to a digital set-top box. The other drawback for DTV-free recorders is the lack of an electronic ogramme guide (EPG).

Whichever recordable DVD format or type of recorder you choose, we reckon it pays to go for one of the big name brands like Sony, Toshiba, Pioneer, Sharp or Philips, rather than cheap Chinese and Korean imports you find in supermarkets. A mainstream recorder may cost you more money initially, but is also likely to give you better sound and picture quality, pack more features and be easier and more reliable to use in the long-term. You should also make sure that any machine you buy has at least a component and/or progressive scan output for the best quality signal, especially if you plan to hook the recorder up to a projector or large screen flat panel display. Some recorders also come with Digital Video Interface (DVI) or High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) ports for displaying digital pictures on compatible displays. Don't forget that you may also need S-Video and DV-in/out connectors for hooking up your analogue or digital camcorder too.

And finally… now you've turned to digital recording what are you going to do with those old analogue tapes? Luckily many DVD recorders - especially those from JVC - come with a suite of picture enhancement gizmos like digital noise reduction and time base correctors that can help freeze the decline of your fuzzy video memories and turn them into digital copies to enjoy for a long time to come.

Q. What's the benefit of a DVD recorder with a hard disk drive?
A. Standalone DVD recorders are available for less than $250 but they operate like a VHS deck. They record off-air programs as they happen, or connect to external sources such as camcorders. As explained above, most discs don't permit heavy editing after recording, especially if you want high compatibility, so you can be stuck with unwanted parts of a DVD recording.

Combined hard-drive/DVD recorders now cost less than $700. With these you can record many hours of material, chop bits you don't want and then transfer to DVD, often at high speed.

Q. Are all DVD recorders the same?
A. Hardly, but it's not simply a matter of price or quality. Most DVD recorders are capable of very good picture and sound quality but vary in format compatibility, their ease of use, and the inputs and outputs they possess.

Q. Should I buy a multi-format recorder?
A. These are a good idea - the more types of disc that your machine can record on, the better. This will give you extra choice when buying blank discs and give you added flexibility in what you can do with your discs afterwards.

Q. What are the main differences between blank disc formats?
A. There are five main types, excluding the next-generation High Definition DVD (HD DVD) and Blu-ray discs that are due to appear later this year.

Current disc types fall into two kinds: write-once or rewritable. Write-once discs can, as their name suggests, only be recorded on once and they must be finalised (like CD-R) before they can be played back in the majority of DVD players. Write-once discs come in two different formats, namely DVD-R and DVD+R. Recorders normally accept one of these two, sometimes both, though in practical terms they are almost identical. Blank discs are cheap and recordings work in almost every player.

Rewritable discs come in many different flavours, and end in ±RW or -RAM. They can be erased and reused at least hundreds of times. DVD+RW is the most popular, easy to use and compatible in many players, though editing is somewhat limited.

The DVD-RW format is similar, but it can be formatted in two ways. 'Video mode' is like DVD+RW (though not quite as good for compatibility in players). 'VR mode', meanwhile, enables much more editing but discs are less likely to work in other players. A few dual-format ±RW recorders exist, mostly from Sony, but manufacturers tend to follow a 'plus' or 'minus' allegiance.

DVD-RAM is the most sophisticated and expensive type of standard blank DVD. It behaves like a small hard drive and can be edited or rewritten thousands of times and even played while recording. Some DVD-RW recorders also allow this, but only in 'VR mode'. However, DVD-RAM discs are unplayable in the vast majority of today's DVD players.

Q. Can blank discs be double sided or double layered?
A. Yes. DVD-RAM discs are often double sided, doubling their capacity. However, you have to turn them over manually. Double-layered (DL) discs are now on sale, which increase capacity and don't need turning over. Picture quality dips beyond about 2-3 hours on normal home-made DVDs, so these new developments help improve this. DVD+R was the first to go DL, therefore blank discs are relatively more affordable and available.

Only a few current recorders are compatible with DL blanks, such as Sony's RDR-HX510 for DVD+R and Pioneer's DVR-630H for DVD-R. Playback shouldn't be a problem on typical machines, as DL discs mimic the format of commercial DVDs. Dual-layered rewritable discs are in development, but by the time they are established, much higher capacity HD-DVD and Blu-ray systems are likely to be in shops (albeit with a hefty price tag).

Q. How do I connect an external digital TV box?
A. A surprisingly large number of DVD recorders do not accept component video inputs, which offers the highest-quality analogue picture from digiboxes. Even worse, not all digiboxes carry the next-best choice of S-Video, so you can be left with poor quality composite video. Check carefully what calibre of inputs a DVD recorder has before you buy. Ultimately these connections will be superseded by HDMI but probably only once HD-DVD and Blu-ray develop.

Q. Can DVD recorders control digiboxes?
A. Some recorders will wait in automatic 'slave mode' for an external tuner to activate from its own timer. A recording will then start but this process is often hit-and-miss and far from ideal.

Q. What else should I consider?
A. Many DVD recorders include a multimedia card slot or USB port for transferring digital photos or MP3 files directly from your PC, camera, PDA or smart phone. Digital camcorder users should look for an i.Link DV input.

A few recorders may record video in MPEG-4, which is handy for copying to portable media players, but this feature is still unusual. High quality HDMI outputs are also starting to appear on mid-range and luxury recorders. HDMI is vital for top-quality playback on compatible flatscreen TVs or projectors.
Beyond DVD

As soon as it became clear that having multiple recordable formats for DVD was a bit of nonstarter, the consumer electronics industry immediately set about its replacement - a single universal format that would deliver greater storage capacity and be compatible with high definition TV. First unveiled in 1999, Blu-ray met that challenge by offering up to 27GB of storage capacity in a single layer. The first Blu-ray recorder is from Samsung and will be on sale in a few weeks in Australia.

Its arch rival HD-DVD which was released in the US in March and is in Australia in notebook-form and is also available as an add-on to Xbox 360. But given the current uncertainty and high pricing of both types of players, sticking with DVD recordable looks like the smartest option - for another two years at least.

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