Originally created 12/31/01

Standalone DVD recorders can't beat a PC



NEW YORK -- You probably already know that the DVD is destined to run videotapes and compact discs off the planet.

The DVD far eclipses videotape for movies and shames the compact disc for music. In data storage, at 4.7 gigabytes it beats a rewriteable CD about sevenfold.

There's really no need anymore for CD-ROM drives in computers, as DVD-ROM drives, which cost less than $100, can read all CD-ROMs and standard audio CDs.

It will still be at least a year, though, before DVD recorders become standard in home computers. That's because of a nasty format war among consumer electronics companies, much like the one that eventually saw VHS win over Betamax in the world of videotapes.

Home movie-makers are already buying DVD burners (about $500) for their computers. A standalone DVD recorder is another option in the meantime.

Though I can't make a reasonable case for actually buying a standalone DVD recorder, it's fun to get a glimpse of the future, and several consumer electronics giants have already obliged.

The gleaming silver metallic machines I examined are considerably more than glorified VCRs in function. But they also suffer huge limitations by virtue of being enclosed boxes without hard drives and controllable only via keyboardless remotes.

We stacked Pioneer's DVR-7000 and Philips' DVDR1000 (both about $1,800) against - and literally on top of - each other. We hooked them up to an AV tuner, a TV and speakers and put them to work. We didn't look at a cheaper unit by Panasonic that supports the rival DVD-RAM format.

Our first job was recording a two-hour movie to a rewriteable DVD-RW disc on the Pioneer: Initialize the disc, which takes only a few seconds. Find the movie's channel and start time. Set the timer.

We had little patience for programming the DVD recorder. Personal video recorders like TiVo and ReplayTV have built-in program guides that are updated by telephone or Internet connections and make recording a cinch. Shouldn't DVD recorders have that feature?

On standard recording, the two-hour movie filled a single DVD-RW. Then you must "finalize" the disc, a process that took eight minutes. (A single DVD-RW disc could record up to six hours but such discs wouldn't work in most DVD players.)

The Philips machine, which supports the competing DVD+RW format, doesn't require initializing and finalizing discs. It was far easier to handle - and can record up to four hours of programming.

Playing the movie, "The Lost Batallion," was a pleasure. I could skip forward in 30-second increments through the commercials, and the video and audio quality (Dolby digital) was top-notch.

That's about where it stops if recording television is your goal.

If it's burning home movies onto DVDs you want, these two machines will comply. But it's not an elegant solution.

I connected a Digital 8 camcorder to the Philips recorder and burned a six-minute performance of my son's rock band onto a DVD+RW.

Both machines have FireWire (IEEE1394) high-speed links so you can connect digital video cameras.

They are also both relatively smart, allowing you to enter names for the "titles," or video segments, you record. You can also change the sequence of segments when using rewriteable DVDs. Typing in title names using an on-screen alphabet "keypad" and a remote is a little slow and awkward.

And, as you'd expect, the systems aren't really compatible.

The rewriteable DVD-RW recorded on the Pioneer wouldn't play on the Philips or in my Sony desktop computer's DVD-ROM drive running InterVideo's WinDVD decoder software. The DVD+RW recorded on the Philips drive, by contrast, played on all three.

Thankfully, this wasn't a problem for write-once DVD-Rs.

DVD-R discs work in about 90 percent of existing drives and players, while DVD-RW and DVD+RW discs work in around 70 percent, according to Jim Taylor, author of "DVD Demystified."

But you can't use a DVD-R (about $10 each) more than once, whereas the rewritable DVDs cost only about $5 more per disc and can be rewritten hundreds of times.

It was fun copying that recording of my son's rock band from the Philips (which won't record to DVD-R discs) to a DVD-R in the Pioneer and shipping it off to the drummer's parents.

(Piraters beware: You won't be able to do that with a commercial movie on these machines as such DVDs are copy-protected.)

But when I decided to start editing video to show at a holiday family reunion I abandoned these two pricey DVD recorders and went to my computer.

I installed Adobe's Premiere and got to work capturing video scenes from my camcorder onto a 40-gigabyte hard drive. When I'm done, I'll transfer the final cut back to the videocam, take it upstairs and burn it onto a DVD.

Of course if I had a DVD drive in my PC, there'd be no need for a standalone recorder.

On the Net:

http://dvddemystified.com/dvdfaq.html