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Consumer Reports – DVD Recorders

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At the highest-quality setting, the quality of most DVD video recordings is better than that of a VCR. DVD recorders also offer more ways to navigate recordings, with no need to rewind or fast-forward. With certain disc types, DVD recorders can perform functions that no VCR can match, such as letting you watch a program from the beginning while recording is already under way. They also offer a way to convert camcorder tapes or homemade VCR recordings to a digital format. The DVD recorder market is still in its early stages, so it’s likely there will be further changes involving disc types, and prices for machines and for blank storage media may drop further.

As of August 2005, there were no DVD recorders capable of recording high-definition (HD) content. HD DVD recorders are in development and could be on the market in 2006. (There are some digital video recorders capable of recording HDTV programs. They are mainly available from satellite and cable companies. However, these use hard discs, not removable DVDs.)

WHAT’S AVAILABLE

DVD recorders are available from many of the same manufacturers that make DVD players. Apex Digital, Panasonic, Philips, Sony, and Toshiba are among the biggest brands. Some DVD recorders store content only on DVDs. Others can also use VHS tapes, hard drives, or both. Price range: DVD-only recording, about $150 and up.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

As with any other video recorder–including digital cameras–a recorder’s storage capacity varies in actual usage. DVD recorders store content at different compression settings and thus at different quality levels. For the best image quality, you have to record programming at the device’s lowest level of compression, yielding as little as one hour of recording time. To get the maximum capacity advertised–typically six or eight hours–you have to use the highest level of compression, which gives the lowest quality.

All rewriteable DVD formats let you edit, to varying extents, what you’ve recorded. DVD-RW (in VR mode) and DVD-RAM recorders let you edit more extensively than does DVD+RW. Besides letting you watch one program while recording another, recorders with DVD-RAM capability and some with DVD-RW in VR mode let you watch an earlier section of a program while you’re still recording it.

As with VCRs, DVD recorders may use VCR Plus to ease the setup of time-shift recordings. Some also come with Gemstar or TV Guide On-Screen, free interactive program guides that get three days of listings at a time from your TV signal. They offer point-and-click setup of recording events.

In addition to commercial DVD titles, DVD recorders often support playback or display of numerous other disc formats. They include CD-R/RW discs containing standard CD-audio information; the recordable DVD formats DVD+R/RW, DVD-R/RW, and DVD-RAM; Video CD (VCD); and DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD). They can also play CD-R/RW discs containing MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files and JPEG picture files. Make sure a model you’re considering plays the discs and formats you use now, or may want to use in the future.

DVD-based movies often come in various formats. Aspect-ratio control lets you choose between the 4:3 viewing format of conventional TVs (4 inches wide for every 3 inches high) and the 16:9 ratio of newer, wide-screen sets.

A DVD recorder gives you all sorts of control over the picture–control you may never have known you needed. Picture zoom lets you zoom in on a specific frame. Black-level adjustment brings out the detail in dark parts of the screen image. If you’ve ever wanted to see certain action scenes from different angles, multi-angle capability gives you that opportunity. Note that this feature and some others work only with certain discs.

A DVD recorder enables you to navigate the disc in a number of ways. Unlike a VHS tape, most DVDs are sectioned. Chapter preview lets you scan the opening seconds of each section or chapter until you find what you want; a related feature, chapter gallery, shows thumbnails of section or chapter opening scenes. Go-to by time lets you enter how many hours and minutes into the disc you’d like to skip to. Marker functions allow easy indexing of specific sections.

To get the best picture quality when playing DVDs, you need to hook up the recorder/player to the TV with the best available connection. A composite-video connection to the TV can produce a very good picture, but there will be some loss of detail and some color artifacts such as adjacent colors bleeding into each other. Using the S-video output can improve picture quality. It keeps the black-and-white and the color portions of the signal separated, producing more picture detail and fewer color defects than standard composite video.

Component-video, sometimes not provided on the lowest-end models, improves on S-video by splitting the color signal, resulting in a wider range of color. If you connect a DVD recorder via an S-video or component connection, don’t be surprised if you have to adjust the television-picture setup when you switch to a picture coming from a VCR or a cable box that uses a radio-frequency (RF, also called antenna/cable) connection or a composite connection.

Two newer outputs found on some models, Digital Video Interface (DVI) and High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), are intended for use with digital TVs with DVI or HDMI inputs. They may be used to pass digital 480p and up-converted higher-resolution video signals. Those outputs potentially allow content providers to control your ability to record the content.

Another benefit of DVD recorders is the ability to enjoy movies with multichannel surround sound. To reap the full sound experience of the audio encoded into DVD titles, you’ll need a Dolby Digital receiver and six speakers, including a subwoofer. (For 6.1 and 7.1 soundtracks, you’ll need seven or eight speakers.) Dolby Digital decoding built-in refers to a DVD player that decodes the multichannel audio before the audio receiver; without the built-in circuitry, you’d need to have the decoder built into the receiver or, in rare instances, use a separate decoder box to take advantage of the audio. (A Dolby Digital receiver will decode an older format, Dolby Pro Logic, as well.) Most recorders also support Digital Theater System (DTS) decoding for titles using the six- or seven-channel encoding format. When you’re watching DVD-based movies, dynamic audio-range control helps keep explosions and other noisy sound effects from seeming too loud.

DVD recorders also provide features such as multilingual support, which lets you choose dialog or subtitles in different languages for a given movie. Parental control lets parents “lock out” commercial films by their rating code.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Decide whether you want to record on removable media. DVD recording is the best option for those who want to share video recordings with other users or to have unlimited storage, allowing recordings to be saved indefinitely. They’re also space-efficient, since they can play pre-recorded movies, replacing a separate DVD player. But if none of these attributes is important to you, consider a hard-drive-based DVR instead. If you’ve decided on DVD recording, here’s what to consider in selecting a unit:

Choose between a DVD-only recorder or a combo unit. DVD-only models can cost about half the price of units with a second recording platform such as a hard drive or VCR. The combos are pricier and bulkier but more versatile.

Look for “time slip” capability. It allows you to pause your viewing of a TV program you’re recording, while the unit continues to record. You can resume viewing where you left off. Time-slip models also let you view a previously recorded program while recording another. An inherent feature of all hard-drive-equipped recorders, time slip is also available on stand-alone DVD recorders that record to DVD-RAM discs, one of five disc types recorders use. (All models use at least one write-once and one rewriteable disc type; DVD-RAM discs are rewriteable.) But there’s a downside to DVD-RAM discs: They can be played on fewer other recorders or players than discs using formats that are more widely compatible. Some models that record to DVD-RW discs in VR mode also have time-slip capability.

Decide what kind of TV-programming capabilities you want. When it comes to programmed recording, a typical DVD recorder can do everything a VCR can. And as with VCRs, some DVD recorders can control a cable or satellite box, allowing you to program the unit to record from various channels without setting the box to the correct channel before each recording. DVD/hard-drive recorders designed to work with TiVo, the subscription programming service, also offer automatic recording of your favorite shows (or performers) whenever or wherever they’re on. But that added functionality has a cost: a monthly fee of about $13 or a one-time fee of about $300 (at time of publication). TV Guide On-Screen is a free interactive program guide that is available on some models. While not as versatile as the TiVo programming guide, it does offer point-and-click recording ability.

Decide the importance of video editing. A DVD-only model that records to DVD-RAM discs or to DVD-RW discs in VR mode allows scenes to be subdivided and rearranged onscreen. But the discs aren’t compatible with all players, and even if they do play, edits you make on those discs might not show up. DVD/hard-drive models, except for tested models allied with the TiVo service, give you the ability to edit video on the hard drive. You can then burn images to a range of disc types for maximum compatibility with other players.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

For the latest information on this and many other products and services, visit www.ConsumerReports.org.

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