Capture TV on DVD
Stand-alone DVD recorders use the same drive technology you'd find on your PC--only they come clothed as a home theater component.
These devices have many of the advantages of DVD players. DVD discs take up less physical space than do bulky VHS tapes. And DVDs, including those created with a recorder, have menus that let you easily jump to specific points within a recording. Plus, with these devices you can record high-quality video: up to 700 horizontal lines of resolution, compared with 250 lines using a VCR.
In our evaluation of six DVD recorders, we discovered major differences in the way these models operate. Of the ones we tested, we liked the $700 Sony RDR-GX7 the best: It was the easiest to use and produced great image quality. (For a comparison of all six recorders, see our separate chart.)
As with a VCR, basic DVD recording can be as easy as hitting the record button. But unlike a VCR, whose most difficult feature to learn might be how to stop the clock from blinking, DVD recorders tend to be more complicated to use.
Rewritable discs need to be formatted before you record video to them. We found this under-1-minute task simple enough to complete, but it's an extra step that may cost you the start of the Super Bowl if you don't think ahead.
Furthermore, if you want to play a recorded write-once disc in another player, you must first finalize the disc, as you would a CD-R you wanted to play on your stereo. But only one of the units we reviewed, the Pioneer, does this automatically; none of the others prompts you to perform this task prior to ejecting the disc.
Not all DVD recorders that support the same media types behave in the same way. Most of the DVD recorders we looked at (from Panasonic, Philips, Sharp, and Sony) allow basic video editing on rewritable media--so you can erase, say, the first and fifth half-hours you've recorded and then record an hour of content in their place without overwriting your other items.
When using DVD+RW and DVD-RAM, these recorders typically let you delete a scene or an entire program. Some DVD-RW recorders, such as the Sharp DV-RW2U, also allow editing and erasing. But the Apex DRX-9000 lets you erase just the last title on a DVD+RW disc. And Pioneer's DVR-810H-S can erase the entire DVD-RW disc only.
All of the units we tested give new recordings a separate, generic title. You can also have the recorder automatically place chapter markers within each title so you can quickly advance to specific spots.
The Panasonic DMR-E60 had the most extensive editing features of the bunch, in part because the unit uses DVD-RAM, which writes to the disc in the same way a hard drive records data. As a result, you can pause a recording without losing any of it, or watch one program while recording a different one--two features you would find on a hard disk-based recorder like a TiVo.
If you plan to record primarily off TV, your DVD recorder's interface--and how well it creates the navigation menus on your disc--will be of paramount importance.
Tapping out segment titles on a remote control--a necessity on all of the units except the Pioneer--is tedious, and it naturally doesn't work as well as using a PC keyboard would.
The Pioneer, though, is extremely easy to operate: Basically it's a TiVo hard-drive recorder with an integrated DVD burner. TiVo's simple, attractive interface services not only hard-disk recording but also DVD playback and recording. When you copy a TV show to DVD, you get neat, TiVo-like menu navigation and program titles, complete with the show's detailed program information--a far cry from the generic titles most of the other models in this roundup automatically provide.
However, unlike the other models we tested, all of which record directly to disc, the Pioneer requires you to record your video to the 80GB hard drive first. Even if you're dubbing your old videotapes to DVD via the unit's analog inputs, you must copy video to the hard drive before you can transfer it to DVD.
The Apex and Sony models also offer attractive, intuitive graphical interfaces. In contrast, the Philips DVDR80's on-screen menu frequently presents arcane symbols that you'll need a key to decode--so using this unit is more difficult than it should be.
The Sharp isn't hard to use, but its interface isn't pretty, either: Its navigation menus look identical to the simple blue-and-white text screens of the company's VCRs.
Ready, Set, Record!
Each of the models we tested permits manual and timer recording, similar to what you'd find on a VCR; all but the Pioneer (which relies on its TiVo guide) have one-touch recording for immediately capturing shows in 30-minute increments.
The slickest on-screen programming guides accompanied the Pioneer and Philips models. The TiVo Basic service on the Pioneer device lists three days' worth of programs and allows you to record all episodes of a particular television series at a specific day and time. (You can upgrade to the full TiVo service to get enhanced options, such as recording all shows with a specific actor, for $13 a month.)
Philips offers an attractive alternative to TiVo with its Guide Plus System, a free, on-screen program guide that taps into your cable feed to display a week's worth of TV shows, mimicking some of TiVo Basic's functions. On the other hand, the Panasonic, the Pioneer, and the Sharp products all integrate the spartan VCR Plus, a holdover system for inputting a number you find in TV listings for a show you want to record.
Just as VCRs have three recording speeds (SP/LP/EP), all of the DVD recorders we evaluated had at least three image-quality presets for recording (the Philips device provides eight presets). The more recording time you pack on a disc, however, the lower the video quality--as a result you'll see blocky and choppy images, with obvious visual artifacts. The highest quality setting--equivalent to what you'd see in a DVD movie--gets you just 1 hour of recording time. The sweet spot: 2 hours per disc, at which the image is good, with only occasional artifacts.
DVD recorders are wonderful tools, especially when they are easy to use, like our pick, Sony's RDR-GX7. One would make a great addition to any home theater setup--once you free up the slot formerly occupied by your VCR.
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