How to Buy a DVD Recorder

Introduction

DVD Recorder Buying Guide graphic

Want to make your own DVDs? No question the discs have it all over tapes for quality and convenience. Whether you're looking to time-shift your favorite TV programs or edit and archive home video footage, today's DVD recorders can get the job done. Here's what you need to know before you buy.

The Big Picture
Recording format is a significant decision, but getting the right feature set in the recorder is usually more important. more

The Specs Explained
What's the difference between DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, and DVD-RAM? We sort out the specifications. more

DVD Recorder Shopping Tips
Before you head to the mall, read these key factors in choosing the DVD recorder that's right for you. more

In Video: How to Buy a DVD Recorder

The Big Picture

A DVD recorder is like a VCR, except that it uses discs instead of tapes to record TV programs and play prerecorded videos. The quality of a DVD recorder is superior to what you'd get with a VCR (though, as with a VCR, your quality level will depend on your recording settings). Plus, as with prerecorded DVDs, you can skip around a disc easily through disc menus and chapter marks.

When buying a DVD recorder, you have two primary points to consider. The first is whether you're buying a model with or without a tuner. Following a recent FCC mandate, newly introduced recording devices with a tuner now have to include a digital ATSC tuner. A digital tuner adds to the cost of the DVD recorder, so manufacturers are typically offering models with an ATSC tuner, and models without. Buying a model without a tuner makes sense if you plan to rely on your cable box's tuner; such models now typically offer cable-box control. (You might still be able to find older DVD recorder models with nondigital tuners; keep that in mind when you're shopping.)

The other main issue to consider is that not all recorders support all disc formats. PC DVD burners have mostly eliminated format wars with cross-format support; however, DVD recorders continue to be more stratified along format lines. Some recorders can handle all five of the single-layer recordable DVD formats (DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, and DVD-RAM), but many do not. Common combinations--especially on budget recorders--include supporting just DVD-R/RW or DVD+R/RW. Other models support both of those formats but not DVD-RAM. Some recorders handle DVD-R/RW and DVD-RAM, and still more support DVD-R/RW, DVD+R, and DVD-RAM. With all of the permutations available, it's no wonder that you might feel as if you're adrift in a bowl of alphabet soup.

A tertiary consideration is whether the recorder supports dual-layer or double-layer discs. If you want to record two consecutive hours in the highest possible quality, you'll want this feature.

Formats

If you intend to play your home-grown DVDs only on the recorder used to create them, this multiplicity of formats is not an issue. You can focus your buying decision on other features instead. But chances are that you will at least occasionally want to share your discs with family or friends--or even use them in other DVD players in your household. In this case, you'll want to make a disc that operates in other DVD players or laptops.

The recordable DVDs most broadly compatible with standard players are DVD-R and DVD+R--both are write-once, nonerasable formats. DVD-R is traditionally considered as having a slight edge over DVD+R in cross-compatibility; however, your experience will vary, depending on what your DVD player supports. All current-model DVD players and DVD-ROM drives (or DVD burners) will read at least one of these formats, and a substantial majority will read both.

Some DVD recorders also support write-once 8.5GB DVD-R DL (called "dual layer" in this format) or DVD+R DL (called "double layer" in this format) media. These discs have twice the capacity of standard single-layer DVDs, and are a boon to anyone who needs to record video at the highest possible bit rate for maximum image quality. Typically, DVD-recorder manufacturers call this high-quality recording mode "XP" or "1-hour mode," because you can record 1 hour of material onto a write-once disc. If your DVD recorder supports dual-layer or double-layer media, then XP mode can pack up to 2 hours of high-quality video onto a single disc.

Each of the write-once formats has a rewritable sibling--DVD-RW for DVD-R and DVD+RW for DVD+R. Most DVD players can play back rewritable disc formats, but the degree of compatibility of rewritable media isn't as high as with write-once media. If you plan to use your recorded discs on other DVD players you already own, check your machine's specs to see which formats it should be able to handle.

Finally, there's DVD-RAM, a rewritable format with more-sophisticated random-access capability than the others. This is the best format choice for on-disc editing; the format also allows for simultaneous on-disc recording and playback. However, not all players can play back DVD-RAM discs; if you plan to share recorded content with friends, DVD-RAM is not your best choice.

Main Course or Side Dish?

DVD recorders can be divided into three subcategories: straight DVD recorders, DVD recorders with built-in hard drives, and combination DVD/VHS recorders (sometimes, you can find these devices with a hard drive, too).

Straight DVD recorders are functionally very similar to VCRs, substituting discs for tapes. This is a good way to go if you plan to transfer a lot of home video to DVD, without editing, or if you just want to record shows direct-to-disc. Some players let you do a minimal amount of on-disc editing if you record to the rewritable formats, but straight DVD recorders are not optimal if you anticipate doing editing.

The second subcategory--DVD recorders with built-in hard drives--provides a melding of personal video recorder functionality and the archiving capability offered by DVD recording. Adding a hard drive enhances editing functionality dramatically.

In this scenario, you'll most likely record content to the hard drive first, and then archive what you want to save from the hard drive to DVD. Using a hard drive also makes it easier to do such things as editing out commercials before transferring favorite programs to disc, or creating mashups of your favorite scenes.

A third popular option pairs a DVD recorder with a VHS VCR. This approach is expecially handy for dubbing your old tapes to DVD, or for copying DVDs made from home videos to tape so you can easily share the footage with friends and family.

Prices for straight DVD recorders range from $50 to $300; models with either a VCR or a hard drive range from $250 to $700 depending on the size of the hard drive. Models with a digital tuner are more expensive than models that lack a tuner entirely.

Many of these recorders are offered in combination with upconverting capabilities, to optimize 480p DVDs for playback on a high-definition television at 1080i or 1080p, over an HDMI connection. The built-in scaling can help produce an improved image as compared with viewing a standard-definition DVD on an HDTV.

Programming, Recording, and Playback Features

As with a VCR, all DVD recorders provide manual programming. Most even provide a quick, one-touch record button for on-the-fly recording with an auto-shutoff timer, typically in 30-minute increments. If you will be recording from satellite or from a cable system that requires a set-top box, it is important that the recorder be capable of controlling the satellite receiver or cable box. Though most recorders can work with a cable set-top box, some don't include the IR blaster required to do so; and many recorders won't work with your satellite TV box at all.

In addition to manual programming, most DVD recorders support the anachronistically named VCRPlus+. This is the code, published in newspaper and TV grid listings, to speed programming of a VCR. Hard-drive recorders may also provide an electronic program guide, or EPG, that enables point-and-click recording.

Another important, related consideration is recording time. A recorder can pack more video onto a disc by increasing the amount of data compression it applies, at the expense of picture quality. All DVD recorders provide multiple compression settings that amount to a minimum recording time of 1 hour per single-layer disc and maximum recording times of up to 8 hours. Some recorders have the handy ability to automatically set recording quality based on programmed recording time and available disc space. A DVD recorder with hard disk makes it easier to record at maximum quality and then archive to disc (or multiple discs, if needed).

In addition to recording and playing back DVDs, all players can handle CD audio and most can handle other disc types as well (such as MP3 or WMA CDs, Video CDs, and JPEG CDs). Some models have memory card slots for displaying video or pictures. Most include a DV input for recording to DVD directly from a digital video camera.

If you plan to hook up your DVD recorder to a surround-sound home theater system, make sure the recorder has digital audio outputs that match the digital inputs (coaxial or optical) on your audio/video receiver or surround processor. Some, but not all, DVD recorders support both coaxial and optical audio.

The Specs Explained

The key DVD recorder specifications refer mostly to which recording options are provided--whether technical options such as disc formats and compression, or functional options such as inputs and programming.

We've divided the specs into three groups: important, somewhat important, and minor.

Important: Recording Formats

DVD has seven different recordable-disc formats. Pick a recorder based on which formats your current hardware uses and which formats best suit your needs.

DVD-R: Write-once (it can't be erased or rewritten). This is the format most broadly compatible with DVD players; almost all current models and many older ones play it.

DVD-R DL: Write-once dual-layer media can store twice as much video as a single-layer DVD-R disc.

DVD-RW: The rewritable sibling of DVD-R. DVD-RW is reasonably compatible with ordinary DVD players; this format will play in most current models and some older ones.

DVD+R: Write-once (can't be erased or rewritten). This format is similar to DVD-R in compatibility with DVD players; it will play in almost all current models and many older ones.

DVD+R DL: This write-once double-layer media format can store twice as much video as a single-layer DVD+R disc.

DVD+RW: The rewritable sibling of DVD+R. It is reasonably compatible with ordinary DVD players; DVD+RW will play in most current models and some older ones.

DVD-RAM: Rewritable format with excellent random-access capability. This is the best format for on-disc editing. DVD-RAM is compatible only with players designed to support the format.

Important: Recording Capabilities

Recorders can increase the amount of video they can fit on a disc by compressing the data more severely. Picture quality drops correspondingly, however, so this specification should not be considered in isolation. If you anticipate needing to record large blocks of programs at high quality--for example, the full multi-hour evening broadcast of the Summer Olympics, or the entirety of the Super Bowl--buy a DVD recorder with a hard drive. Such models allow you to record at the best image quality, and then archive the recording to multiple discs at a later time.

If you want to get 2 hours of maximum-quality video on a single disc, make sure your chosen recorder supports recording to either double-layer or dual-layer DVD media.

Important: Component-Video Output

Component-video output allows the highest picture quality when connected to a display with component-video inputs, especially if the recorder and display support progressive scan.

Important: High-Def Upconversion

Many recorders now offer HDMI output and in-unit scaling to upconvert your images to 1080i or 1080p. Look for this feature if you plan to use your recorder with a high-definition LCD or plasma display. By going through the HDMI output, you'll achieve a slightly improved image quality over standard-definition video that's output to an HDTV via component or composite video.

Somewhat Important: DV Input

A DV input--also known as FireWire or iLink support--ensures maximum video and audio quality when the video is transferred from a digital camcorder, or from a digital cable box or satellite receiver equipped with a FireWire output.

Somewhat Important: Front-Panel A/V Inputs

Audio/video inputs on the front panel make temporary connection of devices such as camcorders much more convenient.

Somewhat Important: Electronic Program Guide

EPGs can make it much easier to program the device to record television programs. Guides vary in sophistication (most are free, but some carry monthly fees).

Minor: Type of Digital Audio Output

It's important to be able to make a digital audio connection to an A/V receiver or surround-sound processor if you're going to use the recorder to watch movies in a home theater system. On the other hand, most receivers, processors, and DVD recorders provide for both coaxial and optical (Toslink) connections, so making a match is rarely a problem.

DVD Recorder Shopping Tips

Ready to buy? Consider these points before you punch the record button at the cash register.

What are you going to do with it? If all you want to do is record TV programs and keep some of them, the best thing to get, by far, is a digital video recorder with a built-in DVD burner or a DVD recorder with a hard drive. If, on the other hand, your primary interest is making DVDs from home videos, you may still want a hard disk, but make sure the recorder provides good editing functionality and an and a DV input (also called a FireWire port). If you have VHS tapes you want to transfer to DVD, a DVD recorder/VCR can be a handy and enhanced alternative to connecting your VCR to the DVD recorder.

How portable do your recordings need to be? If you want to play your discs in other rooms of the house or share them with other people, get a recorder that supports as many formats as possible. This will improve your odds of being able to share discs with other, perhaps more finicky, devices.

Do you want an electronic program guide, and if so, which one? Gemstar's TV Guide On Screen is the free alternative to TiVo; however, you'll have to put up with annoyances like unintuitive program grids and busy, ad-laden screens. Microsoft is also offering a fee-based EPG, currently available only on one of LG Electronics' DVD recorders.

What else can the recorder do? Consider whether the unit can play MP3 and WMA CDs, view JPEGs, and support those file formats stored on flash memory cards.

How easy is it to use? Check out the on-screen menus and the remote control. Good interfaces will guide you through tasks, while bad ones will get in the way. This can make a big difference in how much you use and enjoy the device, especially if you do a lot of editing. In that case, look at how the recorder organizes scenes for you and look at the steps required to perform basic tasks such as trimming, deleting, and reordering scenes. If the manual is available online, skim its contents to see if it offers clear, detailed explanations of everything related to recording and--especially for home video--editing.

How good is the picture at the various compression settings? Most recorders perform comparably at their best settings; you'll see greater differences in 4-, 6-, and 8-hour modes.

If, on the other hand, your primary interest is creating DVDs of home video, use some of your best-looking footage and see how well it survives the transfer.

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