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.
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.