DVD Recorders: The New VCR and More

Out there in the great home video marketplace, clearly VHS is fading, and DVD video is on the rise. The big hold-up has been a way to record DVDs in the same way that we use our analog VCRs to record videotapes today.

Until very recently, the only way to make your own DVD videos was to use a computer-based authoring system to burn your content onto a blank DVD disc. The process was reasonably complicated and quite time consuming. Clearly consumers don’t appreciate either of those attributes in any technology designed for casual use in their living rooms. Enter the stand-alone DVD recorder, the inevitable marriage of the VCR’s convenience with DVD’s benefits.

The promise of the new stand-alone DVD recorders is to simplify the DVD authoring process as much as possible and make it more like operating a VCR. Feed the box a video stream, push the Record button, and then hit STOP when you’re done and voilà! You have a playable DVD! Just like it works with a VCR, right? Well, not quite. The problem is that for a DVD — any DVD — to work, it needs a way to signal the playback device about what to expect. This is because the DVD specification — the rulebook that all DVD manufacturers and playback devices must adhere to — is so very complex. Its complexity is due to the DVD’s very flexible data storage system.

It’s happy to hold our wedding video, or playback the latest rented Hollywood movie, but the specification designers also needed to accommodate higher-level functions like employee testing, database lookups — or even linking to content via the Web.

Complex Stuff

Since a DVD can do so much, as each one is inserted into a player, the first order of business is for the player to read the disc and figure out just what it contains and how the author wants it played back. That means instructions must be built for any DVD you burn, even if it’s just an instruction that says "ignore the menus and just play the video."

All the linking and encoding on computer-based DVD authoring systems is done via the computer keyboard and/or mouse. But a standalone DVD recorder won’t necessarily have these common computer peripherals available.

So these tasks are typically done via the remote control and the process is a bit like sending a text message to a cell phone — you page through one or more screens of alpha-numeric characters, selecting and entering them one at a time.

It’s neither elegant nor easy, but it is functional.

Real-time reality

The other thing you’ll notice if you’re expecting your new DVD Recorder to act just like a VCR is that unlike the VCR, the DVD recorder doesn’t always work in real time.
For example, some DVD recorders include a hard drive inside the case. And yes, the video stream is typically read to the hard drive in real time, but after that, the encoding and finalizing process has to proceed just like it would if you were using a computer-based authoring system. To make any DVD, MPEG-2 encoding must take place. This means stand-alone DVD recorders may need some time to finalize and finish a disc after completing the input process. So again, for those expecting the DVD recorder to act exactly like a VCR, there’s an adjustment to make.

And finally, the last big issue regarding DVD recorders is compatibility. Once again, compared to what we’re accustomed to with VCRs, the DVD recorder is a different animal. Assuming proper head alignment, we expect that any VHS tape we record on one VCR will play back in virtually any other. In the world of DVD recording there’s ample evidence that compatibility — particularly in discs burned at “extended play” settings — can be an issue. So before you burn mission-critical content to a disc assuming it will play on another machine, it’s wise to keep your original content intact until you’ve confirmed that the data will read successfully on other machines.

The good news here is that since stand-alone DVD recorders are so recent a product, there is more compatibility in this class than in, for example, computer DVD burners. However, not the kind of full-compatibility we’re accustomed to in the VCR world. Typically, the most compatible discs you’ll create on DVD recorders will be those recorded at the Standard speed settings on quality media. If you decide to set your DVD recorder to its 4-hour or (yikes) 6-hour setting, expect to have a very hard time playing that disc back on any player other than the one that burned it.

Burning Your Way to Success

DVD recorders are a huge leap forward in making DVD technology accessible to more and more video creators. They take what is an inherently complicated process and make it as simple as it can be. You give up some flexibility regarding complex menu design and keyboard-driven convenience — and in return, you gain a dedicated piece of hardware designed to do a single task — DVD Authoring — as efficiently as possible. Investing in a DVD recorder also frees your computer from time-consuming task of DVD authoring.

So if you desire simplicity or need the productivity boost of using your computer for other work while still burning DVDs, the standalone DVD recorder might be just the ticket for you.

Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits, and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.

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