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The VCR isn’t quite dead yet, but inexpensive DVD recorders are whispering "The end is near." Only a year or so ago, there were a couple of boxes that ran $1,000 each. Then a couple more came out and prices fell to $600. They were good enough, for first-generation products: bulky size, primitive menu systems and clumsy usability offered chances for improvement. The Lite-On LVW-5001 is the first sleek and usable VCR replacement we’ve seen at a reasonable price, often well below $300 in stores. Throw in FireWire inputs and this could be the "Must Have" device for videographers.
So how does it work? Well, if you can use a VCR, you can use the LVW-5001. Hook up your cable, satellite or antenna to the back and then connect the LVW-5001 to your TV and you are set to go. To record a program, press the red Record button on the Remote control. Like your VCR, you can schedule recordings, provided you set the time on the device correctly. The menu system is really nice: Besides being attractive, the actual menu design is simple and thoughtful.
The LVW-5001 records to both DVD+R and DVD+RW discs. Media prices have fallen very dramatically, especially since premium media for 4x and 8x DVD burners has entered the market. Since the LVW-5001 only requires 1x media (although it will work with faster-rated media as well), you should be able to find very inexpensive media. As of this writing (early Spring 2004), we were able to easily track down blank DVD+R discs for as little as $0.70 a disc and blank DVD+RW discs for less than a dollar each on 100 count spindles.
To Rewrite or Not?
DVD+RW discs behave a bit more like videotape since you can erase them and re-record on them, while DVD+R discs are permanent, write-once media. Considering that there is only a small price difference, we favor the re-writeable +RW format for this device. Compatibility is not a large issue, since discs recorded with this system will obviously play back in it. Newer DVD players from other manufacturers will also play back discs from the LVW-5001 (which we verified in our testing), but DVD+R discs are more compatible. So if you want to share last night’s episode of Star Trek with your co-worker, you should probably use a DVD+R disc. Although you can record and playback programs without a second thought on the LVW-5001, you will need to close or finalize recordings destined for other DVD players.
The LVW-5001 was not flawless. In our extensive tests, the unit we tested occasionally hung during a recording. This required powering the device down and back up again. Needless to say, when the unit failed, we missed recording whatever television program was on. This was less of a problem when creating DVDs from our camcorder, since we could just start the recording again. This is another reason to use DVD+RW discs, although they are not as compatible with other players. The LVW-5001 seems to be very sensitive to the quality of the blank media, especially DVD+R discs. We had the best success with TDK and Optodisc.
NOTE: After the review was complete, we updated the firmware of the drive to LNEA1141. The procedure was simple (download, burn to CD, update) and we really appreciated this advanced capability. The update made a couple of changes to the user interface and perhaps made it more compatible with more media. We did not experience any crashes after the update, but we also did not test as extensively as the original review.
Mini DV to DVD
For Videomaker readers, by far the most interesting feature of the LVW-5001 is the front panel FireWire jack. Yes, transforming your Mini DV home movies to DVD is as easy as (1) plugging in your camcorder and (2) hitting record on the LVW-5001’s remote control. No, we didn’t just shorthand that last sentence by leaving out "press play on your camcorder" because the LVW-5001 uses the FireWire protocol to automatically control your camcorder. Besides playback, you can even cue up your tape with fast-forward, rewind, stop, pause and play controls. Very, very cool.
The discs you record with the LVW-5001 will have a simple thumbnail menu that is certainly adequate for disc navigation. The menu creates a new thumbnail every time you press Stop. You can set up the machine to automatically create periodic chapter marks for faster navigation during playback. You can’t edit your programs (e.g. to remove commercials), but you can enter names for the titles under the thumbnails and delete title thumbnails completely.
We’re a bit obsessed with quality, so when we transferred our home movies to DVD (via FireWire), we recorded with the highest quality setting, HQ. At 9.5 Mbps, this gives you about an hour per DVD, which is awesome both in terms of price per hour (disc) and in terms of storage space required when compared to VHS videotape. The high data rate did cause some compatibility problems with other older DVD players. We found that the SP mode, which will fit two hours on one DVD, was basically indistinguishable from the HQ setting and was more compatible. The lower EP setting (four hours per disc) still looked good and was adequate for casual television recording, but the quality of the lowest SLP setting (six hours) showed a lot of artifacts.
Significantly, the LVW-5001 is not as reliable as our trusty old VCR. This seems to be a symptom of the digital age, so much so that we’ve all seen a television broadcast freeze and break up and "Can you hear me now?" is a catch phrase. The curmudgeon in us wants to point out that we didn’t have these problems in the old days. Maybe we’re just used to technology crashing from years of using personal computers. In any case, the LVW-5001 is newish technology and we expect consecutive releases from Lite-On to improve on DVD recorder reliability. And that doesn’t mean we are warning you away from this product: it is a great value, especially for transferring your Mini DV home movies to DVD via the FireWire jack. There is no easier or less expensive way to create DVDs in your home than with the Lite-On LVW-5001. The VCR is dead. Long live the VCR!
D. Eric Franks is Videomaker‘s Technical Editor.
Disc Formats: DVD+R/RW
Video Format: MPEG-2 (DVD-Video, SVCD, DVD+VR) and MPEG-1 (VCD, DVD+VR)
Audio Recording Formats: AC3 (Dolby Digital), MPEG-1
Recording Modes: HQ (9.5 Mbps) = 1 hour per DVD; SP (5.1 Mbps) = 2 hours; EP (2.5 Mbps) = 4 hours; SLP (1.7 Mbps) = 6 hours
Video Inputs: Composite, S-Video, FireWire, RF
Video Outputs: Composite, S-Video, Component, RF
Television Tuner: yes
Audio Inputs: RCA, FireWire
Audio Outputs: RCA, coaxial digital, optical digital
Audio Output Formats: AC3 (Dolby Digital), DTS, PCM, MPEG-1
Front Panel Connections: RCA, FireWire
Playback Formats: DVD-Video, Audio CD, DVD+VR, VCD, SVCD, MP3, JPEG
The LVW-5001 is the easiest and least expensive way to create DVDs from your digital camcorder.