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Malata DIVA 2 DVD player/recorder

Ever since they first appeared, I've been a big fan of DVD recorders. You can jump to any point almost instantly, and the discs take up much less shelf space than VHS tapes. The only problem is the limited amount of material that will fit on one disc: At the highest-quality setting, you can record only one hour on a single-layer DVD.

To address this problem, dual-layer discs will be available soon, followed quickly by recorders that can take advantage of them, but both are likely to be expensive at first. Another approach is to use a codec (coder/decoder) that is more efficient than MPEG-2, which all DVDs (including the recordable varieties) have used exclusively—until now. Canadian distributor Malata has introduced the first DVD recorder in the U.S. market to use the Windows Media 9 (WM9) codec instead of MPEG-2 to achieve much longer recording times at all quality settings.

Called the DIVA 2, this device's name derives from its primary functions: DVD playback, Internet access, Video recording, and Audio-video playback. (That last one is an approximation—it is documented to stand for a couple of different specific word combinations, but basically refers to playing the audio and video stuff stored on a recordable disc.) Not only does the DIVA 2 record video and audio in WM9, it plays conventional DVDs and provides access to the Internet, with the promise of lots of AV content to stream and download.

The DIVA 2 can store WM9 content on just about any type of recordable optical disc: DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, and CD-R/RW. The only fundamental difference between the DVD and CD varieties is their raw capacities, and WM9 makes it possible for CDs to hold up to two hours of video. (There's also a DIVA 1 model, for $349, that can record only on CD-R/RW but is otherwise identical.) However, I found a couple of surprising practical differences between different media, which I'll get to shortly.

Thin Lady
Unlike many opera divas, the DIVA 2 presents a svelte visage. Its front panel is dominated by two disc drawers, and a few buttons on either side of a small display with only seven alphanumeric characters and a few small indicators. Oddly, the display uses old-style seven-segment characters instead of the more current dot-matrix variety; for example, this causes the word tuner to be displayed as tUnEr. More importantly, this display provides little useful information.

The two disc drawers hint at one truth about the DIVA 2: Though enclosed in the same chassis, the DVD playback and recording functions are completely separate. There is no internal connection between them, so you can't dub discs digitally, which would be useful to make copies of homegrown discs. Also, the recorder uses WM9 exclusively; it has no MPEG-2 encoder, so it would have to somehow "transcode" one encoder into the other, which I suspect is not easy. (Of course, the DVD player has an MPEG-2 decoder.)

The two transports do share a trio of video outputs—component, S-video, and composite—as well as a 2-channel analog audio out. Amazingly, in these days of $100 progressive-scan DVD players, the DIVA 2's component output is only 480i. The recorder also has

S-video and composite-video inputs, with associated L/R analog audio inputs on the back panel and another composite-video with L/R audio input on the front panel. A separate pair of audio inputs on the back is intended for audio-only signals to be recorded in Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, which is the audio portion of WM9. An Ethernet port and RF input and output round out the rear-panel connections.

The nonilluminated, dedicated remote is organized reasonably well, with a central navigation cluster, numbers above that, and transport controls below. At the top there are four buttons that provide direct access to the four main functions, labeled DVD, Internet, Video Rec, and AV Input (the last is a misnomer; it displays the list of files on the disc in the recorder drawer). Also in this area of the remote is the TV button, which takes you directly to the internal TV tuner or to one of the AV inputs, which you specify in the Setup menu. Speaking of which, the menu system is generally well organized, too. I found no trouble getting to where I needed to be.

Warm-ups
When I first plugged in the DIVA 2, it remained steadfastly off, despite my repeated stabbings at the Power buttons on the remote and front panel. I soon discovered that there's a second Power switch on the back panel. Once I threw it on, the unit behaved as expected.

In fact, it behaved better than expected: The clock immediately set itself from the time signal in the local PBS feed (although it didn't set for Daylight Savings Time, which I had to do manually). It also automatically configured itself for my Ethernet router, which I'd connected to the RJ45 jack. Finally, it informed me that it had version 1.183 software and that v.1.289 was available for download.

All of the DIVA 2's software is provided by Aeon Digital, and all updates are available from their website (www.aeondigital.com). This turns out to be a two-step process. First, you initiate a download from the Aeon Digital server, and the software is recorded to a blank disc; the file is relatively small, so a CD is fine for this. Then, the machine's firmware is updated from the disc, which can also act as an emergency boot disc, if necessary. (I never found it necessary during the review period.) The update went smoothly.

Unlike the clock, the tuner's channel scan had to be initiated manually. It started off very slowly, then proceeded at a reasonable pace. You can enter names of the channels and, with passwords, protect your kids from some of them, but the process of deleting unwanted channels is not nearly as nice as in other tuner-based devices—basically, you need to make a list of the channels you want to delete, then go into a menu and mark them in a list. I'd much rather be able to scroll through the channels and hit a button to delete the ones I don't want.

The TV tuner produced a much brighter image than the other sources in my system, with blown-out whites and not-quite-black blacks. While the image could be made darker with the controls on my video display, the blown-out, clipped whites could not be eliminated. Also, the audio volume was much lower than my other sources.

Recording the Diva
I was curious to see how well the DIVA 2 recorded broadcast television, so I popped a DVD-RW blank into the recorder drawer, at which point the machine informed me that it would take 30 minutes to initialize the disc. I was stunned, but said Okay. In fact, it took nearly an hour. What's up with that? It only took a few seconds to initialize a DVD+RW blank, and there was no significant initialization delay when I downloaded the software update to a DVD-R (not RW) disc.

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