Copy Cats

Many video enthusiasts, al though they may have long wanted to destroy their cantankerous, tape-eating, low-resolution VHS machines, have collected large libraries of off-air programs or camcorder footage that they wouldn't want to be without. What better way to preserve your VHS library than to copy it to a far more robust and easy-to-use medium like recordable DVD? And what better way to copy those miles and miles of VHS footage than on a device specifically designed for that function, like the three combination DVD/VHS recorders tested here - JVC's DR-MV1 ($800), LG's LGXBR342 ($650), and Toshiba's D-VR3 ($499)? Sure, you could get the dubbing job done using separate machines, but a combination unit relieves the burden of hooking up a VCR to a DVD recorder, which isn't as easy as you might think, especially if you want to record off the air on one or both of them.

These three combo recorders all provide one-button, or nearly one-button, dubbing from VHS to DVD or from an external digital (MiniDV) camcorder connected to a front-panel i.Link (FireWire) connector labeled DV In. They can even dub in the opposite direction. None, however, will record copy-protected programs, either DVD to VHS or VHS to DVD.

On all three recorders, you can select and trim scenes from material recorded on a DVD-RW disc in the editable VR mode (whether recorded off the air or dubbed from a videotape), delete, add, or resequence the scenes in any order you want to see them, and then save the results as a "playlist" on the disc. Such nondestructive editing is great because precious original footage is untouched - the playlist merely conveys a set of cueing instructions to the player.

All three recorders have a progressive-scan component-video output that serves both the DVD and VHS sides. Watching your VHS tapes on a progressive display, however, is not guaranteed to give you a better picture than normal (interlaced) viewing. VHS is inherently interlaced video rather than film-derived progressive-scan video like most DVD movies, and converting it to progressive format is tough to do well. Any substantial picture instability from a substandard tape may produce obvious conversion defects, like jagged diagonals. When in doubt, watch VHS in interlaced mode.

Aside from these commonalities, each deck offers a slightly different feature set, which is summarized in our "features checklist" (click to view PDF) and the "recording/editing options" (click to view PDF). Now, let's take a closer look at them, starting with the simplest model.