Opening Moves

The players are in position, and the pieces are now on the board. But this is not a chess game, and the stakes are even higher than in the richest of Grand Master tournaments. This is the beginning of another video-recorder format war, but unlike the VHS vs. Beta conflict of the late 1970s and early '80s, there are three competing formats. And this time we're talking DVD, the hottest home-entertainment format ever, not videotape.

With DVD recorders from Philips and Pioneer recently joining the second-generation deck that Panasonic brought to market late last summer (see review in October 2001), we were able to round up decks representing the new rewritable formats and compare them in each of several key areas: ease of use, editing, video quality, and DVD-player compatibility. (There's also the nonerasable DVD-R format, which two of the decks can record in and all three can play back.) The DVD-RAM and DVD-RW formats, both of which are endorsed by the DVD Forum trade association, are represented by Panasonic's DMR-E20 ($1,500) and Pioneer's Elite series DVR-7000 ($2,000), respectively, while the "renegade" DVD+RW format is represented by the Philips DVDR 1000 ($1,999). It seems likely that one or more of these three formats will eventually replace VHS tape, which is long overdue for retirement.

Why Recordable DVD? These three machines can indeed be thought of as VCRs that use optical discs instead of tapes. In addition to playing prerecorded DVD movies, all have a timer and a stereo TV tuner for recording broadcasts or cablecasts as well as a set of front-panel A/V inputs for dubbing camcorder footage to disc. But thinking of these recorders as glorified VCRs may blind you to their important advantages:

  • Optical-disc durability. You won't have to worry about situations where the recording medium self-destructs and takes the recorder along with it, as happens all too often with VHS tape.
  • Rapid, precise, menu-based cueing. Tape never had and never will have these abilities.
  • Superior sound quality. All three machines record audio in two-channel Dolby Digital format that can be decoded in the recorder or output as a Dolby Digital 2.0 or PCM stereo signal for decoding in an A/V receiver.
  • Onboard editing. Some advanced editing functions you can't do with a VCR are easy with the Panasonic and Pioneer decks. It's also fairly easy to remove commercials from an off-air recording with any of these recorders.

While this list might suggest that these machines are pretty much the same except for the format incompatibility, that would be a gross oversimplification. As you'll see, there are differences both in the recording/editing facilities they offer and in their video and audio performance.