Shopping Made Simple: Digital Recorders Page 4

Video Recorders The old reliable of video recording is a somewhat long-in-the-tooth analog tape format, the VHS videocassette. One variant of VHS is Digital VHS (D-VHS), which uses VHS-like videocassettes for direct recording from digital video sources, such as satellite TV. In that application, for example, the MPEG-2 digital bitstream from the satellite receiver would be recorded straight to videocassette for later playback through the satellite receiver's MPEG decoder. The D-VHS format supports both standard-definition (SD) and high-definition (HD) digital video, and D-VHS decks also record and play standard analog VHS tapes.

Recently, two digital alternatives to VHS have arrived on the scene: hard-disk recorders and DVD re cord ers, both using standard MPEG-2 video coding. Hard-disk video recorders are built around high-capacity computer hard drives, typically in the 20- to 30-gigabyte range. These are perhaps the ultimate time-shifting machines, enabling you to play back a TV program at the same time you're recording one. This gives you the feeling that you can pause, rewind, and fast-forward live TV. Point-and-click program guides let you easily schedule recording of a single program, a group of programs, or even a particular program anytime it's on. The recorder prompts you when you start to run low on disk space so you can purge old recordings or archive any keepers to videotape or recordable DVD.

Hard-disk recorders are made by a variety of companies, which license the programming systems from the companies that developed them. Current providers include TiVo, ReplayTV, and UltimateTV. Some hard-disk recorders have built-in satellite TV receivers. These models normally can't be connected to a broadcast or cable feed, so your only program source is satellite. UltimateTV recorders are always built around DirecTV receivers and are the only ones that can record two programs simultaneously. You have to pay a subscription fee to use both the TiVo and UltimateTV services, while this fee is built into the price of ReplayTV models.

DVD recorders are just beginning to appear on the market. Unfortunately, recordable DVD comes in four flavors, one write-once (DVD-R) and three rewritable (DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW). DVD-R recordings will play on almost all standard DVD players, and DVD-RW and DVD+ RW recordings should play on the majority. DVD-RAM, on the other hand, is incompatible with DVD players not designed specifically to handle it.

Like DVD-R, DVD-RAM and DVD-RW are officially sanctioned by the industry's DVD Forum, and they appear to have more extensive backing from hardware manufacturers than DVD+RW. Only time will tell which format, or formats, will have legs in the marketplace. Fortunately, all DVD recorders, no matter which rewritable formats they support, will play DVD-Rs.

Since they all have built-in TV tuners, clocks, and the other necessary time-shifting technology, you can use a DVD recorder to replace your VCR. They're also useful for archiving programs recorded on other media or for creating DVDs from cam cord er footage. And they make first-rate DVD-Video players. Given their prices, though, it's surprising none of them play DVD-Audio discs.