Shopping Made Simple: DVD Recorders

Photo by John Wilkes Visiting a local Circuit City recently, I saw several customers in front of the display of DVD recorders, mulling over the three or four models shown. Unfortunately, that's all they were doing - mulling. Although each of them probably yearned to replace an aging VCR with a shiny new DVD recorder, nobody had the gumption to lay down the bucks. No doubt they were confused by the array of recordable-DVD formats, which can be pretty intimidating at first glance.

Buffeted by manufacturers' claims and counterclaims as to what their DVD recorders can and can't do, those poor shoppers probably felt that they'd stepped into the crossfire of a format war. Worse yet, some of them probably walked away thinking they should wait until a clear winner emerges. But even though that might have made sense in previous format wars, there are several reasons why it's not a good strategy this time around.

First of all, any DVD recorder is an excellent replacement for your VCR, offering superb picture and sound quality as well as cueing/editing capabilities that make videotape seem primitive. Second, the three families of recordable-DVD formats are all enjoying some success, which means the big-name companies behind both the players and the blank discs won't be throwing in the towel anytime soon. Third, prices of recorders are dropping fast and now start as low as $450. Finally, "multiformat" recorders that handle several kinds of discs are becoming available for folks who want to cover more than one base.

Now let's take a closer look at the formats, starting with the basics:

There are five recordable formats, and they fall into three families: DVD-R and DVD-RW, DVD+R and DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM. As with recordable CDs, "R" stands for write-once (unerasable) and "RW" for rewritable (erasable). The -R and -RW formats are compatible with one another, as are the +R and +RW formats. Like the RW formats, DVD-RAM is erasable and rewritable. Currently available DVD-RAM decks can record on DVD-R discs but only one so far can record on DVD-RW or DVD+ RW. Write-once (unerasable) DVD-R and DVD+R discs are the least expensive kind of recordable DVD, and they will play on most new DVD players and computer DVD-ROM drives. DVD-RW discs can be recorded in two modes, VR (Video Recording) and Video. The VR mode supports very flexible editing - suitable for removing commercials or trimming camcorder footage - while discs recorded in the straight Video mode are more widely compatible with older DVD players as well as with DVD-RAM recorders. Of the erasable formats, DVD-RW discs recorded in Video mode and DVD+ RW discs will play in the widest range of DVD players and computer drives - not as many as DVD-R and DVD+R discs, but the odds that your disc will play on any given machine are still pretty good. Most new DVD players will also play DVD-RW discs recorded in VR format, but DVD-RAM discs are playable only by recent Panasonic DVD players and DVD-RAM computer gear.

Will It Play on My Player? Playback compatibility of the various recordable formats is certainly an important issue, but it tends to be overblown. After all, fine print in every DVD recorder's owner's manual warns that recorded discs are not guaranteed to play on all DVD players. So if you want to make absolutely sure that your home-movie DVDs will work on grandma's player, you're just going to have to try it.

If you want to use the same type of discs in a standalone DVD recorder as in your computer's recordable-DVD drive, your disc-type decision may have already been made for you. If you're shopping for a computer at the same time, then you can decide which DVD format you want and get both your standalone recorder and the same type of DVD drive in the computer - assuming it's available together with everything else you want in the computer.

Scoping Out the Formats The most important step in selecting a DVD recorder is to make sure it can do what you want it to do, which to some extent is a format question. To spell out the capabilities of each format as clearly as possible, we put some of the key ones in a table on the facing page. Note that DVD-RAM is different enough from DVD+RW and DVD-RW that many of the considerations that apply to these other rewritable formats are irrelevant to it.

Here are a few things to keep in mind while you're checking out the table, which applies only to standalone DVD recorders:

The format capabilities listed are subject to revision since every model year seems to bring new ones (especially in the DVD-RW area) that were unanticipated when the recordable-disc formats were first announced. The exception is DVD-RAM, the capabilities of which haven't seemed to change since the first recorder we tested.

Some DVD recorders have a built-in hard-disk drive, which gives the unerasable DVD-R and DVD+R formats editing capabilities like the ones you find on the erasable formats. Editing can be done on the hard drive before you commit your video footage to DVD.

Some recorders implement a disc format's capabilities more fully than others, so you'll have to read the fine print of the owner's manual to find out if the model you're considering behaves as listed in the table. For example, the most extensive editing features of Sony's sole DVD recorder, the multiformat RDR-GX7, are devoted to DVD-RW, while its DVD+RW editing capabilities are considerably less extensive than those of the three DVD+R/RW-only models from Philips.

Features that seem relatively minor in the comparison table can actually turn out to be important once you start using a DVD recorder. A prime example of this is the ability to add accurate chapter markers to a program after it has been recorded, which seems to be impossible with certain formats in certain machines.

If you want to move discs between recorders, pay attention to the "finalization" rows in the table. Finalization makes your DVD-R/RW or +R/RW discs compatible with other decks or players and prevents further recording on write-once discs. It's not relevant to DVD-RAM.