DVD Recorders: A Simple Shopping Guide

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You've heard about this DVD burning thing, but when you walk into the store and the salesperson asks whether you want a PC DVD burner or a set-top DVD recorder, you're stumped. Relax: We're here to clarify the difference between the two, and to explain why you might want one over the other.

Viewing digitized video, as you find on DVDs, is far more appealing than shuttling through a kludgy analog tape. Before you join the DVD burning revolution, though, you'll need to decide what type of DVD recorder makes sense for you.

You have two primary routes to recording rapture: a set-top DVD recorder designed to live inside your entertainment cabinet or a PC DVD burner coupled with a video-input or TV-tuner device. Which method you choose should depend upon the type of video you want to capture.

Record TV, Copy VHS Tapes

If you plan to record from television, or duplicate VHS tapes or camcorder tapes in their entirety to DVD, a set-top DVD recorder is your easiest, all-in-one option. Set-top DVD recorders have integrated TV tuners and a slew of video inputs (including DV and S-Video); these attributes alone make set-top units ideal for replacing your VCR, so you can record televised content or copy content from a camcorder. In fact, you'd be quite accurate in thinking of them as VCRs that use recordable and rewritable DVDs instead of videotape.

A PC equipped with a hard drive and a DVD burner can also function as a living-room DVD recorder/digital video recorder (including electronic program guide and remote)--but only if you have a TV-tuner card or an external TV-tuner input. A PC running Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition OS will take care of such tasks seamlessly; however, Media Center systems tend to be a lot more expensive than the average PC.

You can add components to your existing desktop system to make it function as a DVD/digital video recorder. This approach is generally not as convenient unless you're pressed for space in a dorm room, a studio apartment, or an RV, and you need the PC to act as a multipurpose tool. (See "When to Use a PC" below for more.)

Many set-top recorders conveniently come with a hard drive and an on-screen electronic programming guide (or EPG), much like what a TiVo device supplies (For more buying info on TiVo and other DVRs, see our roundup of Set-Top Recorders.) Such guides simplify browsing TV shows and selecting content for recording, and some even include media card slots for flash memory. Like VCRs before them, these recorders can also play back prerecorded Hollywood movies; plus, depending upon the model, they can play a variety of media formats, including video and audio CDs, MP3, DivX, and JPEG.

Set-top DVD recorders come in two basic flavors: those with a hard drive, such as Pioneer's 80GB DVR-520H, Toshiba's 160GB RD-XS52 DVD Recorder, or Panasonic's 160GB DMR-E95HS, which run about $500 on the street; and those without, like GoVideo's R6740 and Philips' DVD-R615, which you can find for around $200.

All set-top DVD recorders have DVD burners built in, but they vary in the type of discs they write to: DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, DVD-RAM, or various combinations thereof. Most have a DV input (for accepting your camcorder's output) and burn discs that, once finalized, can play back on any DVD player. Write-once discs (+R and -R) are the most universally compatible, and rewritable discs are the least. DVD-RAM discs permit more rewrites than any other rewritable format, but they also have less compatibility with non-DVD-RAM drives and players than competing formats.

One of the big advantages to having a DVD recorder with a hard drive is that you can record long programs at the maximum image quality, without worrying about swapping discs midstream (typically, you can fit just 1 hour on a single disc when recording at the highest image-quality setting--which is almost a requirement if you're recording high-motion content like a basketball or baseball game). Once the video is on the hard drive, you can copy it to multiple discs at your leisure.

The other advantage to a hard drive is that you can edit and label your video before burning it onto disc. Note that editing and labeling capabilities vary dramatically between recorder models. Most set-top recorders allow only limited editing, permitting you to create chapters, edit disc titles and menus, and delete portions of the recording (for example, clip out all those pesky commercials). But some go so far as to help you create a highlight reel from multiple programs. Set-top models' on-drive editing is not nearly as advanced as what you'll get in a good PC editing program, but it is a viable alternative if you're trying to avoid becoming entangled in a complex PC project.

A third variety of set-top recorders include a built-in VCR--a convenience that makes it simple to save VHS tapes to DVD and lets you eliminate a component from your entertainment system while you're at it. (One note of caution: A few models will encode your resulting discs with copy protection, which means you won't be able to make a copy of your own DVD. Products from Panasonic and GoVideo don't encumber DVDs made from VHS with copy protection.) If you plan to copy lots of tapes to disc, having the integrated VCR is a boon, since the recorder automatically synchronizes the starting of the source tape and of the destination disc simultaneously. Alternatively, you can always connect a VCR to a DVD recorder via S-Video or composite cables to copy your tapes; however, with that arrangement you'll have to handle your own syncing.

When to Use a PC

A PC's DVD burner is the same type of DVD writing component that a set-top DVD recorder uses, but without the video inputs, TV tuner, display, video encoder, and other video-related electronics you'll find in a set-top box.

A DVD burner is either external or internal. External drives usually hook up to the computer via one of the system's USB 2.0 ports. (Note that the USB 1.1 ports typically found on older systems can't sustain the fast transfers an external DVD burner requires.) Internal drives must be installed in a PC, in an available, externally accessible drive bay.

One of the perks of having a PC drive is that you can use it for backing up data as well as for copying DVD videos or burning DVD movie discs from video files already on your hard drive. For the moment PC DVD burners hold a capacity advantage over set-top DVD recorders, though it applies only to recordable, write-once media: These burners can record movies and data to 8.5GB double-layer DVD+R media, allowing you to store up to 2 hours of video at the maximum image quality per disc--twice the amount you can pack on a standard single-layer disc. (For more on double-layer DVD, see "DVD on the Edge.") This advantage should evaporate later this year, though, when the first set-top recorders with double-layer drives begin to appear.

PC DVD burners hold another advantage over set-top recorders in that you can buy such a drive for under $100. Of course, the drive alone will get you only so far. Any PC equipped with a DVD burner can write video to DVD; but to get your video into your PC in the first place, you'll need either a FireWire connection (for directly importing video from DV cameras) or a USB 2.0 TV/video capture device. If you're short on ports, look for a PCI add-in interface card that has both FireWire and USB 2.0 ports; you should be able to find one for $25 or less. (Of course, you'll need an empty PCI slot to add it to your system.)

A number of capture options are available. At the forefront are TV-capture cards such as Hauppauge's (pronounced hop-hog) $99 WinTV-PVR-150, Pinnacle System's $90 PCTV Pro, or even Hauppauge's $199 dual-tuner WinTV-PVR-350, which lets you watch one program while recording another.

Another route is to use a graphics card with integrated TV-tuner and video-capture capabilities, such as ATI's All-In-Wonder series or NVidia's Personal Cinema cards--$60 to $250, depending on the speed of the graphics chip set. A third option--and the easiest means of gaining video recording and capture without opening your PC--is to use an external USB 2.0 device such as ADS Technology's $179 Instant TV Deluxe USB or Plextor's $199 PX-TV402U ConvertX PVR (Personal Video Recorder).

(For more information about converting your PC into a digital video recorder, see our recent Step-By-Step column on the topic.)

Once the video is stored on your hard drive, you have the flexibility of editing and enhancing your video using software like Nero 6 Ultra Edition ($70 download), Arcsoft's ShowBiz DVD 2 ($100), or Sonic's MyDVD 6 Suite ($70), all before you burn a disc. A PC, with its mouse and keyboard, makes editing video or snipping out commercials far easier to accomplish than it is on a set-top recorder, which often has primitive editing utilities and relies on a remote control for all navigation.

In summary, PC DVD recorders have several advantages, though they lack the set-it-and-forget-it ease of a set-top device. Serious video editors wouldn't dream of using anything other than a PC-based editing system. You can easily add bigger hard drives to your computer if you need more capacity (and you probably will if you really get into video editing). It's also fairly inexpensive and quite simple to add a faster DVD burner for quicker archiving and disc copying. As you get more serious about this addictive little hobby, you can upgrade the software you use to record and edit, as well. And you won't have to give up your remote control just because you're using a PC: Most computer-based TV/video-capture products also ship with remote controls.

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