Photos by Tony Cordoza
You know a recording medium is going in or out of fashion when you can't find any blanks on the store shelves. Such a revelation hit me in the aisle for blank DVDs and CDs at a Best Buy here in New York City. There were shelf labels for all five recordable DVD formats - DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM - but precious few of the discs. Yet unlike, say, the shelf for blank Beta videocassettes, the DVD shelves were being restocked with blanks from a variety of manufacturers even as I stood there - a sure sign that, at least in the Big Apple, DVD recorders are here to stay.
Phillips DVDR 80
This isn't too surprising. DVD recorders are a marvelous replacement for the aging VCR, with far better picture and sound quality than even the best S-VHS machines. Any DVD recorder's editing capabilities are superior to those of a standalone VCR, letting you easily remove commercials from TV shows recorded off-air or off-cable, and with no loss of quality. They also let you access any recording using the same rapid cueing features you use when playing DVD movies.
In case you haven't heard, there's a format "war" raging among the five recordable formats, and since each brings something special to the medium, capitulation by any of them seems unlikely anytime soon. The record-once DVD-R and DVD+R formats have the most universal playback compatibility, meaning that they'll play on nearly all conventional DVD players and in computer DVD drives. DVD+RW also claims wide compatibility, while DVD-RW supports very flexible editing of recordings made in its special VR mode and, in the Video mode, produces discs that are far more widely compatible with older players. DVD-RAM also supports high-precision editing and, with its ability to quickly access data, can even perform some of the simultaneous record/play tricks popularized by TiVo and ReplayTV video hard-disk recorders (HDRs).
Like HDRs, DVD recorders have different recording "modes" that are similar to VHS's multiple tape speeds. In selecting a recording mode you trade off picture quality for recording time. All of the different disc formats offer a high-quality mode that will give you 1 hour on a standard, single-sided 4.7-gigabyte (GB) DVD blank - and, as you'll soon see, some machines have modes that can cram up to 8 hours per disc.
Between them, the three recorders reviewed here cover all of the DVD formats, sometimes in interesting combinations. The Panasonic DMR-E60 ($600, recording on DVD-RAM and DVD-R), the Philips DVDR 80 ($700, DVD+R/RW), and the Sony RDR-GX7 ($800, DVD+RW and DVD-R/RW) bring an immense degree of control and flexibility to video recording. And all three recorders are also fine DVD players. Chances are that one of these recorders has the mix of features and flexibility you're looking for.
Deal-Making FeaturesYou can choose a DVD recorder based on its features, but you're better off first deciding which format is best for you (there is no "universal" recordable DVD format) and then narrowing the list to machines that record in that format. Make your final choice based on whatever especially desirable capabilities or convenience features a recorder has that the others don't.
One excellent example of a feature that sets a deck apart is the Philips DVDR 80's facilities for off-air/cable timer recording. While all three decks can record at times you set manually as well as make timer recordings controlled by the VCR Plus+ system familiar from VCRs and HDRs, only the Philips has Guide Plus+, a free interactive program guide that lists all the programs available via cable in your area. You use your remote to page through the onscreen program listings and select a show to either watch or schedule for recording.
PHILIPS DVDR 80
|DIMENSIONS 17 1/8 inches wide, 3 inches high, 13 1/4 inches deep
WEIGHT 8 3/4 pounds
Guide Plus+ uses a supplied infrared (IR) "blaster" to send codes to your cable box so you can automatically record shows on different cable channels. This is where the Philips deck's 8-hour mode comes in handy (the others top out at 6 hours). The Panasonic and Sony lack cable-box control, so changing channels during unattended recording is difficult unless your cable box will do this for you.
Among these recorders, only Panasonic's DMR-E60 can handle JPEG-format pictures from digital still cameras, displaying them either individually or in a slide show. The images can be accessed from either a Secure Digital (SD) flash-memory card inserted into a front-panel slot or from a different type of card using a PC Card adapter (the larger PC Card slot is next to the SD slot). Pictures from either source can be copied into folders on DVD-RAM discs, and slide shows can be run directly from the cards or the DVD copies. The Panasonic can't handle JPEG files recorded on CD-R/RW, however, a function many inexpensive DVD players now provide.
While we're talking about missing functions, the Sony RDR-GX7 can't play MP3 sound files, unlike the Panasonic and Philips recorders and just about every DVD player we've reviewed in the last year - a truly puzzling omission. And none of the recorders burns audio CDs, though they all read them.
The DVD-RAM format, supported by the Panasonic, allows for versatile editing functions, but it's the least compatible recordable DVD system. The recorder's ability to burn DVD-Rs makes up for this somewhat, and every new Panasonic DVD player can play RAM discs. Because the DVD-RAM format allows for reading and writing DVD data faster than "real time," the DMR-E60 has some useful TiVo-like functions such as playing from the start of the program being recorded or recording a program while you view a previous recording.
All three recorders here have a fourth, very important feature. Hidden behind a flip-down panel on all of them is a FireWire (a/k/a i.Link or IEEE 1394) input connector for digital dubs of DV (or Digital8) camcorder tapes. Short of computer-based editing, using these inputs is the purest way to get your camcorder footage onto a DVD. The Sony and Panasonic decks automatically insert markers into the dubbed footage at scene changes (where the camcorder was stopped or paused), which can be extremely useful in editing.
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