DVD Recorders: Now Safe To Buy
Almost five years ago, I tried out a new kind of electronic gadget--a massive box that could record on DVDs, not just play them. It had a few issues, as I wrote:
The Philips DVDR985 is $1,000 worth of bulky electronics. It's material for 68 pages of frustratingly dense manual. It's an encapsulation of silly, whose-side-are-you-on industry politics.
I didn't like its cost, I didn't like how much work it took to connect to my cable box and I didn't like how it ran the risk of ending up on the losing side of a format war--the Philips model could only record on DVD+R and DVD+RW media, not the competing DVD-R/DVD-RW and DVD-RAM formats.
Still, I thought, the basic idea made a lot of sense, and concluded the review with this wish:
Once I can buy a box for $800 that can replace my DVD player, CD changer and VCR without my having to fret about its own potential obsolescence, I will be the first in line at the store.
The kind of DVD recorder you can buy today--mentioned in yesterday's podcast (listen, subscribe, iTunes) and the subject of today's column--meets those requirements. The LG and Panasonic models that I tried out can both record on all three types of recordable DVD. They don't need to be shackled to a cable or satellite box, since both include good, accurate digital tuners that receive local broadcasts for free. Since both can also play MP3 files off a data CD or DVD, they have the CD-changer job covered too. But instead of costing $800, they only run $300 and change.
The electronics industry can drive me nuts, but sometimes I actually do like this business.
Credit also has to go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The judicial branch doesn't usually play a role in electronics design, but in 2005 these judges did consumers an enormous favor by striking down the Federal Communications Commission's "broadcast flag" rule, a regulation that would have imposed odious copying restrictions in devices like the two recorders I reviewed.
There aren't many of these digital-compatible DVD recorders available as yet, and stores and manufacturers alike often do a horrible job of identifying the few models that they sell. A few online resources can help: This Wikipedia article lists current models. You can also read some seriously-detailed discussions of these models at the AVS Forum, the Web's foremost gathering of HD enthusiasts.
The folks at AVS (short for "Audio Video Science") tend to place picture quality above all else, so it surprised me a little to see their interest in DTV-capable DVD recorders--which, as I wrote, can't record in high definition. On the other hand, consider the alternatives for portable, high-def recording: adding a DTV tuner to your computer and then figuring out some way to get HD recordings from its hard drive to your HDTV; buying an expensive, already-obsolete D-VHS recorder; or, perhaps least likely of all, waiting until the Blu-Ray/HD DVD format battle ends and recorders in the surviving format become available, affordable and unhobbled by broadcast flag-esque copy-restriction routines.
So, yeah, I'll deal with recordable DVD. And you?
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