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FAQs for DVD Recorder and DVD Player

Interested in buying a DVD recorder? If so, read these important FAQs first.

It is safe to say that the era of the VCR is slowly drawing to a close (although VCRs will be around for quite some time) and the era of the DVD is now solidly entrenched, especially now that recordable DVD is available. As DVD recorders become more popular and affordable, my email box is filled with many questions on what they are, how they work, and what they can be used for. In order to address the most common questions regarding DVD recorders, here are some general FAQs that should make your DVD recorder buying decision easier.

1. What is a DVD recorder and how is it different from a DVD burner?

A DVD recorder is a standalone unit that resembles and functions very much like a VCR. All DVD recorders can record from any analog video source (some can also record from Digital camcorders via firewire). Like a VCR, DVD recorders all have AV inputs as well as onboard TV tuner for recording TV shows.

A DVD burner refers to a unit that is either an external add-on or internal DVD drive (like a CDR/RW drive) that can record video, but can also read and write computer data and store it on a blank DVD disc. On the other hand, standalone DVD recorders have no ability to read or write computer data. However, in order to record video and audio onto a PC-DVD burner the user must input the video to the computer's hard drive using Firewire, USB, or S-Video through a video card and then copy the resultant files from the hard drive onto a blank DVD disk, whereas a standalone DVD recorder can record from video sources in real time, direct to a blank DVD.

2. Can I copy videos and DVDs on my DVD recorder?

Just as you can't copy commercially made video tapes to another VCR due to Macrovision anti-copy encoding, the same applies to making copies to DVD. DVD recorders cannot bypass the anti-copy signal on commercial video tapes or DVDs. However, just as with VCRs, there are video stabilizers available that will minimize the effect of anti-copy encoding, however, they are not 100% successful. Such devices are available at most major consumer electronics retailers.

However, you can copy any homemade videos, such as camcorder videos and videos made from TV shows (an even laserdiscs). Also, remember that a DVD recorder also has a built-tuner for recording TV programming directly.

In addition, some DVD recorders also have digital video inputs (IEEE-1394, Firewire, i-Link) that allow users of digital camcorders to digitally transfer their audio and video direct to DVD in real time.

3. Can I play DVDs made on my DVD recorder in other DVD players?

There is no 100% guarantee that any DVD you make your DVD recorder will play in all DVD players. Whether or not you can play a DVD you have made using your DVD recorder on most current DVD players (manufactured within the last three years) will depend mostly on the format used in recording the DVD.

Without getting into the technical aspects of each format (for more info check related links at the end of this article) the relevance of each format to the average consumer goes something like this:

DVD-R: The most universal of recordable DVD formats that is used by computer DVD writers as well as most DVD recorders. DVD-R is a write-once format, much like CD-R and discs made in this format can be played in most current DVD players.

DVD-RW: Recordable and rewritable format (like CD-RW) promoted by Pioneer, Sharp, and Sony. Discs are playable in most DVD players, provided it is recorded in the straight video mode and finalized.

DVD+RW: Recordable and rewritable format promoted primarily by Philips, with a host of partners, including Yamaha, HP, Ricoh, Thomson (RCA), Mitsubishi, APEX, and Sony. Claims to offer a greater degree of compatibility with current DVD technology than DVD-RW.

DVD+R: A record-once format introduced recently by Philips and adopted by the other DVD+RW proponents, that is said to be easier to use than DVD-R, while still playable in most current DVD players.

DVD-RAM: Recordable and rewritable format promoted by Panasonic, Toshiba, Samsung, and Hitachi, which is not compatible with current DVD technology and is not compatible with most DVD-ROM computer drives. One of the unique features of DVD-RAM, however, is its ability (with its random access and quick writing speed) to allow the user to watch the beginning of a recording while the DVD recorder is still recording the end of the program. This is great if a phone call interrupts your viewing or if you come home late from work and miss the beginning that important TV episode or televised sporting event.

4. Is there a DVD recorder that can record in all formats?

There is no DVD recorder (or DVD burner, for that matter) that can record in all of the above recordable DVD formats, however, SONY (at the time of this post) has introduced a PC-DVD burner that can record in DVD-R/-RW/+R/+RW and has also released a standalone DVD recorder that can record in the DVD-R/-RW/+RW formats.

It may seem confusing to have to decide between all of the DVD recording formats. You are asking yourself: "Which one will become obsolete the quickest?". The real answer to this is: "None of them". As long as the recorded DVD plays in your DVD player, or your friend's and/or relative's DVD player(s) that is all that really matters. The only format to stay away from, in terms of compatibility with other players, is DVD-RAM.

For more resources on DVD recorder playback compatibility, check out resources under "Elsewhere On The Web" in the linkbox at the upper right side of this article.

5. How does the video quality of a DVD recorder compare to a VHS VCR or a standard DVD player?

DVD recorders can record video in resolutions ranging from DVD quality to VHS quality depending on the recording speed used, somewhat analogous to the different recording speeds on a VCR. Although there is some variation from manufacturer to manufacturer, DVD recorders typically can record in one hour, two hour, four hour, and six hour speeds. The one hour speed will be very close, if not the same, as DVD quality, while the four and six hour speeds will be more like VHS SP and EP respectively.

One factor to ultimately consider however, is that, even at the one hour speed, the quality of the source material determines the quality of the recording. If you are copying an old home video that was recorded at VHS-EP using the one hour DVD recorder speed, you won't get DVD quality; you can't make something bad look better, however it won't be any worse when using the one hour speed. By the same token, if you take a miniDV camcorder video that was recorded at 500 lines of resolution and dub it to the DVD recorder using the four or six hour speed, you will only get VHS quality. The rule of thumb is to always use the best source material and fastest/shortest recording speed possible.

6. Is there such a thing as a VHS VCR/DVD or Hard Disk/DVD recorder combo?

VHS/DVD recorder combos are on the way from several makers, including Sansui and GoVideo (both of which may be available by the end of 2003). Panasonic has tentative plans to introduce one into the Japanese market in late 2003. If well received, you may see a similar unit on U.S. and European store shelves in 2004. However, if you already have a working VCR and you buy a DVD recorder, all you would have to do to copy from the VCR to DVD is to hookup the VCR to the AV inputs of the DVD recorder (which works much like a VCR) and simply copy your video to DVD.

There are, however, several DVD recorders from a few manufacturers that include both a hard drive and a DVD recorder in the same unit. This type of system allows the user to copy raw footage or record a series a programs to the hard drive and then edit or copy smaller segments or the entire contents of the hard drive to a blank DVD. Also, another benefit of this type of unit is that if the DVD runs out of space during recording, the excess video is automatically recorded onto the hard disk, which, once again, can be copied onto another blank DVD at a later, more convenient time.

7. Can a DVD recorder record in Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound?

Consumer grade DVD recorders all have the ability to play back all Dolby Digital and DTS source material, when used with an AV receiver. However, DVD recorders only have analog stereo audio inputs for recording audio, which is then encoded into two-channel Dolby Digital. The output of the recorded audio can be accessed either through the analog stereo outputs or the digital audio outputs of the DVD recorder. Although, DVD recorders cannot record in 5.1 channel Dolby Digital or DTS audio, when used with an AV receiver equipped with Dolby Prologic II and/or DTS neo:6 processors, the two channel audio recording can be reprocessed into a 5.1 or 6.1 channel soundfield, albiet not as accurate as an original 5.1 or 6.1 channel soundtrack source.

The reason for this is two-fold: Since you can't record (or shouldn't be able to) or copy DVDs and there is little 5.1 or 6.1 channel audio available from other sources to record, there is not much need for this function. However, the second factor is probably more political than technical: even if you are successful at making a copy of a DVD video, you are prevented from making a copy of the multi-channel soundtrack, thus preventing you from making an "exact" copy of a DVD on a DVD recorder that could be "passed off" as the orginal.

If the status of digital audio recording changes for DVD Recorders, I will post an update on this question.

8. Can I record HDTV on a DVD recorder?

Current DVD recorders cannot record in HDTV standards, due to limitations of both the laser wavelength used and in the limited space of current DVDs for the storage capacity needs of HDTV signals. However, HD-DVD recording is not far off as the Blu-ray group (Hitachi, LG Electronics, Matsushita Electric Industrial, Pioneer, Royal Philips Electronics, Samsung Electronics, Sharp, Sony and Thomson) have finally settled on standards and begun licensing procedures for the new Blu-ray HD-DVD format.

Products using this technology may appear in Japan in late 2003 and in the U.S. and Europe sometime in 2004. The remaining questions are: Affordability for the consumer, the availability of both blank and pre-recorded software, and whether you will "allowed" or able to record programs broadcast in HDTV due to proposed anti-copy encoding schemes. However, JVC has just introduced the first consumer-grade HD-capable camcorder that could be paired with such a unit for the independent filmaker. If a DVD recorder has the Blu-ray logo, it will have the ability to record in HD, depending on the source material.

9. What about blank DVD discs?

Blank DVDs can be found in most consumer electronics and computer stores, usually in the computer department. Since prices vary, I will not quote any here. The main thing to remember is to get discs that are of the same format as your recorder. For example, if you have a DVD recorder that records in the DVD+R/+RW format make sure you buy discs that have that label on the packaging. You cannot use a +R disc in a -R recorder or vice versa.

10. Are DVD recorders also good DVD players?

Besides all the recording features, DVD recorders are also excellent DVD players, just as with standard DVD players, basic units may not have all of the high-end bells and whistles, but most units have progresssive scan, component outputs, Dolby Digital, and DTS pass-through, CDR/RW, and VCD playback, just as any current DVD player would. Some units also have CD-MP3 and JPEG still photo playback as well. When you shop for a DVD recorder, also make sure it has the playback features you require.

11. How do I hookup a DVD recorder to my TV or home theater system?

A DVD recorder can hookup to any TV that has a least AV inputs (you will need and RF modulator if your TV does not have AV inputs). Just hookup your cable or antenna feed to the ant/cable input of the DVD recorder and loop it out to the RF input on the TV. In addition, you will need to hookup of the DVD recorder to the AV inputs (composite, s-video, or component) of the TV for DVD playback. Note: Although DVD recorders have an RF loop through to the TV, it is passive, when playing back a recorded DVD you must use the AV inputs of the TV or buy an RF modulator to put between the DVD recorder and TV to convert the recorded signal.

When connecting a DVD recorder to home theater receiver, however, you can connect it just as you would a VCR, through the VCR1 or VCR2 loop, with additional connection of the digital coaxial or digital optical output to the digital audio inputs available on the AV receiver. Use the monitor output of the AV receiver to supply the video part of the feed to the TV. In this type of hookup you have access to all the surround sound functions of DVD playback (of commercial DVDs) as well as the DVD recorder's recording and dubbing functions from other video sources (such as a VCR) connected to the AV receiver. Most DVD recorders also have from mounted AV inputs as well for the connection of a camcorder.

All the owner's manuals provided with DVD recorders have explicit and simple hookup diagrams for a variety of setup senarios.

12. Do DVD recorders also have region lock, like standard DVD players?

DVDs that you make yourself are not region encoded, however, DVD recorders are region specific with regards to playback of commerically made DVDs. See my related article on this topic - link on the right side of this page under "Related Resources".

13. Is it worth buying a DVD recorder now?

It depends on your needs. If you like the idea of recording with the best video and audio quality currently possible, preserving old family videos in a more permanent format, making your own short films or videos, and need to replace an aging VCR anyway, a DVD recorder may be an option to consider. Prices are still a little high, but not out of reach. Just three years ago a DVD recorder was $3,000, last year prices went down to less than $1,000. Right now some units are as low as $399. If you can wait until 2004, prices will be down to as low as $349 for basic units; full featured units will still be around $599-699. Of course make sure the DVD recorder you consider has the features you need.


I hope that the above FAQs help to sort out the issues revolving around DVD recorders. Keep in mind, as with all consumer eletronics technology, that things are constantly changing. In other words, the above FAQs are dynamic and will be updated when needed. If you have any input into these FAQs, feel free to send me a comment or post it on my Forum. Also, stayed tuned for updates on DVD recorders and related products throughout the year.

For more information and updated DVD FAQs by Robert Silva, Please visit About Home Theatre Guide