Getting The Most From Your DVD Recorder

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The VCR or “Video Cassette Recorder”, has been a mainstay of home entertainment for the best part of 30 years, and while its initial popularity makes it difficult for the technology to disappear completely, the advent of DVD – formerly “Digital Video Disk”, but now the “Digital Versatile Disk” – technology has sounded its death knell. DVD recorders, for example have all the functionality of DVD players, but can also record television programming or camcorder footage, to recordable DVD+/-R, or rewritable DVD+/-RW, media, which can be played back on any standard domestic DVD player. DVD recorders can record from analogue television, digital cable, satellite and “Freeview”, and analogue and digital camcorders, via “IEEE 1394”, or “FireWire” and offer numerous options for connecting various components together.

DVD Recorder Tips, Tricks & Techniques

DVD Media

The most popular DVD formats remain DVD-R, and DVD-RW, originally developed by Pioneer, in 1997 and DVD+R, and DVD+RW, developed by the so-called “DVD+RW Alliance led by Philips, Sony, and other major electronics manufacturers in 2002. In practice, there is very little difference between the “-“and “+” designations. The DVD+R format for example, has marginally less total storage capacity than the DVD-R format, but many DVD recorders nowadays allow you to record in both the “+” and “-” formats, so that your choice of blank DVD media is not limited to one or the other. If you do have a DVD recorder that itself is designated “+”, or “-“, then be aware that the two formats are not interchangeable, and you will need to purchase media of the appropriate type.

Remember also too that for recording video, “video” – as opposed to “data” – DVDs are required, and that the compatibility, and playback quality, afforded by a DVD recorder may be better with certain specific brands of DVD media. It is wise to stick to major brands when purchasing blank DVD media, and if you find a brand that works well with your DVD recorder, stick to that too, unless there is an unequivocal reason for changing.

The method of “finalising” a DVD, that is “fixing” any recordings in place so that the DVD can be played on a standard DVD player or in the DVD drive of a computer may vary from DVD recorder to DVD recorder. Similarly, the length of time required for finalising typically depends on the type of DVD itself, and how much information is recorded upon it; this may be as long as 30 minutes in the case of some “dual layer” DVD media. Finalising a video DVD usually creates an on-screen menu for navigating the various sections, or “chapters”, of the content, but do remember that once a DVD-R, or DVD+R, format disk is finalised, no further recording or editing is possible.

Fixed Bit Rate versus Variable Bit Rate

DVD recorders typically have a setting which allows you to control the amount (that is, the number of “bits”) of data that are written to DVD at any given moment, and it is useful to appreciate the difference between the two different types, so that you can adjust this setting to suit you requirements. Fixed or constant bit rate recording maintains a constant flow of data between the video encoding system and the DVD itself, such that the resolution is constant, and exact running times can be predicted. Variable bit rate, often abbreviated to “VBR” on the other hand, allows a DVD recorder to vary the number of bits written, according to the nature of the material being recorded, and within parameters set by the user, to obtain the best possible results. A fast-moving action sequence, for example, would typically be recorded at a higher bit rate than a tranquil, slow-moving scene, and this may be the preferred method, at lower bit rates.

Do exercise a little caution with VBR, however. Some DVD players have, for example, an “automatic” VBR setting, which rather than turning VBR “on”, or “off”, may produce unexpected results. It is possible for the recording system to downshift the resolution of the video being recorded, for the purposes of compression, which results not only in reduced picture quality, but also introduces compatibility issues with other DVD players, or computers.

Copy Protection

Copy protection should not be an issue with DVD recorders, at least, most of the time. Recording camcorder footage, and most television broadcasting, is free from any form of copy protection, but do be aware of the existence of CPRM, or “Content Protection for Recorded Media”. This may prevent you from recording premium, “pay-per-view”, content from certain digital television broadcasters, and may also prevent you from duplicating other content.

Other Considerations

DVD recorders can be divided into two basic categories; those that record solely, to removable DVD media, and those that record to DVD media and an integral hard disk drive. The hard disk drive option is becoming commonplace, and offers the obvious advantage of huge storage capacity; up to 400GB, or more, in some cases, the equivalent of several hundred hours of video footage, as well as allowing recording directly to the hard disk, which can be useful if you run out of recordable media. Another feature of so-called “hybrid” DVD recorders is a concept known as “time shifting”. This effectively allows you to pause, and rewind, “live” television programming; this is useful if your ‘phone, or doorbell, rings in the middle of your favourite show, by constantly, and seamlessly, recording any programme to a hard disk buffer.

Another useful, everyday feature to consider in a DVD recorder is an integral “Freeview” tuner. This can bring you all the benefits of free-to-air, DVB-T (“Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial”) television channels, without yet another box to clutter up your home entertainment area. The availability of an EPG, or “Electronic Programming Guide”, means that you can see, via an intuitive graphical interface, forthcoming programmes, for up to 8 days in advance, and set the DVD recorder to record those programmes at the press of a button.

Your home entertainment system may, of course, consist of a television set; analogue, CRT (“Cathode Ray Tube”), or flat panel LCD (“Liquid Crystal Display”), or Plasma, a set-top box, of some kind, and a DVD recorder, but you may also be interested in connecting other components (an A/V receiver, for digital surround sound, for example) or downloading footage from a camcorder. Whatever your situation, you should look for the highest quality connectivity options available to you, when choosing a DVD recorder.

If you want 5.1 channel, digital surround sound, for example, you should look for coaxial or optical, digital audio output to connect to your receiver. A coaxial digital connector may look like a standard, RCA connector, but transmits digital, rather than analogue, signals, along a shielded, high bandwidth cable. Optical digital audio, or S/PDIF (“Sony/Philips Digital Interface”), on the other hand, transmits signals via a fibre optic cable, rather than a copper wire. Both forms of digital audio are (unlike standard, RCA connection which is only suitable for stereo, 2.1 channel sound) eminently suitable for digital surround sound.

Your choice of video connection depends on the age, and specification, of your existing home entertainment equipment. Almost all DVD players are equipped with component, S-video and composite video outputs (in decreasing order, by quality) which can be used for the connection of analogue television sets, and camcorders, but if you have a television set equipped with one, or more, HDMI (“High Definition Multimedia Interface”) inputs, you should look for a compatible DVD recorder. HDMI is a new, all-digital standard, which allows uncompressed video, and audio, to be transferred via a single cable. This eliminates the loss of quality, and encoding errors, typically associated with the conversion process from digital to analogue, and back again, such that HDMI is the future, as far as A/V connections are concerned.   

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