|Self Help | The Magazine | Downloads | Links | Tips & Advice | Help! I'm new | Contact Us | Subscribe | Home|
DVD+RW burners for use with PCs have only now started to arrive on the market - some months after rival DVD-R and DVD-RW models. But, on the up side, they're being accompanied by set-top DVD+RW writers - while set-top models using competing formats have yet to arrive. Will this particular early bird catch the worm?
Many video editors have already embraced DVD authoring. Some have bought Pioneer's DVD-R/DVD-RW burner, the DVR-A03 (review, August 2001, p30, around £540, inc VAT), and some have opted for the somewhat cheaper Panasonic DVD-R/DVD-RAM burner, the LF-D311 (August 2001, p36 - currently £450-£500).
Now, though, there's another DVD-burning format in contention - DVD+RW. This format is also being used in computer-based burners (see review this month, p26, of the Ricoh MP5120), but it's also at the heart of the UK's first set-top DVD recorder - in effect, a DVD-burning alternative to the VCR. This is the confusingly named Philips DVDR1000, which carries a weighty SRP of £1,300. Those who'd already bought into DVD burning may be relieved to know that another, DVD-RW set-top recorder - the Panasonic DMR E20EBS - will be arriving shortly. This writes to DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM, and is expected to carry a considerably cheaper - but far from cheap - price-tag of £1,000 or less.
DVD+RW is claimed to be an ideal format for set-top recording. The disc structure is said to allow the recording laser to be turned off during writing and to start again at precisely the same place. This highly accurate control is vital if DVD is to work practically and sensibly in real-time. It's some feat given that the machine encodes video in the most efficient way by varying the bit-rate to suit the material (with more data used in busy scenes than in static ones). Panasonic's forthcoming model also creates a variable-bitrate MPEG-2 stream, and we'll report on how this fairs as soon as we can get our hands on one.
The DVDR1000 has no support for write-once DVD-R discs, and this may be a significant factor in making a buying decision. DVD-R doesn't offer any control over chapter-points or menu structures after recording, but we expect prices of the DVD-R write-once discs to fall considerably faster than those of rewritables - a 4.7GByte DVD+RW disc currently costs £11.75 inc VAT (price from dabs.com).
Layout and design
The most striking thing about the DVDR1000 is its size. Although it has much the same footprint as a standard DVD player, it's almost twice the height. And it's not pretty either, being plain, flat and square with a brushed silver finish. The front carries a large display panel, a disc drawer, a power button and basic playback controls. There's also a fold-down panel, concealing AV sockets and more buttons, but this can't be opened by hand. Access is granted by pressing another button to the left of the display panel, which lowers the front flap, and raises it again when pressed for a second time. The flap can only be opened when the machine is plugged in.
Beneath the motorised panel are inputs for S-video, composite video and analogue stereo audio, plus a four-pin FireWire port that combines input and output. Further controls take in buttons for search and skip, manual audio recording level and channel selection. Round the back are two Scart sockets, optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, and inputs and outputs for S-video, composite video and analogue stereo audio. The DVDR1000 has a TV tuner on board and, therefore, sports twin RF sockets - an aerial input and an output to a TV set or VCR.
We connected the DVDR1000 to a 29in Sony Nicam stereo TV set via Scart, and powered up. This particular machine had obviously been powered up before we got our hands on it, as the introductory installation menu failed to launch, leaving us to access the system menus and retune manually. Confident that the procedure couldn't be that difficult, we ignored the manual and launched straight into the menus - big mistake. We were greeted with a selection of icons, which we initially mistook for ancient hieroglyphic shorthand. Having the manual handy is essential during the initial setting up, but the menu structure soon becomes understandable. We were easily able to tune in to TV channels, and select recording quality. Picture and sound settings have options for widescreen TV sets and surround-sound speaker systems. As with VHS video recorders, the DVDR1000 provides timer-recording features, with an easy VIDEO Plus+ option and simple manual controls.
When inserting a blank disc, users can choose whether it will be used to record PAL or NTSC video - and different standards can't be written to the same disc. Four recording quality settings are available. 'HQ' quality allows 60 minutes of recording to a 4.7GByte DVD+RW disc, while 'SP' provides 120 minutes of recording time. Both have a full PAL frame size of 720 x 576 pixels. Longer recording times are provided by 'LP' (giving 180 minutes) and 'EP' (240 minutes) options. These lower quality settings have a lower resolution of 360 x 576 pixels. Different recording quality settings can be mixed on a single disc, providing some versatility for archiving and time-shifting.
Initial recordings made from off-air broadcast were superb at 'HQ' quality, being almost indistinguishable from live transmission. Dropping down a notch to 'SP' quality, things still looked good - considerably better than S-VHS, and much better than VHS, but not quite as sharp as we'd seen from the highest setting. 'LP' mode was poor by comparison, as the reduced vertical resolution gave rise to some annoying motion artefacts, reminiscent of high levels of JPEG compression. This was accentuated further at the lowest 'EP' setting. Video can also be fed to the DVDR1000 via S-video, composite or FireWire channels.
We copied video from a DV tape to DVD, first by the analogue AV channels, and finally by FireWire, using the full range of recording settings each time. In all cases, the quality of our final recordings was good in 'HQ' and 'SP' mode, and poor at the lower end. Our DV tapes were technically clearer and more detailed than the broadcast signal we had received. Even so, at the highest quality we noticed some softening during camera moves - particularly when the frame contained a lot of sharp detail. In some cases it may be better to use analogue AV inputs to dub to DVD rather than FireWire, since, perversely, the compromise in image detail may give rise to fewer visual artefacts.
DVD+RW discs produced on the Philips played okay in a Yelo 800 DVD player but wouldn't play on our older test machine - a Samsung 709. A firmware upgrade to the Samsung may allow it to play DVD+RW, but we've not been able to test this yet. On the PC side, the DVD+RW discs weren't recognised by an old Creative Labs DVD5240E-1 DVD-ROM drive - a drive which plays DVD-R discs without a problem - but did play fine in a more modern Toshiba DVD-ROM drive.
Aside from noticeably better picture and sound quality, one of the biggest benefits of DVD is its non-linear quality. Individual scenes can be accessed immediately, without the need to fast forward, rewind and picture search, as you must do with linear tape. Every recording session is represented in a menu, complete with a still image thumbnail representing its content. This thumbnail image can be set to any frame of video in the session, and video files can have chapter-points added or deleted during playback using the remote handset. Managing video with the DVDR1000 is easy, and very similar to organising the Table Of Contents of a MiniDisc. Adjacent video files in a playlist can be joined together, or single files can be split into separate chunks. Files can also be renamed and given brief descriptions in the menu.
Discs can be removed and played immediately on other players or drives that support DVD+RW media with no need for them to be finalised. We were also able to copy MPEG-2 files (which have a VOB extension) directly from DVD+RW to a desktop PC's hard drive. This, we thought, would make the DVDR1000 a great machine for real-time MPEG-2 encoding of files that could later be included in customised DVD projects.
As a set-top recorder for time-shifting and archiving TV broadcasts, the DVDR1000 does do an excellent job. It also provides an easy way for video editors to create DVDs from their own work. What concerns us, though, is that only two hours of recording to DVD+RW discs is possible when using the highest picture quality on offer. In many ways, Digital VHS offers more bangs per buck in terms of picture quality and recording time, but this cassette-based system loses out compared to the convenient, editable, non-linear nature of DVD+RW discs. We also feel that the price of this machine is far too high - we fear that, without a massive price cut, it will look very silly when Panasonic's forthcoming DVD recorder arrives, since this supports three formats Ð DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM Ð and is likely to cost under £1,000. The likelihood of imminent price cuts and the current uncertainty over which recordable DVD standard will emerge as the victor are, we reckon, very good reasons not to buy any set-top DVD recorders for the time being.
For the full review, see the December 2001 issue of Computer Video.