Is VHS Obsolete?

E2 was down, I was getting bored and restless.  I'd read several months worth of the New Yorker magazine, listened to Heart of Darkness on tape, and annoyed all my clients with my sudden and anomalous attention to their needs and desires.  In short I was bored stiff.  So I did what all good nerdboys do when they're bored, bought myself a new gizmo:  a shiny new DVD Recorder. 

I've totally resisted DVD Recorders up to now because of the FUD surrounding the "DVD format wars." DVD manufacturers have been battling mightily since DVD arrived over two disk format standards, with one camp supporting DVD Plus and the other supporting DVD Minus.  There's a deep irony there somewhere.  

The good news is that the war is over, or perhaps has just become irrelevant, as the overall level of compatibility amongst the DVD players has increased over the last year.  Both the Plus and the Minus formats seem to work pretty well, and you can "Finalize" your disks with most DVD recorders allowing it to be played on almost any modern DVD player.  So you can burn a disk for Mum and be pretty confident that she'll be able to play it.  

I have a ton of family memories on aging VHS tapes that are starting to wear out, so I justified this purchase on that basis.  Yeah, an early Christmas present for the family, almost an appliance....  Anyway, that's my story and I'm stickin to it.  Once I'd decided I needed this widget, I set about determining which brand and model best met my needs.  I chose sides in the dreaded format wars for that matter, and leveraged the power of ecommerce to arrange for a shiny Philips DVDR-80 DVD Recorder2  to arrive on my doorstep, and I've pretty much put it to productive use.  Interested?  Read on.

Desperately Seeking Philips

The search for a DVD recorder started with an ad in Wired magazine.  I'm embarrassed to admit that I probably fit the Wired demographic to a very close approximation.  I'm an inveterate and unrepentant tech fetishist and a total sucker for a good widget advertisement, so when I bumped into a glossy spread on a Sony RDR-GX7 DVD recorder that was touted as the perfect solution to archiving old VHS video tapes.  I read all the fine print, did a quick price check on Amazon and figured that perhaps the time had come to make the leap.  It turned out the Sony wasn't the right call (too pricey, not especially feature rich), but after a few days of grubbing for info the path lead to a Philips DVDR-80 DVD that I'm pleased to recommend in all categories.

Since DVD recorder capabilities are changing so fast, I'd hesitate to say that the Philips was the only DVD recorder to even consider.  In fact given courses for horses and all that, your search might lead to a completely different solution.  The good news is that there are several very helpful comparative reviews and technical primers on the web1   some of which are listed in the Resources section below.  

The big choices you'll face are DVD format (I went with DVD Plus, but DVD Minus should be okay too.  Just stay away from DVD-RAM), and whether or not the unit has a hard drive (useful, but jacks up the price considerably). 

Once you've narrowed the field a bit you can also use the web to comparison shop for the best price.  I paid $470 for the Philips DVDR-80, but the low end DVD recorders were in the $200 range and the prices seem to be falling across the board as the popularity of DVD recorders grows and the sales volume increases.

Opening Pandora's Box

The biggest selling point for the DVDR-80 is that it's dead simple to hook up and use.  I was recording my first family video from VHS to DVD within 15 minutes of opening the box.  Of course I ended up throwing that disk away because I hadn't taken the time to learn how to do it right yet.  And, since I skipped the straightforward and intuitive recommended setup procedure, as is my foolish habit, I had to spend an hour the next morning starting over again from scratch, but that's just me. You probably read your manuals cover to cover before you start right?

The DVDR-80 combines three very appealing elements: a fully featured DVD player that you can hook up to your TV and use to play commercial DVDs from NetFlix or Blockbuster or wherever, a DVD recorder that creates both types of DVD Plus disks (+R and +RW), and an online TV Guide that queries your cable connection for show scheduling information then presents it onscreen so you can easily make recordings of up coming shows.  

In addition to these capabilities, the DVDR-80 has a sweet smelling bouquet of features too numerous to attempt to enumerate completely.  Here are some of the most important capabilities, and I'd refer you to the Philips website below for more details, user's guides etc. 

  • Real-time MPEG2 Variable Bit-Rate video encoder with 6 recording modes allowing between one and six+ hours of video to be recorded on each disk.  In my experience, the recording quality is better than VHS up to 2.5 hours beyond which compression artifacts become noticable.
  • The i.LINK (Firewire) digital connection allows you to make non-lossy copies of DV camcorder tapes
  • RGB Component Video Input and Component Video Outputs are provided allowing  the best digital recording quality and most flexible analog video connection
  • A 2-channel Dolby Digital encoder allows near-perfect recording of stereo audio and Dolby Pro Logic audio 24-bit digital-to-analog conversion for high quality output.
  • Recorded discs play on DVD players after they have been "Finalized" to the DVD-Video format.
  • The Visual Table Of Contents for each DVD allows you to select a image from your recording to display as a button on the disk menu.
  • Favorite Scene Selection allows you to easily remove commercials from a recording, or edit out the parts of your home videos that you don't want shown.
  • Disc Manager for instant overview of all your discs
  • Progressive Scan doubles the vertical resolution of each frame producing a noticeably sharper image.
  • Records disks in two of the most popular and compatible formats:  DVD+RW and DVD+R.

ReplayTV = Tivo = Guide+

After a long careful look at the field of DVD recorders, I picked the Philips DVDR-80 for a good general mix of features and one bonus capability that hoisted it above the others.  It has this wicked little mini-Tivo television software that checks your cable hookup for a schedule of programs, which it then displays for you to choose from. Recording a show you like is as simple as just finding it on the schedule then pressing a single button! You can tell it to record one episode, or every one that appears, so grabbing a complete show is almost trivial.  It even allows you to skip the commercials when you play it back!

Now if you knew me well, in fact if you knew me much at all, you'd know that I don't watch much television.  When our first child was born, my wife and I both decided that we didn't want the constant river of drivel flowing through our kid's lives, so we just unplugged the cable.  That was over 16 years ago.  We watch movies though, lots of movies.  We go out to see them and we've rented a zillion of em from Blockbuster and more recently Netflix.  So the television gets a workout, but none of us have ever seen an episode of Seinfield, or Cheers, or Survivor or even The Simpsons. well, maybe the Simpsons once or twice.  

And that, my friends, is why it was a little strange for me to hook up the DVD Recorder and have it suddenly present me with an onscreen TV Guide showing every program coming in on my cable (which we have for broadband net access) for the next couple of weeks.  Thousands of em. And everyone had a nice little plot synopsis, and a button you could push to capture it onto the DVDR-80.  

The last time I'd checked in on evening TV, JR Ewing was plotting against Sue Ellen on Dallas and unless you had a satellite dish, you made your choices from the half dozen channels that made it to the antenna on your roof.  I think that the DVDR-80 automatically found over a hundred channels available on our cable and, according to the instructions there's a good chance it may have missed a few.  For the price of a click, the recorder will find out when a show is playing and record it the next time it comes on, or every time it broadcasts.  Now that's entertainment!

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I caved in to the this vast treasure trove of pop-cultural treasures.  Solely in the name of science you understand. One must fully explore the capabilities of one's technology, right?  So I scanned the listings carefully for something on which to test my new techie prowess and there before me was a show I recognized: The Simple Life, latest bombast from the infamous celebutant Paris Hilton.  Ugh, what a rude awakening to the horrors of modern television!  Two bratty rich girls terrorize a rural farming town using toxic cluelessness and an almost sociopathic insensitivity to the prevailing social norms. I'm stunned to learn how low this whole media thing has sunk. No wonder everyone hates America these days, they probably think that's what we're all like...

Test Drive

Happily, my recordings of Ms. Hilton's antics are all on re-writable disks, so I can erase them once I'm done agonizing over the fate of humanity.  In addition to automatically recording TV shows, the DVDR-80 has also become a trusted ally in the preservation of our aging family video collection, my putative reason for buying it in the first place.  The machine has a big red Record button right on the front of the case and pushing it does exactly what you'd expect it to.  

When you finish recording you are returned to the Disk Menu, which displays an graphic button for each recording or "Title" on the disk.  Next to the Title button is an info box displaying the name of the recording, its length, the recording quality setting and the date it was recorded.  You can select any image from your recording for use as the button graphic.  This simple navigational menu allows you to choose which title to play and is what will be displayed when your disks are played on another DVD Player.  Titles can further be divided into up to 99 "Chapters" by manually marking the recording at the place you want a new chapter to start.  This is useful for skipping between the important segments in a title.  Since chapters can be individually set to display, or be "Hidden," you can also use the Chapter capability to remove all the commercials from a show, or to skip the boring parts of you home videos.

Making copies of your VHS tapes is as simple as playing them on a VHS deck and pressing Record.  You can fiddle with the quality, but the settings that try to squeeze more than 2.5 hours on a DVD start to look pixellated. You can record a live TV show just as easily, just find the show then press record.  If you have a digital video camera with a firewire connection, you can plug it directly into the DVDR-80 and make a direct to disk digital copy of your tapes.  

In addition to reading and writing DVD Plus disks, the DVDR-80 can play DVD -R and -RW disks, audio CDs, Video CDs, and MP3 disks.  As a player, the ones purchased in the U.S. are set to play only Region 1 disks.  The device respects all current copyright protection schemes, so if it detects that you are attempting to copy a commercially protected VHS tape or another DVD, it will not record.

All in all this is a technology that has matured to the point of being a delight to use, but it still has a few warts and wrinkles.  On some DVD players, the disk menu has an annoying flicker.  I think this is a framing problems and I've contacted Philips for a solution.  I've also found that some edits, especially removing commercials, may not translate correctly on a finalized DVD. I've had varying results and suspect that this problem may be operator error on my part rather than a flaw in the machine.  It hasn't bothered me much, but I've read complaints from other owners about the complexity of the remote control and the onscreen messaging system.  I suspect this is more of a RTFM problem rather than any undue complexity in the system itself. Personally, I thought the documentation was fairly well written, though it would benefit from a good index.  A final candidate for the DVDR-80 potential problem list is that these units are pretty fragile and easily damaged in transit.  They depend on precision alignment and don't tolerate bumps and knocks.  So, when purchasing, be sure to buy from a company who will accept a DOA machine for return and ship you another one rather than referring you to Philips for warranty repairs. 

Standing up for Fair Use

As if all this wasn't good news enough, here's the kicker, if you use a video-friendly DVD player as a source, you can create high quality backups of your commercial DVD collection, even if they are copy protected.  Just remember not to violate any copyright laws in the process, and don't tell Jack Valenti or his MPAA thugs that I said this3. For those of us looking for a smooth transition between VHS and DVD, this is cooler than deep space.



1  DVD comparison shopping, specs and reviews: or and search on "DVD Recorders"
2  Official Philips DVDR-80 pages, users guides etc.: search on "DVDR80"
3 My copyright ethos: Respect copyright laws, but demand fair use rights.



Many thanks to Dawggy Daddy for copy edit assistance
NOTE: benjya says re dvd recorder: i agree in principle to be wary of DVD-RAM, and that DVD-R or -RW are better for general use. but DVD-RAM compatible machines can do tivo-style timeslip without the need for an expensive hard disk unit, so they do have their use.