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
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
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
- RGB Component Video Input and Component Video Outputs are provided
allowing the best digital recording quality and most flexible analog
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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...
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
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: http://www.shopping.com or http://www.Epinions.com/ and search on
2 Official Philips
DVDR-80 pages, users guides etc.: http://www.philips.com search on
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.