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Do-It-Yourself DVD

Go beyond buying and renting DVDs -- now you can make them yourself, with or without a computer
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03


It's almost official. Only one last-gasp reason still compels you to have a VCR plugged into your TV alongside your DVD player -- recording shows on your own -- and that one is fading fast. Several major consumer electronics companies already offer stand-alone DVD recorders that connect to your TV as easily as a VCR. And if you're reasonably computer-savvy, a DVD- burning drive lets you turn home video footage into amazingly professional-looking DVDs, complete with on-screen menus. Yes, DVD recording is still significantly more expensive than popping a tape into a VCR, both in the cost of DVD recording equipment and the cost of blank discs. Factor in the advantages of DVD, though, along with the unadulterated coolness of adopting a new medium while it still has that gee-whiz, cutting-edge patina, and it's time to seriously consider ditching the boring black cassettes in favor of rainbow-shiny discs.

Irrevocably, inevitably, videotape was already being muscled onto the scrap heap of technological history by the exploding popularity and technical advantages of digital technology, which offers superior audio and video quality, as well as the convenience of jumping instantly from place to place in a program. DVDs are much smaller and easier to store than VHS tapes, yet still boast much more room for added movie-related goodies. And unlike videotapes, DVDs don't deteriorate with use or simply degrade while sitting on the shelf. Videotapes can become unwatchable in a matter of years. Experts say a DVD disc should last more than a century.

Nevertheless, significant DVD drawbacks kept tape alive and kicking. The first was cost -- but now you can get a perfectly respectable DVD player and change from a hundred dollar bill. The selection of movies available on DVD was a small fraction of the tape cassette library -- not anymore. And while it took a few years for the Blockbusters of the world to get on board, it's now just as easy to rent a movie on DVD as it is on tape. Add the convenience of at-home recording and DVD looks like the obvious choice for video -- at least once we help you clear up some reception problems.

At Sea in Alphabet Soup

Whether you're shopping for a stand-alone DVD recorder or a DVD-burning computer drive, you're going to run smack into a daunting problem almost immediately. Remember the years of incompatible Betamax and VHS videotape formats? Well, the same kind of consumer confusion arising from a pissing match between major corporations is at work in the recordable DVD arena. Stick with me for a few minutes, though, and we can plow through the muck and achieve blessed clarity.

There are basically two separate electronics manufacturing camps, each of which supports a slightly different disc format. One side, including Pioneer, Hitachi, Apple and others, offers DVD-R discs and DVD-RW discs, and the equipment to record on them. With a DVD-R disc, you record once and that's it -- the information is written permanently. For temporary recordings there are DVD-RW discs, which let you record, then erase and rerecord (RW stands for rewritable).

On the other side, we have Sony, Philips Electronics, HP and their allies, with DVD+R and DVD+RW discs -- same write/once versus rewritable distinction, only this time we have a plus sign instead of a dash.

Predictably enough, each side claims superiority for its format, "Our discs are more compatible with existing DVD players." "Our discs record faster." "Our discs are less expensive." You know what? Despite the bluster and BS, at this point, the differences are inconsequential. The ñR/RW and +R/RW discs all have the same capacity: 4.7 gigabytes, which translates into one hour of recording at the highest quality settings. The rewritable formats each can be rewritten 1,000 times. Each is compatible with most recent DVD player models (if you're concerned about whether the discs you make will be compatible with a specific DVD player, two Web sites post listings you can consult: and For all practical purposes, then, the two standards are equal, and all that really matters is buying the type of blank disc that works with your recording device.

Or, if you want to sidestep the problem altogether, a few recorders on the market now accept both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW discs, albeit at a price premium over a single-format device. Is this flexiblity worth the extra cost? For most of us, probably not. Blank disc prices are quickly equalling out (at around $3 to $5 at retail for now, and falling fast), and neither format is headed toward extinction any time soon. There's certainly no disadvantage to a multiple-format device, but it's not a must-have capability either.

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