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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
| By Steve Morgenstern | From 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.

There is one more significant disc format out there, called DVD-RAM, but only Panasonic and Toshiba seem gung ho on using it. DVD-RAM does have advantages: discs can be rewritten 100,000 times, making it a great format for backing up computer data, and video can be recorded and played back at the same time, so you can watch part of a program that's in the process of being recorded while the remainder is still being captured. DVD-RAM's prime supporters also include DVD-R capability in their equipment, though, in a nod to that format's more widespread acceptance.

Enough with the acronyms! It's time to move beyond the ABCs and explore the differing specialties of stand-alone DVD recorders and computer DVD burners.

The 21st-Century VCR Replacement

Fundamentally, a stand-alone DVD recorder works like a VCR, but with blank DVDs instead of blank tapes. You record in much the same way, with a single button-press if you're watching the show you want, or by setting a timer for future programs. As for connecting the recorder to your system, the only added complication involves an advantage of the DVD recorder -- it's also a DVD player, so you'll want to hook up the digital audio output if you're using a surround-sound home theater system (you can use the recorder to play back audio CDs, too, by the way).

Once you've mastered the VCR-like basics, you can start enjoying features no tape recorder ever offered. For example, DVD recorders create on-screen menus that let you jump immediately from recorded program to program. These menus aren't as pretty as commercial DVDs (or the DVDs you can create yourself with a computer), but they get the job done.

Plow through the manual a bit further and you'll learn to edit the contents of a recorded disc. For example, you can cut out the commercials from a program you've recorded, and add chapter markers (just like you'll find on a prerecorded DVD) that let you move instantly from section to section.

Like VCRs, DVD recorders offer a variety of recording speeds: the highest quality settings eat up the most disc capacity. To equal the audio and video quality you'd see on a store-bought movie disc, you'll fit one hour of recording on a blank. However, you can double that capacity when recording an incoming TV signal, with virtually no noticeable loss in quality; and stretch up to six hours per disc if you're willing to sacrifice some precision for capacity.

One of the most important tasks you're likely to undertake with your new DVD recorder is copying existing tapes -- everything from the adorable footage of baby's first step to the naughty video you shot at that B&B in Vermont -- that are slowly but surely turning into video snow. By connecting your camcorder to the DVD recorder, you can preserve these memories digitally for decades to come.

Here's where an important distinction between DVD recorder models comes up. Any recorder on the market can accept audio/video signals from a standard analog connection. However, if you own a digital video (DV) camcorder, you'll get higher quality recordings by connecting it to a DVD recorder equipped with a digital input. Manufacturers label this feature differently -- FireWire, IEEE1394 or iLink -- but it's exactly the same cable-and-jack connection, whatever they call it.

Market leaders Panasonic, Philips and Toshiba have just introduced their second-generation DVD recorder models, while RCA, Sony and Zenith have just joined the competition. The new Panasonic DMR-E60 ($600) is a solid combination of DVD-RAM and DVD-R recording capability, and includes memory card slots for transferring photos taken with a digital camera to create a DVD slide show. Another attractive choice, this one from the DVD+R camp, is Philips's new DVD+R75 ($699), offering progressive scan playback for superior performance with high-end TV sets and an iLink connector for digital camcorder users.

Another possibility to consider: a DVD recorder equipped with its own hard drive. You've probably heard of TiVo by now -- a device that lets you pause, rewind and fast-forward a program while watching live TV, and record shows right to the internal hard drive (without fiddling with tapes). Panasonic and Toshiba offer DVD recorders with their own hard drives built in. In other words, you can record a program either to the hard drive or to a DVD using these models. What makes this interesting is the ability to record a program onto the hard drive at first and, if you later decide to keep it, copy it over to a DVD. And, instead of copying the whole program, you can pick just the parts you like, leaving commercials and boring sections behind. The new Panasonic DMR-E80 ($700) includes an 80-gigabyte hard drive, large enough to record up to 104 hours of programming (depending on the quality setting) plus DVD-R and DVD-RAM recording capability.

What about making copies of the DVD movies you've bought? No such luck using a DVD recorder -- there's copy protection software built in, which will recognize a commercial DVD and refuse to make a duplicate. That won't stop you from recording broadcast movies, though, and with a solid cable or satellite signal, the results look very good indeed. One other limitation worth mentioning: the DVDs you'll burn with a home recorder capture excellent digital sound, but only in stereo, not 5.1-channel surround sound.

Computer Moviemakers' Burning Desires

If a stand-alone DVD recorder is basically a turbocharged VCR, then a computer DVD-burning drive is like a CD burner on steroids. A CD burner can record audio discs to play in a standard CD player -- a DVD burner can do the same, but also turns out DVD movie discs complete with professional-looking menus and precisely edited video content, ready to play on a computer or on the DVD player hooked up to your TV. CD burners are also useful for making backup copies of computer files, but whereas a blank CD can hold about 700 megabytes of information, a blank DVD can store 4.7 gigabytes, or roughly seven times as much.

If you're shopping for a new computer, all of the major manufacturers now offer systems with DVD-burning drives built in. And your choices aren't limited to desktop computers, either -- several companies also offer DVD-burner-equipped notebook computers, meaning you can not only edit video, but crank out finished DVDs of your masterpiece while on the road.

Whether you're going with a desktop or a notebook, you'll want as much speed and storage capacity as you can afford. Video editing and DVD burning are demanding computer tasks, involving intensive mathematical calculations (by the software, not the user, thankfully) and huge files. The faster your processor and the larger your hard drive, the more pleasurable the editing and disc-burning experience. One top choice: Sony's VAIO Digital Studio desktop computers, which are fully tweaked out for DVD-burning multimedia enthusiasts. For around $2,100 (not including monitor), the PCV-RZ26G model comes with all the key features, including a speedy 3.06-gigahertz Pentium 4 processor, capacious 160-gigabyte hard disk drive, a multiformat DVD burner and Sony's easy-as-pie Click to DVD software that makes creating a DVD from digital camcorder footage a breeze.

On the notebook side, Apple's combination of first-rate movie- and DVD-making software and sleek design make it particularly appealing. I felt like a Hollywood mogul turning out DVDs with the luxurious new 17-inch PowerBook G4 ($3,299), with its huge wide-screen display and sleek slot-loaded DVD-R-burning SuperDrive. Of course, if I actually wanted to carry a notebook around, I might opt for a less hernia-inducing 12-inch or 15-inch PowerBook model.

While Apple gets the most buzz in the multimedia arena, Windows laptops are just as capable of cranking out DVDs. The Toshiba Satellite Pro M15-S405, for example, offers a handsome 15-inch display, excellent battery life (nearly six hours) and built-in wireless networking thanks to Intel's Centrino mobile technology. And even equipped with the optional DVD-burning drive, the laptop sells for under $2,000.

Your major focus in computer-based DVD burning is probably creating home movie gems, but it's also possible to store TV shows to disc, as long as your computer is properly equipped. One possibility: a video input card that accepts a TV signal from an outside tuner (typically a VCR). Even easier, though, is having a TV tuner card installed inside the computer. By connecting an antenna, cable or satellite TV feed, you can record shows to the computer hard disk, then edit the results and burn them to a DVD. While there are many TV tuner cards on the market (ATI's All-In-Wonder cards are among the best), computers equipped with Microsoft Media Center software make the process as consumer-friendly as possible. Media Center PCs, which are sold by Alienware, HP, ViewSonic and others, are designed for dual-purpose use, tackling standard PC computer tasks but also working as multi-media hubs, with special music, photo and TV software built in and a handy remote control to enjoy it all without sitting thisclose to the system. It's easy to program a Media Center PC to record your favorite shows (using a free downloadable on-screen program guide) and then, if you like what you see, burn the recorded program to a DVD.

If you already have a reasonably powerful computer, you can add a DVD-burning drive to the system. These drives come with the software you'll need to burn DVDs and, in most cases, include movie-editing software as well. The key specification you're looking for in a DVD burner is 4X recording speed. Burning movies to a DVD is a time-consuming process under the best of circumstances (figure an hour or even two hours, start to finish), so whatever you can do to goose the process a bit is a worthwhile investment. If you feel computer-savvy enough to open the computer and install a drive inside (or don't mind paying a pro to handle the task), Pioneer's DVR-A05 burner ($250), which works with the DVD-R/RW format, is a rock-solid choice -- fast, reliable and reasonably priced. Another speedy performer, this time on the DVD+R/RW side, is TDK's Indi DVD burner ($320).

If you don't want to deal with the complexities of internal installation, or use a laptop computer instead of a desktop, you may still be able to add a DVD burner, as long as the computer has either a FireWire or USB 2.0 port. These two connectors are fast enough to burn discs using an external drive; I've worked extensively with Sony's dual-format DRX-500ULX drive ($430) connected to a FireWire-equipped laptop, and the combination works perfectly.

What about making copies of those store-bought (or rented) DVD movies? It can't be done with a stand-alone DVD recorder but with a little finagling, it's possible using a DVD burner on a Windows machine. DVD X Copy from 321 Studios ($99) makes the process very simple -- just follow the on-screen instructions and, even without much technological savvy, you can copy a commercial DVD movie, complete with functional menus and all the DVD extras intact. One fly in the ointment: it takes two blank DVDs to copy most single-disc DVD movies, because commercial DVDs are burned using a two-layer process, giving them double the capacity of the blanks that are available for home burning. That's where Pinnacle Systems' Instant CD/DVD Copy software ($100) comes in. While it requires more manual processing, it's possible to trade off some audio/video quality -- and even eliminate some of the space-hogging extras on commercial DVDs -- and burn a movie to a single blank DVD. Of course, the legality of copying a copy-protected DVD is still being wrangled over in the courts. It's an interesting face-off, pitting the rights of consumers to make backup copies of material they've legitimately purchased against the movie studio's rights to protect against piracy.

Watch Out, Camcorder Cassettes!

The DVD-burning revolution is currently threatening VCRs and computer CD burners with extinction, but it doesn't stop there. What about those pesky tapes lurking in consumer camcorders? They too are under siege, with initial salvos fired by Hitachi, Panasonic and Sony as they introduce camcorders that capture movies directly to miniature DVD discs (each of which records for 30 minutes). With a DVD camcorder, it's possible to shoot video, then remove the disc and play it back on your DVD player -- a very convenient system. And, of course, while using the camcorder to play the video you shot, you can jump quickly from scene to scene, an impossibility with standard videotape.

But there's another feature that really changes the camcorder experience: the ability to edit your video on the camcorder. Those mortifying minutes when you didn't realize you'd accidentally hit the record button? Gone! The endless wedding toast with an interesting 30 seconds embedded in the middle? Trimmed down to a crisp, funny clip. What's more, editing in-camera doesn't mean the deleted footage is gone forever. It's still preserved in its entirety on the disc, so grandma can watch all 30 minutes of junior making mud pies, while you can choose to show the edited version, a two-minute "dirty movie" that you can share with friends and family without embarrassment.

Steve Morgenstern, a freelance writer living in New York, writes extensively on technology issues for Cigar Aficionado.