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My Awesome Sharp DVD Recorder

Sunday,  04/27/03  11:52 PM

Sharp DVD recorder (DV-RW2U)Here's my review of the Sharp DV-RW2U, a home entertainment DVD recorder.  The bottom line: It is awesome!

Why would anyone want one?

So what exactly is a DVD recorder?  Why would anyone want one?

Essentially a DVD recorder is exactly like a VCR, except it uses DVD discs instead of VHS tapes.  You can record any video or audio onto a DVD disc, and play it back later.  Here are the advantages of a DVD recorder over a VCR:

  • Digital image quality.  Like, way better.
  • Digital audio quality.  Like, way better.
  • Random access.  With a DVD you can easily jump around on the disc and access any of the content; pause, back-up, etc.  And no rewinding...
  • Editability.  DVD discs can be edited easily to remove or rearrange content, VHS tapes cannot.
  • Media format.  DVD discs are easier to store and carry, and more durable.
  • Compatibility with computers.  See below for more on this, but essentially a DVD disc recorded by a DVD recorder can be displayed on a computer with a DVD drive.  And vice-versa.
  • Coolness.  Well, you knew that, right?

Here are the disadvantages of a DVD recorder compared to a VCR:

  • Price.  VCRs are around $100, DVD recorders are now around $600.
  • Media cost.  Blank VHS tapes are about $1, and blank DVD-R media is about $4.

So essentially a DVD recorder is better and cooler than a VCR, and also more expensive, as benefits a new technology.  But it fills the same niche.

It is worth mentioning, a DVD recorder is also a player.  The Sharp in particular is a jack of all discs, it can play:

  • prerecorded DVDs (duh)
  • DVD-Rs discs made on any machine
  • DVD-RW discs made according to the DVD-RW 1.1 standard
  • prerecorded audio CDs
  • CD-R/RW discs containing audio tracks
  • CD-R/RW discs containing MP3 music files
  • prerecorded video CDs
  • CD-R/RW discs containing MPEG-2 video files

I want to dwell on the quality factor once more.  Because of the price point and intended audience, DVD recorders are also the best quality DVD players you can find, with progressive scan video capability, component and SVideo output, fiberoptic digital audio, and full support for multichannel audio like Dolby Digital and DTS.  You don't have to spend $600 to get a top-of-the-line DVD player, but if you spend that much to get a DVD recorder, it's nice to know you get a great player as part of the deal.

Before I leave the "why would anyone want one" answer, let me tell you why I wanted one.  Just one reason - to back up video I'd recorded on my Tivo.  I'm a big-time Tivo user, and I record sports events and movies all the time.  I've expanded my Tivo's recording capacity to 130 hours by adding a hard drive (about 40 hours at top quality), but that's still finite.  I wanted a way to back-up video I'd previously recorded without suffering the poor quality of VHS.  Recording to DVD fills the bill perfectly.

Aren't there a bunch of recordable DVD standards "out there"?

Well, no.  There's really only one.  Okay, okay, there are really two.  Here's the story.

There are two goals of recording DVDs: 1) to be able to play them back on the machine you recorded them on, and 2) to be able to play them back on a "garden variety" DVD player, like all your friends have.  There are two DVD standards and they both do (1) and (2).  The only thing they don't do is play on each other's recorders.  The two standards are called DVD-R and DVD+R.  That's right, the difference is that one has a dash between DVD and R, and one has a plus.  { Who thinks of these things, anyway? }

So, to recap, if you have a DVD-R recorder, your discs can be played on any DVD-R recorder and they can be played on "garden variety" DVD players.  If you have a DVD+R recorder, your discs can be played on any DVD+R recorder and on any "garden variety" DVD player.  You cannot play DVD-R discs on a DVD+R recorder, nor DVD+R discs on a DVD-R recorder.  Okay, got that?  Excellent!

I should also mention that both standards support two kinds of discs.  The first kind of disc can only be written once - after that it is read-only.  These discs are called DVD-R or DVD+R.  The second kind of disc can be erased and rewritten as many times as you like.  These discs are called DVD-RW or DVD+RW.  Why use the read-once versions?  Well, the media for DVD-R / DVD+R are slightly less expensive than the media for DVD-RW / DVD+RW, about $4 per disc instead of $5 per disc.  And, sometimes you really don't want something to be erased, so with DVD-R / DVD+R you can be sure that it can't be overwritten.

The Sharp recorder is a DVD-R type device.  They seem to be slightly more popular than the DVD+R devices, but as noted above it really doesn't matter.  Perhaps someday one of the standards will "win", or there will be a new third standard which incorporates both, but that day seems pretty far off at the moment.

Both standards allow you to record 4.7GB of data on a disc.  This is enough for 2 hours of really high-quality video ("DVD quality"), or 4 hours of very good quality video ("SVideo quality"), or 6 hours of okay but not great video ("broadcast quality").

In my experiments the 4-hour mode was good enough for everything, including high-motion stuff like basketball.  The 2-hour mode was terrific for movies which are only about 2 hours long anyway.  The 6-hour mode was a little sketchy with the high-motion stuff; the digital artifacts of the DVD compression began to show.  It would be fine for 6 episodes of Sex in the City, but not good for Lakers vs. Kings.

A cool feature of the Sharp is that it uses a technique called VBR, or Variable Bit Encoding, which lets you specify how much video you want to record, and it adjusts the quality accordingly.  { For example, I set the machine to 2-hour mode and then told it I wanted to record a movie which took 2½ hours.  It adjusted the quality downward slightly and filled the disc with the movie. }

There are basically two ways to record video on a DVD.  First, you can record it the same way as prerecorded DVDs, a format known as "V" (for video).  If you record this way your discs will be 100% compatible with all DVD players.  V-mode discs can have new data appended, but you cannot delete anything already on the disc.  This is the only format supported by DVD-R media.  If you have DVD-RW media you can erase the whole thing and start over.

Second, if you have DVD-RW media you can record video in a format known as "VR".  This format is much like a computer disc, you can add, edit, and delete content at will.  However, VR-mode discs cannot be played back in "garden variety" DVD players, they can only be played back by your recorder (or another DVD-R recorder).  So you trade the flexibility of editing with incompatibility.

Here's a table which summarizes things...

media type

DVD-R

DVD-RW

capacity

4.7GB

4.7GB

cost per blank disc

$4

$5

can be erased?

no

yes

video format

V-mode (only)

V-mode

VR-mode

compatible with DVD players?

yes

yes

no

can append to disc?

yes

yes

yes

can add, edit, delete from disc?

no

no

yes

As mentioned, the main reason I wanted a DVD recorder was to back up shows from my Tivo.  I am going to be backing them up onto DVD-R media in V-mode, so they can be watched on any DVD player anywhere...

Okay I want one.  Tell me about the Sharp.

You got it.  I've been checking out DVD recorders from Philips and Panasonic, and Sony is rumored to be hatching one.  But when Sharp announced their recorder it seemed to combine all the features of all the others with a better price, so I jumped on it.  By the way, this is definitely the leading edge of a new consumer product category, and prices are going to keep falling.  So if $600 seems like too much, just wait.

One thing I didn't know about the Sharp before I bought it but really appreciate now that I did is that it has an excellent manual.  Really.  It does not appear to be written in Japanese with English words, or use funky tables, or have diagrams that don't make sense.  It just takes you right through using the device.  And it starts simple and works up, so if all you want to do is put in a disc and press RECORD, you can.  On the other hand if you want to fully edit your recorded video, you can do that too, and the manual explains how.

Like most consumer electronics, the machine is driven by a remote control.  A front-panel display tells you what's going on, but this is basically fluff; the machine has a great on-TV display which is what you'll find yourself using all the time.  The remote is well organized and reasonably easy to use.  Crucially, the battery door is solidly attached and doesn't seem like it will fall off any time soon.  { If you don't think this is important, you obviously don't have as many remote controls as I do - or as many unattached battery doors. }

Connecting the device is reasonably straightforward.  It works like a VCR; you put it between your broadcast signal source (cable, satellite, etc.) and your TV.  If you have a Dolby Digital receiver, you put the DVD recorder after the source and before the receiver, which in turn drives your TV and your speakers.  The Sharp has a fiberoptic digital link for audio if you have a receiver which support this.  I have to say the sound was excellent; I tried The Matrix (of course, the standard system-test DVD!), and also some audio CDs as well as some CDs with MP3s, and it sounded great.

All the inputs and outputs support SVideo as well as Video.  If you have SVideo sources (satellite or cable) you should use them, it really makes a difference.  I could even see the difference SVideo makes when hooking up my Tivo, even though all the video on the Tivo originally came from my cable box via a standard [non-SVideo] connection.

The Sharp also supports "component output" for TVs which support it.  Basically this is a higher-quality signal than SVideo where the brightness and color information is encoded on separate cables.  I have a Sony TV which supports component output, but I could not see the difference.  Your mileage may vary.

Another nice feature of the Sharp is a front-panel connection for a video camera.  The Sharp accepts standard coaxial video input, but it also supports DV input directly.  if you have a camera with a DV output this is a terrific way to capture the video from the camera and put it on a DVD.  The DVD recorder can even control the camera through the DV link, which makes editing even cooler.  I don't have a camera with DV output (yet!) so I didn't try this, but if you do this might be worth the price of admission all by itself.

I tested the front-panel inputs by hooking up a PlayStation 2.  Yep, I recorded my kids playing SpongeBob SquarePants.  Not a DVD I will save forever, but it is nice to know it can be done :)

Like a VCR, the Sharp DVD recorder can be programmed to record particular channels at particular times.  It supports VCR+ codes if you are a fan of them; I guess it does make recording easier.  { I do all my recording on the Tivo, of course, so I am not going to use the DVD recorder's timer at all, but for many people this will be quite important. }

I mentioned editing video earlier, and this brings me to the most complex feature of the recorder which many people may never use.  The editing feature is only available with DVD-RW media recorded in the VR-mode.  (If you record in V-mode you can append new titles to a disc and do some really limited editing like setting title names, but that's about it.)  If you're in VR-mode you can create "playlists", which are essentially like the menus you see on prerecorded DVDs.   You can edit start and stop points, rearrange and rename titles, pick the still image you want to be displayed for a title, and so on.  All using pretty intuitive commands from the remote.

As a test case for this I transferred You've Got Mail from my Tivo to the recorder.  First I just recorded the whole thing, which was then a single title with a length of 2½ hours.  Then I broke the movie into separate chapters at each commercial break, editing out the commercials, picking a still frame, and naming each chapter.  This took about an hour.  I now have a DVD which can play the movie from beginning to end without interruption (2 hours), or you can bring up a menu with chapters about 5-10 minutes in length and pick the starting point, just like a prerecorded DVD.  Very, very cool.

As a final test, I transferred a basketball game; the Lakers beating the Timberwolves.  { Great game, by the way. }  I simply recorded it as I watched the game using the Tivo.  Since I routinely fast-forward through the commercials, the DVD recording has the fast-forwarding on it.  When I paused the Tivo I paused the recorder as well.  In this mode it is possible to end up with a commercial-less recording without doing any editing; just record as you watch the first time.

So that's the scoop.  I'm pretty happy with the Sharp DVD recorder, so far it is exceeding all my expectations.  Of course, someday someone will build a Tivo with a DVD recorder in the same box...

 

 

Sunday,  04/27/03  11:53 PM

The WSJ's Opinion Journal engages in Fehlervorhersagefreude: "They said what?"

Did you see this]  C|Net reports:  "A federal judge in Los Angeles has handed a stunning court victory to file-swapping services Streamcast Networks and Grokster, dismissing much of the record industry and movie studios' lawsuit against the two companies."  Wow.  Kazaa was not part of the suit, but by extension they would be exonerated as well.  I'm sure there will be an appeal, but this is the biggest defeat for record labels in their battle against file sharing so far.

I read a story in Business 2.0 (May issue) suggesting that Apple should buy Tivo.  That just doesn't make sense to me.  There is a loose analogy to the iPod business - a media device which adds value to the computer as the "digital hub" - but I really don't see it.  Apple is announcing their online music service tomorrow, that should be quite interesting.

Want to see something really cool?  Check out one pixel per meter.  Ever wonder how the Eiffel Tower compares to a Klingon Battlecruiser?  Well, now you know.

Yippee.  Dave Winer to the rescue; he explains trackbacks.  Someday in my virtual spare time I'll implement them - maybe - in the meantime it is nice to know how they work...  Essentially what they enable is that as you are reading a post or article online, you can see links to posts and articles on other sites which reference it.

I saw something really lame today, and have to share it.  Lexus is running print ads which look like the cover of a magazine called Über Auto.  The cover has the headline "Wilkommen Zu Der Wunderbar Wagen", and features excerpts from a story by Mätthias Muench: "...the World has been put on notice, again..."  At the bottom of the page in small letters, you find "Über Auto and Mätthias Muench are fictional, but you already knew that, didn't you?"

Well, I didn't already know that.  I hate the smugness of this.  They think it is so cool to pretend to be a German magazine praising a Japanese car, and then they're going to let us in on the joke, but do it in such a way as to imply we should have known anyway.  Look, if you can't find an actual magazine to praise your car, don't make one up.  This is bogus.  And please don't imply that Germans know more about cars than Americans.  Sheesh.

{ I own a Lexus and I love it.  What happened to "the relentless pursuit of perfection?" }

The Webbys are dead!  Well, not dead, but the ceremony has been cancelled.  Between the war in Iraq and SARS and airlines going bankrupt, they decided people would not want to travel to San Francisco, so they're going to do the awards online.  So be it, but I always thought the accounts of the ceremony were better than the awards themselves...

The cover story of the latest issue of Wired is now online; Re-Enter the Matrix.  I can't wait - just three more weeks!  Interestingly, in order to make this movie the filmmakers created a digital replica of "the real world" inside a computer, completely modeling everything including actors Keanu Reaves (Neo) and Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith).  You'll recall the Matrix is a simulation of Earth used to pacify humans being used as batteries.  So in order to film the Matrix, they essentially created a matrix.  Very interesting.  I wonder if I'm just a battery?

 
 

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