You may be loath to retire your VCR and stash all those tapes next to your boxes of old LPs. But if you've resisted because you could not find a reasonably priced DVD machine that records -- and because you needed the trusty VCR to grab movies when you were away from home or asleep -- you no longer have an excuse. DVD recorders, which cost $1,000 and up just two years ago, have been plummeting in price. By yearend, they will cross the $300 threshold. That's still a lot more than a VCR, but you'll get all the extras that have made prerecorded DVDs such a hit: They look and sound better; they take up less space; and they don't wear out.
An entry-level recorder works pretty much like a VCR: You set the time and channel, and it records the TV show on the disk. But if you're willing to spend a little (or a lot) extra, DVD recorders can do much, much more. Are you an impatient channel-surfer? There are models that let you start watching a show before it has finished recording. If you're building a video library, some recorders come with built-in program guides, such as GUIDE Plus+ or TiVo (TIVO), that make searching for and recording programs easier. If you're interested in producing your own home movies, consider recorders that have tools that let you edit and rearrange scenes.
To help you sort through the options, I've been testing DVD recorders that currently range in price from $375 to around $1,000. Given all of their formats and features, one thing is certain: Shopping for the right machine won't be as easy as buying a VCR. In fact, I'd go so far as suggest that you visit the manufacturers' Web sites and read the owners' manuals of the models you're interested in.
Once in the store or shopping on the Internet, it's a matter of matching features to your desires and pocketbook. If you're a videophile who can't bear to miss an episode of Friends, or if you're building a video library, two models that I looked at -- RCA (TMS)'s DRC8000N and Pioneer's (PIO) DVR-810H -- are for you. (Prices, indicated in the table, vary widely depending on the retailer.) They have easy-to-use onscreen program guides that let you record a show with a single click of the remote. The RCA recorder even keeps track of the shows you've recorded and what disk they're on.
Surprisingly, though, the other three recorders -- Philips' (PHG) low-end DVDR75, Sony's (SNE) sole RDR-GX7 ($535-$650), or Panasonic's top-of-the-line DMR-E100 -- couldn't even change the channel on a cable box or satellite-TV receiver to record a program. Instead, you have to change it manually before each recording -- not good news for a video junkie, like me, who records lots of late-night movies. (The Philips step-up DVDR80 can do it, for about $100 more.)
Those machines, though, were the only ones with a digital input jack for a digital camcorder, which makes it easy to copy your home movies from the camcorder tape to DVD. If you want to edit those movies, almost all DVD recorders let you do some basic editing, such as typing in program titles that show up on the first screen when you slip the disk into a player. If you use erasable disks, you can even mark chapters or scenes.
The Sony recorder had the most advanced editing tools: It takes over the controls of your camcorder and lets you cut and rearrange scenes with your remote control. But an easier way to edit home movies -- or to clip commercials out of TV shows -- is to get a recorder with a built-in hard-disk drive, such as Panasonic's DMR-E100, its cheaper DMR-E80 ($540-$700), or the upcoming Pioneer DVR-510H. You first record onto the drive, make fixes, and then write the results to a DVD.
If you're after TiVo-like features -- watching a show while it's still recording, say, or while another show is recording -- two Pioneer models come with the TiVo service built-in. You can get something similar, but without TiVo's program listings, if you pick a DVD recorder that can handle erasable DVD-RAM disks. That means any Panasonic machine or a few other brands, including Samsung, Toshiba (TOSBF), and Hitachi (HIT).
A word about formats: There are two competing camps: DVD-R (referred to as "dash R") and DVD+R ("plus R"). I found that you can safely ignore the difference. Once you've finished recording, either will play in about 90% of the 73 million DVD players out there today.
In the end, I decided that either of two hard-drive-equipped Panasonic and Pioneer models were best for me. Now I'm settling back, remote in hand, to give my VCR a last fling while I wait for the holiday DVD recorder sales to begin. I'm betting I won't have to pay more than $500. By Larry Armstrong