Recordable DVDs: Go Ahead, Toss Out Your VCR

They've come way down in price -- and your old tapes will take up a fifth of the space they do now once you transfer them to disks

Don't you think it's time to retire that VCR? You probably have a DVD player or two, so you already know videocassettes are fast becoming obsolete. And you know that DVD recorders can record TV shows or home movies -- with better sound and picture quality than a VCR -- on blank disks instead of blank tapes.

So what's holding you back? Too expensive? Too complicated? Over the past month or so, I brought home a half-dozen entry-level models just to prove you wrong. My conclusion? DVD recorders are now priced low enough that even a cheapskate like me should get one. True, if you exploit all of their features, they can be vastly more complex than VCRs, but some brands are friendlier than others.


A year ago in this space I predicted that DVD recorders would break the $300 barrier by the end of this year. They did. Today, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT ) sells one for $149.67. O.K., that's double the price of a new VCR, but consider the benefits of recording on disks instead of tape. Recordable disks now are as cheap as 30 cents each, less than half the price of a blank tape, and in slim-line cases they take up less than a fifth the storage space. They're more durable, they don't wear out with repeated playing, and you'll never have to worry about one jamming your recorder. You can't accidentally record over another program, and you don't have to toggle between fast-forward and reverse to find the unused part of the tape.

I didn't look at the Wal-Mart special, but I did try a near-clone from Lite-On, a Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer. It records on more types of blank disks than the others, but its built-in TV tuner is mono, not stereo. Mostly, though, I chose new models from brand-name makers, either the cheapest model in their line or the next step up. That next step usually is a DVD recorder with a VCR built in: What's nice about that is you don't have to find space for yet another set-top box, and it's the easiest, cord-free way to do what most people want to do -- transfer old videos to DVDs before they wear out.

For these prices, roughly $150 to about $350, you get a recorder that lets you put in a blank disk, press the record button, and stop when the program is over -- pretty much like a VCR. If it comes with a VCR built in, there's a button that lets you copy a tape to DVD or vice versa.

What you don't get are on-screen program guides that let you pick a TV show and record it by clicking on the title. You have to schedule recordings the old-fashioned way, entering the time, date, and channel, or the Guide Plus code printed in newspaper TV listings. None of these recorders can change the channel on your cable- or satellite-TV box, so you have to make sure it's on the right channel before recording starts. That's not a problem if you're using an antenna or if your cable service doesn't require a set-top box.

My recommendations? Figure out how you use your VCR before you buy a DVD recorder. If you have a hard time programming your VCR, steer clear of the Panasonic and Philips (PHG ) models. Of the recorders I looked at, they were the most difficult to figure out, with complicated on-screen menus, incomprehensible instruction manuals, and, in Philips' case, a remote control with button labels designed to baffle you (what's the difference between "O.K." and "Select"?).

If you have a digital camcorder, be sure to pick a recorder that has a digital video input, called FireWire or i.Link, so that you can copy home movies directly from the camcorder to DVD. The Panasonic and RCA models I tested don't. If your home movies are on videocassettes or if you have a library of VHS tapes that you want to preserve on disks, you'll find it easier to do if you get a recorder with a built-in VCR.


Your best bets among the entry-level recorders are the Panasonic and Toshiba (TOSBF ) models if you mostly record shows to watch later and then delete them. Both can record on DVD-RAM disks, which can be erased and rewritten 100,000 times. And you can record and play them at the same time: You can watch a program you've already recorded while it's recording another, or you can start watching the beginning of a show while it's still recording it.

If you're willing to pay more, get a DVD recorder with a built-in hard-disk drive so you can record and watch programs without burning them onto a DVD. Hard disks also make it easier to edit programs before you commit them to DVD, deleting the commercials in a TV show, say, or those scenes in home movies where the camcorder was taking pictures of the sidewalk. My current favorite among the more expensive models is Toshiba's RD-XS32, which you should be able to find for about $400.

Shop carefully. Since you can't try these out in a store, it's a good idea to narrow your search to a few models and download the instruction manuals from the manufacturers' Web sites. Don't get hung up on the differences between those that use +R or -R disks -- just buy the disks the recorder needs. And ask about the return policy: Some retailers, especially online stores, charge a 15% "restocking fee" if you're not happy with your purchase. And compare prices. I found that they can vary by as much as $100 or more depending on the retailer.

Then just sit back, dim the lights, and start fiddling with your new electronic toy. Record a few programs, transfer a few tapes, and if you're like me, you'll be ready to junk that old VCR sooner than you think.

By Larry Armstrong

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