Wolfgang Wiebach's Light Musings on Heavy Subjects

    Partially Cloudy

   The Good, the Bad and the So-so of my DVD Recorders

     Trying to capture and preserve the fleeing beauty around us is a deep human characteristic that goes back to the cave dwellers of the Cro Magnon era. Hence I sprang for a Panasonic VCR when they appeared around 1980 at a cost of a thousand dollars and a weight of forty pounds, but with a solid aluminum chassis, a window through which one could see whether there was a tape in the machine and whether or not it rotated, and a wired remote control that worked regardless of how one held it. This thing was actually repairable and, with the occasional exchange of those tiny belts and marginally dimensioned motors, was coaxed to work through two decades. It was followed by others, windowless, fly-weighed and with picky infrared remotes; and the number of recorded movies and TV shows grew into the hundreds, most of which will probably never be watched again. (Yet if feels good to have them).
    Understandably, my ears perked up when I spotted in the Crutchfield catalog the first Panasonic DVD recorder. But my heart sank when I didn't see in the specifications a component video input port.

     The RCA DirecTV receiver sports a component output, and surely recording on DVDs should be done with the best possible video signal. Since hope springs eternal, I felt certain that shortly there would be other models more completely equipped. So I waited with a purchase. Sony machines appeared, Toshiba cropped up, even Gateway offered a non-computer-bound DVD recorder - are all their designers stupid, stingy or mean? Why has none of this junk a component input?!
     It slowly dawned on me that no DVD recorder made for the US market has now or will ever have a component DVD input port. Hollywood's heavy hand at work again! The American consumer must not be allowed to record anything with the best possible quality. We are permitted to watch stuff through component video connections; hence they may appear as player output ports, and they may be present on TV sets as input ports. But God forbid that we should record anything with three separate video channels.

    Goethe got it all wrong - Amerika du hast es besser. Ha! The Europeans are not that securely in Hollywood's iron grip, and DVD recorders by Philips are equipped with component inputs. Due to a regrettable loop in the US legal code (which needs to be closed by some campaign contributions to the appropriate members of Congress), they are still permitted to be sold in the U.S.
    Unfortunately, they aren't any good. Strange, Philips being a renowned worldwide concern (whose Hamburg factory even enjoyed the personal support of this writer as a summer student in 1953). At least, they aren't any good if one can believe their internet reviews from both Europe and America. A sigh of relief from Hollywood. Did Hollywood plant some of those reviews? Can they really be so bad if SAMS CLUB sells them?
     Be that as it may, a savior appeared on the horizon from the East: Yamakawa with their DVD recorder model DVR-628. Virtually unknown in this country, they are popular in Germany where their DVD players garnered editor-choice citations from consumer-type institutions for quality as well as price. The specs of the DVR-628 contain most of the right stuff: while recording is limited to DVD+R/RW, it plays anything on a 4-inch disk you throw at it, is DVD-region-free, has built-in Dolby 5.1 and DTS decoders, has editing capabilities, and sports composite, S-VHS, component and digital video inputs. It also sold for a reasonable $240 (reduced to $170 at the time of this writing, which already tells you, dear reader, something else about it).
    Namely and unfortunately, the specs are the best thing of the Yamakawa. Right out of the box, one notices that while there are three analog video input connectors, there is only one audio input to go along. So there is no easy way to select between two or three program sources - the audio switching would have to be done separately externally. Setting up the machine, one cannot help noticing that it is as reluctant as a mule to obey orders, be they given via front panel or remote buttons. The latter, in particular, needs to be aimed like a sharpshooter's rifle to have any effect at all. Even then it does not cover the specified 16 foot range; the manual at one point says "16 inches", which may in fact be a Freudian slip. The built-in clock will not set itself by means of a PBS station but must be set manually, which means it is never quite right. Video signals passed through the machine, either directly or by recording and playback, emerge with much increased contrast and/or brightness, and there is no adjustment for these characteristics. During recording, the front panel LED displays complete nonsense - a time around 52 hours. Playing a commercial DVD in fast forward, the machine may stop somewhere in the middle of a scene and will not continue to play at this point in any speed - must start at the beginning (but not in FF, else it stops again!) But this is still an ordinary stop; the Yamakawa may also suddenly go into deep freeze and play dead - no response whatsoever to any button wherever. It won't even cough up the disk. The only way to re-awaken it is by pulling the power plug, which, unfortunately, wipes out all setup info.

     What do the Yamakawa people in the U.S. live on? My guess is these two sources of income: the inflated shipping charges and the 15% restocking fee on returned recorders. This way they actually need only a handful of machines to pass around. In the spirit of the modern mail-order business, malfunction of the merchandise is no grounds for either a free return or a full refund.

    So what is one to do striving to capture beauty without getting a nervous breakdown alongside? Give in and buy a Sony RDR-GX300. Of course, it is without a component input and strictly region 1 - after all, Sony owns a Hollywood movie company, don't they. They don't even like you transferring your own home movies digitally and hence don't provide a "firewire" input port. But otherwise, switching from the Yamakawa to the Sony reminded me of nothing as much as moving on a Carribean vacation from Club Med to Caneel Bay Plantation - from chaotic primitivity to relaxing elegance. Suddenly, any order given is promptly carried out. Three fully selectable inputs. The clock setting itself within ten minutes. Video output contrast and brightness almost identical to the input, and adjustments available for both recording and playback. An IR remote that works from anywhere in the room. The front panel showing the actual recording time. Flawless forward, reverse, slow play and stop. And an owner's manual that explains everything.
    It clarifies for example the differences between DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW, both of which the Sony can record on. Lo and behold, contrary to the claims on the website of the DVD+R people, ye olde minus R is actually the more capable format: not only play DVD-Rs on all, even older DVD players, but DVD-RWs, when formated in the VR mode, permit to do several neat things.
    In both formats, the recorder can insert "chapter" breaks automatically (at 6 or 15 minute intervals) throughout a recording (a "title" in DVD speak). With DVD-RW/VR, the user can insert such breaks manually, which is potentially much more meaningful. Unfortunately, on the Sony, one cannot generate a menu of these chapters with descriptions and/or thumbnail pictures, as they are found on commercial DVDs; they just show up as, and are selectable for play by, their number.
    For both DVD types, the Sony generates a "title list" that can be called up through the remote and shows a listing of all the recordings on the disk. In this case, each title does have a thumbnail picture next to it, which, however, is just the very first frame of the recording. This is in most cases not helpful - it may just be a black screen, or may show Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies starting his introduction. The DVD-RW/VR disks offer the possibility to replace this frame with any other frame of the same title, which can make it very meaningful indeed.

    Both the disk name and "title" name (or "title" title, if you will) can be entered or modified, respectively, by the user. Now this is where said user could again develop a nervous breakdown even with the Sony: the text is entered by moving the cursor with the remote on the screen to the appropriate letter field, walking in baby steps from one field to the next. One can employ the number keys on the remote in a rudimentary manner, but they don't go everywhere either. Are you listening, Sony?
     Coming from VCRs, there are a few things that don't work on DVD recorders. For example, you cannot add material seamlessly to the end of an existing recording (read "title"). You can go on recording as long as the recorder is on Pause, but once the Stop button is pressed, everything recorded thereafter is a new "title". As a matter of fact, you cannot go in one fell swoop to the end of a title and play backwards from there, for instance to check if the end has been recorded properly. You may go to the last chapter and play forward. You can also specify a point in time close to the end, but of course only if you know the duration of the title.
    Still, the Sony DVD recorder is probably as good as it gets in Hollywood's own country. It's a keeper. Ironically, returning it would have been as painless as possible. It came from our old friends at Crutchfield, who somehow manage to survive and even prosper in the mail order jungle despite, contrary to contemporary custom, they offer full refunds including shipping costs both ways, and this even in case of mere dissatisfaction with the merchandise. They even include a prepaid shipping label in case you want to take them up on their offer. Wisely, they carry neither Philips nor Yamakawa stuff.