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Get the most out of your DVD recorder

Whether you're recording TV shows or converting your VHS tapes to disc, these tips will help

With the announcement today that Dixons Group, the UK’s largest electronics retailer, will no longer be stocking VHS video recorders, the era of analogue TV recording is nearing its end.

When your present VHS machine grinds to a halt, you may find it hard to replace – everywhere you look the shelves will be full of DVD recorders, silently bidding you to enter the digital age.

But taking that step, though the retailer will tell you otherwise, isn’t as seamless as you might like. Recording to DVD is very different from recording to tape; you encounter new types of hassles ranging from annoying so-called disc preparation times to delays in ejecting discs and the challenge of creating visually appealing menus.

The tips that follow are geared towards high-output videophiles (you know who you are), but they're also applicable to the most casual user.

Choosing the best recorder for TV

If you've already bought your DVD recorder, skip to tip 2. But if you haven't, be prepared to be confused by a torrent of acronyms and options. DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, EPGs ... DVD is certainly a many splendoured thing.

When you walk into a store, chances are you won't be able to tell the differences between the slim DVD recorders gracing the shelves--at least, not at a glance. On the outside, they look virtually identical. And the only additional information you might get from the price tag or label is what format the recorder supports and whether it has a hard drive.

Don't worry too much about the formats. No single manufacturer supports all of the formats available; a couple of makers come close (Lite-On, Sony), supporting all but DVD-RAM. The - and + formats are quite similar, and either will get the recording job done.

I've personally observed that the - format discs tend to take longer to initialise and finalise. By longer, I'm talking about anywhere from 5 to 120 seconds, depending upon the unit – enough to be incredibly annoying when you're sitting in front of the TV, your finger eagerly hovering over the record button to start a recording, or the eject button so you can swap discs without missing any action.

Avid videophiles should look for a DVD set-top unit with a high-capacity hard drive of 80GB or more and high-speed dubbing of at least 8x. So far, I've seen only one recorder with both high-speed dubbing capability and a high-capacity hard drive, but I imagine that more such units will be forthcoming, eventually.

Beware of units that bill themselves as having "high-speed" dubbing – in most cases, the manufacturer is using the term to denote recording speeds of 2x or 4x from the hard drive to DVD. Furthermore, some vendors are coming up with absurd-sounding dubbing speeds – for example, 32x, a number they derive based on how many hours' worth of recordings you can fit on a disc (8 hours at the lowest-quality recording mode), and the speed of the burner (4x in my example).

Allow extra time

If you're preparing to record a program, budget a few extra minutes to get the unit ready. Believe me, the seconds add up – as I learned during my recording marathon of the Athens Olympiad. You need to factor in up to 30 seconds for the recorder to boot, about 10 to 20 seconds for the disc to spin up, and at least another 30 to 45 seconds for the recorder to prepare the disc for recording (your unit might say "initialise" or "format"). That's all before you can hit Record.

And when you're through recording, expect to wait 30 to 60 seconds to regain control of the recorder after you hit Stop. With some models, the delay occurs after you hit Eject. Either way, that delay could mean you'll miss the beginning of the next gymnast's routine – and none of this takes into account disc finalisation, which can take another 30 seconds to 3 minutes, depending upon the disc's format and how much of it you've used.

Finalise, finalise, finalise

Disc finalisation is the process that closes the disc so it can be read in other devices, such as a DVD player, DVD recorder or DVD-ROM drive. It's also really, really annoying. There, I've said it.

Finalisation is the dirty little secret of DVD recorders: it's a time-consuming extra step that users of the venerable VCR don't expect. And it requires more effort than it should, due to poor menu design on DVD recorders. I've yet to see a recorder that makes this step truly easy – all of them bury it under a setup or menu item, and all of them require far too many clicks and layers considering this is a necessary step for every write-once DVD-R or DVD+R you burn.

I recommend finalising your disc as soon you're through recording. Due to quality issues, you'll probably record only a maximum of 2 hours of television per disc, which means that no more than two weeks will pass between finalisation sessions. This way, when you go back to a recorded disc, it will be ready to play in any DVD player.

Caution: You might think you don't need to finalise if you don't have more than one DVD player or drive, and you plan on playing your DVD on your own recorder only. But what happens when, inevitably, you upgrade your recorder to a swankier, newer model? Or, even worse, when the model you're using now isn't working five years down the line? Then what? You'll be left with a library full of unreadable discs.

Although you might be able to recover the raw video data from an unfinalised disc using a program like Infinadyne's CD/DVD Diagnostic, the process is tedious and time-consuming. Also, don't count on scavenging a backup unit off EBay in a few years: As I've learned, discs may not be interchangeable, even between two recorder decks bearing the same model number from the same manufacturer.

Don't abuse your discs

It's easy to leave discs out of their cases, lying around or stacking up as you swap 'em out for a new one. But avoid that temptation. The dust will damage your discs, and you increase the chances of accidental scratches and scuffs.

Also, avoid leaving your recorded DVDs near a sunny window. The disc's dye layer is susceptible to light and heat. If either affects the disc, its data may become unreadable.

Finally, clean your discs carefully. Use a lint-free cloth, compressed air, or a liquid cleanser intended for use with DVD media. Dust and other airborne particles can scratch your disc, which could result in data loss. When cleaning with a lint-free cloth, stroke from the inside of the hub to the outside of the disc. Never use a circular motion from the inside out; and never use a tissue, paper towel, or other random rag.

Choose your media – and labels – wisely

A cheap spindle of media is tempting, but then you have to buy cases separately. And what cases to buy? Small plastic jewel cases? DVD movie-size cases? The combinations can be frustrating, at best.

Spindles are indeed affordable, but don't buy them without buying cases, too – and keep both stashed near your TV and DVD recorder setup, so you can easily grab a disc from the recorder and place it into its case. Otherwise, it's all too easy for stacks of discs to pile up – a no-no, as already noted.

Also, consider buying discs that come in oversised movie-style plastic cases. You'll pay a little more, but the convenience is worth it. Plus, you'll get a cardstock insert that you can use to create handwritten labels. If you get a high-speed dubbing unit, make sure you buy media that matches the recorder's speed.

If you do buy spindle media, keep in mind that the cases you buy in bulk may not have an insert on which you can scribble. If the case lack inserts, improvise with a piece of letter-size paper, folded over or cut up to fit accordingly. Spend a little more money, and you can get card inserts.

There are a host of labelling software options out there to help you craft your labels. But all of these options are going to require you to move your labelling operation over to the PC – something that may or may not work into your recording work flow.

Other PC-based labelling options include printable media that you can use with an inkjet printer. I'd stay away from adhesive labels, though: They're difficult to apply evenly, and could cause problems if the disc is poorly manufactured.

If you're trying to keep your labelling efforts nearer to your TV, I'd suggest using water-based pens to write on the discs, and on the label inserts, too, while you're at it. Another possibility: if your handwriting is barely better than chicken scrawl, then it's worth buying a battery-operated labeller, such as those offered by Brother or Casio. Both companies offer half-inch-wide labels that fit well along the spine of a DVD movie case.


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