Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sony DVDirect DVD recorder - Or how to copy all your old tapes to DVD without a computer

Gadget review: The Sony DVDirect VRD-VC20 is a DVD recorder that has direct inputs for DV camcorder (1394) , analog video (NTSC), S-Video, and stereo audio, and can act as an external USB 2.x DVD-+R/W drive, reading and writing a large number of formats (as most DVD drives in computers can these days). The neat thing is that like many stand-alone DVD recorders, it can work while not connected to a computer, to make 'dubs' of whatever you feed into its inputs, even live video. The typical use of this gadget is to record your old VHS tapes or your DV camcorder movies onto DVD without going through the tiresome process of sucking video into your computer, editing it, authoring a CD or DVD and then burning the disk. This keeps your computer free for other work and creates (theoretically) fewer 'coasters' because the DVD burner is only doing one thing (e.g. not checking your mail and bogging down the DVD burn which can in turn cause record errors due to the cache running low). In theory this is all great, and I have made lots of DVDs from my tapes. I like the Sony brand in general and have a VX2000 high-end 'prosumer' camcorder and other stuff (like a VAIO XP Media Center desktop computer which I love) and so I got the Sony DVDirect rather than another brand such as those available at Costco. It is quirky, however, and not fully ready for prime time. I am a picky consumer and expect engineers to do a better job than they did on this unit, if they want to earn their 230 or so bucks and expect positive blogs.

This is perhaps an early model (mine was manufactured in July, 2005), and it may be improved by now, so take this with a grain of salt. But I must report that it is prone to fouling up, creating coasters for various reasons, hanging during 'finalizing' disks, missing the beginning five seconds of a DV tape (due to startup time after you press the Record button). Here are a few observations and gripes:

One thing missing from this device is a way to tell it to record to the end of the DV regardless of what happens on the input side. If the signal is lost (momentarily there is no video signal), the DVD recording will halt. This can be triggered by a loss of time signal on a DV tape (between shots this can happen) or during a blank signal on an analog tape. For those of us used to dubbing audio and video tapes and just letting 'er rip, (start the playback and record machines and walk away for an hour), this is a major drag. I can return to find that the DVD has recorded 10 minutes of signal, yet the source has played an hour. It's really infuriating, and requires a lot of guesswork to see what has been recorded, since finalizing the DVD is required before easily playing it to see what went on it, and that prevents putting any further recording on the disk. SO I end up throwing out the DVD and starting again.

It is very picky about media. I have read the Maxell disks (not even Sony!) are what works best, though I do not know this to be true yet. I will try some and see. The Memorex 16x DVD-R blanks I am using do not work reliably at all!

I have tried a number of different disk brands and would say that overall my success rate is about 75%. I find myself saying my little silent techno-prayer each time I start again. You know what prayer I mean, if you have burned any significant number of CDs or DVDs.

There is a fan in the unit that is noisy, not terribly, but annoying enough that I can't wait to turn it off. I do like the vertical form factor of the drive, although the LCD backlight turns off after a while and you can't see what is going on unless you press the Stop button (which is OK if you are not recording!). It should stay on if the drive is powered up.

You can set this recorder to record 1 hour, 2 hours, or 6 hours on a single-layer DVD (or twice that for more-expensive double-layer). Forget anything but 1 hr (so-called HQ mode). Two-hour maybe, but the image gets pretty gnarly looking, due to compression artifacts on a single-layer DVD. Turn off the "synch" button and contro
l the thing yourself, even though you cannot get it to start recording if no 'signal' is detected (the LCD says 'no signal' even if the tape is playing, if there is no appreciable video). Still, at least you can feel a little more in control. Once the 'Sig' icon lights up, the Rec button will do something.

If you plug in a VCR as your source (i.e. a VHS machine), you'll have the problem of not being able to see what you are recording, because the output of the VCR will be going into the DVDirect! This makes cueing up your tape impsosible and truly annoying. The DVDirect has no video out jacks, you see, another major oversight. To solve this problem, boogie down to Radio Shack and pick up a video splitter (about $50) which will let you feed a signal to a TV as well as to the DVDirect without a loss of signal quality. I used to just use "Y" adapters,but this lowered the video signal quality (cut the gain in half) too much. The Radio Shack catalog # 15-1172 was just the trick I needed. See below. Then I got a switch box for multiple video inputs, stacked up my 8mm, VHS, and DV playback units , hooked them all up through the switchbox and splitter, and now I can dub any tape I have (VHS, 8mm, Hi-8, or DV) onto DVD. I'll post a picture of that stack later. Here's the splitter:

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