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A Closer Look

A DVD Burner Too Far?

By Michael Tedeschi
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page F07

If you've got more of yesterday's videotapes than today's free time, and you'd like to archive all that footage to DVD before your VCR dies, Sony's DVDirect offers an easy, relatively affordable solution.

The catch is, other video-recording solutions -- including some sold by Sony itself -- are much more useful, as cheap if not cheaper, and not that much harder to use than the DVDirect.

Sony's DVDirect, for making DVDs from tapes, puts premium on convenience. (Courtesy of Sony)

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This $300 box, not much bigger than many camcorders, is set up for easy living-room use: Connect a video source, such as a VCR or camcorder, to its composite or S-Video jacks (a fast digital FireWire connection, called "i.Link" by Sony, is absent). Your TV serves as a monitor, so you know when to start and stop the recording.

Then it works much like a tape deck: Press record on the DVDirect and play on the input source and wait as the original is duplicated in real time -- a half-hour of old Thanksgiving footage will take half an hour to copy.

That a product as technologically complex as a DVD burner is no harder to use than a tape deck is a credit to Sony's design. The DVDirect features a total of nine buttons on the front, only three of which you'll use with any frequency (record, stop and pause). A small but readable screen displays each command as you select it, and the manual's clear, concise instructions should set most users straight.

Two helpful options offer further assistance: A synchronization button instructs this device to start recording only when it receives a video signal, and it can also create automatic chapter breaks in your DVD at preset intervals or whenever you want.

On the other hand, we couldn't find any way to increase the noticeably quiet level at which sound was recorded. And there's no built-in editing capability at all, short of pausing a recording, then fast-forwarding past unwanted parts of an original before resuming.

This brings up the first flaw in the DVDirect idea. Any regular DVD recorder offers the same basic features, plus programmable recording -- so it can replace your VCR, not just your VHS library. Sony's own DVD recorders start at $300, and models from competing vendors sell for less.

When plugged into a TV, the DVDirect accepts only DVD+RW and DVD+R blanks. Rewriteable +RW discs can be partially erased, re-recorded and played in most other DVD hardware on the fly, without any tedious "finalization" process. Write-once DVD+R discs do require this simple but slow step before playback, but cost less and offer even better compatibility with existing players.

In all these formats, you can choose three recording settings: High Quality allows about an hour of outstanding picture quality, Long Play offers two hours of almost the same quality, and Super Long Play provides six hours of just-above-videotape output. You can double those recording times by using Dual-Layer DVD+R media, a new, pricier variation.

(Should the higher capacity of dual-layer discs tempt you to duplicate friends' movie collections, note that the DVDirect supports the Macrovision copy-prevention system, which will scramble copies of commercial DVD and VHS releases.)

If you already have a computer fast enough to edit video, the DVDirect can double as an external drive if you wire it to the PC with its USB 2.0 port.

In that setup, the DVDirect functions in a few different ways. For one, it accepts DVD-RW and DVD-R blanks in addition to +RW and +R media. For another, you can no longer burn a disc straight from a video source -- you must store your old footage on the computer's hard drive, then (if desired) edit it with the included NeroVision Express video-editing application, then burn it back to disc using a second program, Nero Burning ROM.

The effect of all that is to remove much of the DVDirect's simplicity -- it's not much easier to use than any other DVD-recorder drive.

If there were no such things as $300 stand-alone DVD recorders or $200 add-on computer DVD burners, the DVDirect would be quite attractive. But as things are, it demands a high price for its convenience.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company