The DVD Player, Fully Mature

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, April 12, 2007

The DVD player has been around for more than a decade, but now it has finally grown up.

A few weeks ago, some manufacturers began to ship new DVD hardware with the right combination of features: These machines can record on DVDs, not just play them; they can use any recordable disc, not just some types; and they can tune in to free digital broadcasts over the air.

That last bit may be the most important. A DVD recorder with a digital tuner can solve two long-standing issues with digital TV.

First, these new models can let people with old analog sets that aren't hooked up to cable or satellite keep using their TVs after analog broadcasts cease in February 2009. And unlike the promised $50 digital-TV converter boxes that are supposed to go on sale in 2008, these devices are available now.

Second, one of these recorders lets you save a digital TV program in a form that you can watch on a DVD player or computer.

It won't be a high-definition recording. (Though some recorders simulate high-def through a process called "up-conversion.") But because the electronics industry has yet to offer a cheap, easy way to make a portable HD recording, that may have to be good enough.

That was the case with two new recorders, Panasonic's $330 DMR-EZ47 and LG's $300 RC797T. They aren't cheap, but both were deluxe units with a long list of features -- near-HD quality through DVD up-conversion, built-in VCRs to transfer home movies from tape to disc, and slots for memory cards or flash drives to display photos on a TV.

Both recorders had almost no issues receiving digital broadcasts at a close-in Arlington house. With just a cheap tabletop antenna, the Panasonic locked in all the local network affiliates and PBS stations WETA and MPT. The LG did almost as well but missed WETA.

At a more distant location, these recorders would probably need an attic or rooftop antenna. In a few spots, digital reception may not work at all.

In general, though, merely adequate analog reception should translate to excellent digital reception -- which also means more to watch than in analog, thanks to the alternate, digital-only channels some stations (including WETA and MPT) broadcast.

Buyers of new digital TVs have been finding this out for themselves for the past few years. Some have decided to stop paying for cable or satellite as a result.

Joining their ranks by picking up a digital-compatible DVD recorder may take some careful shopping, however. Many models sold today are old models without digital tuners. Even when the right kind is in stock (from such firms as LG, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Toshiba), you can't count on a store or Web site to label its digital utility clearly, so you may instead need to look for a model described with jargon like ATSC, the abbreviation of the industry group that came up with the digital-TV standard.

Recording digital broadcasts with the LG and Panasonic models was surprisingly similar to using a VCR, just without any annoying rewinding. There was no need to buy a specific type of recordable disc, a pleasant change from older recorders that only accept some of a few competing DVD formats.

A blank disc might need a minute or two of formatting before its first use, but from then on, it is the same as ever -- press the record button, then press pause or stop when you're done.

You can also schedule recordings for later, though this chore was no easier than on VCRs. Neither recorder let me select a program off a list of upcoming shows.

As with videotape, recording space varies by quality level. At XP, the best possible setting, you can store an hour's worth of TV on a DVD. SP stretches that to two hours, and still lower-quality modes can cram in four or even eight hours of video.

The LG can also record digital television on videotape.

When you're done recording, you can usually eject the disc and watch it on another player or a computer, though you may have to wait a few minutes for the recorder to "finalize," or finish processing, the DVD. One exception is hard-to-find DVD-RAM discs, which most other players can't read.

Both recorders will generate a simple menu screen for the disc, listing the shows on it. The Panasonic automatically labeled each one with the program's title, a helpful touch. You can also edit these menus, "typing" new titles by selecting letters off the screen with the remote.

The results looked fantastic on an old TV, but less so up close on a computer monitor. A DVD can't capture the full resolution of a high-definition feed; finer details, such as wrinkles in faces, faded away. In fast-moving images, some details blurred or looked slightly jagged.

A high-def digital video recorder wouldn't have those problems. But it also wouldn't let you take your recording anywhere. The HD recording of last night's game may look terrific on your DVR, but if you want to share it with a friend, you'll have to give him your DVR first.

Trading a little quality for portability might offend videophiles, but it's a fair trade. It's what we did with VHS yesterday and still do with MP3 files today. Digital-TV viewers deserve the same choice.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

© 2007 The Washington Post Company