DVD, Blu-ray Recorder Reviews

DVD recorders were the outcome of consumer demands for machines that make DVDs like VCRs. Consumers and professionals alike loved the quality of DVDs played in DVD players, but consumers were forced to still use VHS tapes to record. But as with any other digital technology, it was hard to make an analog-equivalent device without adding a layer of complexity. We ended up with a product that was similar to both a VCR and a DVR/PVR (devices like TiVo), but more complicated than both of them put together. For this reason, these devices have largely fallen out of favor with consumers in the USA. While interest is indeed stronger in in other countries, interest is waning.

It’s quite sad, because a number of DVD recorders were able to not only record from television and transfer video tapes to disc, but these devices could actually improve the quality of the video before it became a disc!

Best DVD Recorders in 2010

Not only have DVD recorders become harder to find new, but many of them are of mediocre quality, often from no-name brands. The best machines currently available are:

• 1st Choice: Magnavox H2160MW9 – Nice machine for TV recording, with a large 160GB hard drive, a digital HDTV ATSC/QAM tuner, and excellent quality recordings up to 4 hours (2-3 hours suggested). Near-clone of the hard-to-find Philips 3575/3576 series. Does not filter VHS to better quality. About $300 new.

• 2nd Choice: Philips DVDR3505/37 and Philips DVDR3506/37 – Like the above Magnavox, but without the hard drive. Also has ability to play Divx/Xvid files. TV recordings suggested, but not VHS conversion. About $100 refurbished, no longer available new.

• 3rd Choice: Sony RDR-GX257 – Very nice recording quality, up to 3-4 hours. For temporary watch-once recordings, even the 6-hour mode looks quite clean. No tuner, input from cable/satellite boxes only, or external antenna. Does not filter VHS quality. May refuse to record some cable channels, like HBO and Showtime. About $110 new.

• 4th Choice: Panasonic DMR-EZ28K – Standard Panasonic recording quality, meaning it’s acceptable but not exceptional. Good for 2-hour SP mode recordings only. Digital HDTV ATSC/QAM tuner. Some filtering of VHS, but not as good as classic JVC or Toshiba machines. Similar to LiteOn machines in quality. About $200 new.

• 5th Choice: Toshiba D-R410 – Decent recording quality, similar to most capture cards. Lacks a tuner. Input from cable or satellite box or external ATSC antenna only. Does not filter VHS to better quality like classic Toshiba XS models. About $80 new.

Historical Frame of Reference

Historically, the quality of DVD recorders have followed a two-year cycle:

• 2001-2002 – Long-time video company Panasonic started to make the first consumer-affordable DVD recorders around 2001, about the same time as the first DVD-R(General) burners from Pioneer were made available in computers. Those early machines were fairly awful, with quality worse than that of VHS tapes.

• 2003-2004 – Starting in around 2003, more brands of DVD recorders started to surface in the mainstream electronics markets in the USA. It was with this second generation of machines that major professional video component companies started to get involved, such as Zoran and LSI Logic, creating the encoder chipsets. The quality of their machines was excellent. By contrast, computer video capture card manufacturers were largely non-video computer/electronics hardware companies such as ATI and Brooktree/Conexant, and the quality was often inferior. At this time, however, it seemed every single DVD recorder on the market has some sort of major flaw that prevented a perfect user experience, be it image quality problems or difficult-to-repair hardware issues.

• 2005-2006 – This was probably the pinnacle of times for the DVD recorder. The bugs found in many first- and second-generation recorders were completely resolved, or at very least minimized. Some of the most perfect machines, highly regarded by pros and consumers alike, came from this era. These included the Toshiba RDR-XS35 and JVC DR-M100S for recording, or the Panasonic DMR-ES10 for it’s exceptional “pass-through” ability. On the other hand, this was the beginning of the market flood for cheap recorders, some of them good (LiteOn, Ilo), but many were not.

• 2007-2008 – Many had hoped that the continued improvement of DVD recorders would lead to a yet-again-improved third generation of machines. However, it was not to be. While some gems did show up in the market (Philips DVDR3575 and 3576), many machines were duds. A number of major manufacturers of excellent past machines (JVC, Toshiba, LiteOn, Pioneer) either fully or partially pulled out of the market, very often resorting to re-branding outsourced machines instead of creating their own. We also saw the rise of the ever-ridiculous 720×480 4-hour mode which tended to be so blocky that it was wholly unusable. Many latecomers scrambled to buy up older-yet-better machines (JVC, Toshiba, Philips) from the second-hand markets, such as eCost.com refurbs or eBay auctions. DVD recorders with hard drives began to disappear entirely.

• 2009 – At this time, there are honestly not any DVD recorders worth mentioning. We’re mostly left with re-branded machines from Funai sold under brand-name labels such as Philips, JVC, Toshiba and Magnavox. These are basically SP-mode-only types of machines, and do not filter or improve the video signal in any way. Your best option for a quality DVD recorder is to search on the second-hand market, for refurbished units and/or used models. DVD recorders have largely been abandoned by both users and manufacturers, losing out to on-demand methods of recording video. The Panasonic “EZ series” of machines largely have LSI Logic chipsets, making it the lesser of available evils, if you buy new in stores.

Blank DVDs, Combos, and Hard Drives

DVD recorders come in three styles: DVD recorder, DVD recorder with VCR (or VCP, which cannot record to tape), and DVD recorders with hard drives (HDD). In general, the combo units are not suggested, because they shared components inside the machines will wear out twice as fast, and the VCRs inside are terrible playback quality. Units with hard drives seem to fail when using cheap Maxtor hard drives, and some of them have various quirks. PVR/DVR (TiVo) units competed with DVD+HDD recorders, and the DVD+HDD genre lost. A plain DVD recorder is generally the best option for most folks, as those are less complicated and tend to have less problems.

Remember that DVD recorders are generally nothing more than very basic computers, with a special motherboard and an off-the-shelf DVD burner. Unfortunately, few of these machines ever receive firmware updates, so older machines are known to have problems with blank media. The only media we suggest for any DVD recorder is (1) Verbatim DVD-R, (2) Verbatim DVD+R, and (3) any first- or second-class DVD-RW as listed on the DVD Media Quality Review. This is generally the safest setup, resulting in the least amount of failed discs.

General Advice: The Best, The Worst, The Ugly

The very best DVD recorders ever made had the ability to filter out typical VHS noises, such as chroma noise and grain, as well as encode cleanly and without blocks. These excellent models included the JVC DR-M10S, JVC DR-M100S, JVC DR-MH30, JVC DR-MH300, JVC DR-M1V, JVC DR-M5V, Toshiba RDR-XS32, Toshiba RDR-XS34, Toshiba RDR-XS35, and Toshiba RD-KX50. Another excellent machine was the Philips DVDR-3575/37 and Philips DVDR-3576/37, which did not filter, but still had excellent quality recordings.

The worst machines ever made had fatal problems, be it exploding power supplies, or simply awful image quality. The most damaging problem in more recent times is the ridiculous compression of cramming 720×480 resolution into a 4-hour time slot, with video having 2-3 times less bitrate than is adequate to maintain a quality picture. These generally include ALL MODELS of Panasonic DVD recorders, older Philips DVD recorders (pre-2007), and Chinese off-brands such as Apex and Cyberhome.

Never record more than 4 hours on any machine, period! Video recordings longer than 4 hours are dropped in resolution to VCD, which is less than that of VHS. It is blocky and fuzzy at that size, even a Youtube video tends to look better! Most machines are only good at recording 2-3 hours of footage on a single disc, and some of the better machines are capable of 4 hours. Content can influence these numbers a bit, too, with cartoons/animation allowing for more compression (nice quality even at 4 hours), and sports/wrestling needing less compression.

Reviews by Major Brand

These reviews give some basic information about the machine, and are ranked by (A) Excellent, (B) Acceptable, and (C) Terrible. Some +/- variance is used too, for machines that were a little better or worse than others in the same group.

Rating(s): (B) 2003-2004
Capture Chipset: LSI DiMeNsion
Review: Apex only made two recorders before it’s CEO was arrested an imprisoned in China, effectively killing the Apex brand. This was one of the first machines to use an LSI Logic chipset, and did decent at filtering. These models had some IRE errors, and power supplies were deemed unsafe.

Rating: (C) 2003-2004
Capture Chipset: Cirrus
Review: These generally looked terrible, and the machines had various functional problems, according to user reports. There’s really no reason to say anything else here. Avoid. Like other Chinese brands, this machine is no longer made, and this review is largely for historical data.

Rating: (B)
Review: There is really nothing remarkable about Emerson, one way or the other. The encodes are mediocre, and some models were more annoying than others in terms of functionality. If you gave it a perfectly clean video signal, it would look acceptable. It was not able to filter VHS signals, so quality of the DVD often looked worse than the VHS tape, due to the way video is processed in this type of workflow.

Rating: (A+) 2004-2006, (B) 2007-2008
Capture Chipset: LSI DiMeNsion
Review: The machines actually manufactured by JVC are easily some of the best DVD recorders ever made. These were able to clean the video signal when converting VHS tapes, and create very clean encodes. Contrary to some myths online, the units were generally very stable, and have lasted owners for years. More recents models of these machines have been cheap LG rebrands

Rating: (B)
Capture Chipset: some LSI DiMeNsion
Review: There is really nothing remarkable about LG, one way or the other. The encodes are mediocre, and some models were more annoying than others in terms of functionality. If you gave it a perfectly clean video signal, it would look acceptable. It was not able to filter VHS signals, so quality of the DVD often looked worse than the VHS tape, due to the way video is processed in this type of workflow.

Clones: some Samsung
Rating: (C) 2001-2004, (B+) 2005-2006, (B) 2007-2009
Capture Chipset: Panasonic (2001-2005), mostly LSI DiMeNsion (2006-2009)
Review: The most obnoxious thing about Panasonic is that it’s deep market saturation and excessive number of features have often given it a far-undeserved “best machine” ranking from various magazines that were apparently more impressed by specs, and completely oblivious to image problems. Panasonic has had chronic problems with luminance tints (green or red tints), IRE and blocks almost since day one. Even on SP mode, most Panasonic machines have blocks, and the Panasonic encoders seem fully incapable of encoding 352×480 without making a image that looks like it was built of Lego. Some of the newer LSI-chipset machines do okay at XP and SP modes, but that’s honestly it. The only real benefit of Panasonic was the “ES” series of machines, which would engage filters on “video pass-through”, making it a darling of video restorers. Panasonic did have the first machines, and it did seem to sell them in every major store, from electronics retailer to grocery chains. But those claims to fame didn’t make the image suck any less.

Rating: (C) 2002-2006, (A) 2007-2009
Capture Chipset: Philips
Review: Early Philips machines were awful, similar to Panasonic. These were plagued with both operational and quality failings. The more recent machines range in quality from B to A, with the DVD+HDD machines being the best in the brand. While these latter ones do not filter VHS signals, the machines are able to playback MPEG-4 (Divx), often receive ATSC+QAM signals (HDTV) and record to 16:9 DVD, and encode at an intelligent 352×480 for 3 hours and beyond.

Rating: (A) 2003-2005 (B) 2006-2009
Capture Chipset: Renesas
Review: Pioneer started out quite excellent, with some of its best machines existing middle-life. The encodes were clean, the recording modes excellent. A few even had filtering options, albeit wholly inferior to JVC and Toshiba. In more recent years, Pioneer seems to have caught Panasonicitis (definition: videographic stupidity), where features have become more important than quality, and compression is honestly being pushed too far to retain an excellent image.

Clones: most Ilo, all Daytek and Gateway
Rating: (A-) 2003-2007
Capture Chipset: LSI DiMeNsion
Review: The LiteOn units were cheap and very popular, due to the ease by which the machines could be hacked for extra recording modes, or to be made both region-free and Macrovision-free (ignore anti-copy). The major downfall in quality of the LiteOn units was completely operational, with various errors ranging from picture jitter, to green-shifting of luminance and slightly-noisy CVBR encoding (as opposed to full VBR). It made for a nice machine to quickly transfer tapes, and was easily the simplest-to-use DVD recorder ever made.

Rating: (C) 2002-2006, (A-) 2007-2008
Capture Chipsets Used: Zoran
Review: Magnavox recorders are always re-brands of other machines, generally Philips or (more recently) Funai.

Rating: (B)
Capture Chipset: ESS
Review: There is really nothing remarkable about Sanyo, one way or the other. The encodes are mediocre, and some models were more annoying than others in terms of functionality. If you gave it a perfectly clean video signal, it would look acceptable. It was not able to filter VHS signals, so quality of the DVD often looked worse than the VHS tape, due to the way video is processed in this type of workflow.

Rating: (B)
Capture Chipset: Zoran, Cirrus
Review: Sony never made a lot of machines, but these always made the image grainy. It didn’ seem to matter which model or which chipset, it was grainy. It made passable-quality 2-hour SP mode DVDs.

Rating: (B+) 2003-2004, (A+) 2005-2006, (B) 2007-2009
Capture Chipset: Zoran
Review: The dates might be a little off here, but there are essentially three generations of Toshiba: (1) IRE problems, (2) Excellent with no IRE issues, and (3) Okay but nothing special. The first generation of machines were excellent for those in IRE-0 countries, such as PAL format or Japanese NTSC. But North American NTSC standards would show the discs far too bright, with damaged color quality. The next generation fixed the IRE, and the image was excellent for NA viewing. The more recent generation is a nothing-special sort of machine, decent for SP mode discs from a noise-free source (non-VHS, such as cable or satellite).

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