Standalone DVD recorder reviews

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been researching and experimenting with standalone DVD recorders- the ones that work like a VCR, not the drives that work with your computer. I’ve long had a project to convert all my old home videos to DVD format, but my progress has been very slow, since using a computer to capture, edit, encode and burn takes a long time. For many of my tapes, that process is required, since there’s a fair amount of editing I want to do. However, for most of the tapes, the simple editing features provided by standalone DVD recorders will suffice. The trick has been to find the right one. In this post I’ll share with you what I’ve learned.

Since I’m sure not everyone has the same expectations that I have, and there are a lot of features that I don’t really care about, so here are the criteria I used in choosing a suitable recorder:

  • Must create compatible discs that can be played on most DVD players
  • Must have a firewire/DV input to allow a connection to a digital camcorder
  • Must allow you to create chapter points in the titles you record (allowing the viewer to skip to the different scenes in your video)
  • Must allow you to erase or hide a section in the middle of a title
  • Must be able to split a title into two separate titles (so you can hit record, capture the whole tape, and split it up later)

First of all, one thing you should understand is the difference in recordable DVD formats. For most purposes, DVD-R (minus) and DVD+R (plus) are basically equivalent. Unfortunately, that’s not the case when it comes to real-time DVD video recording. In order to use some of the nice editing features, such as manual chapter creation, splitting titles, etc. you have to use a recording format called “VR” (video recorder) mode. Both plus and minus formats have a VR mode, but the big difference is that DVD+VR is compatible with the DVD-Video spec, and DVD-VR is not. Therefore, DVD+VR will play in most DVD players, but DVD-VR discs will only play on certain players. I’ve left out a lot of detail, but the point is, in order to do what I want, plus format is the way to go. Here are some articles in case you’re interested:

Ok, on to the trials. I purchased a bunch of DVD recorders, and most of them went back to the store. I feel a little bit of remorse about taking advantage of the stores’ return policies, but then again, you’ll see that many of the units fell short of my expectations. The only way to know how they worked was to read the manual and try them out.

Here are the units I tried:

  • Sony GXR315
  • Panasonic DM-ES20
  • Philips DVDR 3390
  • Panasonic DM-ES15S
  • LG DR1F9H
  • Philips DVDR 3400

The first batch I purchased was the Sony GXR315 and the Panasonic DM-ES20. Both were open-box buys, just for full disclosure. In fairness, there’s a chance that they were in fact defective. First of all, the Sony. It seemed like a nice unit in the manual, but there’s no point in even discussing the features. The video I recorded played back very poorly on other players. There were glitches in the video and spots where it appeared the recording paused. In another trial, the disc created couldn’t even be recognized by my other players. The Panasonic didn’t fair any better. First of all, it came in a box purporting to be a Panasonic DM-ES15S (a newer model), but that’s the store’s fault, not the player. When I hooked it up, the picture was messed up. I could tell that it was in PAL mode (a different TV format used in other parts of the world), but reading through the manual gave no indication how to change it to NTSC. Those recorders both went back… not a very comforting start.

Next I picked up a REAL Panasonic DM-ES15S. It would record on both plus and minus formats as well as DVD-RAM. It made nice looking menus for the discs and had a nice method of entering text using the remote control. Best of all, it had a “flexible recording” mode. Most of the recorders I tried had fixed recording modes, similar to the recording modes on VCR’s (SP, LP, SLP, etc). These modes allow you to choose how much video will fit on a disc. If you fit just 1 hour of video on a disc, it will be very good quality, but if you cram 6 hours onto a disc, the quality suffers. Most recorders provide 1 hour, 2 hour, 4 hour and 6 hour modes, but not this Panasonic. If you have a 2 hour 10 minute video you want to record, you can fill the disc with exactly that time. On other fixed-mode recorders you might need to use the 4 hour mode to fit that length of video, leaving much of the disc unused. Now the downside – all the editing features, such as splitting titles, creating chapters, etc. are only available if you use DVD-RAM or DVD-VR, both of which aren’t playable in regular DVD players. Unfortunately, for me, that’s a deal-breaker, so it went back to the store.

Next up was the Philips 3390. It was one of the cheaper recorders available ($144) but I was actually pretty happy with it. It allows you to create chapters manually while playing back your recorded video and also lets you split up a recording/title into two titles (at least when using DVD+RW’s, which is what you really need to use for this work anyway). You can also cut sections out of the video you recorded by creating chapters and hiding them. The interface isn’t the prettiest, but the recorder worked reliably and predictably. Entering text (to name your titles, etc.) is a slow process, but that’s no big deal. The biggest downside to this player is the lack of a flexible recording mode. Many things I’d like to put on a disc might be 2 hours and 10 minutes. Your only choice is to use the 4 hour mode, which isn’t good enough quality to me and leaves nearly half of the disc unused. The remote control was pretty small and didn’t have dedicated buttons for skip and fast forward (they were the same button, which made scanning to create chapter points a little difficult). Overall, though, this recorder did what I wanted and would have been acceptable, but I took it back.

The next contender was the LG DR1F9H, a sleek looking player, though why they put the buttons on TOP of the unit instead of on the front where you can use them is beyond me. I guess you’re supposed to let this unit stick out a little further than the other A/V components so those buttons are accessible. No big deal, there’s a nice remote anyway.
This recorder has the required functions when using DVD+RW discs: splitting a title, manually creating chapter points, and removing a part out of a title. The menus on this unit look very professional, and the menus created on the discs get the job done nicely. The text entry screen is better than both Philips recorders, and the remote has dedicated buttons for adding chapter points and setting an index image. One nice feature is the ability to set chapter points while RECORDING, not just during playback. This is the only unit I’ve seen with that ability. This is a very nice unit, and even though it costs $230 ($80 more than its competitors) it is worth owning. Unfortunately, this recorder has a down side as well, the lack of flexible recording modes, or at least more choices in modes… Once again, a 2 hour 10 minute tape will need to be recorded in 4 hour mode. If I can convince myself that this feature isn’t important, or if LG releases new firmware to enable more recording modes, I will likely keep this recorder, as its other features are very nice.

The final contender is the Philips 3400, which is a close relative to the 3390. I got it on sale for $150. They both share the same case design and much of the same software, but the remote control is more functional and there are a few subtle differences that really make a difference. The 3400 has the ability to manually add chapters, hide chapters, and split titles just like the 3390. The 3400’s remote control has dedicated buttons for skip and fast forward and is just laid out better than the 3390. Also, the 3400 allows you to add chapter points while playing back the title at any time by using a menu option, while on the 3390 you had to enter “edit mode” first, which sent you back to the beginning of the title. As a result, creating chapter points on this unit is nicer than on the 3390, but it’s still not as easy as on the LG unit (with its a dedicated button). This unit’s salvation comes in the form of its many recording modes. In addition to the 1, 2, 4 and 6 hours modes on most units, the Philips 3400 adds the intermediate modes of 2.5 hours and 3 hours. This is close enough to “flexible recording” that I’m happy with it.

Right now, both the LG and the Philips 3400 are set up on my desk, but I haven’t decided for sure which one to keep just yet. It will most likely be the Philips, but I’ve decided to do a couple of full-disc trials to make sure it works in real life situations. So far, it’s worked great. I’ll do some more experimenting with the LG as well.

One thing I learned in this experiment is that DVD recorders, though they’ve come a long way since I last tried them, aren’t for everyone. I imagine many people would be confused by the difference between plus and minus discs, and between rewritable and write-once discs, since recorders behave differently depending on what type of disc is used. Additionally, the fact that not all DVD recorders create “compatible” discs that can be played in any DVD player makes me doubt their mass-market appeal. That being said, there are units out there that can do what I want them to do, and having tried most of them, I’m ready to get to work!

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  1. I’m curious which DVD Recorder you ended up keeping or if your Philips recorder even works at all now.

    I’ve owned 3 Philips DVD recorders. All three broke within just a few months. Their features are exciting although they operate pretty slowly. In any event, if your unit lasts longer than 6 months and still works correctly, you’ll be a very lucky person!

    To anyone who reads this review and thinks either of the Philips units might be a decent investement, BEWARE! Philips quality stinks really bad!!

    Best of luck.

  2. Ok, thanks, for your viewpoint and experience. My Philips 3400 (I kept that one) is going fine still. It’s only been a couple of months, but in the first few weeks I created probably 50-60 discs. The menus are a little slow, but not any slower than competing non-hard drive models in my experience.

    Though I’m curious why you got a third one after the first two went south, this may be an instance to spend the couple of bucks on the replacement plan.

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