DVD recorders, so much potential, but not delivered

I decided to digitize a lot of my old video tapes. Since I have many video capture cards in my MythTV system, I started by plugging my old VCR into that and recording. Turned out that there’s not really good standalone capture software for Linux, so I ended up using MythTV itself, which is not very well designed for this. But it worked OK. However, I then foolishly decided to clean the VCR heads, pulled out my old head cleaner, put methanol in it and — destroyed the heads. It was time for a replacement VCR, something that’s pretty rare in the stores.

What is popular now are combo VHS/DVD players and for not much more (on eBay at least) VHS/DVD-recorder combos. These combos all feature the ability to copy from a VHS tape to a DVD. Of course, with just a remote control you can’t get nearly the flexibility that a computerized capture system can give you, but you do get a big convenience feature — the same system is controlling the VCR and the DVD burning, and can start and stop the VCR, detect index marks on the tape, detect end of tape, tape speed and many other things. They all try to give you a “one touch copy” or almost that, so you can just insert the tape, a disk and have it do the work.

The unit I chose, Panasonic’s ES64VS, which was CNET’s editor’s choice, can be had for $100 to $130 on eBay in a refurb. Not a lot more than a VCR. Plus you get a progressive scan HDMI output DVD player, which I don’t really need as MythTV plays DVDs. This unit has 2 fairly nice features. For simple copying, you can indeed plop in a tape and disk, and then after going through about 6 button presses to have it format the disk (annoying) you can go through 6 or 7 more presses and have it record the tape intelligently. This is to say it measures the length of all programs on the tape, and then sets the Mpeg bitrate to match that length to fill the disk. It then records the tape and breaks it up into chapters based on VHS index marks left when most recorders start recording. For tapes that are collections this is good. You don’t get this bitrate calculation in the so-called “one touch copying” (which with disk format and the rest is really a large number of touches but it works OK.

But still, I can see all sorts of room for improvement. The UI needs a lot of work. The unit is either in VCR mode, DVD mode or SD card mode, and has different menus and button functions for each. To copy from VHS you go to VCR mode, but it puts you back to DVD mode after copying so you are constantly switching if doing a series of copies from different parts of a tape. You always have to toggle past the useless SD card mode (even with no card inserted) which lets you put pictures and mp3s on a card and play them. Timed recording (rather than detect end of tape) has a horrendous and long UI. Adding text to titles is arduous. The designers of these need to think about the common workflows and make them better.

But let’s go beyond UI to see what could be done.

  • DVD uses primarily 720x480 or 352x480 or 352x240 resolution. Truth is 720 wide is overkill on just about any VHS tape and certainly on tapes recorded in LP or SLP modes (4 and 6 hour.) The recorder could, in its automatic modes, note the tape speed and not use wasteful resolution, at least if you’re looking for more capacity on a disk.
  • This particular recorder’s LP (4 hours per DVD) mode uses 720x480 and lowers the bitrate, while others go to lower res. Reviewers like this choice though I think it odd for old tape.
  • When in the copying mode, the recorder shuts out almost all controls except to stop (and you can’t stop copying from the unit if you started with the menus on the remote.) This stops you from FF over commercials if you happen to be there, or skipping around.
  • The recorder enforces DRM. Whatever made them do this? I’m not recording commercial tapes, but it’s a stupid thing. My computer capture card of course has no such limitations.
  • Some videotape is overdriven, but there seems no way to correct this. For those tapes I had to play on the VCR and capture on the computer with contrast reduced.
  • Amazingly, this unit can’t readily tell T-120 from T-160 tapes, something much older units I had could do.
  • A common desire for people transferring VHS to DVD would be to first review a tape to see what’s on it. My 20 year ago VCR had a mode to do this — zoom to index marks, play a short amount, go to next mark.
  • Even better, using only a modest amount of storage, these units could do that for you while you do something else, then let you come back, review the segments, and pick which ones to transfer to DVD, even naming them if need be.
  • Many VHS T-120 tapes are really 123 minutes long, and they were often filled. So the SP mode on these DVD recorders should have a bitrate to handle that, not just 121 minutes. At least this one offers the ability to set the bitrate for a given length.
  • Hello? How much would it cost to add a PS-2 keyboard jack or USB keyboard jack? If you have devices where text needs to be entered (chapter titles and disk titles) then crazy on screen arrow-key based text entry sucks. Everybody has a PS-2 keyboard around and if they don’t they are under $20. Or sell an infrared keyboard if you must, so you don’t need to add any hardware.
  • Should we not now be at the point where you could read and capture videotape at double or even quadruple speed? The DVD can certainly be written at that speed, and the mpeg encoder chips can now handle double frame rates. Perhaps it is the fact that they don’t want to change the classic VHS transports standardized long ago. These can all play faster though they may not extract all the data if they do.
  • Of course, now that mpeg-4 encoder chips are coming out, it would be nice to see a move to recording MP4 disks, even though they can’t play in standard DVD players. For those planning to move the files to a computer, mp4 is the way.
  • This unit spends a lot of time on providing DVD to VHS copy. Forget about this. Nobody wants this with DVD players costing $20 and DVD blanks costing under 30 cents. Besides, it won’t record Hollywood DVDs with DRM anyway.

DVD-RAM only features

This player, and many others, only provide most of their fancy features to DVD-RAM. DVD-RAMs are expensive and not commonly playable on regular DVD players or computers. But only with DVD-RAM can you do various post-edit changes like adding chapter divisions and title splits and a host of other things. You can’t even do this on DVD-RW or DVD+RW.

(The only extra thing you can do in DVD-RW is delete titles and get the space back. DVD+RW is the format of choice, because in only this format it auto “finalizes” the disk so it’s usable in other players without closing out the disk to further changes and new recordings.)

However, I realized that they have wasted the SD-card slot. You can get 2GB SD cards for $20 around here, and 8GB for $90, and the prices are falling. With the latter, you could of course capture your full DVD to the SD card first, then make all the changes you like and burn it when done, effectively giving you all the abilities of a DVD-RAM or hard-disk based DVD recorder. (The DVD recorders with hard disks have lots more useful features, and are indeed effectively DVRs in many cases, but they cost a great deal more.)

In fact, you could do this with even a small SD card. One would still write the video streams in realtime when captured, but save the final index for writing at the end, with editing of the index information done in flash. This would cost no extra hardware, though having a small amount of flash in the unit would make t his even better.

That way users could record their entire tape, then using the random access ability of DVD, move through it marking where the titles go, and even marking material not to be included on rewritable media. Store the index information on disk if the disk is popped out and read it back, at a small cost in blocks even on non-rewritable media.

Life of DVD

One reason I preferred to record to hard disk on MythTV was my thesis that once data is online, it never dies, because we keep copying it to the next generation of disks which are 3 times as big. Data on DVD might well die. Though right now DVDs cost 25 cents and the hard drive space for 4.7gb costs about a buck. So it’s possible that while the VHS tapes are degrading, the DVDs will degrade in different ways and fail earlier. That’s another reason to support MP4. However, since you can get H.264 compressions in well under half the space of MPEG-2 on DVD, the cost ratio is not that different, and so it’s easy to move to hard disk, with the DVD as a backup. Too bad the recorders can’t do H.264. With a few gigs of flash memory, they need not do it in real time.

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