DVDs - the clear picture

, posted: 20-Feb-2004 22:29

Nobody agrees on what DVD stands for, but the optical discs are undeniably taking over from video tape at home. The image and sound quality is much better, and the discs are far more robust and convenient to handle than tapes (plus, you'll never have to rewind again).

Nevertheless, there are a few purchasing gotchas for DVD players and recorders, so read on.

DVD players
Price range: starts at $90. Big brand models cost $200 to $400 and specialist brands more than this.

Even cheap DVD players produce much better image quality than a standard video cassette recorder (VCR), so for many people that $90 supermarket special is fine. It will play a variety of video and audio discs, often handles multiple DVD formats, comes with 10-bit digital to analogue converters to make great-looking images, and has 24-bit/96KHz 5.1 Dolby Digital/DTS for decent surround sound too.

Considering what you get for the money and how much DVD players used to cost, these units are bargains.

Going a bit further up the price scale, look for features such as component video output and progressive scan for a more stable picture with better colour separation - important for big screens, but check the TV can handle it.

Electronics for sound and video processing improve as the price goes up, as does the overall build quality and the features list. If you plan to use the DVD player for music CDs as well, having a "bypass" feature to shut off some surround sound processing circuitry provides better audio fidelity.

Being able to load multiple discs in a carousel tray is also nice for uninterrupted music or very long DVD watching sessions. Support for Super Audio CD (SACD) for ultra-high fidelity music is worth looking out for, if you're an audiophile.

DVD recorders
Price range: starts at $700; big brands cost twice that.

Once you've watched video on DVD, you will not want to go back to fuzzy VHS tapes, even for recording. Luckily, DVD recorders have also dropped in price, and now start at the $700 mark.

That money buys a single-format recorder (usually DVD+R/+RW) that can play back other formats and otherwise offers many of the same features as a DVD player. More expensive recorders support multiple formats, such as DVD-R/-RW as well, but that feature is of dubious value.

Being able to record from a variety of sources - camcorders, TVs, digicams, audio equipment, for instance - is more useful. The iLink connectors on newer DVD recorders enable digicams to be plugged directly to the machine to copy over pictures to the disc. Some DVD recorders will also read camera memory cards for the same reason.

When recording video, expect to get around one hour a disc at the highest quality setting. At Super VHS quality, the recording time is three to three-and-a-half hours, depending on the player. At the lowest quality setting, most players can squeeze in six hours' worth of video a disc.

Making back-ups of DVDs isn't easy. Copy protection (Macrovision) on the discs distorts the recording signal, and filtering it out is not easy. And DVD recorders cannot yet process digital surround sound.

Hybrid machines
Price range: $350 to $400.

DVD players with a built-in VHS tape recorder are convenient all-in-one solutions that bridge the gap between the two technologies. But VHS recorders are cheap so you're not saving any money by getting a combo player. Unless you particularly want a single box for both, separate DVD and VHS players are better value.

A more interesting combination would be a DVD player with a CD burner, but that has yet to appear in New Zealand shops. Some DVD players come with a hard disk that can record TV programmes, still pictures and music.

Hard disks are quicker than DVDs and tapes and fit large amounts of information allowing lots of programmes to be recorded and navigated through quickly. But to justify the extra money, you'll want to be able to record video on the hard disk to DVDs.

Otherwise you will have to delete recordings from the hard disk as it fills up. Also, a DVD recorder with a hard
disk makes it easy to create home videos.

Portable DVD players
Price range:Around $600 buys a mid-range portable DVD player, which looks like a laptop but is solely devoted to the play back of DVDs and CDs. Most come in widescreen format for optimal viewing and with a 17cm screen.

Perfect for long plane trips where the inhouse movie selection lets you down. These devices are very popular in Asia where space is a premium but with the price of laptops having dropped steeply, many people opt for laptops with built-in DVD drives, which generally come as standard on machines selling for as little as $1000.

Format wars
The DVD industry couldn't agree on a single format for recordable discs, so now we have DVD+R (Plus) and DVD-R (Minus), as well as the rarer DVD-RAM to choose from.

Add to that the rewriteable DVD+RW and DVD-RW formats, and the buyer is left wondering which one to go for for future compatibility. The good news is that most recorders support the DVD Plus and Minus formats. Usually, the device will record/playback in one format, but only playback in the other format, although some high-end machines can do both.

DVD-RAM is another story. This has several advantages - fast reading and writing, up to 100,000 rewrites a disc, and the simultaneous playing and recording "time slip" feature - but it is the least compatible of all.
While DVD-RAM players can often read other formats, the discs are usually not readable in other-format players. The format is probably heading for obsolescence, but it's worth noting that compatibility is only an issue when swapping your recordings with other people.

But just when it seemed the dust had settled, a new DVD recording format, HD-DVD, is appearing. The "HD" stands for "High Definition", and the format was developed to keep up with HDTV broadcasts abroad - current
DVD players can handle only standard definition TV. HD-DVD can fit up to five times more information than today's discs.

But history is repeating itself, and DVD makers are split in two camps over which format to use. HD-DVD is interesting for New Zealand, as it is likely to be the only way for audiences to enjoy HDTV programming
for some time.

Zoning laws
Film studios want to control what we can and cannot watch, and have devised region-encoded DVDs to ensure this. DVDs have eight regions or zones. New Zealand is in Region 4, with Australia, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

DVDs encoded for Region 1 (North America) or 2 (Middle East, Europe, South Africa, Japan) won't run on Region 4 players.

Luckily, "region free" and "multi-region" players get around this. And many single-region players can be set to a different region, or multi-region. The procedure for this depends on the player, and can cause problems if the user gets it wrong. A search for "multi-region hack" on Google will provide further details, or ask at the shop.

Not content with annoying millions of legitimate DVD purchasers, the film studios have upped the zoning nuisance ante with region code enhancement (RCE).

RCE is designed to stop Region 1 (North America) discs being played on region-free DVD players. An RCE-encoded disc will display a message that it is intended to play only on non-modified Region 1 players.
Most multi-region players can play RCE discs, but some can't.

Check with the shop, or better yet, try with an RCE disc. If you can manually adjust the region on your Region-Free player, try setting it to Region 1. Sometimes, you can play the RCE disc by selecting Title 1, Chapter 1 on the remote, getting past the lockout screen.


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Sony Tablet S reviewed
Nokia N9 reviewed

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