Digital Video Recorders and Television

A DVR today is a household term and a household item. Since TiVo helped bring the idea of recording TV on a hard drive instead of a VHS cassette the world of TV watching has changed. Instead of fiddling with stacks of blank VHS tapes and re-recording over cassettes for sub-par quality recordings we all admired the ability to look at a digital TV guide on our screen, push a button, and not worry about a thing.

Many cable and satellite TV companies are now offering DVR capable boxes for an additional monthly fee. TiVo also has a similar monthly fee system, or a pricey – but worth it – lifetime subscription service. Either way you’ll find yourself paying a monthly fee to record your shows and watch them anytime you want. What, there’s an alternative you say?


Well of course there is. In this world of technology there’s almost always an alternative. If you want the ability to record shows without ever having to buy a VHS cassette again, but you aren’t the type of person that needs to record two shows at once and so on, consider this. You can purchase a DVD recorder, this is exactly like a VCR, but instead of using cassettes it uses blank DVD media. You can purchase 50 blank DVD discs for under $10 or 15 usually, each disc will hold at least 2 hours (with a maximum around 4 or 6 hours if you don’t mind the quality dip). DVDs take up less space than VHS tapes and the quality is much higher. Regular DVD discs can only be burned once, meaning you can not edit or re-use a disc, however you can buy RAM or RW model discs to get some re-use of your discs. This of course all depends on which model of recorder you buy.

The DVD Recorder is a good option for those who don’t want to pay a monthly fee and want to still record their shows at DVD quality.

My Samsung DVD Recorder and my Sony Analog to Digital Converter

Geeky Alternatives

Okay so if you’re really into your TV shows, and I mean you love TV and you can’t miss a second of your shows. Then this option may be for you. Maybe you’re not a fan of the cable / satellite companies with their fees, taxes, and extra charges. Maybe you get your TV via the antenna or you don’t want the monthly fee of a DVR box. Well there is a solution, but it’s initial price is high. About $400-500 high (a bit less if you’re creative). Now why so expensive? Well because you’re going to be building your own DVR. Yes, you read that correctly. A mini-computer, small enough to fit inside your entertainment cabinet. Equipped with a video capture device, enough storage to save a year of programing, and internet connectivity, this option is very popular with geeky folks everywhere.

Computers can do basically anything they’d like, which is why a small computer with enough power can easily record video on a schedule. You’ll also have the flexibility to burn shows onto DVDs, convert the videos for portable devices like an iPod or an iPhone and upgrade your storage space in the future. Now I won’t go into the details too much here but you have some options. First you need software, you can use Windows Media Center, or a free Linux distribution called MythTV.  Then the hardware, depending on where your channels come from, you’ll need a TV Tuner or a Capture Card, or a combination of both in one internal card, there are also USB and FireWire external devices, but these can get pricey quickly. Of course the core of all of this is a computer, you’ll need something pretty modern to convert and save all of your TV signals, especially HDTV signals. If you’re at this point want you want to know more I’d suggest searching for some specs, if you’ve made it this far you’re probably geeky enough to figure the rest out. 😉

The Road Less Traveled… There’s A Reason Why

Of course there’s always another odd choice I’d like to add, which is the main reason I started to write this article in the first place. Ever hear of ReplayTV? You may have. Around the year 2000 when TiVo was still young ReplayTV tried to join in on the DVR fun as well. Some of their boxes were sold by companies like Panasonic, which re-branded their boxes and sold them under their brand, Panasonic ShowStopper. I recently picked up one of these boxes, even though it’s only standard definition. Why you may ask? No monthly fees – ever! That’s right, this system was created to be used without fees, it’s initially high selling price was high enough most thought. However I bought one of these for only $29 at a local Goodwill store. This Panasonic model boasts up to 30 hours of recording on “extended” mode. I took a gamble since I didn’t know if it worked, however it seemed to be almost new in the box. There was not a scratch on the unit and all the cables and accessories were there.It has a pair of inputs and outputs, with one S-Video port per input and output. The unit works fine for recording manually just like you may have with a VCR.

So why doesn’t everyone have one of these? Well it’s easy. It’s painfully outdated. The unit I got was fresh out of the box. Upon turning it on it wanted me to plug it into a telephone line so it can dial in and download some TV listings… no biggie right? Well 10 years later that phone line it likes to dial to no longer exists. With no option to punch in your own number, you’re pretty much stuck unless you pay Panasonic $150 to upgrade the software for you. Harsh I know, they should have thought of an upgrade path. It’s a shame there’s no USB or ethernet jacks on this baby, just an archaic serial port.

But since it’s me, I wasn’t about to give up that easily. I found an enthusiast site named ‘ReplayTV Upagrade’ ( From there I downloaded the right upgraded software for my device and read the instructions. Basically the Panasonic DVR has a hard drive in it, opening the box and disconnecting the drive I then plugged it into my Windows PC. Following the instructions I erased the DVR’s hard drive and installed the newer software onto it. I put the drive back in the case and crossed my fingers.

To my surprise it worked without an issue! 🙂 The system bypassed the seemingly mandatory dial-in via a telephone line and got straight to business. I setup my video output settings, confirmed I had the right cables plugged in where, and it worked. I was able to record live TV from my cablebox directly to my newly bought 10-year old Panasonic DVR. Now I came to realize why nobody uses these anymore, they’re a bit of a pain to get going. But hey, they still work fine. It’s not HD, but it’s fine for catching up on a show. The built-in TV guide needs a telephone line to download the TV listings data. Since I was able to get the unit up and running without a phone line after the upgrade I didn’t see the need to disconnect everything and go into the other room to download the guide. If it’s still available that is.

At this point I was satisfied with my purchase. I can use the device to record TV shows, record myself playing a video game, or copy family home video VHS tapes. I do have a converter for my computer that does this. But sometimes it’s handy to not have to use a computer just to record something. Where was I… oh yes, the DVR.

Television will never be the same way again, the DVR has changed the way most of us watch TV. We no longer live our lives around when our shows are on. If we miss it we know it’s recorded for us at home. The DVR is a great invention, and while TiVo’s DVR is a highly-polished and well made device, it’s good to know there are alternatives out there. From the high-tech mini-computer in your media cabinet, to the 10 year old DVR that nobody expects to be in use today.

LaserDiscs – The Blu-Ray of the VHS Era

Looking back, in my geeky opinion, LaserDiscs are kind of the Blu-Ray of the VHS era. VHS video tapes were one of the first mainstream consumer video recordings. Sure before these there were old Super 8mm films and even BetaMax, but VHS was the most common and after winning the format war it would go onto dominate the market for years until finally being defeated by the digital DVD.

Above is a LaserDisc copy of Toy Story, which looks like a giant compared to it’s modern DVD version.

But before DVDs came along there was an analog video format, with an analog or digital audio track called Laserdisc. A Laserdisc is about the size of a vinyl record, with a cover just as big. Allowing for a great piece of cover art, and a book-like jacket with notes, descriptions, stories, and photos from the film. Laserdisc players and movies were expensive, and they were very slowly being adopted. Most users didn’t know the difference of the media and decided not to bother with it. LaserDiscs also couldn’t store the entire movie on one disc, even though each one was double-sided. Many movies over an hour were split across multiple discs. For Example the 1993 LaserDisc release of Star Wars has 5-sides just for the movie, that’s 3 discs with 2 sides per disc, with the 6th side remaining for supplemental features such as trailers and interviews. Early players could only play one side of the disc at a time, requiring the viewer to get up and flip over the disc manually. It wasn’t until later on where more advanced players could read the other side of the disc on their own. So if you wanted to watch “The Empire Strikes Back” from start to finish you would need to get up from your cozy sofa at least 5 times to switch discs and sides. 6 times if you wanted some bonus material.

Above is a LaserDisc compared to a DVD. The DVD is almost the size of the middle of the LaserDisc!

But the picture quality was a bit better then VHS and instead of needing to rewind a tape, you could navigate to a chapter in the film instantly. No rewinding was ever required and you could easily skip to your favorite part in no time. This quality would also not degrade overtime and was consistent. Unlike VHS cassette tapes there is no wear and tear. A laser reads the information off of the disc without ever touching it, unlike a VHS cassette where the tape comes into contact with a series of wheels and servos. The Laserdisc image and audio will remain the same for years to come… unless the disc succumbs to laser-rot, where the physical layers of the disc separate and deteriorate. This usually happens to discs stored improperly or if the disc was poorly manufactured.

The makeup of a laserdisc is an analog composite video track and various audio tracks. Some audio tracks were actually digital and some were analog. In the case of the Star Wars Trilogy – The Definitive Collection LaserDiscs, the analog audio track was actually used as a commentary track. While the commentary track is not for the whole length of the feature, and there is a lot of silence between tacks, it would pave the way for DVD feature-length commentaries in the future. Players usually had composite audio and video output with maybe a digital audio connection if you were lucky. If your LaserDisc player has an S-Video port you may still be better off using the Composite video connection unless your player is really high end. But even then your TV’s comb filter is likely far better and will work with the Composite signal better.

Not only could the LaserDisc pause and freeze-frame, but with more advanced discs you could usually scan through a scene with a frame-by-frame control. Allowing you to study the frame of the film as detailed as you’d like. Also some discs included pre-set chapter stops, where a screen would inform you of an artwork gallery ahead. You would then use the skim or frame buttons to navigate through the gallery of images.

While DVDs have made VHS cassettes and LaserDiscs a thing of the past, DVDs would never have came to be if it wasn’t for the advancements of the first big experiment in the consumer home video market – the LaserDisc. It was the Blu-Ray of it’s time, but unlike Blu-Rays they died out before their popularity could peak and before the format got a true chance to shine. Well, more like HD-DVD… but there was no popular competing disc format to get in the way.

I started collecting LaserDiscs for their cover art, and I mainly still do. They have beautiful pieces of artwork, usually a more grand version of their cramped VHS counterparts – and sometimes a surprising styled cover adapted from an alternate poster. I have my LaserDisc player setup today and even though it’s kind of silly to have it plugged into an HDTV it’s sometimes fun to take a disc out and see what it was like to be on the cutting edge of home entertainment many years ago.

Fading Memories: Problems of Aging VHS tapes

So as many of you have known, or guessed, I have been converting some VHS home videos taken by my parents onto DVDs. Despite the various specs of why VHS tapes are better than DVDs some people still wonder why you should do this? They don’t expect their VHS tapes to die one day – and they think they’ll just keep on working.

But they indeed can die. VHS tapes age also, they can fade, become more fragile, loose their video and  sound, or be eaten up by fussy VCRs. The only way to prevent this is to copy your tapes and keep them safe. You can’t risk losing your only copy of your home videos. In the past while transferring a VHS tape from 1982 there were a few drop-outs of video, where only the sound remained. The lifetime of the tape will be directly effected by the brand/quality of the tape. The times the tape has been watched and the quality mode that was set when recording the tape. One tape almost bit the dust during my transfer process, below is what happened to me and how I was able to avoid losing the tape.

Saturday evening I was about to start the transfer of another VHS tape to a DVD. This one was a Scotch Camcorder Pro (full-size) VHS tape. Labeled Disney World 1992 I have no doubt that the tape would be great to watch. So I insert the cassette into my VCR and press rewind to put the tape back into the begging. Unfortunately something was about to go very wrong. The VCR whirled up and rewound the tape to the beginning. I pressed play to see if there was any video on the screen – there was, but I had overshot the beginning. I rewound the tape less than a second to start it over as I held the DVD recorder remote in my hand, ready to press record.

But nothing appeared on the screen… just a blue screen. Curiously I paused and played the tape again, even rewinding it. Noticing the VCR was not making it’s normal noises I thought something was wrong – this was confirmed when the VCR refused to do anything with the tape and started ejecting it. Now I was concerned, is the tape damaged? Will I be able to recover this tape?? I took the tape out to examine it. The tape’s film-like track wasn’t crumbled or bent, the VCR didn’t eat the tape, so what’s the problem? Uh-oh, then I noticed it. The reel to the right side of the tape was missing – gone, it had snapped off the internal reel of the VHS cassette! I panicked and thought the tape was destroyed. Being home video tapes these are the only copies that exist, excluding some rare chances where we made another VHS copy for relatives, which were few and far between.

“So  what do I do now?” I thought – well I did what I always do when I need help, I use Google! One of the first results was a How-To article on the helpful site The article is titled “How to Repair a Broken VHS Video Tape” written by the user Jennifer Claerr. Skimming through the article I notice photos of a VHS tape that is taken apart. As I read the article I start to calm down, it doesn’t seem too difficult. I recall my father fixing an audio cassette for my brother when we were younger. So I got down to business – I placed the tape on the kitchen tablet and unscrewed five or six screws holding the tape together. I almost had the tape opened, but the side label was causing it to keep together, carefully cutting the label down the middle the tape was opened.
The problem was more clear then it had seemed before. The tape on the reel was no longer attached, meaning all the tape was on one side, it could not transfer to the other side, or be read by the VCR. I followed the instructions and took notice on exactly how the tape fed through the cassette. Each one can be a bit different, so take notice, I realized this the hard way. I carefully unwound the edge of the tape that had snapped off. Boy was I lucky – no tape was ripped off or damaged, it was just a clear plastic tab connected to the reel. But in the process of unwinding the spool the tape almost fell off the table – the plastic scratched against the fragile magnetic tape, skimming a hair or two off from either side of the tape. I was worried, but the damage didn’t seem too bad.
Now to repair it. I read about using tape, but I was concerned about having this break again, so I decided to use some packaging tape, which would be stronger then regular tape. I placed some tape on each side to where the clear plastic tape had separated from each end. Screwing the tape back together I hoped that no footage would be lost by this repair, I setup the VCR and DVD recorder to be ready to record things on the first try, I did not want to have to rewind the tape the beginning and risk damaging the tape again. The VCR whirled, the tape settled into position – and the video played! I didn’t notice any problems, the little damage I did to the tape was probably on the first few seconds of the “blue” screen and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The tape played fine until the end and the whole tape is now safely on a DVD disc that can easily be viewed and duplicated.