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.

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.

Analog to Digital Conversion: Resucing VHS Home Movies

Chances are when you were younger your Mom, Dad, or relative was often asking you to look into the video camera to smile and wave. Cheaper camcorders and the popularity of VHS tapes helped a lot of people from the late 80’s and on to start taking their own videos. There wasn’t any film to develop and you could easily watch what you have recorded after wards without messing with a projector. But who would think VHS tapes would go out of style? I fondly remember popping in my favorite movie into a VCR to watch a film. But, today you hardly see a VCR in someone’s home theater setup, you can thank DVDs for that. Mostly because the resolution and quality of DVDs are vastly superior to that of the old analog VHS tapes. DVDs are digital discs, so they do not degrade after each viewing as VHS tapes tend to do. They offer nice add-ons like chapters, slideshows and pretty menus. But anyone born in the last 20 years already knows that.

So what do you do with all your home videos recorded onto VHS tapes? You probably still have a VCR and all of your old tapes – but if you want to preserve them you have to do something more then let them collect dust. Remember, these tapes can, and will degrade over time. I have come across an old tape from 1982 that had a few issues, the sound cut out at some points and the precious images on the screen were often interrupted by a dull gray screen. Your mileage will vary depending on the age and quality of the tapes, but either way you want to keep these memories safe. So how do we do that? Well we digitize them! Digitizing is the process of transferring an analog source to a digital medium. For example we can transfer or convert the content on a VHS tape onto a DVD disc. Once these tapes are converted they will no longer be degraded with each playback and can easily be duplicated and shared.

If you did not have a VHS camcorder but a C-VHS (Compact VHS) or other recording media the principal is still the same. You just want to copy the content to a DVD disc or other digital format or preserve it and keep it from degrading.

VHS vs DVDs.

There really is no contest, DVDs are the better way to go obviously, I just wanted to point out the facts of each format.

VHS tapes are an analog medium. Low resolution picture quality. They can degrade after each viewing and require rewinding and fast forwarding to reach a certain point on a tape. In order to copy a VHS tape to another tape you must watch the whole length of the tape in real time. The quality of the video will degrade from transfer to transfer. Can be re-recorded over if desired.

DVD discs are a digital medium. High resolution picture quality (More dots on the screen provide a sharper picture). They do not degrade after each viewing. Chapters are created to enable quick access to any part of the video. They can be duplicated and shared easily, and most importantly quickly. You do not need to wait 2 hours to copy a 2 hour DVD. The quality of the video stays the same, even if copied 1,000 times! Only DVD-RW discs can be erase and re-used, standard DVD-R and DVD+R discs can only be used once.

Okay I’m sold. So how do I do this?

Well it’s actually simpler then you think! But there are basically two ways to go about this depending on your equipment. You can either A) Use a set-top DVD recorder to record your VHS tapes directly to DVD discs, or B) Import the video into your computer, edit the footage, and then burn your own DVD disc. This option should mostly be reserved for folks who are a bit more tech savvy, as a lot of issues may come up that you may not realize before starting the project. But in this post we’ll be talking about method A) using DVD recorders.

The only downside to both of these options is that since VHS tapes are analog, this means you have to watch the entire contents of the tape to transfer it. So if the tape is 2 hours, you have to wait 2 hours for the video to play and it be recorded on your DVD recorder or computer. There is no real way of getting around this unfortunately, but once these are on DVDs you can copy the entire disc in as little as 15 minutes.

To get started first you need to purchase a DVD Recorder, these are just like VCRs ,but instead of using analog VHS tapes to record video and audio to, they use blank DVD discs. This offers many advantages, firstly blank DVD discs are very inexpensive, you can pickup a 100-pack for about $30. Considering each disc holds at least 1-2 hrs of video that is an amazing value.  Second, DVDs take up a lot less physical space then a VHS tape. You can store about 3 DVD cases in the space of a VHS box, even more if you use slim DVD or CD cases. Making it easy to store an entire library of home videos without having to buy another cabinet.

Using a DVD recorder.

There are many types of DVD recorders you can purchase, most of them go for under $100. Most include one DVD drive that can play and burn/create DVDs, but some models in fact have a built-in VCR to make transferring videos very, very easy. These are called combination units, they combine a VCR with a DVD recorder. With these models usually you just have to put in a blank DVD disc, rewind the tape to the beginning and press a button to automatically transfer everything. In fact as of writing this, there is a refurbished Magnavox DVD-R/VCR combo set for $89 at Best Buy’s web site. That’s a pretty good deal. I would suggest going for one of these combo units, they offer a simple way to transfer tapes with no extra cables to hook up, and no worrying about if your old VCR still works.  Just read some reviews before you buy, not all DVD recorders are created equal. With most DVD recorders chapters and menus are automatically setup, while the menu presentation usually leaves something to be desired, the most important factor is that your precious home videos have been duplicated and are now on a digital DVD. Be sure to read the manual to learn about all of it’s features and capabilities.

Using your own VCR.

If you already have a DVD recorder, but it does not have a VCR built-in there is no need to worry. If you still have your old VCR you can use that. Just plug it into the input of your DVD recorder and you’re on your way. Now there are a few things to keep in mind when using old VCRs. It’s all about picture quality. You are transferring these movies so you don’t have to do this again. You want to get it right the first time. It may be wise to go out and purchase a new VCR, these aren’t expensive and may produce a better quality picture, just make sure it’s a stereo model. Most companies try to be cheap and produce a lot of Mono-only units. You can tell if your VCR is stereo if you see a Yellow, White and Red jack on it, sometimes also on the front. If you just see Yellow and White – missing the Red – these are Mono-only which will not replay the Stereo sound your tapes may have.

If you want to stick with your old VCR that is fine, you just need to do some cleaning. Use a VCR Head Cleaning tape to help reduce the noise and lines seen on the VCR during playback. You may have to use this frequently if you transfer a lot of tapes – even on new VCRs. You just want everything to look as best as it can before you make the big move. Also use high quality cables, you don’t need to spend a lot to get a good pair of cables. offers a large selection of cables very cheaply. Secondly, you want to use the best connection. If you are lucky you may have an S-VHS player, these use a connection called S-Video which provides a better picture quality over standard composite video cables (The yellow cable in the standard yellow, white, and red trio you see behind your TV set). Not all VCRs or even DVD Recorders support S-Video, but if you have it you should use it. Consult your manual to see if your player has S-Video, sometimes refereed to as S-VHS. I have a JVC S-VHS VCR that I picked up from a Goodwill thrift store for under $9, it was well worth it. The S-Video jack provides video only, you will still need to use your old audio cables for sound. I will talk about S-Video in more detail on my next post.

Recording Time.

DVD recorders, just like VCRs, have the option of different recording modes, this can extend the time each disc can hold, but will effect the quality. For example a DVD recorder may have three or more recording modes. 1 hour mode will produce the best quality, but give you less time on the disc. 2 hour mode will lower the quality, but double your recording time. 6 hour mode will significantly lower the quality of your recording, but allow you a lot of video time. Now like my old VHS home videos, yours may not be in the best condition. So why degrade them further? I would suggest sticking with the fairly high-quality mode. For my recordings I chose a 2 hour DVD mode. This gave me a good quality picture and allowed me to save 2 hours of video onto one disc. This worked great for me.

DVD Disc Formats and Basic Recording Information

Unlike VHS tapes where you can record over anything at anytime, most DVD discs can be used only once. DVD-R and DVD+R discs can only have content recorded to them once. So if you record a 30 minute video the disc, you can not go back and erase the video to start over and re-gain your space. DVD-RW or DVD+RW discs are re-writable, which is what the RW stands for. These are more expensive, but once properly erased can be used again – these are more expensive then basic DVD-R discs.

Also, DVD discs have a few different formats, DVD-R and DVD+R. Years ago the actual difference was due to compatibility of young DVD players playing back recorded content on these discs. Today the difference is less noticeable. DVD+R discs hold a tiny bit less then DVD-R discs, which is why I prefer not to use them. However read your DVD recorder manual to read which formats they support. Usually a variety of formats are supported so you can choose what suits your project best. These discs can all store around 4.7GB of information.

For increased recording time you may consider using DVD-DL discs. DL stands for Dual-Layer and is basically two DVD discs combined onto one disc – doubling your recording time. So if your maximum recording time was 2 hours on Good Quality mode you can record up to 4 hours. These can store closer to 7.8 GB of information. Most newer DVD recorders can use this format, but check your manual. Again these discs are much more expensive than standard DVD-R/+R discs.

The Final Step.

Once everything is setup and prepared it’s time to copy the tape. You will need to wait the entire playback time of your video in order to copy it. So if you want to copy a 30 minute segment it will take 30 minutes to copy, etc. Once your VHS tapes are transferred to DVDs you can now rest easily. You can now play back your home videos without worrying about degrading the tape. With the help of a computer you can duplicate your newly created DVD and mail them to family and friends. In fact I highly recommend backing up the disc you just made and duplicating it. Just in case one copy is scratched you have a backup, and it wouldn’t hurt to keep a copy on your hard drive if you have the room for it.

Advanced note about duplication with certain DVD Recorders.

Now there is only one problem that has happened to me with this when I tried to duplicate a finished disc. This may not happen to you and will depend entirely on what brand and model DVD recorder you are using. I was using a Samsung DVDR 120 unit and recorded an entire hour and a half of video onto a DVD disc from my VCR. This turned out fine, and the DVD played perfectly. But when it came time to duplicate the DVD disc my computer threw a fit! Why? Well not all DVD recorders record video in the same way. To achieve better quality or longer recording time most use different methods of saving information. Which may not sit well with your computer. So when I tried to simply drag and drop the contents of the DVD to my Mac, an error kept repeating saying that it could not read the file. Now my disc was not scratched, and it played back entirely fine – I just could not copy it. This problem only seemed to happen when I let the whole tape play to the DVD, I did not stop the DVD at any point – which is what I believe caused the issue. So if I simply stopped the tape and the DVD recorder and started again the problem would have never popped up.

The solution? Use a DVD ripping program. DVDShrink (for Windows) or MacTheRipper (For Macs) will rip the contents of a DVD in it’s raw format to the computer. Now since we’re using these programs to copy our own home-made DVD videos there is no legal issues to think of at all, so don’t let that get to you. Programs like HandBrake I have found will not work until you have ripped the DVD to your hard drive first using the method above. The program you are using may give you errors or messages about data not being copied or “bad sectors” however most of the time this is because the DVD program is not familiar with home-made DVD records and their specialized recording schemes. As long as you can skim through the final results you’ll be okay.

Stay tuned for my next post which will involve using a computer instead of a DVD recorder. This is a more tech savvy way of doing things, it allows more control and the ability to edit the video, but things can get complicated, and I’ll explain why.