DVD recorders are home-theater components that can record TV shows (and other programs) onto DVDs, replicating the functions of a VCR. DVD recorders also function as regular DVD players and can play audio CDs, but not high-def Blu-ray Discs. While Blu-ray Disc burners for computers have become commonplace, stand-alone consumer Blu-ray recorders are not available.
Be aware that if you don't need to record to discs, a DVR is a better option. Reviewers say TiVo has the best interface. However, almost all cable and satellite companies also offer a DVR for a monthly fee -- or in some cases free with a qualifying programming package. Critics say these are catching up to TiVo recorders and even surpassing them in some respects. DVRs allow you to record programs to a hard drive for later playback, and many allow you to record in high definition, but you can't record directly to a disc. Most will let you record one show while watching another and introduce useful features, such as the ability to pause live programming, skip backwards to watch something you missed or skip ahead while watching recorded or buffered programs -- sometimes at intervals conveniently timed to coincide with an average TV commercial. See our report on DVRs for more information.
As a category, DVD recorders are among the most maligned of
consumer-electronics products. Common complaints include failure to record
programs (either through user or player error), hard-to-understand instructions
and confusion over recordable-disc formats. Broadcasters and
cable-casters add to the frustrations of DVD-recorder owners -- and makers as well -- by introducing restrictions on what programs can be copied to what devices; see What to Look For to learn more.
DVD recorders with hard-disk drives, though more expensive and harder to find, fare somewhat better: If the process of recording to a disc fails, you still have a copy on the hard drive so you can try again. DVD recorders that include a hard-disk drive have some DVR-like features -- such as instant replay or the ability to watch a previously recorded program while recording another -- but generally can't completely keep up with DVRs when it comes to features and functions. They also have a much more primitive user interface.
Basic DVD recorders are the least expensive and least versatile DVD recorders you can buy. These recorders are thin on features, often lacking elements like an IR blaster, which is helpful for timed satellite or cable TV recording (though many cable and satellite TV boxes now have their own timers). Editing is limited and often difficult, with capabilities largely dictated by the DVD format you use (see our What to Look For section). Some units lack built-in tuners. While these DVD recorders are fine for use with cable TV or satellite TV boxes, they are a poor choice for those who get some or all of their programming the old-fashioned way, via TV antenna.
Once plentiful, relatively few DVD recorders are still in production. Among current basic DVD recorders, the Toshiba DR430 (*Est. $95) gets the most feedback. Not all of it is positive, but complaints reflect the frustrations that DVD recorders typically elicit. Otherwise, most owners seem pleased enough. There's no tuner, but a handful of convenience features are present, such as the ability to begin watching a program before it has finished recording and to skip ahead over commercials. A satellite link feature turns the recorder on if it detects a video signal at a specific input, which can simplify making unattended recordings for cable TV/satellite TV subscribers -- assuming that their converter box has its own timer feature (most do). File support for digital files is pretty skimpy -- just MP3 music files and JPEG photo files -- but a USB input is provided for playing those back from a USB flash drive.
Toshiba DR430 can only play back DVDs recorded in standard definition, but can
upconvert them to 1080p resolution over its HDMI link for display on an HDTV.
If you only have a
standard-definition TV, or if your HDTV does a good job of upconverting standard-def programming on its own, the Magnavox ZC320MW8B (*Est. $100) might be worth considering. Features are otherwise similar, though file support is slimmer still (just MP3 files) and there's no USB input. Feedback is more limited than for the Toshiba DR430, but most users seem happy. That said, since prices are in the same ballpark, the Toshiba DR430 is a better deal at present.
For those who need a DVD recorder with its own tuner, or want something that's more feature-rich/easier to use than a basic model, the only choice is a major step up to a DVD recorder with a built-in hard drive. The cost is really the only downside, as most reviews say that using this type of DVD recorder is a much more pleasant experience. That's why it is so disappointing that virtually every manufacturer has stopped offering them in the U.S. Funai is the sole exception, offering hard-disk drive (HDD) DVD recorders under its Magnavox brand. The good news is that while experts have been slow to report, there's more than enough user feedback that these HDD DVD recorders are capable performers.
The Magnavox MDR515H/F7 ( *Est. $330) features a 500 GB hard-disk drive. That gives you enough capacity for 620 hours of video in the lowest-quality mode or 103 hours of the highest-quality video. Unlike the better recorders of the past, or most current DVRs, the Magnavox MDR515H/F7 lacks its own programming guide, but it can use the one sent by over-the-air digital stations as part of the digital broadcasting standard. Unfortunately, you can't use that guide to select programs to record; users have to resort to the old-fashioned system of entering channels and recording times manually, much like a VCR.
While the Magnavox MDR515H/F7 can't really replace a digital video recorder, it does include some DVR features, such as the ability to pause and resume live TV. DVD recording is generally much easier than with a more basic machine, plus you have the advantage of having your program archived on the hard disk should something go wrong. A one-hour power backup for timers in case of a power failure is another helpful plus. There aren't any professional reviews of the Magnavox MDR515H/F7, but more than 600 owners have weighed in at Walmart.com.
Magnavox also offers the step-down MDR513H/F7 (*Est. $400), but it has become very hard to find at retail so pricing has skewed upwards, making it a very questionable value at the time of this report. The Magnavox MDR513H/F7 has a smaller 320 GB hard drive that can store 387 hours of programming at the lowest-quality setting and 64 hours at the highest-quality setting. It also lacks some features, such as the power backup for the recorder's timers, and the remote is not as well liked. However, performance and overall functionality are similar to the MDR515/F7. User reviews have been equally strong as well.
Most professional reviewers have abandoned coverage of DVD recorders, but About.com covers one current model in a brief report. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.) However, we found lots and lots of user reviews at retailer sites such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com and others. AVSForum.com is an audio and video enthusiast community with a forum dedicated to DVD recorders.