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Planet Fox > /etc > DVD Recorders are Horrible

I'm probably not the first to break this to you, but DVD recorders are some of the most awkwardly designed, poorly though out devices ever to be mass marketed. They are the exact opposite of user friendly. Let's look at some of the issues.

Issues With DVD Recorders

Incompatible Formats

One of the most annoying things about earlier sets was the competing DVD-R and DVD+R formats. What was the difference? For all intents and purposes, nothing. But you couldn't record a DVD+R disc on a DVD-R recorder, or vice versa. There was no technical reason a recorder couldn't use both, but each had to be licensed from a separate trade group. Finally around 2008 or so the DVD Forum and DVD Alliance decided to cross license, which more or less put an end to this issue. Please do not do anything like that again.

Forward Compatibility

The second issue I'd like to bring up is forward compatibility. Early recorders were designed for discs with a maximum recording speed of 4×. Advancements in recorder tech soon brought 8×, 16× and the latest: 22×, to make recording and copying discs on a PC faster. This shouldn't matter in any way, shape or form to a DVD video recorder, since it's always recording at 1×, and any disc can be recorded at 1×. Unfortunately, due to the shortsightedness of the designers, the firmware doesn't recognize discs rated for a higher speed than the ones available when the unit was built. Once again, there's no technical reason that you can't use a new 22× disc on a recorder from 2004. If you bought your recorder from a company with poor support, or that no longer exists, congratulations, your DVD recorder is now a DVD player. If you're lucky, the manufacturer has a firmware update that will allow you to use new discs.


The next issue I'd like to bring up is the firmware itself. I have had no less than three DVD recorders from three different manufacturers crash. The original firmware is almost always buggy, and the user interfaces are almost always poorly done. Upgrading the firmware is usually an ordeal. First you'll have to find the files buried deep in the manufacturer's website. Some brands will provide you with a convenient CD image, ready for writing; while others will have you master your own disc, which has to be done in a very specific, and often weird way, eg: CD-ROM XA Mode 2, Form 1 with 2048 byte sectors. And god help you if something goes wrong; now you have a very expensive doorstop. My proposed solution to this is to do it the same way as most satellite receivers: combine all of the necessary files into one file that can be copied to a USB drive, or have the recorder download it directly from the internet.

Copy Protection

If you've ever tried to copy a commercial video tape to another tape, you're familiar with Macrovision. Macrovision was a copy protection system that exploits a weakness inherent in the way VHS video recorders work by inserting false signals into the vertical blanking interval to make the recorder's automatic gain control circuit think the picture was too bright. The result is a picture with no contrast that's way too dark. Like all copy protection schemes, it did absolutely nothing to stop piracy, while simultaneously annoying end users who wanted to make a backup copy of a movie they paid money for. The upside is that the manufacturers didn't put anything into a VCR to cause this, it was just an exploitation of a design flaw, and could be easily overcome by buying or building an inexpensive inline device. DVD recorders, on the other hand are bristling with enough copy protection garbage to make them nearly useless. Let's say you own one of those combo VCR/DVD recorder units and you want to copy your VHS movie library to DVDs. You pop in the tape and a blank DVD and hit the dub button, but if the tape has Macrovision you get an error message like "Copy protected - cannot record.". The AGC system on the DVD recorder doesn't have the same design flaw as a VHS recorder, but the manufacturer actually added a circuit to detect Macrovision and stop recording. I have even had DVD recorders give me that message while trying to record programs directly from TV. So, in all of the situations where a DVD recorder might come in handy, like recording a TV show to watch later or copying a tape that you paid money for, it's completely useless.

Buttons, Remotes, and Buttonless Buttons

It is a sad fact that most DVD recorders are useless without their remotes. I'm looking at a DVD recorder right now that only has play, record, stop, forward, reverse, eject, and power buttons on its front panel. You can't change recording modes, you can't change inputs, and you can't finalize a disc. And it has to be the original, factory remote, too. All electronics should have all of their features accessible from the front panel, either through buttons or menu options.

I would also like to complain about Samsung and a few other manufacturers use of "buttonless buttons", which are basically touch sensors embedded into a flat panel. There is no tactile feedback, so you don't really know intuitively whether you've pressed the button or even near it.. Buttons are meant to be raised, and they're meant to click when you press them. I don't care if touch panels make something look cool, since it makes things harder to use.

No Digital Inputs

Most of the DVD recorders I've seen have no digital (HDMI, DVI, FireWire) inputs, which means that the video is converted from digital to analog by your satellite receiver, and back to digital by your DVD recorder. Every time this process happens, some video quality is lost, regardless of the quality of the D/A and A/D converters.

Issues with DVRs

There's only one issue that I have with DVRs, and these are specifically aimed at Dish Network's DVRs. I have a ViP 211, which has a hard disc connected so that it can be used as a DVR. The hard disc is formatted in the Linux filesystem, which isn't that big of an obstacle even if you don't use Linux, since there are plugins available for Windows that let you access Linux volumes.

The real problem is the way that the files are stored. Dish DVRs record the program stream directly as it comes from the satellite: encrypted with Nagravision. This basically means that the transmission stream (.tsp) files stored on the disc are unplayable by any computer software.

I certainly understand the need to encrypt the satellite feed, if they didn't, then everyone would have satellite TV and no one would pay for it, but there is no reason to store the files on the hard disc in an encrypted form. If they weren't encrypted, saving programs would be a breeze. It would only take a few minutes to copy the file from the hard disc, re-encode it, and write it to a DVD. As it is now, the only way to save it is to record it with an external device like a DVD recorder or video capture device, which has to be done in real time. Recording an hour long show takes an hour.

I propose three remedies for this. The first is that the streams should be decrypted before being written to the disc, and the disc should be formatted in exFAT to make it easier to access for Windows users. Since all Dish Network HD receivers have network capabilities, you should be able to mount it like a Windows file share and download recorded programs to your computer over the network. The Hopper DVR has a feature somewhat like this, in that you can download programs to an iPad, but you can't write them to a DVD, and they are erased from your receiver's hard disc when transferred. And last of all, I would like to see DVRs that are capable of using an external USB DVD-RW drive to record programs directly to a disc.

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