Stacking the DVD Decks
Posted Sep 8, 2005

How do the latest "pro" DVD decks stack up to one another? More importantly, how well do they measure up to the task of live DVD production for professional event work? Here we sample three new contenders from Panasonic, Pioneer, and Sony for live production in the field.

I had a multi-day, multi-camera production of a dance recital that was to end up as a two-DVD set. When I looked at the time required to digitize the hours of video and then compress the video for the DVDs, I concluded that the recent crop of DVD decks might offer a way to speed up the production process.

I could eliminate the computer by recording the event into a hard drive-based DVD deck and then use the deck's internal editing, chaptering, labeling, and dubbing capabilities to finish the program minutes after the event ends. This skipped over two of the longest stages of traditional DVD postproduction: digitizing and recompression. I would capture to the DVD deck's hard drive in the very MPEG-2 codec I would use for delivery. However, this limited me to minimal editing and customization.

There are several DVD deck manufacturers that offer multiple products in the consumer channel. However, only a few have offerings in the "pro" channel.

I approached Pioneer about their new PRV-9200, which is similar to their consumer DVR-520HS. These decks offer an 80GB hard drive and faster-than-realtime transfer of content from hard disk to DVD.

Pioneer continues to offer the much more capable PRV-LX1, which can hold two burners in addition to the 120GB internal drive, and has direct keyboard/ mouse connection, balanced audio, component video I/O, and more. This is a true pro DVD deck. It's also much bigger and about five times the cost of the 9200.

Panasonic was the first to offer a standalone professional DVD deck, and they have continued to produce several models with different options and capabilities ever since. Currently, Panasonic offers their DMR-T6070, which is the pro version of the consumer DMR-EH50. This deck offers a 160GB hard drive, plus PC and SD card slots. It now also offers faster-than-realtime dubbing from hard disk to DVD.

Toshiba recently announced the RD-XS54, which has a 250GB hard drive and networking capabilities. It also offers three other important features: the ability to upload custom menu backgrounds, the ability to edit and add title information to recorded content from a PC, and the ability to use a PC scroll mouse to control the recorder for detailed video editing. Though promising, this unit wasn't slated to ship until late summer, so it was unavailable in time for this review.

Sony's latest DVDirect recorder is the VRD-VC20, successor to the VC10. While this does not offer an internal hard drive, it is far more compact and purposefully built than any of the other decks, and represents an intriguing alternative strategy, so it was included in this article for comparison.

JVC offers the SR-DVM70US, which does the internal HD and DVD recorder one more by adding a MiniDV deck to the mix. It features a 160GB hard drive and touts 8X high-speed DVD duplication. Another interesting wrinkle is its touted improvement over other decks' resolution at recording times between two and four hours. We'll look more closely at this when we get one into our lab for testing.

There are others out there, but these are the principal players. For this article, we'll evaluate the Panasonic DMR-T6070, the Pioneer PRV-9200, and the Sony VRD-VC20.

The black Panasonic DMR-T6070 is a standard-width, 3"-high deck with a 160GB internal hard drive and a 4X DVD burner. The front-panel PC and SD card slots are for direct input of still images as content you can put on a DVD, not as content you can use to build a DVD. It features back-panel Line-1 and Line-2 I/O, component out, optical audio out, RF I/O, and front-panel Line-3 in and 4-pin FireWire I/O. It uses a standard, removable, grounded electrical cable.

Setting record speed and recording location (hard drive) is very simple but can be done only with the remote. The deck's display changes depending on what you show on the video output. For instance, the normal display tells you how long you've been recording. If you hit the Status button on the remote once, the deck's display changes to indicate remaining hours and minutes. This also puts four items on the video out: HD, REC, L1, MAIN. This means I'm recording to the hard drive from Line-1. Hitting the Status button a second time adds a second on-screen box with current date, time, HDD time remaining (67 hours, in this case), SP speed, track/title number, running time, and a bar graph showing how little of the hard drive I've filled up. There are no audio meters.

Panasonic has been at this a little longer than the others, and the smooth and fairly quick navigation shows it. An icon at the bottom of the screen tells you what buttons are usable. However, sometimes the item you are looking for is hidden in a Submenu tab and the interface doesn't indicate this. Even after a couple years, there's clearly still room for improvement.

The black Pioneer PRV-9200 is a standard-width, 2.375"-high deck with an 80GB internal hard drive and an 8X DVD burner. The thinner chassis is nice, and the cooling fan (they all have one) is internal so the entire back panel is flush (the Panasonic's fan sticks out the back). It features back-panel Line-1 and Line-2 I/O, component out, optical audio out, RF I/O, and front-panel Line-3 in and 4-pin FireWire I/O. It uses a standard, removable, grounded electrical cable.

You also can use the Pioneer for dubbing finished discs by copying the non-copy-protected DVD to the hard drive and then back to another DVD with the "Disc Backup" function. Moreover, you can keep multiple disc images on the Pioneer. This turns the Pioneer into a spiffy little DVD duplicator.

As with Panasonic, setting record speed and location (hard drive) is very simple but can be done only with the remote. The normal display tells you how long you have been recording and the input. Hitting the Display button on the remote once puts a big window on the video output telling you that you're recording onto the hard drive with so many hours to go (70 hours in this case), the video setting you're using, and—whether there's a disc in the drive. There are no audio meters.

During recording, the deck appears to prompt for the title name. Try as I might, I couldn't enter the name while it was recording. Entering titles while recording would have been a nice timesaver.

Once your video is in the Pioneer, you find yourself confronted with a bevy of menus. The Pioneer does offer a lot of capability, but it presents you with many tabs, levels and windows all at once. The multitude of options (five group settings, six clips, and ten functions) presented on just one screen can be a bit daunting at first. When you get used to the interface you'll find yourself able to divide, combine, and name clips, as well as erase sections and edit chapters, just as you can on the Panasonic.

The silver Sony VRD-VC20 is a 6.5"-tall, nearly 3"-wide box that looks like a standard DVD burner in a rather funky case with a spiffy electroluminescent display on the front. All the buttons you'll need, except eject, are on the front of the unit. Because eject is not on the front, you cannot bury this thing in a rack. Because there's no internal hard drive, you record right onto the DVD disc.

The back panel features far fewer connections than the other decks. The Sony has only one line input and no analog output at all. It has a 4-pin FireWire port, USB 2.0, and a power jack that goes to a mid-cable power adapter. You can plug it into a power strip without issue. That's nice. The deck actually takes 12 V, which makes it usable in portable field situations. The Sony comes with Nero software and the ability to Synchro-record when fed video or when you hit the record button. I won't delve into these features because they are not the focus of this comparison.

Setting the input and record mode are done easily on the face of the Sony deck by using the aptly named "Input Select" and "REC Mode" buttons. When recording, hitting the "Time" button toggles between record time and time left on the disk. When stopped, the "Function" button lets you select among Finalize: No/Yes; Erase All: No/Yes; Autoplay: No/Yes; and Auto Chapter: None/5/10/15 minutes. That is as deep and complex as this deck gets. There are no audio meters.

The three other big buttons are "REC," "Pause," and "Stop." If you're reading this magazine, I don't need to explain these. But I will note that pausing a recording will create a chapter mark. If you want a chapter mark without pausing, hit the glowing record button. Stopping and then starting recording again creates a new title. It really is this simple.

Take note that there's no play button. In fact, there's no video out at all. The only feedback is the little 1" display on the front—which, by the way, does not rotate, so if you wanted to use this deck width-wise in a rack, or in any non-vertical position, you'll be tilting your head to read the display. These issues aside, it's the most informative and easiest-to-read display of the bunch.

To test these units, I captured some video of a dance recital to all three simultaneously, marking chapters at the change of the songs. It turns out that hitting the Chapter button while recording on the Panasonic does nothing. Chapters must be created after the fact, a long process the Sony and Pioneer avoid by allowing me to mark chapters while recording. None of them allow text entry or labeling during recording.

After recording, I went to edit the recorded video in the Pioneer and Panasonic. I marked additional chapter points, deleted a segment from the video, and burned it to a DVD. Though the process is different on the two decks, the end results were very similar. I can only pick a background menu for my DVD at the end of the process—after I've dubbed the video to DVD and just before I finalize the disc.

The editing functions were not performed on the Sony because it only offers the ability to erase the disc, append what you already have, or finalize what you have already recorded. With only one menu type, its authoring capabilities are limited compared to the others. But it does what it does very simply, elegantly, and quickly. In comparison, the Panasonic and Pioneer offer so many consumer features that just trying to navigate around, label, and dub some video requires an unexpectedly high amount of button-pushing and screen navigation.

All three decks made separate picture icons for each clip I dubbed, not for each chapter. So a recording with many chapters shows up as just one clip in the title window. On the Panasonic and Pioneer, I can go back and "divide" the clip to get the pictures I know my customers prefer, but that takes a lot more time. An automatic Chapter menu would be a welcome feature that would solve this problem. A nice feature of the Panasonic is that it automatically picks an image from further into the clip, which avoids the problem of ending up with a title page filled with black boxes because the start of every number is a dark stage.

There's no choice in font, text size, placement, etc., for menu design on any of the units. You can type only basic text for the name of the clips and the names of the disc. You are limited to the 1, 8, or 9 backgrounds of their choice, all of which are pretty basic.

I recorded several DVD-R discs in each machine. I used SP mode in the Panasonic and Sony, and one of the VR modes in the Pioneer. All the discs played back fine on the few DVD players I have here in the office. I also used the DVD Backup function of the Pioneer and it worked well, though silently. It would be nice if it opened the drawer or made some alert sound to let you know a burn was done. Check out the table for the formats each DVD deck handles.

Wish List
Though I would have liked to find a clear winner, I'd find myself hard-pressed to pick any of these decks for delivering polished master discs to clients. In addition, the market is very active, with each manufacturer continually leapfrogging the others with a new feature or gimmick. These decks can handle basic tasks quite well, but don't expect them to deliver the same snazzy product as you could with nearly any computer-based DVD authoring program.

Besides the fact that these decks fall shy of what DVD authors can accomplish with computers, they don't stack up as well as they should with the pro tape decks that—for our market, anyway—they would need to replace in our workflow. In addition, the current "pro" DVD decks lack several features common on pro tape decks, for instance:
• Audio meters. Try to name a single pro tape deck without audio meters. Even the half-rack decks from Sony, Panasonic, and JVC all have them. Some even have mini video displays. A DVD deck that considers itself a "pro" product but lacks something as elemental as audio meters is like a car missing a wheel.
• Buttons/on-deck navigation. I don't want to worry about not being able to control the unit if I lose the remote during a live shoot or accidentally leave it in the studio. Only the Sony offers the ability to change settings and mark chapters without a remote. You don't realize how clumsy a remote is until you have to keep finding it to mark a chapter during a live show. On the Sony, you hit the only button that glows on the deck. Very smart.
• Rackmounts. While none of these decks are a single rack unit tall, I'll take the odd sizes if they come with a rackmount kit to hold the deck in place. Much event video work changes location every time. This means we use portable racks and gear that get anchored inside. The Panasonic and Pioneer are both the right width, but odd heights. The Sony is less than half-rack width, which is good because the eject button is, oddly, not on the face of the unit.
• Streamlined navigation. The consumer heritage of these units really hampers the menus. There is so much in there (timers, schedules, and features piled on top of features) that it just gets in the way of what a pro wants it to do—namely, record video and burn a disc. Pros buy something to do a job. Scrape off the icing, and make something that does the job.
• A real keyboard for faster entry of text. I don't care if it's USB, infrared, Bluetooth, pixie dust, or in an internal drawer like in the Sony DSR-30 deck. Using a dinky remote to hammer out pages of titles is like using Morse code to write a book, only less efficient. The Pioneer was better because it adopted the cell phone method of text entry where you can tap one of the number keys several times to get letters. This helped to speed up a process that was still far too slow.
• Build the disc image on the hard drive, not on the DVD. Then we name the disc, titles, and the chapters once for all the copies we need to make. If we go to delete a video clip, the deck should warn us that it's used in disc image X or Y, and ask if it's OK to delete it.

Final Thoughts
These DVD decks aren't where we need them to be just yet. They can produce DVDs with menus, clip icons, text labels, and such, but it takes more work than it should to get them there. Even then, what you get is very basic.

I ended up finishing my dance project in the computer. I digitized from the hard drive playback. I did not have to be at the computer while it digitized. Setting the chapters, naming them, and then having the software automatically create three chapter pages and link them to the "chapters" button on the title page of the DVD I created took far less time than it would have had I tried to do it with one of these DVD decks. However, I did lose time on the encoding end with the many hours of recompression to MPEG-2 from the editing codec I used.

On the computer I selected my own background music, menu style, text, color, font, position, etc. I easily deleted wasted time between performances. I changed the order of performances. I had moving title and chapter menus, and a FirstPlay with my company's logo. A truly polished product.

The DVD decks offer almost none of the customizability I'm used to, but when I'm done typing the chapters in, it's just a couple minutes till that first dub is done. Minutes, not hours. Now imagine if you could type in clip and chapter labels, pick menu backgrounds—all while recording! That's the appeal of the DVD decks: a simpler product, very fast . . . as long you don't mind the limitations.

I look forward to the next generation of DVD decks and to the first project I would be proud hand over to a client a few minutes after the event has ended.


Faster than Real
All three decks promise "faster-than-realtime" performance, but as with any such promise, it's conditional. For the most part, this "faster-than-realtime" capability only applies for content recorded at the same settings as you will deliver. For instance, there is a high-quality, XP speed that will fit only about an hour of video on a 4.7GB disc. It's a very pretty compression setting with nearly perfect video. If your program runs 45 minutes, then dubbing that video from hard drive to DVD will take about 10 minutes or so. It depends on the speed of the burner in the DVD deck.

If the program runs an hour and 10 minutes, however, the video won't fit on one disc at XP speed. You can either split the video across two discs, which adds costs and hassle, or transcode the video to the SP speed, which fits the more customary two hours on a 4.7GB disc.

Unfortunately, these decks cannot transcode faster than real time. They are forced to play the XP video from the hard drive and recompress it to SP while recording it to the DVD, all in real time. So that 70-minute program will take 70 minutes, plus setup, finalizing, etc. You'll also lose your chapter marks.

So it's a judgment call. If you are using the DVD deck to replace tape, stay in XP to avoid compression artifacts and then "digitize" into your computer later. If you are definitely planning on recording your final product in the DVD deck, then you need to assess run-times and media carefully before hitting the record button. Right now, you can't have both.