Sony DVDirect Field Test
Posted Dec 10, 2004

As part of its standard curriculum, the Technical Communications program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison requires its students to perform presentations on various topics. These presentations are then taped to VHS for the purpose of self-evaluation, so students can review and improve their rhetorical skills. Recently, the department itself has begun to re-evaluate this approach: not only is VHS a relatively clumsy and difficult-to-navigate medium compared to DVD; many students no longer even have the VCRs they need to watch the cassette tapes. The advantage of VHS, naturally, is existing equipment. Since the department's lone recording device is a VHS camcorder, it's very simple and direct to shoot and deliver on the same tape.

This semester I am studying under the head of the Technical Communications department, and--given my association with EMedia as an editorial intern--she asked me for my input on smart investments to address this issue. Her initial thought was to obtain a desktop DVD recorder, but this meant adding several steps to what had been a much more simple workflow: capturing, converting, authoring, and burning. DVD camcorders suggested another solution, but one with its own problems: cost and scarcity of the miniature DVD media those camcorders use, and the cost of the cameras themselves.

Enter Sony's DVDirect, which recently arrived at EMedia for review. A first-generation product that just began shipping to the consumer market in mid-December, DVDirect combines the capabilities of a standalone and desktop DVD burner and captures, authors, and burns simultaneously and real time. Additionally, the DVDirect (MSRP $299) can be used as a standard external USB 2.0 DVD recorder for PC-based applications when desired.

The next step in the process, naturally, was to test DVDirect in a live classroom setting. Overall, the product performed exactly as expected and described by Sony. Setup was easy, as was recording. With two analog inputs (component/RCA and S-Video), DVDirect supports a variety of camcorder sources; it all depends on what outputs your recorder has available. In the EMedia review, DVDirect was tested using analog output from a MiniDV camera, connected alternately to the Video (component) and S-Video inputs; in the live classroom shoot, we used the TC program's VHS camcorder, connected to the component video jacks.

All options such as recording format, input selection, and control selection were available and operated to their design, via single-button (for each) operation on the front panel of the drive. I selected the SP recording format because it had adequate time for recording (about 2 hrs.). I also selected the Sync function was turned on which puts the DVDirect in sync with the camcorder; and recording starts and stops in parallel with the same function on the camcorder. Both recording format and sync function are selected with a simple toggle button on front panel. And finally, one of the coolest features of the DVDirect: I was allowed to enter chapter breaks any place I chose during recording. For my uses, this meant I could create chapters at topic breaks and before the question and answer session, providing convenience for the students' self-evaluation. The DVDirect breaks recordings into titles and chapters (according to the menu structure defined in the DVD spec). Clicking Pause or Record creates a chapter; stopping and starting creates a title. Menus are built automatically, with title thumbnails (first non-black frame in the title) appearing in the menu along with timecode information. There are no chapter menus, but titles with chapters are navigable by chapter using the next button on a DVD remote.

One limitation of DVDirect for a project like this is media support. First of all, the current version of DVDirect only supports DVD+R/RW media, but not -R/RW media, which means users have to be careful what they buy. Also, because DVDirect records in DVD+VR mode (a necessity for live recording), disc finalization times can be quite long for write-once media, even for short recordings. (Based on our tests, finalization times for a one-minute disc and a 120-minute disc are equally long.) This presents a serious problem for serial recordings—you have to finalize a +R disc for it to be usable, and the interval between presentations, in this case, wasn't long enough to wait for finalization. The only way to avoid the finalization time lag is to use +RW media, which is slightly more expensive and potentially more limited for playback compatibility. But rewritable media has its benefits: students can document multiple presentations throughout the semester on the same disc if the media used is +RW.

In my test, only two troubles arose. The first, simply a matter of equipment surprises, was the single-channel output on the camcorder I used in contrast to the stereo-input on the DVDirect. Able to be resolved with a simple audio converter, or a camcorder with stereo outputs, this problem only produced poor sound on the first DVDs I produced. The second problem was slightly more serious. The DVDs I burned were not recognized by the DVD±R/RW drives in the Dell computers supplied in many university compter labs. Students produce vast quantities of work on these computers, and the lack of compatibility could definitely be an issue, particularly for students without players at home.

After all was said and done, I chose to recommend DVDirect to the department head. Its benefits for the TC application are great: true to its name, currently, it represents the most direct way to move their presentation output to DVD and thus make it more accessible to more students. In completing an equipment update, the DVDirect would be an asset in conveniently producing high-quality authored DVDs.

Curt Challberg

A thorough review of the Sony DVDirect will appear at next week.