Review: Sony DVDirect
Posted Jan 20, 2005

*****EDITOR'S CHOICE*****

Sony's DVDirect  ($299, www.sonystyle.com) knocked my socks off like no product I've seen in years. Billed as a product that combines the capabilities of standalone and desktop DVD recorders, DVDirect's best feature is its ability to record live video to DVD as you shoot it. It boasts excellent image quality and limited but functional DVD menu creation. It's also a rock-solid desktop burner, promising and delivering state-of-the-art high-speed DVD±R/RW and 4X double-layer DVD+R DL.

Sony bills its new DVDirect as the first DVD recorder to combine "standalone and computer-attached DVD-Video recording." That's accurate enough, but somehow it sounds like an engineering feat without an application, and DVDirect is anything but. Of course, it does fit that bill: you can use it to transfer video directly to disc from your camcorder or VHS by connecting it via S-Video or composite, or connect it to your PC's USB 2.0 port and enlist it as a fully functional, high-speed, dual layer-capable DVD recorder.

But DVDirect is also something much more exciting: the missing link in the chain of live DVD recording. Until now, if you wanted to shoot live to DVD, you had to use a DVD camcorder. Most DVD camcorders are consumer devices, single-chip models with few advanced controls that convert to MPEG-2 on the fly and record directly to miniature DVD-RAM discs. Hitachi makes a "pro" model, but it carries most of the limitations of its consumer cousins. Some videography projects call for quick-turn DVDs, and DVD camcorders do offer a certain convenience for those tasks, but it's hardly worth a videographer's hard-earned dollar to invest in a camcorder that's good for little else.

Enter DVDirect. With Sony's new "Video Recordable DVD Drive," videographers can make quick-turn DVDs—and for those who edit "in-camera," nearly effortless same-day edits—in two ways. First, they can shoot the event with their usual camera (any camcorder with S-Video or composite outs can connect to the DVDirect), capture the event on tape, and then transfer the tape's contents to DVD. Alternatively, if shooting from a tripod or some other stationary position, a videographer can shoot to tape and DVD simultaneously. You can even create DVD chapters live, either at preset timed intervals or by adding a chapter point every time you hit pause. Because the disc is recorded in VR format, with a post-shooting transfer you can also do an easy (if crude and linear) on-the-fly edit.

None of Sony's competitors in the DVD burner market can make such claims for any product they offer. Pioneer's PRV-LX1 offers way more pro-recording functionality in a standalone recorder, but it costs $4,000 and stays in the studio. DVDirect sells for a consumer-friendly $299—just $100 more than other top-speed, DL-capable recorders with none of the standalone or live recording features.

 

How it Works
The majority of testing I did with the DVDirect involved its use as a standalone drive. Which is not to downplay its merits as a PC-attached drive (see "On the Desktop" section), but we've seen what high-speed Sony DVD burners can do back in the editing bay, and even had quite a few glimpses of the intriguing work-in-progress that is "double-layer" DVD+R.

The simplest and most consumer-friendly feature of the DVDirect is its ability to copy VHS tapes to DVD. I've tested a number of products designed for this purpose in the past; ADS' InstantDVD and DVD Xpress come to mind. They take a somewhat different approach from the DVDirect's, since they involve a traditional capture (via an external A/D converter box), edit, and author before burning. But they also require taking the VCR out of the TV/cable/etc. "loop" and bringing it onto a crowded desktop.

With DVDirect, you simply connect the video outs on the VCR to the composite jacks on the DVDirect, select a recording mode (HQ, SP, or SLP, which translate to one hour, two hours, and six hours respectively for single-layer DVD+R/RW and two hours, four hours, and twelve hours for DVD+R DL), and tell the DVDirect how you plan to set chapters. You can have chapters set automatically every 5, 10, or 15 minutes, or set them manually by hitting REC or PAUSE on the DVDirect panel. Press STOP and REC to create separate titles on the disc for a two-level menu structure. You can also select a time sync mode to ensure that the DVDirect will stop burning every time you stop the video source (i.e., when it stops receiving a video signal).

If VHS-to-DVD A/D transfers is any part of your business, DVDirect gives you a remarkably low-fuss way to do it. Most of what you do with the DVDirect, regardless of the video source, is accomplished with a few buttons on the front panel of the drive. REC, PAUSE, and STOP are clearly marked and self-explanatory. Above those three large buttons are six smaller buttons: TIME, SYNC, REC MODE, INPUT SELECT, FUNCTION/ENTER, and SELECT.

Press TIME at any point in the recording process (or when it's paused or stopped) to display how much time remains on the disc in the small square LCD at the top of the panel. Click SYNC to toggle sync'ing the record to the video signal or start the record manually. Click REC MODE to choose among the three recording modes described earlier and set the maximum length of the disc. Click INPUT SELECT to toggle between S-VIDEO and VIDEO (which means you're using the yellow composite and two-channel red and white RCA jacks to connect your video/audio source). FUNCTION/ENTER and SELECT work in tandem, allowing you to maneuver among various recording choices and select them.

The FUNCTION/ENTER button accesses several functions, including options of finalizing (after you're done recording—not applicable to DVD+RW discs, which are finalized automatically) or erasing your discs (only for DVD+RW); chapter setting method (Auto Chp/timed or None/manual); and Auto Play? (to determine if the first title on your disc will play automatically or whether the viewer will see a menu first).

A final function, Player Type, with Type A and B options, concerns DVD+R DL discs only, and allows users to select an alternate recording method to improve compatibility. I'm not sure what's happening under the hood here, but I assume the drive is allowing users to change the Book Type of the disc to something more recognizable to certain DVD players than DVD+R9—or possibly DVD+VR9, which (if it exists) sounds like the least compatible Book Type imaginable.

I cleared up most of the basic function issues in the VHS-to-DVDirect test, burning the complete contents of a 110-minute tape in SP mode, working first with automatic chapters (every 10 minutes), then doing some manual chapter-setting on a second title. Results were excellent, with video quality very faithful to the source material, and audio sync—which is often a crapshoot with those USB-box conversions—utterly flawless.

Going Live
Of course, the DVDirect's real magic happens with live video recording, which is why I devoted most of my testing to such pursuits. I started with some simple, straightforward shooting of my son and dog in my living room, which first pointed out the most obvious limitation of this approach: since the camcorder is connected to the DVDirect and the DVDirect is connected to a wall outlet, this approach is severely limiting for any type of shoot where the camera operator needs mobility. No surprise there, of course, although Sony might want to consider battery operation. The DVDirect is a bit heavy to carry in your belt loop, but most of us can remember the days when shooting live meant lugging all manner of heavy equipment, and in that context the DVDirect seems like a fairly manageable accessory.

The good news is how well it works when you stay put. Unlike some hard-disk DVRs that allow you to go tapeless when you shoot directly to them, DVDirect is not a tape subsitute. That may be more a function of the camcorder than the recorder, however. I performed my tests with a Sony MiniDV Handycam DCR-HC40, using the single A/V out (note: all live/standalone recording to the DVDirect, even from a DV source, is digital-to-analog-to-digital, although Sony says the next edition, will include FireWire I/O, and DVD-R/RW support as well) connected in alternating takes to the S-Video and Composite/RCA inputs on the DVDirect.

DVDirect doesn't actually ship with any cables for this type of operation, which is disappointing. Fortunately, my Sony camcorder shipped with a single A/V cable that offers both connections. If you bought your camcorder new, it probably came with something similar, and if you've ever connected your camcorder directly to another analog device, you should have all the cables you need. Using this setup, I shot roughly 40 minutes of DV footage directly to DVD over three sessions, setting chapter marks manually using the REC button on the DVDirect and by pausing the camera at various intervals (I had SYNC activated at all times). The resulting AutoPlay DVD looked good. Video quality was more than adequate, very close to the original image captured by the camcorder, and surprisingly good for a real-time MPEG-2 conversion.

The DVDirect was also tested on a somewhat more ambitious project: we shot live student presentations in the Technical Communications program in the University of Wisconsin's engineering school. Based on the professor's preference, we recorded multiple 15-minute presentations (plus Q&A) to some discs, and recorded other sessions to single DVDs. We built menus for the multi-presentation discs, with each presentation its own title and the oration and Q&A components as separate chapters within each title. Shooting on-site with a tripod, we did real-world live DVD production that allowed two classes of 15 students to review and assess the presentation skills they had developed in these classes on discs produced roughly two minutes (following disc finalization) after they completed their talks. [For more detail on this project, see Curt Challberg's article, "DVDirect Field Test," http://www.eventdv.net/Articles/ReadArticle.aspx?ArticleID=9162.]

One thing we discovered in the field test is that when you use the DVDirect with multiple discs in rapid succession, DVD+RW works much better than DVD+R, simply because you don't have to wait for it to finalize the disc. With DVD+R, you have the same wait for finalization with a 10-minute project as with a 100-minute project; in short, that's DVD (and DVD+VR in particular). While DVD+RW doesn't offer quite the same level of playback compatibility as DVD+R, it's an immense advantage to be able to pop the disc out immediately after burning with very good confidence that it's ready to play. So this is one (rare) instance where I highly recommend rewritable over writable media.

On the Desktop
It seems almost anticlimactic that the Sony DVDirect is also a blazing-fast PC DVD recorder. It might be worth the price of admission even if it weren't, but it's the high-speed desktop chops that round out its trademark all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips persona. Tested using the USB 2.0 port on a Gateway 3GHz Pentium 4 with HT on various DVD recording tasks—including ripping, editing, and rewriting Memorex DVD+RW discs recorded on the DVDirect itself—DVDirect proved an estimable desktop DVD recorder. Like all Sony DVD burners, DVDirect ships with a solid Nero CD/DVD creation bundle. Its state-of-the-art recording specs include 16X DVD+R, 8X DVD-R, 4X DVD±RW, 48X CD-R, and 24X CD-RW. The drive also boasts 4X DVD+R DL burning, and got the job done with dual-layer burns to both Verbatim and Ridata DL media.

We achieved burning speeds of only slightly over 8X in testing, but that's considered pretty impressive in these parts when done consistently, as it was with the DVDirect. For desktop DVD recording, the practical difference between 8X and higher recording speeds is marginal at best, and should never be considered as a differentiating factor when choosing among different recorders.

Pluses and Dashes
It should go without saying that the DVDirect records exclusively at 1X in standalone mode; such is the nature of real-time recording. It also records only to DVD+R/RW media in standalone operation at this point. The differences between DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW were rendered mostly moot last year when the vast majority of new recorders began supporting multi-format recording support. But they are two different technologies, and one area in which the differences still matter is standalone video recording, which uses VR (video recording) mode.

As discussed earlier, this is a specialized DVD recording method that makes live DVD recording possible by setting disc parameters on the fly. DVD+R/RW discs do video recording in DVD+VR mode, and DVD-R discs use DVD-VR mode. According to Sony, integrating DVD-VR capability was a technological challenge they simply didn't meet in this version, but they say that users should soon be able to download an update that will remedy this. It's again worth noting that the DVDirect works best with DVD+RW media, because it eliminates lengthy finalization times.

Although DVDirect supports all plus and dash formats on the desktop side, its current (and Sony says, temporary) plus-only pickiness for standalone operation is definitely reason to proceed with caution, since the omnipresence of DVD burners that support both the plus and dash formats have made it easy to ignore all those silly punctuation issues. But keep that caveat in mind and you've got a world-beating burner and a live video recorder in a single unit.