BitDepth 504 - December 20

Readers ask about DVD burners and Personal Video Recorders...
Details, details, details

The boxes may be pretty but the cards need a little expertise to install. ATI's range of TV Cards run from the state-of-the-art All-in-Wonder 2006 with a whopping 256MB of video RAM to the TV Wonder Pro a barebones TV receiver. Photographs courtesy ATI Technologies.

Sometimes, I think I'm writing too much about technology, getting a "bit deep" as some wags have put it over the years. Then sometimes readers speak up, and when I get three e-mails and two phone calls within hours of publication asking for information, I know for sure that I've skimmed when I should have shovelled.
First, the business of DVD burning. Clearly I underestimated the potential demand for fast DVD burners among my readers. There's some serious evaluation of DVD recorders brewing in T&T and even if it wasn't on your agenda, you should know why.

DVDs have almost taken over the home movie market but they are also a remarkably convenient way to store big data. Rated at 4.7GB (most DVD movies are on dual layer 8.4GB disks), they have a working capacity of 4.3 gigabytes, providing just a bit more storage capacity than seven recordable CDs.
Prices on DVD blanks have dropped fast over the last two years, at least partly because of the economies of scale created by massive imports of DVD blanks destined for all those little shops selling pirated movies for TT$20 each.
I suggest external DVD recorders for home users because of the portability such a setup affords. While a built-in device is convenient, it can't easily be shared between computers in a household (or small office) that's burner deficient and the convenience of jacking in a robust recorder when you need it is doubled for laptop users, who will tend to have slower devices designed to fit the smaller form factor of their cases.

An external optical device balances three axes, size, speed and price, and you can have any two. A good, fast DVD burner, say a Plextor PX-716UF or a Pioneer DVR-110D is a hefty box, but can burn at speeds up to 16x and record to newer, dual-layer media that can hold more than eight gigabytes of data. Both drives also write regular CD recordables at a crisp 40x burn speed.
With a "small" hard drive clocking in at 40GB and broadband connections and digital cameras available to fill them up, moving files around and backing up has begun to make the once enormous CD begin to look quite puny.

Some advice though. With these fast drives, you'll need to ensure that the connection can keep up. That means Firewire (IEE1394) or USB 2, not its much slower and entirely inadequate predecessor. And sometimes faster isn't better. Although these drives can burn fast and media rated at up to 8x is readily available, you may want to resist the temptation to burn important data at high speeds. CD/DVD burning software like Nero, Easy CD Creator and for Mac users, Toast can ratchet a burn down to a much slower, steadier pace. I routinely burn important data at 2x to improve potential data integrity. It may be voodoo, but it's my voodoo.

The other bit that seemed to intrigue folks was the notion of personal video recorders. Before holding forth about this addition to your computing life, I should note that the TiVo and Replay systems that have taken the US by storm won't work here at all. Reason? The magic of TiVo is rooted in its ability to take over the cable input and switch channels but that capability here is in the boxes that local cable providers supply, not an open standard that a PVR can access.

So recording shows so that you can view them at your convenience has all the charm of the old VHS recording regimen. You must tune your cable box to the station you want to record and set the scheduler on the PVR software to record the show at the appropriate time.
Now this isn't as bad as it sounds. CCTT allows households up to three cable boxes with a standard installation, so one of mine is permanently hooked up to the computer. My Miglia card doesn't offer that supercool TiVo function that allows you to rewind live TV by continuously recording the video feed to disk (ATI's upscale products offer it), but I do get digital movie files that are easy to edit and convenient to view.

If you own Toast or Easy CD Creator for your DVD burner, you'll find that they offer many ways to take those recordings to CD or DVD.
Depending on the software you get, you may get additional features that can make your recording experience even easier.
I'm recording at a small 240 pixel wide size, and my next plan is to encode them to play on my handheld (some of you will be able to send these files to a memory card on your phone) for true boredom breaking convenience.

So to summarise. External Firewire or USB 2 DVD burner offers high speed and robust burning in a hefty box that you can move around between computers. PVR hardware and software allow you to replace a big VHS recorder and bulky tapes with home-made Video CDs and DVDs or even move your recordings to handheld devices.
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