With all the video content consumers are creating today, there is a need for a device that will burn DVDs in real time from a video feed. Ideally it would be stand-alone so it does not require a personal computer for ripping or capturing video and then burning it to DVD. Sony has come out with such a device called the Sony DVDirect Stand-Alone DVD Burner. Priced at a little over $200 retail, this device allows you to feed it a video and audio stream, which is then burned to DVD in real time.
The selectable inputs include "Super-Video," which is the super VHS; composite video, which is an RCA connector; and even the Sony i.Link, which is a 4-pin firewire connector found on video cameras. With all of these options, you can burn a DVD with this device from almost any imaginable source, including a video camera, a VHS player or another DVD player. You can use it to make DVD copies of your home videos directly from your camera or VHS, make DVDs of VHS movies that you may have purchased before DVD, or even to make temporary copies of feature movies that you own for traveling or other personal purposes. There are some anti-piracy issues that I will discuss here, but first let's take a look at whether this DVDirect product really does what it promises to do.
There are a couple of areas to consider here -- Is it easy to use? Do the buttons work? Is the menu easy to figure out? My answer is that the product is very easy to use. The user interface makes sense, the buttons work well, and the LCD status display is easy to read and gives you the information you need in order to operate the device, including whether or not it is picking up a signal.
Outstanding audio / video quality
The second concern is the quality of the DVDs that are created on the device. I was astonished at the quality of the images and sound that were achieved, even when I didn't have it on the highest quality setting.
When you're burning DVDs with this device, you can choose high-quality play, standard play or super long play. These give you either one, two or four hours of video on a DVD. Even on the two-hour setting, which is just medium quality, I found the video to be impressive. On the highest quality setting, it's outstanding. The compression used on this device, MPEG-2, works very well. It's smooth, and the audio stays synchronized with the video. This may seem like an obvious point, but on some devices, especially if you're using software, you can end up with movies in which the audio and video are completely out of sync with each other, and that's no fun. But on the Sony DVDirect device, the audio and video stay in sync exactly the way they should.
The next beneficial feature is that there's no computer required. You just plug in a video and audio source, and you're ready to go. However, there is no video monitor on this device, so unless you have a video splitter and can set up a separate screen to monitor what you're sending, you won't be able to tell where you are in the movie you're recording. This is no problem when you're transferring images from a video camera because most modern video cameras have their own LCD screens, but if you're transferring movies from VHS or DVD, then you do need to set up a video splitter if you want to monitor what you're recording.
I don't consider this to be a design flaw of any kind. The DVDirect product is not a video monitoring device; it's simply a DVD burning device that accepts an inbound video signal. It really should be up to the end user to know what he or she is sending.
Questions about piracy and copying movies
Now let's talk about the big question: Can you use it to make backup copies of movies? And the answer is that, out of the box, the DVDirect recognizes copy protection such as Macrovision and will not burn DVDs that contain this copy protection. The LCD display will tell you right up front that it is protected content, and it will refuse to record it. This is no surprise coming from Sony, which is a company that seems to be more than a bit paranoid about intellectual property, but there are plenty of ways around it for those who want to make personal backup copies of movies they've purchased.
Before I explain this, let me emphasize that I in no way intend to give readers the impression that I support pirating of movies, because I do not. I do support making backup copies of movies for personal use, especially if you're traveling, as long as you continue to own and maintain possession of the original movie. That's just my take on intellectual property based on my personal ethics, which include a respect for intellectual property. The big movie studios would disagree with this viewpoint because they think you shouldn't be able to copy a movie ever, under any circumstances. But I think that if I purchase a movie and happen to be taking a flight on which I want to watch that movie, and I don't want to risk the original movie getting lost or stolen, I should be able to make a copy and watch the copy. As long as I don't give that copy away or sell the original movie, then I believe I am staying within my code of ethics by both owning the movie and having of the flexibility to watch it when I'm traveling.
Making copies of movies that you own is your right as a consumer, as long as you don't turn into a pirate and start selling them or giving them away. The same holds true for transferring old VHS movies to DVD. You may have some good movies on VHS that you purchased years ago, and you'd like to transfer them to DVD. In my view, that's perfectly acceptable because you've already bought the movie, so you're not crossing any ethical boundaries by making a copy onto DVD.
But even though you can technically copy VHS to DVD, you may not like the results you get. The DVD will not be any higher quality than the VHS, and this is no fault of the DVDirect product, it is just an inherent weakness in the VHS medium. There's no error checking and no redundancy of the data bits since it's not digital. A VHS movie simply does not provide a very high-quality image, so don't expect miracles.
Recompression means a slight loss in image quality
There are even some quality issues when you're copying DVD to DVD, because your DVD player is decrypting the DVD video stream and converting it into an analog signal that goes out through the super VHS cable. This cable then pipes the analog signal back into the DVDirect device, where that analog signal is reconverted into a digital signal and then burned to DVD.
During this process, there is a slight loss of quality, so obviously your original DVD is going to have a higher quality playback than a copy DVD. But in my experience, the difference in quality is very subtle. Let's face it: Even original DVDs aren't perfect. It's easy to see defects in the MPEG-2 compression algorithm in scenes that have subtle gradients, such as skin tone, gray background or scenes of the sky. It's not hard to detect pixilation and compression artifacts even in original DVDs.
It's also worth noting that if you're copying a video stream from your video camera onto DVD, there is a loss of some information during the compression and conversion to MPEG-2. There is a loss of quality on any video signal that gets converted to DVD, but again that loss is very minor and these DVDs still look much better than VHS tapes.
Getting around the annoying copy protection
But back to getting around Macrovision: If you really want to make backup copies of movies you already own (see limitations below), you can buy a device that strips out the Macrovision signal or boosts the signal quality so that it removes the copy protection. The one that I recommend is made by Sima, and it's called the SCC-2. It's Sima's pro unit and runs about $150. This device not only cleans video signals and removes Macrovision copy protection, but it also greatly enhances the quality of any video source you might be using, including your own home videos or VHS tapes. It even lets you alter the color balance so you can adjust the reds, greens and blues in your video signal.
Another cool feature in this device is that it has multiple video outs so you can send one signal to the DVDirect burner and another signal to a video monitor so you can see what you're burning. The Sima SCC-2 has so far worked flawlessly in combination with the Sony DVDirect burner, and in my own tests conducted solely for the purpose of this review, I have been able to make personal backup copies of feature movies that I own with no problem and little loss of quality. Ultimately, however, I am not doing this routinely, since the backup copy does not contain any of the DVD features such as subtitles, Spanish voiceovers, scene selection and other "special features." I've found that I prefer to just use the original DVDs.
Another problem is that copied DVDs, which are placed onto DVD+R discs, scratch too easily! Original DVDs, on the other hand, are far more scratch resistant. For these reasons, my use of the Sony DVDirect is now limited solely to making backup copies of video I've filmed on my Sony MiniDV camera.
My bottom line rating on this DVDirect product is that it gets a big thumbs-up. It does what it's supposed to do. It's worked flawlessly so far, and the quality of the video it produces on DVDs is very high.
It's also worth noting that compared to capturing video on your PC and then burning it to DVD using your computer, this Sony DVDirect device is a cinch to use. It saves hours of time waiting for your computer to compress DVD files. With the Sony DVDirect device, the process is simple and quick.