Easily portable digital TV recording for multiple homes?
October 6, 2010 2:13 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a Friend: My father still uses VHS tapes. I need to get him on tech from this millennium.

(From Friend's viewpoint):

His sole reason for still using VHS is portability. He maintains three residences; our townhouse, his wife's house, and her family's lake house. With tapes, he can set up a VCR in any location to record, then take the tape with him and play it back in any of the aforementioned locations, because VCRs are ubiquitous across the three houses and something taped on one VHS VCR will work on every other VHS VCR on the planet. He's told me that if I can find a way for him to have that same level of easy portability, he'd switch over to full digital in a heartbeat (he's well aware that his current method won't work much longer, given that the machines and media are wearing out and aren't manufactured anymore).

I figure I can sell him on the idea of replacing the VCRs with DVD players that have USB ports and internal media decoders; such devices only run about $50 each, which he'd probably be OK with (that's cheaper than VCRs were when he bought them). Bonus, he has a small-but-growing collection of DVDs but doesn't have nearly as many DVD players as he does VCRs, so he can't presently watch DVDs nearly as conveniently as tapes. The playback platform isn't an issue; the recording platform, however, is.

What I need is a way to record cable TV - NTSC at minimum, but bonus points for non-encrypted ATSC digital cable - onto digital medium. Not particularly concerned with what the medium is, so long as its removable read/write media - USB stick would be preferable, but just about every storage tech currently manufactured can be converted to USB trivially. Should also have a simple-to-use 10-foot interface for at least set-and-forget timer-based recording. Features such as TiVo-style schedule-based recording and removable media file-management would be excellent, but not required. Being able to fiddle with things like codec type, container format, bitrate and whatnot would be nice but not essential (he's using analog 8-hour VHS cassettes that are older than the neighbor's kids, on machines that I remember from my childhood; *anything* digital would provide both denser storage and higher playback quality).

Ideally I'd like a set-top box or something running an integrated OS; this all *can* be done with a computer running any of the Big Three OSes, but I would really rather not go that route - it's overkill for his needs and too many things can go wrong with a computer. A purpose-built set-top unit would be much preferable.

Basically, I need something exactly like a VCR, only recording a standard media file format to removable read/write storage. Any ideas?
posted by GJSchaller to Technology (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There are a lot of component (DVD player style) DVD recorders. Pretty much all of them are built for most of your needs here.
posted by rhizome at 2:22 PM on October 6, 2010

Response by poster: Response from friend:

Thanks for the replies so far. From what I'm reading on the provided links and the resulting additional googling, a typical "DVD recorder" will record any input directly to DVD - some have built-in NTSC/ATSC tuners as an 'input', some don't - providing two hours of recording/playback time regardless of source. Assuming two-hour discs versus eight-hour tapes (as there's no such thing as a DL-DVD-RW disc), that means either swapping media four times as frequently or having four times as many recorders to equal the recording/playback time of a single VCR. Neither option is really feasible in this situation.

What would be ideal is a device that has an internal tuner and an internal media encoder. With an internal tuner it could select channels on its own without having to reply on an external cable box (which is an absolute necessity in this scenario), and an on-board encoder would in theory convert whatever's coming in on that tuner into one of the standard compressed media formats (Divx, MP4, AVI, whatever). That would dramatically increase the amount of information a single disc can store. For example, assume a one-hour TV show (as in 60 minutes; for simplicity's sake I'm not thinking about commercial skipping at this stage) - you can record 2 episodes direct-to-DVD, or 8-12 episodes in compressed format depending on codec and bitrate.

The specific target media isn't really important - DVD, USB flash, USB hard drive, SD, whatever - so long as the media is both removable and rewritable and the device can encode into at least one standard compressed format. If I find such a device, it's a simple enough matter to find out what codecs it uses for the compression and locate a playback device with native support for encoded media files (as some DVD players and TVs nowadays do).

Now that I think about it, I'd be kind of surprised if any such animal exists as a set-top device. However, I would love to be wrong about that.

Alternately, a device that has an internal tuner and records directly to blu-ray rewritable media should be able to record as much if not more time than a VHS tape, provided the device can record in standard-definition. That might suffice here, as blu-ray players are no longer prohibitively expensive.

So, I suppose a more exact description of what I'm looking for would be one of the following (in order of decreasing preference):

1. A media encoder able to automatically encode the input from at least one internal NTSC tuner (NTSC/ATSC preferred) to at least one compressed media file standard (MPEG, AVI, MKV, etc.). Must have the ability to save the resulting encoded files to a USB storage device AND/OR SD card AND/OR DVD+-RW disc, and have a timer-based AND/OR schedule-based system for pre-programming automated operation in the manner of an old-fashioned VCR or TiVo-like device.

2. A direct-video recorder with the ability to burn the input from at least one internal NTSC tuner (NTSC/ATSC preferred) to single-layer (25GB) blu-ray rewritable discs at standard definition AND/OR at least two-layer (50GB) blu-ray rewritable discs at any definition. Must have a timer-based AND/OR schedule-based system for pre-programming automated operation in the manner of an old-fashioned VCR or TiVo-like device.

I've not had much luck locating a device matching either description. Does any such thing exist?
posted by GJSchaller at 4:17 PM on October 6, 2010

I'm perhaps missing something here but why do you think the disc is limited to 2 hours of recording time? You are talking about codecs and formats and waaaay much complication. Just get the dvd-recorder, put the disc in, select how many hours of video you want on the disc (from 1-16 hours per disc from the two recorders I have used) and go, the quality difference between the 1 and 16 hour settings is, to my eyes at least, very minimal. Very easy to use. My 75 year old father in law switched his bunch of VHS recorders for DVD recorders with about a ten minute browse through the manual.
posted by Cosine at 9:22 PM on October 6, 2010

As an older person, let me explain how this happens. My music collection started out as vinyl. Then along came 8-tracks, cassettes, and CD's. And now I have to have to get an iPod? Fuck it. I quit. So the same thing probably holds for VHS and DVD's. There comes a time when you just get tired of changing everything all the time. This doesn't really answer the question, but good for your friend for trying to help his father. Try to understand. When you get older, you just get tired of everything changing all the time. Good luck.
posted by wv kay in ga at 9:32 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you really want to be good to your father, go out and buy a few of the last new VHS machines and keep 'em in storage for when his wear out, ditto on some remaining tape stock, and maybe even take a crack at fixing the old units as they break. There's simply not an easy digital solution that will match the convenience of VHS, even if the quality's so much better, and if your response to him saying "darn it, my VHS died and I can't get another" is "here, dad, I have a brand new machine for you!" instead of "okay, dad, let's try this digital thing now" you're going to have a very, very happy dad.
posted by davejay at 10:46 PM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

well, you could, in theory, set up three computers with tuner cards and large hard drives running something like mythtv and network them all together.
posted by beardlace at 1:27 AM on October 7, 2010

Building on what davejay said: there are plenty of VCRs at pawnshops and thrift stores and suchlike.

I'm no expert, but my understanding is that the sweet spot in terms of old-timey durability/repairability and modern features is somewhere around the late '80s/early '90s. I've personally had good experience w/Panasonic, build-quality-wise.
posted by box at 4:51 AM on October 7, 2010

Do all of his locations have high speed internet access? screw taping it yourself, get a roku or googleTV or whatever and stream it.

if he insists on recording it, get a DVR and a slingbox. He can access all his recordings on the DVR from anywhere.
posted by jrishel at 8:41 AM on October 7, 2010

My father still uses a VCR to record. It looks old and the quality isn't great, but who cares? Honestly, everything I read above made my head spin and I'm only 31. I can only imagine someone in their 50s or 60s trying to figure this out.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Every Christmas I get my dad a 3-pack of blank cassettes from Wal-Mart (and I can't believe that they still carry them.) He's not gonna change and I don't aim to try to do it for him.
posted by fso at 10:44 AM on October 7, 2010

Response by poster: (Once more, for friend):

I should clarify that my father is a broadcast engineer and I'm a computer scientist; we're approaching this question with a combined total of over 50 years (though slightly out-of-date) experience in media technologies. Apologies if I have been or become overly technical; occupational hazard.

Cosine: The DVD standard specifies two hours of video per disc layer at DVD quality. The only ways I know of to put more than two hours of audio/video on a single disc are to 1) apply a media codec such as DivX to compress the data (this is the same process as compressing an audio stream with the MP3 codec), or 2) lower the recording bitrate so that it's not recording at DVD quality and can fit more runtime into the same amount of space (this is analogous to going from SP to EP on a VHS cassette, though via substantially different technologies). If any given recorder uses the first method, then I need to know what codec it records in so that I can make sure the players we get support it (much like some CD players support CDs with MP3 files burned to them and some do not). If said recorder uses the second method, then I just need to know that when it's done recording that the disc that comes out holds at least 8 hours of video and can be played on any conventional DVD player. Either will solve the problem, but I do need to know in advance which scenario I'm dealing with.

jamaro: Continuing from my notes to Cosine above - from what I'm reading in the manual you linked, it looks like the unit does indeed timer-record from its NTSC/ATSC tuner. Further, it appears that once a disc is 'finalized' (whatever bitrate-modulation, codec compression or other such manipulation is involved in that process; the manual doesn't get into details) the disc can then be played on any conventional DVD player and a single rewritable disc provides a maximum playback of 8 hours at "non-DVD but entirely watchable probably-better-than-VHS" quality. It also doesn't appear to make any difference if you use DVD-RW or DVD+RW media; the method for formatting the discs is slightly different, but the end results are the same. Is that all correct?

beardlace: My backup plan is something similar - copying encoded media files to some sort of removable medium using a PC with multiple tuners - but as noted in the initial post, I'd prefer to avoid using a PC.

jrishel: Broadband networking is not a given in his various destinations. I didn't previously note - though I should have - that he'll for example take a VCR on vacation with him and hook it up in a hotel room. The method you suggest may be possible in such situations, but I'd rather not make him fiddle with internet connectivity, bandwidth limitations imposed by the hotel's network, ISP throttling, firewalls and so on.

Misc. respondents: Thank you for your opinions, but he specifically asked me to research a digital system based on contemporary and readily-available technology for the explicit purpose of replacing his current technique. He's fully aware of what he's got and wants something better, but simply doesn't have the time to do the research. That's where I come in.
posted by GJSchaller at 2:07 PM on October 7, 2010

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