March 2002|Our new puppy has a standard protocol he follows when meeting new canines. First he walks around, sniffs in all the standard places, and then steps back and contemplates. Then maybe he'll scratch his head, sniff, and contemplate some more.
Our introduction to Pioneer's PRV-9000 standalone DVD-R/RW recorder (MSRP $2050) had us following a similar routine. Part VCR replacement, part DVD authoring station, part DVD player, and part DV editor, the PRV-9000 is like the proverbial elephant that felt different everywhere we touched.
Given the superior durability and interactivity of optical- versus tape-based mediums, most of us have a unit like the PRV-9000, or its lower-priced "consumer" stablemate, the DVR-7000, in our future. With the 9000 available for under $2000 and the 7000 showing street prices under $1500, these recorders will undoubtedly prove both compelling and satisfying to many early adopters. However, while undoubtedly cool and useful, the PRV-9000 reviewed here won't cross the chasm into essential until Pioneer adds several features, most notably a hard drive, and the price drops below $1,000.
We'll start our review by reviewing the unit's core functionality; then we'll assess its suitability for all the roles identified earlier, while taking a quick glance at its closest competitor, Panasonic's DVD-RAM-based DMR-E20K.
The PRV-9000 is essentially a standalone DVD player with MPEG-2 encoding capabilities and a DVD-R/RW burner. DVD-R provides compatibility with virtually all installed DVD players, while DVD-RW support expands recording options with much less playback compatibility.
When creating either DVD-R or DVD-RW discs, the PRV-9000 encodes and writes in real time. Of course, in DVD-RW mode, the unit can edit and erase the captured videos, while in DVD-R mode it can't. As a result, while your editing options are fairly considerable when working with DVD-RW discs, they are much more limited when writing to DVD-Rs.
The unit supports two basic recording modes. The first, DVD-Video mode, is compatible with standard DVD players; the second, Video Recording (VR) mode, is a more flexible format that's only available when writing to DVD-RW media. DVD-Video mode supports only two compression rates, allowing either one or two hours of video per disc, while VR mode offers 32 compression rates, which lets the user record up to six hours of video per disc.
However, though the DVD Forum has approved the VR mode specification, very few DVD players—most of them from Pioneer—support it. This leaves the PRV-9000 with an unfortunate Catch-22, albeit one shared by all competitors that must navigate around the same standards issues.
That is, you have two choices. You can create DVD-R discs that play in most DVD players, but your editing and compression options are limited. Or, you can burn up to six hours of video onto a DVD-RW disc and edit it to your heart's desire, but you can't send it to grandma or to remote offices unless you also send a Pioneer DVD player along.
In many applications, this is a big yawn. For example, if your goal is to catalogue the fall season of West Wing on two DVD-RW discs for internal consumption, the PRV-9000 is more than up to the task. On the other hand, as we'll see, if you're trying to create a compelling training disc from your DV videos, you may be disappointed.
the ins and outs
With this as background, let's look at the hardware. Like most DVD Recorders or VCRs, the PRV-9000 wants to be the control center, and we obliged it, using the cable TV pass-through to connect the unit to our cable TV system and TV. We also connected to our TV via S-Video and stereo audio, which noticeably improved both audio and video quality.
We then plugged our VCR into one of the three analog input bays, two on the back, and one conveniently located up front, and were ready to roll. If this sounds pretty standard, it was, with two exceptions.
First, one composite out and one of the two composite video inputs have BNC connectors, so you'll need either an RCA-to-BNC cable or special adapter. Also, the FireWire input on the front of the unit is a four-pin connector, so you'll need a four-pin-to-four-pin connector (most cables are four-to-six-pin).
Pioneer simplifies basics like setting the clock and channel-scanning with a polished control screen complete with directions and help descriptions. The only wrinkle related to the remote control unit, which has two "input select" buttons, one that actually selects input from the various feeds and the other apparently vestigial. During setup, we kept pushing the wrong button, and couldn't figure out why the unit wasn't working, which took about ten minutes. Otherwise, the remote is very functional, with a joystick and jog and shuttle wheel, and many editing-specific keys.
Once we had the unit installed and working, it was time to check out its functionality in each of its roles.
As a DVD player, the PRV-9000 has a range of high-end features that will appeal primarily to home theater owners as opposed to those who make do with a $250 TV. These include component video with progressive scan output and coaxial and optical digital audio outputs. Less obvious are the higher-quality components used for audio/video digital-to-analog conversion, which pay dividends on higher-quality TV and audio components.
Of course, digital camera owners will enjoy DV Input/Output, which allows you to display your DV in all of its high-resolution glory, without first transferring it through the more degraded S-Video or composite signals. More prosaic features include support for CD/CD-R/CD-RW audio and Video CD, but not MP3 audio. Also missing is the ability to zoom the image, but the jog/ shuttle wheel on both the remote and the player are nice touches, especially for the editing discussed later in the article. We also liked the Commercial Skip feature, which jumps forward 30 seconds—useful when viewing content recorded from a TV.
Mostly great stuff, but is it enough to make us throw away our VCR, or at least disable its record functionality? Let's have a look.
In our tests, Job Number One was to convert all of our increasingly tattered yoga tapes to DVD-R for use on the living room DVD player. We started by initializing our DVD-R disc in Video mode, which takes about one minute. Then we cued the tapes and used the unit's one-button recording, which worked as advertised.
The unit didn't balk at any of the VHS tapes we threw its way, but refused to copy a copy-protected DVD. Pioneer officials advised us that the unit would similarly refuse to copy any Macrovision-protected VHS tape, so it's unlikely that you'll be able to migrate your VHS commercial movie library to DVD.
As discussed previously, once on the DVD-R disc, our editing capabilities were limited; we could input or erase a chapter title, but little else. Then we "finalized" the disc, for compatibility with other players, which took about four minutes. The disc played normally on three tested DVD players, and the quality was indistinguishable from the original.
Next up was scheduled recording of TV shows using the VCRPlus+ codes in VR mode. You can choose up to eight programs up to a month in advance, customizing the compression rate or selecting optimized recording that will adjust the quality to fit the programs to disc, or warn that disc space is inadequate even for the most highly-compressed setting. On-screen guides made this operation much simpler than with our VCR.
In our tests, input quality had more of an impact on output quality than the selected data rate, which generally exceeded VHS quality even at the lowest setting. That is, if your cable TV input channel is noisy, the quality of the recorded video can get pretty dicey. With clean input, however, quality was good even at the higher compression settings.
However, note that the PRV-9000 has only one TV tuner, so you can't record one program and watch another. In addition, the unit can't play back a program while recording, eliminating features like on-demand instant replay, a standard on digital VCR products like TiVo and Replay, and Pioneer's most significant competitor, Panasonic's DMR-E20.
In addition, the DVD-RAM based DMR-E20 can address both sides of a rewritable disc, providing up to 9.4GB of capacity and 12 hours recording time, six more than the PRV-9000. If digital VTR functionality with optical disc output is your primary goal, you should consider the DMR-E20.
Of course, if DV is an important feature, forget the DMR-E20, which has no DV input/output, leaving only the lower-quality analog connections. However, this is one arena where you really feel the restrictions associated with editing DVD-R titles.
For example, when working in VR mode with a DVD-RW disc, you can cut and paste titles, combine chapters, choose thumbnails, and move videos around at will. The resultant playlist plays back more or less seamlessly, but you can't send the disk to grandma since its compatibility profile is so limited.
Working in Video Mode with a DVD-R disc, you can use the PRV-9000's machine control to seek to specific location and record a sequence, then seek to another starting point and record anew. This will produce a sequence of videos on the DVD, selectable from a menu, with chapters automatically inserted at a selectable interval.
Video playback will jump from video to video, approximating a cuts-only production, but this is your only transition option, which makes for a pretty severe, albeit functional, DVD title.
That said, if you've been using your VCR as a record deck for your DV productions, you'll notice a vast improvement in overall production quality using the PRV-9000. In addition, you can edit on your PC, transfer back to DV and then burn the result to DVD-R, though again, menu options would be very limited.
Interestingly, the addition of a hard drive could cure both major problems of the PRV-9000, the lack of TiVo-like capabilities and limited editing for DVD-R titles. We discussed both deficits with Andy Parsons, senior vice president at Pioneer New Media Technologies, who hinted that such a unit might be in the making, but only hinted.
Ever intrepid, we combed the Internet to find that both PC World and Wired have quoted Parsons as saying that a combined hard disk/DVD-R/RW unit should appear from Pioneer in 2002. As attractive as the PRV-9000 is today, it might prove irresistible with a hard drive sometime later this year.