How DVD Recording Got Paused (June 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one served as a belated correction to a few Post columns when it ran on June 6, 2012.)

Five years ago, a newspaper technology columnist heralded an overdue upgrade to a popular category of consumer electronics—adding a “record” button to the DVD player.

DVD recording“The DVD player has been around for more than a decade, but now it has finally grown up,” this writer declared. As proof, he cited an end to a squabble over recording formats (decried in a 2003 column by the same scribe) and these devices’ newly-gained ability to record over-the-air digital broadcasts.

The writer was me, and the forecast was wrong. DVD recording never took off or even picked up much speed on the runway.

CEA’s figures show U.S. sales to dealers of DVD recorders crested at 2.47 million in 2009 before ebbing to an estimated 797,000 last year. Meanwhile, combined U.S. shipments of DVD and Blu-ray players topped out at 34.04 million in 2011 and then dropped to 24.71 million in 2011.

I put my money where my words were, buying a Toshiba DVD recorder in 2009. But after a brief flurry of use archiving old videotape recordings to disc, we rarely employed it for anything but playing CDs and movies.

After a friend sold me his TiVo HD–fortunately, with lifetime-of-the-product service attached–we retired the recorder to the upstairs TV and picked up a Blu-ray player for our living room. (Note that after all of my earlier skepticism of 3-D TV, the under-$100 model I chose for other reasons happens to support 3-D.)

Our DVD recorder now sits alone and insert upstairs; I don’t even think I’ve plugged it back in after testing a Roku Web-media receiver with that set.

What did I miss? And are there any lessons to draw from my errant estimate?

Four come to mind.

It’s easier to survive a format war without competition. The debut of the DVD itself was held back by lengthy disagreements over its capacity and features, but viewers didn’t have an obvious, appealing alternative to VHS to buy.

That was not the case when manufacturers lined up behind opposing recordable formats: DVD-RW (often pronounced as “minus RW” by opponents), DVD+RW and DVD-RAM. It took a few years of dispute before the industry agreed to support both the -RW and +RW standards, leaving behind DVD-RAM.

(If you could redesign the format from scratch, you might pick DVD-RAM, which allowed much of the same play-while-recording flexibility of hard drive-equipped digital video recorders. But most existing DVD players couldn’t read those discs.)

This delay cost DVD recording more than I had realized in 2007. It allowed DVRs to cement themselves as the video-recording solution of choice.

Pay-TV incompatibility can kill video hardware. Aside from some models with “QAM” tuners for basic-tier cable and fewer, older models with CableCard slots, DVD recorders couldn’t record pay-TV programming unless their intrepid owners set up “IR blaster” controls for their cable and satellite boxes.

But why bother when a cable or satellite company will rent you a DVR that just works with its service? Nobody had a good answer to that question, and newer ventures in home video hardware—for instance, the Google TV hardware I tried in 2010—have run into the same problem.

So if you want to know why you still can’t buy a Blu-ray recorder for your TV in the U.S., there’s one answer.

Just because the features you want exist in separate products doesn’t mean they’ll all come together. I expected DVD recorders would soon gain the ability to record in “enhanced definition” 480p resolution—the same upgrade provided by progressive-scan DVD players and generally welcomed by viewers. That never happened, leaving DVD recording stuck in standard-def.

I also though it obvious to use the “TV Guide on Screen” metadata sent out with over-the-air digital TV broadcasts to provide a simple interactive program grid with one-touch recording. Instead, DVD recorders, our purchase included, required me to punch in start and stop times, as if I were still using the top-loading VCR my parents bought in the early 1980s.

Portability isn’t as important as I think. My advocacy for DVD recording was rooted in the idea that viewers would want a permanent copy of their favorite videos—say, the broadcast of their team winning the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Digital video recorders, however, have generally left out convenient video-export features ever since ReplayTV declined to enable a FireWire digital-video output on its pioneering DVRs. And viewers seem okay with that, as long as they can at least transfer copy-restricted recordings from one DVR to the next.

That’s something to consider as home movie viewing shifts from discs to online streaming. I would like to think that some movies are works for the ages and merit safekeeping in physical media you can take wherever you go. But if you can pull up your favorite flicks online, maybe that doesn’t matter.

Which somehow seems a little sad.

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2 thoughts on “How DVD Recording Got Paused (June 2012 CEA repost)

  1. Hi Rob,
    I bypassed all the DVD recording angst, and went with Windows Media Center for recording, etc. The two biggest features I love about it is the Guide/Scheduling, and the ability to edit the recorded video.
    A J Boron

  2. It’s definitely a little (if not more) sad. For one – any legitimate (legal) streaming or downloading service runs the risk that their license runs out. Given that licenses and broadcast rights tend to go with what’s popular, if you’re a film buff you need to hope the needles in the hatstacks say put.

    For another – given how surfing and finding films can be (if you’re looking for something to watch rather than going online for something specific) they’re frequently drive by ‘what’s popular’ lists further pushing hidden gems down.

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