How to... buy a DVD recorder

Q. What's the benefit of a DVD recorder with a hard disk drive?
A. Standalone DVD recorders may start at less than £150 but they operate like a VHS deck. They record off-air programmes as they happen, or connect to external sources such as camcorders. As explained above, most discs don't permit heavy editing after recording, especially if you want high compatibility, so you can be stuck with unwanted parts of a DVD recording.

Combined hard-drive/DVD recorders now cost less than £300. With these you can record many hours of material, chop bits you don't want and then transfer to DVD, often at high speed.

Q. Do DVD recorders include tuners for digital TV (Freeview)?
A. Only a few models include Freeview tuners, notably Sony's RDR-HXD910 and Panasonic's DMR-EH60D. If you live in a good coverage area, you'll get a sturdy picture quality, extra channels and a vastly better way of setting the timer via the Freeview electronic programme guide. The EPG also names recordings properly.

For the time being, machines may be limited to single digital tuners, preventing you from recording overlapping programmes. Card slots for Top-Up TV subscription channels are also rare but likely to increase.

Q. How do I connect an external digital TV (Freeview) box?
A. A surprisingly large number of DVD recorders do not accept RGB video via their Scart input, which offers the highest-quality analogue picture from digiboxes. Even worse, not all digiboxes carry the next-best choice of S-Video, so you can be left with poor quality composite video. Check carefully what calibre of inputs a DVD recorder has before you buy. Ultimately these connections will be superseded by HDMI but probably only once HD DVD and Blu-ray develop.

Q. Can DVD recorders control digiboxes?
A. Some recorders will wait in automatic 'slave mode' for an external tuner to activate from its own timer. A recording will then start but this process is often hit-and-miss and far from ideal. Recorders with VideoPlus Deluxe, such as JVC's DR-MH200, include an infrared extender to control digiboxes but you still need VideoPlus codes for timer setting. GuidePlus is the latest incarnation, which uses full on-screen listings plus an infrared extender. You can find GuidePlus in various Philips and Pioneer recorders, with Panasonic, Sony and more brands to follow.

Q. What else should I consider?
A. Many DVD recorders include a multimedia card slot or USB port for transferring digital photos or MP3 files directly from your PC, camera, PDA or smart phone. Digital camcorder users should look for an i.Link DV input.

A few recorders may record video in MPEG-4, which is handy for copying to portable media players, but this feature is still unusual. High quality HDMI outputs are also starting to appear on mid-range and luxury recorders (e.g. Pioneer's DVR-930H). HDMI is vital for top-quality playback on compatible flatscreen TVs or projectors.