What's on DV?

Mother's got a new DVD recorder. That's the short version. But I also wrote an ever so slightly longer version. Here it is.

Sometimes I think I live in a very strange family of obsessives. Well, in this post, judge for yourself, and at the same time, learn a little about the technology you probably use all the time.

If you want to build up your own collection of digital videos recorded from cable and television, you've got basically two options - MPEG2 and MPEG4.

These are two related file formats developed by, amazingly, the MPEG - Motion Picture Experts Group - and each has it's advantages and disadvantages.

There is, by the way, no MPEG3, to avoid confusion with the MP3 sound format, though there was (and is) the outdated MPEG1 format.

Now, MPEG2 is the kind of encoding for video and audio used on DVDs (where, for some reason, it's called VOB), and on the TiVo system. It's high quality, playable on all DVD machines, and nearly impossible to edit or change once recorded.

This means, if you've recorded an episode of a TV show with five minutes other stuff either end and three advert breaks, you're stuck with all the stuff you don't want. And seeing as a typical episode without ad breaks is fourty two minutes, that means about one half of what you've recorded is annoying junk that just takes up space on your DVD or hard disk.

MPEG4, on the other hand, can be edited. It also gives much smaller files for the same picture quality, and is much more configurable in terms of file size and quality of both picture and sound.

MPEG2 uses the MP2 sound format (or occasionally WAV). MPEG4 can use whatever sound format you like, though it's most usual to use MP3, which is a more advanced version of MP2.

If you download shows and movies from the net, they will almost certainly be in MPEG4 - probably the subtype called DivX.

Unfortunately, only a few DVD players can play MPEG4 files, though it's easy to set up your computer to do it.

DVD (MPEG2) recorders are now cheaply available, much as VCRs once were, and recordable DVDs are trivially cheap. There are a very few commercially available MPEG4 recorders around, but almost certainly you'll have to record them using a computer and burn the result to CDR or DVDR, and that computer may wind up being dedicated to doing just that.

So you have a choice. MPEG2 is easily recordable straight to DVD, and is playable on any DVD player, but is rather inflexible about file size, and there's (effectively) no way to cut out the stuff you don't want.

MPEG4 is very flexible, and you make a big saving on file size just by editing out the junk, but you probably can't play it on your DVD machine, and you have to go through the rigmarole or recording to computer and burning to disc.

Over the last half decade or so, me and mother have collected hundreds (something over one thousand) of DVDRs, each containing between three and six films, documentaries, concerts and TV show episodes, all in MPEG4.

Which means on the one hand, we have a vast choice of good stuff to watch when we want. And on the other hand, we spend far too much time editing, burning and cataloging the stuff.

For a few months I did the same thing with DAB radio. But it all just took up too much time.

So, in a bid to get our lives back, we've got a DVD recorder. Works just like an old fashioned VCR, with all the limitations and simplicity that implies.

So now mother can return to studying for her fourth (or is it fifth?) degree, this time in music theory. I can get around to my own music, and the writing and messing around with computers that's got squeezed out of the timetable. And we can just fast forward through the ad breaks.

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