The DVD player is becoming the main attraction in Americans' living rooms. This year, as in the past two years, holiday shoppers will likely buy more DVD players than any other video product. Sales should hit 20 million for 2002.
But they will also keep buying VCRs. Sales of the 30-year-old tape technology will rank fifth among video products this holiday season, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
It's not that consumers pine for the predigital age. It's simply that they want to be able to record, and DVD manufacturers are only just beginning to deliver machines that do the job.
A range of more affordable DVD drives for personal computers and DVD players - all of which incorporate recording technology - are beginning to change the recording landscape. More than 4.3 million DVD recording devices of one type or another are expected to be shipped this year, compared with just 300,000 in 1999, according to IDC, a market-research firm in Framingham, Mass.
Experts believe consumers will soon look at DVD devices as the clear choice for recording media. "A DVD player that records will be the default technology for most consumers," says Susan Kevorkian, a research analyst with IDC.
Average prices for DVD recorders have dropped from $1,600 two years ago to $700 now. "Higher demand is driving supply and knocking down prices," says Ms. Kevorkian.
Those who prefer waiting for prices to fall even further have a few temporary options. Dual VCR-DVDs, which house two distinct devices in one player, help bridge the gap between the analog and digital formats. Sales forecasts for the machines exceed 3 million units next year.
Consumers also are turning to the digital video recorder (DVR), which, instead of recording onto a disc, downloads programs onto a hard drive.
"People may still be looking to record through other means, because you're probably going to see retail prices on DVD recorders drop a few hundred dollars by the next holiday season," says Michelle Abraham, a senior analyst with In-Stat MDR, a market-research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.
After consumer-electronics manufacturer JVC introduced the VCR to America in 1976, people quickly grew accustomed to being able to watch prerecorded videos or record television programs using the same device.
Consumers now take for granted that one function should come with the other. "In order to have a successful product, you have to accommodate consumers who want to [play and record]," says Robert Payesko, merchandising manager for JVC.
Because digital technology is so costly, manufacturers could not initially offer inexpensive DVD devices that both play and record. But Americans' infatuation with DVDs has accelerated the speed with which manufacturers have been able to roll out affordable options for recording - much in the way that CD-ROM sales cleared the way for recordable compact discs.
Panasonic's DMR-E30 sells for about $550 online. The DVDR985 from Philips costs about $600. Middle-range to high-end devices are priced between $700 and $1,000.
Recorders have grown in popularity because they also can be used to archive digital photographs and MP3 music files onto blank DVD discs. Some consumers take advantage of the longer-lasting digital format to store home movies.
Consumers are doing much of their archiving on DVD drives installed in their computers. Prices of these hard drives have also dropped to satisfy most consumers. Sony's DRU-500A recorder, for example, retails for $350. The Sony device is drawing attention primarily because it is the only one that records discs in all five DVD formats. (See story, opposite page, on formats).
Those not ready to buy a DVD recorder can easily scoop up a VCR for less than $100. Dual DVD-VCR devices start at about $170.
Circuit City executives say their customers buy the dual units primarily to record TV programs. The consumer-electronics firm recently stopped selling movies on videocassette.
"People are moving rapidly to DVDs to watch movies at home. To record the occasional basketball game, they're using a VCR," says spokesman Bill Cimino.
But Mr. Cimino believes the recording function can easily be filled by a DVR. The machines, which use downloaded software from TiVo and ReplayTV, let consumers record a program for the purposes of watching it later, but without archiving it onto a tape or disc.
Another dual-purpose device, Panasonic's DMR-HS2, can store about 50 hours of programming, or record a program onto a blank DVD disc. The DVR-DVD recorder costs $1,000.
Hollywood worries that such devices could make it too easy for people to copy TV shows and movies on a large scale, or distribute the media digitally via e-mail. In response, Congress is considering legislation that would prevent consumers from transferring media onto a blank DVD. But most experts believe the public's basic recording practices will still be allowed.
"I think we'll go back to the personal-use laws that were adopted in response to the VHS and apply something similar here," says Lydia Loivides, senior analyst with Jupiter Research, a market-research firm in San Francisco.
Before buying a DVD recorder, think formats. You have five to choose from.
About half of all recorders support write-once discs (DVD-R) and rewriteable discs (DVD-RW). Retailers often call these "minus" formats. Other recorders support the "plus" formats, designated as DVD+R and DVD+RW.
Only a few recorders are compatible with the DVD-RAM format, which is often used to archive digital media.
Differences in performance among the formats are minimal. So consumers' greatest task is to make sure their discs and hardware work together.
Compatibility is not an issue for those who plan to play and record media on the same device. But those who plan to play recorded discs on a separate machine should know that DVD-R is most compatible with other players, while DVD-RAM is least compatible.
Experts warn that DVD players will not always play media burned in a recorder of the same brand. "It's a trial-and-error kind of thing right now," says Michelle Abraham, a senior analyst with In-Stat MDR, a Scottsdale, Ariz., market-research firm.
Manufacturers are now designing recorders that can read more formats. "You have better odds of compatibility if you wait [to buy]," says Ms. Abraham.