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SanDisk V-Mate review: SanDisk V-Mate

SanDisk V-Mate

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
7 min read
In 2006, we reviewed a nifty little accessory from Neuros that allowed you to take video that's output from just about any analog video source and convert it to an MPEG-4 video file that's suitable for viewing on portable devices such as the iPod with video, the Sony PSP, and various smart phones and handhelds. The interface wasn't all that snazzy, but the Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder 2 Plus ($160 list) did exactly what it advertised it would do, filling a need for users who wanted to take content they'd already paid for and turn it into a mobile-friendly video format. Since then, Neuros has come out with an even more advanced mini digital VCR, the Neuros OSD Linux Media Recorder ($230), which is drawing from the open-source community for its capabilities. The company has also managed to pick up some competition from a much more established brand, SanDisk, which is now offering the V-Mate video flash memory card recorder.

The Recorder 2 Plus and SanDisk V-Mate are in fact similar in size and design--both look like memory card readers--and ostensibly do the same thing, with a couple of notable differences. First and foremost, the V-Mate doubles as a card reader and comes with an IR blaster for enhanced automatic recording. Both features are significant pluses. On a more critical note, however, the V-Mate doesn't read or accept CompactFlash media, which the Neuros does. It's not the end of the world, but you figure that compatibility would be there considering SanDisk is a leading flash memory manufacturer--and it already makes card readers that accept just about every type of memory card on the planet. But that's pretty much the only omission: the V-Mate does accept all forms of SD, MMC, and Memory Stick cards. It takes the newer HC (high-capacity) cards, and can even accept miniSD and microSD cards directly, obviating the need for an adapter.


SanDisk V-Mate

The Good

Records TV shows--or any video source--to SD, MMC, and Memory Stick flash media; easy to set up; connects to any cable/satellite box, DVR, VCR, or DVD player; recorded files play back on a wide variety of mobile handheld devices, including the PSP, many PDAs, mobile phones, portable media players, and--after a PC file transfer--the video iPod; doesn't recognize Macrovision copy-protection flags, so recording VHS and DVD movies isn't a problem; included IR blaster allows you for programmed timer recordings on different channels on many cable and satellite boxes; doubles as a USB memory card reader for PCs.

The Bad

All video recording done in real time, which will frustrate anyone used to ripping DVDs or downloading video files; the recorder lacks S-Video connectivity and support for CompactFlash cards; recordings at the highest resolution can't be previewed on screen; unforgiving remote needs to be pointed directly at the V-Mate during use; may not have remote codes compatible with your A/V devices.

The Bottom Line

Though its lacks CompactFlash support, the SanDisk V-Mate is ultimately a slicker and more feature-rich mini digital VCR than the similarly priced Neuros Recorder 2 Plus.

The SanDisk V-Mate comes with everything you'll need--except the memory card.

Like the Neuros Recorder 2 Plus, the V-Mate comes with two sets of camcorder-style composite A/V cables--yellow, red, and white RCA jacks on one end, with minijacks that plug into the V-Mate on the other. The V-Mate's inputs attach to the outputs on your video source of choice. The V-Mate's outputs, of course, run to your TV--you operate the recorder via its onscreen menu. (The V-Mate is also very cosmopolitan: it works with NTSC and PAL video signals.) Plug in the AC power adapter, set your TV to the correct input, flip on the power switch on back of the unit, and you're good to go. A small credit-card-size remote is included, as is the aforementioned IR blaster that allows you to have the V-Mate automatically change channels on your cable or satellite box (or VCRs, DVRs, and DVD recorders, for that matter) when you set up a recording for a set time frame. We were flummoxed by the remote's meager reach, however--it seemed to work only when pointed directly at the V-Mate.

For our testing, we used a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR. (The 8300HD DVR can record programs in high-def, but using its composite output normalizes everything to good, old-fashion standard-definition video.) To get the IR blaster working, we selected the Scientific Atlanta remote code from a list in the user manual. Depending on the box, some trial and error may be involved. For example, the first remote code we selected worked, but it was for a box that only had channels that went as high as 99, so we couldn't program the box to go to, say, channel 201. While we eventually found the right code, it's possible that your device may not have the correct remote code listed for it.

We had several unwatched episodes of Extras and The Office on the DVR, and we picked a few to convert into files for playback on the PSP and the iPod with video. Thereafter, we wired up our DVD player and dubbed some of our favorite movies to take on the road. Interestingly, like the Recorder 2 Plus, the V-Mate doesn't recognize the Macrovision copy protection found on most Hollywood titles. That means you're free to convert your movie collection for digital playback without having to rebuy your favorite titles on, say, the iTunes Store. We like that.

The biggest shortcoming of the V-Mate is that it records in real time, which means that if you have a 26-minute episode of Entourage, it will take 26 minutes to record. Moreover, what you see is what you get--if you pause, rewind, or change the channel while recording, that error will be dutifully recorded by the V-Mate. As noted, just like a VCR, there's an automatic recording option, and we found it pretty easy to set up and use. If you want nice, clean start and stop points on your "homemade" videos, it's best to go with the manual recording approach: hitting the record button when you want your file to start, then pressing it a second time to end recording. But you can essentially set up a season pass to shows by telling the device to record the same show daily or weekly at the same time. If your memory card fills up, the recorder will not overwrite any shows; rather, it won't record anymore.

The V-Mate's interface is pretty straightforward and elegant enough, but you'll have to consult the manual to get everything set up properly to record at the resolution you want, as well as to figure out how to upgrade the firmware (it's easy, but requires you to download a file from SanDisk's Web site). Since SanDisk is tweaking and adding new features--as well as adding new profiles for mobile phones that automatically set the correct recording format--it's important to have the latest firmware.

In fact, one can tell from the various memory card formats the V-Mate supports that the company is gearing the product more toward mobile phones and the PSP than to the iPod. Most likely because of lack of a licensing deal with Apple, SanDisk is pretty quiet about creating your videos for the iPod. While various phones and the PSP have automatic settings that are simple to switch to, to set up recording in the right format for the iPod, you have to go into the manual settings and select a very precise configuration. We accidentally hit Best quality instead of Medium, and the file we recorded wouldn't play back on our iPod. So follow the instructions carefully. Of course, because the iPod lacks a card slot, owners must transfers recorded files from a memory card to a computer, then onto the iPod through iTunes.

One nice touch that PSP owners will appreciate: The V-Mate automatically records the video file in the correct folder on your Memory Stick Duo, so long as that card was originally formatted for use with the PSP. That allows you to place the memory card directly into your PSP and play the videos without taking any further action.

Supported recording codecs on the V-Mate include MPEG-4 and H.263 (MP4, 3GP, and 3G2 file formats) at up to 640x480 resolution and 30 frames per second. The video quality at the lowest setting (15fps) was pretty mediocre, but Medium quality at 30fps is quite watchable, especially for TV shows such as The Office and The Colbert Report. There's a bit of pixelization in faster motion sequences, but all in all, the video is smooth and its sound is loud enough.

When we reviewed the Neuros Recorder 2 Plus, we complained that we'd like to see both S-Video inputs and outputs on the device, and we wouldn't mind if the box had to be slightly larger to accommodate that connectivity. (Neuros offers that connectivity on the step-up OSD). Having that superior S-Video connection will only make a very slight difference in improving picture quality when recording video (at 320x240, you'd be hard pressed to notice a difference but at 640x480 you might be able to tell), but what you see on your TV when watching through the V-Mate would be sharper. For example, when we called up our list of recorded shows, we had a hard time reading program descriptions because the print was a little fuzzy. That said, SanDisk seems to have purposely made its fonts in the V-Mate menu system extra large in order to avoid complaints from users, especially those with questionable eyesight. This was a smart move. There was one annoyance, however: we were perplexed that recordings in the highest quality couldn't be previewed via the passthrough output.

In closing, we'll say the same thing we said about the Neuros: Those who enjoy video on the go but can't stand dealing with arcane video-transcoding programs on the PC will find a lot to like in the VCR-like "just press record" simplicity of the V-Mate. On the other hand, PC-centric users who have thrown legal and ethical concerns to the wind and are adept at ripping DVDs and downloading entire TV series via Bittorrent will likely find real-time recording on the SanDisk V-Mate a little too low-tech--and tedious--for their tastes. Still, when you throw in its card reading and IR-blasting capabilities, the V-Mate starts to look fairly intriguing, especially considering it can be found online for less than $90. Despite its lack of CompactFlash support, we're rating it higher than the Neuros because it's a more feature-rich device with a better interface.


SanDisk V-Mate

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7