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.
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.