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The Sony DVDirect VRD-MC3 takes the pain out of transferring video and photos from your camcorder, VCR, or media cards onto DVDs that are playable on a PC or DVD player. At $250, it's far more expensive than a run-of-the-mill DVD burner, but it also offers more features. And for anyone who has piles of old VHS tapes, it may be well worth the expense, as the Sony DVDirect makes digitizing the video child's play. It also functions as a standard external DVD burner for use with your PC. Be forewarned, though, that unless you have a relatively new Sony camcorder, your options are somewhat limited. We really like this multifeatured burner and appreciate the ease with which we were able to complete several projects. If you intend to edit your videos before burning, though, the Sony DVDirect isn't the right choice for you; you're better off using your PC to accomplish your tasks.
The Sony DVDirect is bulky, even for an external burner, though that's not surprising given the drive's many features and connection options. The left edge is covered with connectors, including a USB port for connecting to a PC or PictBridge printer; a USB port for connecting a recent Sony Handycam; a DV-in port for MiniDV or Digital 8mm camcorders; and S-Video ports, Composite Video, and standard RCA audio inputs for analog camcorders (or other video electronics). The right edge houses three media card slots that accept Memory Stick, Memory Stick Duo, SD, xD-Picture, and CompactFlash cards. The disc tray slides out from the front edge, and the top face houses the menu navigation units, Record and Pause buttons, and a 3-inch color display window on which you can peruse the menu or preview videos and images (the VRD-MC1--the predecessor to this model--had a 2.5-inch display). Our only design quibble is that we wish the display window was hinged so that we could prop it up for improved visibility. Even sitting next to it, we had to crane to read the menu. Having said that, the menu is clear and easy to decipher, as all the options are laid out in plain English.
You can do a ton of tasks with the Sony DVDirect--if you have the right equipment. Some of the drive's many features require you to have a Sony camcorder in order to use them. Still, even without a Sony camera, you have a compelling set of options. The most obvious use of the VRD-MC3 is the ability to transfer video directly from camcorder to DVD. There are five methods of doing so: DVD burn, full recording, incremental recording, consolidation recording, and normal video recording. The included manual clearly delineates which tasks require which types of cameras and connectors.
DVD burn is the easiest, since it is essentially a one-button operation, but it only works with Sony hard drive-based camcorders. You connect the camcorder via USB and press the DVD Burn button on the camcorder. Once you do this, the recording process is the same as incremental mode, which means that if your content doesn't fill the disc, you can choose not to finalize the DVD. (Finalizing allows you to play back the disc on PCs or DVD players, but you can't record additional content to the disc.) As you record more video, you can continue to connect it and add only the new video to the DVD until the disc is full. If you have more content than will fit onto the disc you're using, the DVDirect will finalize the first disc before instructing you to insert a second blank disc. The recording stops automatically when the content runs out.
Full record mode allows you to copy all the contents from an HDD camcorder, a DVD camcorder, or a DV camcorder onto a DVD; the disc will be finalized automatically. Consolidation recording is an option only for Sony DVD camcorders: you can consolidate the contents of several mini DVDs onto a single DVD. Finally, normal video recording is a real-time transfer of video content from non-Sony camcorders, including HDD, DV, and DVD camcorders from other manufacturers, a VCR, or a DVR--basically any device with a video output connector. Normal video recording is a manual operation--press Play on the output device and record on DVDirect (not unlike dubbing tapes in the '80s). Once you've created a video DVD, you can preview it in the display window. Only discs created with the Sony DVDirect drive can be previewed, and you won't hear the audio portion.
The built-in media card reader also lets you transfer photos to DVD. (If you have an HDD camcorder, you can also create a photo DVD of stills stored on the camcorder's hard drive.) You can choose to transfer all the photos on a card, or pick and choose individual photos. Once you do this, you have two options: create a backup photo DVD or a slide show photo DVD. Both require JPEG files. When creating a slide show DVD, you can even add music and playback the slide show on a PC or a standalone DVD player, though the music options are limited to three preinstalled instrumental tunes. Once you've created a photo DVD, you can connect the Sony DVDirect drive to a PictBridge-enabled photo printer for direct printing (you can also do this using the built-in media card reader). Note: you can only print photos off a DVD if it was created using the DVDirect drive. If you find that you don't need the built-in media card reader, consider the VRD-VC30: it's basically the same drive, but without the card readers, for about $200.
Finally, with a USB cable, you can connect the Sony DVDirect to a PC and use it as a standard DVD and CD burner. Sony bundles Nero 7 Essentials for disc creation, backup, and playback tasks. When used in PC mode, the DVDirect offers the following write speeds, some of which are improvements over those of the VRD-MC1: 8X DVD+/-R dual layer; 16X DVD+/-R; 8X DVD+RW; 6X DVD-RW; 40X CD-R; and 24X CD-RW.
The only major shortcoming we found with the DVDirect is that you can't edit the video being transferred. If you prefer to edit your video, you'll need to transfer the video footage to your PC first, and use the appropriate software to edit before burning.
To test all of the recording modes, we used camcorders from Sony and other manufacturers. In all cases, the drive worked as advertised, but using it with one of Sony's latest hard drive-based camcorders, the entry-level Handycam DCR-SR42, best demonstrated just how easy the VRD-MC3 can make things. This camcorder comes with a dock--in Sony's parlance, the Handycam Station--that you attach to the drive via USB. To transfer the video to a DVD, you simply insert the Handycam in its dock and then press the "DVD Burn" button on the dock or the camcorder itself. If you've previously burned some video to the disc, the drive is smart enough to only transfer new video on the drive since the last session (incremental mode), and you can repeat this process until the disc is full. If you prefer, you can always burn the entire contents of the drive onto a disc at once (full record mode). If you're transferring material from an HDD or DVD camcorder, the recording time will be a fraction of the playback time, depending on the quality mode you choose.
We also connected a Panasonic HD camera to the burner, this time via standard AV cables, and transferred a 15-minute video to DVD in real time. Setting up the transfer was a breeze, and we were able to play back the resulting DVD on both a PC and a DVD player without a hitch. We also transferred the contents of an old VHS tape to DVD, again in real time, and it worked as advertised.
Finally, we moved the contents of a CompactFlash card to a DVD using the built-in media card reader, and again, it couldn't have been easier. The DVDirect defaults to choosing all the images on the card, but you can manually go through the contents to deselect any photos you don't want burned. If you want to create a slide show, you can set up the DVDirect so that it creates a slide show any time you transfer photos to a DVD. The default setting for the slide show mode is off, in which case the DVDirect will ask you whether you want a slide show to be created when you press the disc Eject button. Keep in mind that the slide show will keep the photos in the order they are in on the card; if you want the slide show to appear in a different order, you'll have to rearrange them using your PC first.
The CNET Labs tested a small subset of the VRD-MC3's PC burner capabilities and found that it took 17 minutes, 14 seconds to rip a movie to a hard disk drive. When dealing with double-layer DVD+R media, it took 25 minutes, 33 seconds to burn a 7.9GB DVD-movie disc image. The VRD-MC3 isn't a speed demon by any means when it comes to PC-attached performance. Older internal drives, such as the Plextor PX-716A, were able to burn a 7.9GB double-layer disc faster (17 minutes, 10 seconds), even while supporting a slower burn speed of 6X for DL DVD+R media.
Service and support
Sony backs the DVDirect VRD-MC3 with a one-year limited warranty. Toll-free tech support is available Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. central time. Support is free for 90 days from the date of your first call; after 90 days, charges may apply. At Sony's site, you can chat live with a tech support rep during the same hours. The site also offers downloadable manuals and guides, firmware and software upgrades, FAQs, and technical and installation assistance.