With the jury still out for the ongoing media format war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, the incumbent DVD format continues to find much favor with consumers, aided by falling prices for both media and hardware. Formerly expensive external writers are now affordable though cheap portable flash and hard drives are making them less attractive. The Sony DVDirect VRD-MC1 however is a different beast. While most writers cannot abandon their umbilical cord to the PC, Sony's DVDirect series of external writers (now into its third generation) does away with a computer altogether.
Looking like a cross between the PlayStation 2 and the iPod, the Sony VRD-MC1 has a polished, glossy exterior complemented perfectly by a 2-inch color LCD screen that displays the menu options and other useful information. Menu options include creating a photo DVD, video DVD, previewing a DVD and printing. However, note that the preview function works only with a DVD created by the VRD-MC1. Weighing around 1.7kg, the VRD-MC1 is not exactly the most portable writer around, especially since its dimensions are none too modest as well at 8.7 x 8.0 x 2.6-inches. There's no carrying case either, which should be a clear hint that external doesn't necessarily equate to portable.
Unlike many external writers that require a PC to work, the Sony VRD-MC1 has two modes of operation – Standalone and PC/Print. Toggling between modes is done via a simple switch found at the side, along with its host of connectivity options, like USB2.0, A/V-in, S-Video-in and DV (i.Link) input. You can connect the VRD-MC1 to devices like a VHS recorder, digital camcorder, printer and of course, a PC. This means you can backup all your media, from your old VHS tape collection to the latest dual layer DVD and create your own home videos or photo collections. The downside to creating video DVDs this way is that editing options are limited to automatic titles and chaptering feature for both photo and video DVDs. You can of course pause and stop during the recording process to extract specific clips from a long recording but that's about it. There's also an info dump/backup approach called One Touch recording which will transfer the entire contents of your DV tape to a DVD (or until the DVD is full) with practically no manual guidance required.
Our test recording found that at the default HQ recording quality mode, a single 4.7GB DVD is needed for around an hour's worth of recording, while the lowest picture quality mode - SLP - can allow for up to six hours, so plan your home videos accordingly.
While the usual proprietary Sony formats, like the various Memory Stick slots, are inevitably present on the VRD-MC1, there's also Compact Flash support for those who haven't subscribed to the Sony vision and you can preview your photos on your memory card easily on the small LCD. Slot it in and choose Photo View from the menu, thereafter you can scroll through all your images. Printing them out is also quite convenient as connecting a PictBridge-compatible printer to the VRD-MC1 allows you to do so without going through the PC.
The VRD-MC1 lacks video outputs so there's no way to playback your DVD movie or photos onto a TV. The only alternative would be to connect the VRD-MC1 to a PC first and then playback the DVD on the PC. This is easily done by switching the mode to PC/Print and then connecting the VRD-MC1 to a PC's USB2.0 port. Our Windows XP OS quickly detected the drive as a Sony DW-Q30A, a dual layer DVD-RW drive with 2MB of internal cache and capable of up to 16x write speed for DVD+/-R media. Putting it to the test, we found that it managed to burn a full DVD-R at 16x speed in 5:56 minutes, which is comparable to other similar writers. Using Nero DVD Speed, we found that the Sony VRD-MC1 had an average read speed for DVD-R media of around 12x, which was again pretty decent. With a bundled full version of Nero 6.6, you have no excuses not to confirm these numbers for yourself, though no doubt consumers would only care about the authoring and burning features of Nero.
The Sony VRD-MC1 works fine with or without a PC, easily transferring all your media to the DVD format with a few touches of a button. Priced at a substantial US$259 though, it's not a gadget for everyone but if you own a camcorder or fancy migrating your VHS collection, it is a rather convenient and hassle-free way to get things done. If only it had video output capability, it would have brought it one step closer to perfection and better convenience.