August 12, 2005

Review: Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder

Author: Jem Matzan

Most set-top digital personal video recorders (PVRs) cost anywhere from several hundred to more than a thousand dollars. The Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder is a much lower-priced PVR, but the reduced cost carries its own price: it can't do nearly as much as its more expensive hard drive- and DVD-based competitors, such as TiVo, ReplayTV, and UltimateTV.

The Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder uses removable memory cards instead of built-in hard drives, and offers USB 2.0 connectivity to your PC instead of writing directly to a DVD. It uses either Secure Digital (SD) or CompactFlash (CF) memory cards. Both modules are made in a variety of capacities, up to as large as 1GB, which will hold about 90 minutes of video at the highest quality setting. There does not appear to be any performance, quality, price, or portability advantage to choosing either format.

The MPEG-4 recorder can also act as a CF and SD card reader via a USB 2.0 connection. The recorder comes with a USB A-to-B cable for this purpose. Although it requires a DC power supply to record video, the USB cable provides enough power to transfer data to and from a computer.

You can plug in both an SD and a CF card at the same time, but you cannot combine the space on the two cards for one continuous stream. By using the remote, you can rapidly switch manually from one data source to another, but you cannot automatically roll over to a second card when the free space is filled on the first.

The device comes with its AC adapter, the USB 2.0 cable, and two RCA audio/video cables. The A/V cables have three RCA jacks on one end for video, audio, and stereo. These plug into your TV as output and your DVD player, satellite receiver, VCR, or camcorder as a source. On the other end they have a standard headphone-style jack that connects to the Neuros device. Nearly every television and certainly every video source has RCA jacks, so connection standards should not be a problem. The device lacks S-Video, FireWire, and S/PDIF interfaces.

Physically, the Neuros is about the size of a PDA -- much smaller than you might expect. It has a single green LED to indicate power. The CF and SD card slots are easily accessible and non-exclusive (you can use both at once). Overall the actual recorder is attractive and well-made.

The remote is similarly miniature, but the buttons are easy to find and their functions have been well selected. If you're already familiar with a video recording device, the Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder remote should be self-explanatory. If you're a little less technically inclined, an excellent native-English manual is included.

Software and file formats

The product supports only one video file standard: Microsoft's proprietary Advanced Streaming Format (ASF), which, being a patented format, is not usually supported natively in GNU/Linux distributions. On SUSE 9.3 Professional, I had to go to a lot of trouble to get these video files to play on my computer. The solution involved installing MPlayer with the extra Microsoft codecs in RPM form from PackMan. I wouldn't expect the average desktop GNU/Linux user to go through this kind of hassle. The video compression standard is -- as the name implies -- MPEG-4, which uses compression to conserve storage space while attempting to minimize quality loss.

Although I only performed a cursory search, I did not find any video editing software for GNU/Linux that could read from ASF files. Certainly SUSE 9.3 did not come with any programs (Kino, MainActor) that could work with ASF videos.

Windows-only software is included on the CD that comes with the device. According to the product Web site, this software is useful for converting your video files into other formats, such as WMV, MPEG-2, MPEG-1, and AVI.

In addition to recording and playing back video, the Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder can also store digital photos and MP3 music files and play them back over your home entertainment system.

Recording quality

There are four levels of recording quality with the Neuros device: economy, normal, fine, and superfine. The lower the quality, the more video can be stored on the memory cards.

I recorded a few minutes of a DVD movie to test the Neuros recorder, and was very disappointed with the results. No matter whether I set the recorder for superfine or normal quality, the video was pixelated and the sound was tinny. There was a distinct loss of quality between the actual signal and the recorded movie.

Transferring the video files to my computer elicited more disappointment. The playback quality was even worse on the computer than it was on my TV, and the window size was limited to a resolution of 352x240 (that's a small screen) at 25 frames per second. If I set MPlayer to show the movie in full-screen mode, the picture ended up even more distorted. This is not at all what I expect from a digital recording device that should, in theory, record a digital video signal with perfect clarity. Expanding the window size to full screen did show the difference between the recording quality settings -- the higher the quality, the more tolerable it was to watch.

In addition to the quality problems, I found that even 512MB was not enough memory to record anything more than a half-hour television program. If you were hoping to find a cheap solution for backing up your DVDs, the Neuros MPEG-4 recorder is not it -- even a 1GB card will record only 90 minutes of video at superfine quality.

Conclusions

My high expectations for this device went mostly unmet. I found no value in using the recorder to archive movies from satellite or broadcast television, nor was there any point in trying to use the device to back up already recorded movies. The only use that I can see for the Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder is for television shows and playing them back on your TV. Even then, you'll need either a 512MB or 1GB memory card to record it all at the best quality, and if you plan to record multiple shows, you'll need a new memory card for each broadcast. That could get expensive; when I bought 512MB SD and CF cards for this review, they were about $70 apiece.

The portability of the recorded files is diminished because of Neuros's boneheaded decision to use a proprietary, patented file format for storing video files. The fact that only Windows-compatible software was included with the product devalued it for me as a GNU/Linux user. Overall that choice makes it look as if the Neuros MPEG-4 Recorder was made for Windows users only, and by accident it also happens to work with GNU/Linux.

To many, Neuros is a recognized name in digital music players. The Neuros audio players are of particular interest to free software users because they play Ogg Vorbis files as easily as they play MP3-encoded files. Until now, digital audio devices were Neuros's only products. The MPEG-4 video recorder represents an effort to broaden the product line to include more versatile devices. Unfortunately they don't do video as well as they do audio.

Addendum

Upon seeing a pre-publication copy of the review, a Neuros representative informed me that they are changing the stated purpose of the MPEG-4 recorder. It is now intended for PDA users who want to record video from a TV and transfer it to a format and size suitable for a PDA. Given this new information, the Neuros may fit that niche perfectly. Because this information was late in coming (and since I don't have a PDA), I was not able to test the device on a PDA before publication.

Device Set-top digital video recorder
Manufacturer Neuros
OS Support Platform independent (any OS with support for removable memory card devices)
Market Low-budget, low-end video recording and transfer
Price (retail) $130
Product Web site Click here
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