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Q: So are solid, affordable DVD burners here yet, or what? I'm itching to get theseALF episodes off my PC's hard drive, and burning them onto crummy CDs just isn't going to cut it. What're my DVD options if $300 is all the budget allows?

The precipitous tumble in DVD-burner prices over the past 18 months is a testament to the wonders of throat-cutting marketplace competition. Considered Onassis-worthy luxuries in late 2001, when bare-bones models retailed for over $1000, the gizmos now sell for less than a 10-gigabyte iPod. Philips, Panasonic, and Hewlett-Packard all peddle sub-$300 models, and speedy burners are a standard perk on the latest Sony and Apple laptops. Still, if you can bear keeping that cuddly, cat-eating ALF confined to MPEG format a few months longer, consider holding out until this very latest generation of burners fits your budget.

Don't get Mr. Roboto wrong: Should your burner itch require immediate scratching, you won't be terribly disappointed with the current brand-name offerings. One of Philips's newest burners just went through its paces in the Mr. Roboto testing lab, and it produced a tolerable copy of Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker"video. The picture quality doesn't quite rival what you'd buy off Amazon, but the lack of crispness won't bother anyone with a passable LCD screen. Not bad for a measly $283, which is what you can pick it up for at Buy.com.

So why make yourself wait? The biggest reason is the ongoing format wars. There are four competing DVD formats to ponder at present: DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, and DVD+RW. The "R" means a disc can only be burned once, while the "RW" stands for "rewritable." The plus formats let you zip through the burning process more quickly, but the minuses are more widespread and the discs are cheaper—a blank DVD-R goes for less than $1 in Chinatown, about a third of what a DVD+R will run you.

Though a lot of newer stand-alone players don't discriminate based on format, it would be quite the buzzkill if you bought a DVD+R burner, only to discover that—horrors!—your relatively ancient Toshiba plays only DVD-Rs. (Yes, Mr. Roboto speaks from painful experience.) Consider, instead, a burner capable of churning out discs in all four formats, like the Sony DUR-500A. These omnivorous burners are doubtless the wave of the near future, though they've yet to dip under the magical $300 barrier. But given how quickly the first generation came down in price, a reasonable multi-format model should be available around the same time Mr. Roboto's beloved L.A. Clippers are eliminated from playoff contention. (Translation to non-basketball fans: around April Fools' Day.)

To prospective buyers, Mr. Roboto offers this sage advice: Check the bundled software carefully. A big worry is that Hollywood will cajole hardware makers into including programs that limit which devices a burned DVD can be played back on. Already, the Windows XP "Media Center" PCs—stripped-down computers geared toward multimedia tasks—prevent users from playing their burned DVDs on any other machine.

And don't think it'll be easy to create backup copies of your Fellowship of the Ringset. Big Entertainment is aggressively trying to stamp out third-party software like 321 Studios DVD X Copy, which lets you make second-generation dupes on your burner. The Motion Picture Association of America asked the FBI to investigate; 321 responded with a legal challenge to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Fair use or theft? Some oldster in a black robe will decide sooner or later. Don't worry your pretty little head about such quandaries for the moment, however; come springtime, you've got some ALFs to burn. Melmac, ho!


Is that "six degrees of separation" axiom for real? The good folks at Columbia University's sociology department would like to know, too, and they need your help. Eager volunteers should log on to the Web site of the Small World Research Project (smallworld.sociology.columbia.edu), where you'll be asked to contact a complete stranger via an e-mail chain. Mr. Roboto will resist the urge to kick with a Kevin Bacon crack, largely out of respect for his fine performance in Tremors.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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