Review: Streaming Networks iRecord Pro
There's a category of accessories that we've been somewhat reluctant to publicize on iLounge, due not to any flaw in what they offer to users, but rather the explicit threat from Apple that it will render the products incompatible with iPods and iPhones using software updates. These accessories are "direct-to-device recorders," ones that circumvent iTunes and computers by depositing content directly into the iPod or iPhone storage space. And the best of them so far is Streaming Networks' iRecord Pro ($260), a device that we wouldn't recommend to most users because of the pricing and certain other issues, though it does have a lot -- yes, a lot -- going for it. Our limited recommendation is more a reflection of iRecord Pro's expense and Apple's previously enunciated threats to its existence than any major failing in its promised performance.
iRecord Pro is a small black and silver box with a small fan and a circuit board inside, seven ports outside, and two buttons on its partially glossy plastic top. You connect a video and/or audio device to its back using either RCA-style composite audio-video ports or an S-Video port, connect an iPod, iPhone, computer, or USB hard drive to it using either a full-sized or mini-USB port, and attach an included power supply. Press play on the video or audio device, press record on iRecord Pro, and after the video’s done playing, you press stop—or set a timer to do so automatically after a number of minutes. Voila, your iPod, iPhone, drive, or computer will have a properly encoded H.264 video sitting there ready to be watched immediately. On an iPod or iPhone, it will appear in the list of Videos under movies as an iRecord.MP4 file, minus a thumbnail.
If this sounds too good to be true, it’s not—it really is just this simple—but there are caveats. We’ll get to those in a minute, after noting what we’ve actually seen iRecord Pro do: we’ve used it to record videos played on TVs, current-model iPods, and DVDs played on a Sony DVD player directly to current-model iPods and iPhones, and record audio only to iPods and iPhones. This worked even with the latest fourth-generation iPod nano (1.0.3), iPod classic (2.0.1), iPod touch (2.1.1) and iPhone 3G (2.1) firmware, two of those releases coming within the last 24 hours. In other words, at least for the time being, and under circumstances similar to ours, iRecord Pro lets iPods, iPhones, hard disks and computers receive near-DVD-quality versions of DVDs and iTunes content without any other intermediary.
These videos actually look pretty good, too. Streaming Networks’ choice of H.264 encoding rather than MPEG-4 results in reasonable file sizes—around 8MB per minute at 640x480 resolution—and clean content. Audio is recorded at 128kbps, with the combined audio and 640x480 video bitrate falling under Apple’s iPod and iPhone specifications to guarantee compatibility. TV shows and movies we recorded looked about as good as they started, and did not have top-of-screen or audio interference.
Streaming Networks keeps the actual recording process pretty simple: there are no menus to worry about or on-screen displays to navigate, since everything is done with either the unit’s integrated buttons or those on an included six-button Infrared remote control. iRecord Pro can be manually activated for recording, set up with a timer to record in 30, 60, 120, or 180 minute blocks, and stopped manually at any time. You access the timer feature with the remote’s fairly obvious iconography and functionality: one button turns the unit on and off, another toggles the timer settings, a third records video if possible, a fourth records only audio, a fifth pauses, and a sixth stops. That’s it. Additional features can be accessed using iRecord Desktop software, currently in version 2.1, available for both Macs and PCs through the company’s iRecord.com website.
Here’s where the caveats begin. First and least importantly, iRecord Pro tags videos with small badges at the beginning and end, the first a Streaming Networks box on the bottom left corner, and the second an iRecord box on the bottom right corner. These only appear briefly, and translucently overlap the video, but they’re there. Most users won’t care about this at all, but competing computer-based video recorders we’ve tested do not blemish files in this way.
Depending on their intended applications, they may care a lot about the next one. For some reason, iRecord Pro creates 640x480 resolution videos when it records to iPod nano or classic models, but instead falls back to a lower 480x320 resolution when it records on the iPhone, iPhone 3G, or iPod touch. These resolutions don’t make a lot of sense given that iPod touches and iPhones are as capable of playing back 640x480 videos as iPod nanos and classics; none of these devices can display this resolution on their built-in screens, but all of them can do so through video-out.
However, if you connect iRecord Pro to a computer or a USB hard drive, it will record videos at either 720x576 resolution, the resolution of a typical DVD, or 720x480, which collectively demonstrate that the device is capable of creating nearly perfect videos from a connected DVD player under the right conditions. Videos created at this resolution mightn’t play on iPods or iPhones, however, so Streaming Networks also lets you use iRecord Desktop to change the device’s recording mode to something lower—320x240 for iPods and iPhones, or 640x480 for computers and hard disks. Having the option to create higher- or lower-quality videos is great, but it should really be accessible through a button on the device or its included remote, rather than through a software toggle. Each device should have the option to receive recordings at 320x240 or 640x480 resolutions, and the iPhone/iPod touch 480x320 screen resolution should be supported, as well.
The third caveat, and the second biggest of the bunch, is one that Apple has engineered into iPods and iPhones for years: once a video or audio file has been dropped by iRecord Pro onto your device without the assistance of iTunes, you’re on your own in getting that file off again. If you accidentally sync your iPod fully with your iTunes library, the file could conceivably disappear entirely. Streaming Networks has thought of ways around this—it enables manual synchronization mode for your iPod so the files won’t be lost instantly upon connection to your computer, and claims to have an iPod-back-to-iTunes synchronization feature for its files inside iRecord Desktop—but we couldn’t get the synchronization feature to work with our current iPods. Third-party apps, and perhaps an updated version of iRecord Desktop, may be necessary to get your iRecord videos off of the iPod or iPhone once they’ve been recorded there. Another workaround is that iRecord Pro can be configured to write files to iPods in hard drive mode, rather than updating their iTunes databases, but videos recorded in this way can’t be viewed without first transferring the file into iTunes, then resynchronizing it with the device.
Fourth on the list is the very real prospect that Apple could, with future firmware updates, partially or completely break compatibility between iPods, iPhones, and iRecord Pro. While users will have the option to continue to use the device with their computers, they could just as easily get similar direct-to-computer-based recording features with competing devices from companies such as Elgato. The iPod- and iPhone-compatibility is a key feature of this device, and the only things keeping it intact are Apple restraint and Streaming Networks’ ability to keep updating the firmware. On a positive note, Streaming Networks appears to be diligently holding up its end of that equation, but every new iPod or iPhone software or hardware update carries the risk of at least temporary incompatibility.
Fifth, of course, is legality. Using iRecord Pro to transfer DVDs to your iPod or iPhone may not be legal in your country of residence, but doing so for TV shows, video tapes, home movies, and other time-shifted content is almost certainly allowed. Be aware of your local laws before considering a purchase or doing anything that might get you into trouble.
The final caveat on iRecord Pro is its pricing. What Streaming Networks has developed here is a dead simple, if slightly less than ideally programmable H.264 recorder that creates really nice video and audio files for immediate enjoyment on the iPod and iPhone. From everything we’ve seen over the past several years, it’s our view that consumers might be willing to pay $150 for something like this, though a $100 price tag would be far more mainstream. At $260, and given Streaming Networks’ partial dependence on computer software to mitigate some of the hardware’s designed-in limitations, iRecord Pro is definitely too expensive for time being—and feels like a risky cash outlay so long as the shadow of Apple software updates is cast over its functionality. While this device is nowhere near as clunky, loud, or stupid-looking as the previously-reviewed iLoad, the similar price puts it into the same ballpark as going to a store and buying a super cheap PC for video and audio recording; admittedly, these options have different pros and cons, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
What saves iRecord Pro is its simplicity. Those intimidated by computers or iTunes will find it very easy to set up, start recording, and enjoy iPod- or iPhone-formatted content without much hassle. It is an expensive, caveated, and therefore somewhat niche solution to the challenge of creating videos for these devices, but it works, and for wealthier users interested in transferring home videos or TV shows into H.264 formats, it may be worth the asking price. In our view, Apple’s experiment with forcing users to re-buy free TV shows has had sufficient time to play out, and solutions like this provide reasonable alternatives to let people take advantage of their legally-recognized time-shifting and backup rights. Given that iRecord Pro achieves an Apple goal of delivering a streamlined, easy recording experience, it’s time for Apple to embrace, and hopefully even produce devices like this one rather than making them more difficult for users to enjoy.