There is quite a bit of debate among podcasters as to whether it is best to record to a computer or into a digital recorder. The major points are that recording into a computer is simpler and cheaper, whereas a digital recorder is less likely to crash during recording and you typically get cleaner audio.
Let's look at the different sides of the argument and see which one might be best for you. There is no single correct answer to the question. Here are some guidelines that will help you make the right choice.
Recording into a Computer
After you have chosen your podcast topic you are ready to start recording. If you already have a computer, then you don't need to buy any new hardware to get started. With free programs like GarageBand for Mac and Audacity for Windows, Mac and Linux, there is no need to spend more money to record on your machine. The sound quality depends on what kind of microphone and audio interface you have.
The downside of recording directly into your computer is that the computer is a complicated set of hardware and software that can occasionally do strange things. I recorded an interview one time using my computer that captured the other person's audio perfectly, but mine was garbled and unusable. Another time, in the middle of a recording session, my computer decided I had not used it enough and it went into sleep mode even though I was using the computer to record a Skype conversation. If your computer is slow, or have other processes running in the background, you may not get a good recording. Sometimes your computer will pick up notification sounds, like instant messenger beeps, while you are recording.
Somehow you have to get the sound from the microphone into the computer. Most of the built-in microphones on notebooks pick up too much room noise to be a good option. If you have a nice studio quality microphone, how will you plug it into the sound input of the computer? There are adapters, but it depends on the mic and computer as to whether they will work in your situation.
If you are recording to a computer, you should eventually try to get a mixer that will allow you to interface with the computer. The input for the mixer to computer is best done through USB. The computer's sound card (especially on notebooks) introduces a lot of machine noise and electrical interference. Often you can hear electrical buzzes and pops when the hard drive spins up or down while recording. A USB audio interface will eliminate most all of those noises.
Recording into a Digital Recorder
The biggest problem with a digital recorder is the cost involved. Once you have the recorder, you can do many things with it, but it also requires more hardware. Using a mixer to mix sounds from the computer and voice talent will let you record to the digital recorder and have an almost finished product as soon as you hit the stop button. All of the sound effects that would normally get inserted into the recording software after you finish can be mixed into the original recording which can save you lots of time.
Recording into a voice recorder allows you to record without worrying whether your computer needs to take a nap, or would rather tweet and bing with other user's on the Internet. A digital recorder is dedicated to the task of recording audio, and nothing else. The chances that it will shut off randomly is very slim, unless you forget to change the batteries.
Once a recording is done you can plug it into the computer and transfer the audio. If you did not record your sound effects during the initial recording, you can master it all in post production.
Some voice recorders have very good microphones built into the machine, such as the Zoom H4n and Edirol R-09HR. These types of units are standalone field recorders that can be used for recording interviews without needing a computer on site.
Many MP3 players are also good digital recorders. Some even have external microphone inputs that let you plug in a better quality mic and get a recording that rivals, or is much better than, your computer. The downside of using MP3 recorders is that they record in MP3 format. Usually they record in medium to low quality. When you edit the recording on the computer, you compress the original MP3 into another MP3, losing sound quality in each step of the process. If you get a small portable recorder that will record in WAV or high quality MP3, then you should still have a pretty good recording after editing.
Time to Decide
Now you know the advantages and disadvantages of each. If you already have a computer, you can at least get started with that.
A normal progression is that you would get a mixer and a good microphone to continue recording into the computer. When you can get a digital recorder, you can begin to record everything on it through the mixer. You can certainly move directly to the digital recorder before purchasing a mixer.