The HXD890 shares the same firmware and features found on its 250GB counterpart, the HXD995, and all Pioneer's latest HDD/DVD decks, but you're getting the technology at a much lower price, which is a real coup considering its astonishing amount of features.

Identical to the HXD995, apart from its smaller hard disk and the lack of a conditional access module slot for pay TV services, the HXD890 is only about £20 cheaper than the 995. This makes us wonder why anyone would opt for the HXD890 when they can get the fully featured version for almost the same price.

Looks-wise the pair are identical, too. The HXD890 sports the same all-over black finish and sturdy build quality, plus a drop-down flap on the front that hides an array of sockets and connections.

Back panel

These include two USB ports that can be used to transfer music and photos onto the hard disk from memory devices, or play them directly. The second USB port supports PictBridge compatible printers, while the i.Link DV input is handy for copying camcorder footage onto HDD or DVD.

Around the back is a similarly well-stocked array of connections, including an HDMI port that feeds upscaled 1080p, 1080i or 720p pictures to a flatpanel TV and two RGB-enabled Scart sockets.

You'll also find a G-Link port, which allows the Sony to make timed recordings from external set-top boxes in conjunction with the Guide Plus EPG.

But most people will use the built-in Freeview tuner to make recordings, and while it's disappointing to find only a single digital tuner on board (plus an analogue one), there are more than enough digital TV features to make up for it.

There's an eight-day EPG on board (separate from the Guide Plus version) which offers Series Recording and all the other key Freeview+ features.

Particularly impressive is EPG Link, which not only tracks the start and end times of scheduled recordings to make sure they're not missed, but also lets you search for alternate broadcasts, other episodes in the same series and recommendations based on other programmes in your timer list.

Aside from the nine recording presets, there's a manual mode with 32 steps that enables you to fit recordings into a given space more accurately. In manual mode, you can also select an HDD-only 15Mbps HQ+ mode, which is perfect for DV camcorder dubbing. Using the lowest-quality preset, you can squeeze up to 455hr of recordings onto the hard disk.

As for playback, all DVD formats are supported (including RAM), and it'll also play DivX from DVD or CD, as well as MP3 and JPEG from DVD, CD or USB.

Excellent UI

The HXD890 slickly goes about its myriad tasks. The user interface is excellent, but first-timers may be overawed by the sheer volume of options in the setup menu. Luckily, it's all arranged in a clear, logical fashion and the cursor cruises around with no annoying delays.

There are loads of convenient features on board, such as chase play and pause live TV, but the latter feels a lot clumsier than most PVRs because the 'paused' programme has to be recorded onto the hard disk.

You can also edit your recordings quickly and easily with the wide range of options at your disposal in the Title Menu screen, then dub recordings to disc at high speed while recording something else on to the HDD. Most people will love the intelligent chaptering mode that inserts chapter points at major scene changes, enabling you to easily remove adverts.

Images can be optimised for playback using the Picture Adjustment menu, and you can manage your digital files using the Jukebox and Photo Album screens.

The remote is cleverly laid out and helpfully labelled, while the digital EPG's smart layout makes it a joy to use (even while recording).

1080p upscaling

Thanks to the 1080p upscaling, live Freeview pictures look crisp and smooth, and in the HQ+, HQ, SP and LSP recording modes, the Sony does a terrific job of replicating these broadcasts. Its ability to retain most of the source detail gives the image a pleasing crispness and clarity, while the lack of colour bleed or excessive block noise keep everything looking nice and tidy.

Movement is stable and smooth, too, and any feathering or break up is down to limitations of the source broadcast and not the recorder.

Although more break up and block noise muscle their way into ESP and LP recordings due to the lower bitrates used, their 720 x 576-pixel resolution keeps the image looking fairly sharp, and that's great news when you consider they enable you to fit three and four hours on a DVD respectively.

But when you select the heavily compressed EP, SLP and SEP presets, edge noise becomes more prominent, making them only useful in emergencies.

The Sony also performs well as a DVD player, turning in an assured performance with the bright comic-book visuals of Spider-Man 2 and the more sober palette of Inside Man. Some jagged diagonal edges spoil its videophile aspirations, but overall it's a fine movie source.

Bonus features

The Sony's ability to store MP3s and rip CDs directly to the hard disk in LPCM makes it a great hub for your digital audio collection (although like the 995, the lack of Gracenote is annoying) and the sound quality on offer is excellent through a decent sound setup.

Recorded sound using stereo Dolby Digital is clear and dynamic, but if you prefer uncompressed audio, there's a version of the HQ recording mode that uses LPCM instead.

Dolby Digital or DTS DVD soundtracks piped to an amp via the electrical digital audio output create a sharp, expansive soundstage.

Awesome recorder

We adore the RDR-HXD890 and think it's one of the best recorders out there due to its abundant features, slick operating system and superb recording quality, even in the traditionally ropey LP mode.

It's basically a Pioneer in disguise, which makes its sub-£300 price seem like even more of a bargain.