Let's face it, every hard-disk recorder aspires to be like Sky , but the limitations of Freeview mean that most of them simply don't measure up. Sony has come one step closer with the RDR-HXD860, one of the first Freeview-equipped decks to include Series Recording.
Similar to the Series Link feature that makes Sky's box such a success, it automatically records all of the programmes in a series at the push of a button, regardless of when they're scheduled. It will even record 'split' programmes, such as films interrupted by the news.
Elsewhere the RDR-HXD860 packs a 160GB hard-disk, which holds up to 249 hours of programmes, and there's an HQ mode that uses a high bitrate of 15Mbps, which should appeal to DV camcorder archivists.
The deck lets you record onto every DVD format except DVD-RAM and DVD-R DL, and you can either record directly onto disc or dub from the hard-disk.
The rear panel boasts an HDMI output, which can output in resolutions up to 1080i, and there's a component video output for good measure. These are backed up by two Scart sockets that offer RGB and S-video input and output.
So far so good, but we're disappointed to find just one digital tuner, which means that you can't change channel while recording - a big limitation with so many channels to choose from. And there's no analogue tuner either, so strong digital reception is a must.
Making up for these irritating flaws, the deck is easy to use, with a well arranged remote, attractive onscreen menus and a brilliantly designed EPG. It's also quite easy to edit hard drive (or rewritable DVD) recordings but some of the deck's functions are sluggish and there are some annoying limitations.
You can't dub EP or SLP recordings from the hard disk to DVD R/RW at high-speed, nor can you copy 16:9 widescreen recordings to DVD R/RW without the deck converting them to a 4:3 aspect ratio.
Picture quality is exceptionally good however, with the competent upscaling technology making Freeview look its very best and gives pre-recorded DVDs a welcome spit and polish. Colours are forceful and fiery, motion is smooth and noise is kept on a tight leash, while solid contrast keeps the whole thing looking rich and striking.
Bunch of fives
The RDR-HXD860's recording quality is terrific in the top five presets, retaining all the colour, detail and clarity of the original broadcast. Only when you reach the ESP mode does the image start to show significant levels of break up with fast movement and soft edges.
Quality deteriorates further in LP, EP, and SLP modes, making them suitable for emergency use only.
In many respects the Sony RDR-HXD860 is an excellent machine and the inclusion of Series Recording is a truly admirable move.
But some disappointing limitations and a lack of true multiformat support means you can find better recorders for the money, recorders found elsewhere.