The impending switchover to digital-only TV highlights the issue of what to do with old videocassette recorders and even relatively new DVD recorders that don't receive Freeview.You can connect any digibox to recorders but it's less simple than an integrated system.
Here's where neat products like Sony's RDR-GXD310 come in.It's a standalone DVD recorder that contains a Freeview tuner.You can use it like any digital TV box as well as playing or recording DVDs,all with the minimum of fuss.
The GXD310 looks identical to Sony's pricier recorders with harddisk drives (HDDs) but it's stripped down inside.The onscreen menu is the same elegant version as before. Its centrepiece is the Tools button and cursors,which access almost any function.
It records to four of the five main types of blank DVD (everything except DVD-RAM,which it can't play either) as well as the recently introduced DVD R Double Layer variant,which increases capacity,but this recorder won't handle the more recent DVD-R Dual Layer format.
Some of the best features from Sony's HDD combis such as the RDR-HXD910 are here too,including Intelligent Chapter Creation,which marks new chapter points based on the most obvious scene changes - including advert breaks - making navigation and editing easier.
You can even play and record simultaneously with the same disc, however,you can only use DVD-RW discs to access both this and the clever chapter creation.The DVDRWs must be formatted in VR mode too,which are not compatible in many other players or PCs.You can format in the broadly playable Video mode but you lose more features, like non-linear editing and playlists.
For a compromise between compatibility and editing there's DVD RW.The GXD310 enables you to cut sections of DVD RW recordings but you don't get any space back.Without a built-in hard drive there's no chance to go back and record again unless you are copying from a controllable source such as a VCR,Sky box or camcorder.Speaking of which,the connections are also more limited than the flashier Sony recorders, with no digital video input for DV camcorders and no HDMI output to watch Freeview or DVDs in pure digital quality.You can watch in PAL progressive scan on compatible displays but there's no upscaling to higher pseudo-HDTV as found on the HXD910.Input options include an RGB Scart,so connections to Sky and cable boxes are good.For Freeview reception,ensure you are in a decent signal area as it lacks an analogue back-up tuner.
The HXD910 was erratic with highspeed dubbing from HDD to disc. Without the hard drive those difficulties vanish,and the GXD310's ability to cope with anamorphic widescreen recording also seems better (previously Sony DVD recordings frequently appeared in inferior letterboxed 4:3).
There are numerous subtle video noise reduction options for playback and one for recording, which is handy for grainy external sources but less so for Freeview channels as it can make images look smeary, so turn it off for digital TV.
As mentioned, the superior functions are exclusive to DVD-RW in VR mode. If you never plan on playing recordings in another machine, there's little to concern you; just bear in mind that few DVD drives can cope with VR discs.
The recorder's timer setting couldn't be more simple. It accesses Freeview's electronic programme guide and you simply choose your timed recordings from the onscreen schedules.Recordings are also named automatically with the proper title.Sadly there's no second tuner to cope with overlapping events or to watch live Freeview while recording another channel.
This recorder is effortless to set up and it's a joy to navigate the menus with their clean graphics and classy fade-to-white effects.The experience is matched by the dynamic recording and playback quality. Whether you use the RGB Scart output or component video,you'll be struck by the bright colours and vivid contrast.
HQ mode is virtually flawless (providing the original Freeview broadcast is up to scratch) and it's a fairly gentle slide downhill from there as you glide through the plentiful picture quality modes.HSP is good for shorter movies or half a series of Little Britain - you can fit 90min on a single-layer disc.Double Layer doesn't quite double capacity, though,so don't be caught short.
SP is best for general use, allowing 2hr on DVD (or 3hr 37min on DL).Though softer than HQ, there's little difference between HSP and SP to grumble about.
LSP is the useful 2hr 30min mode (4hr 31min on DL) that is ideal for films or TV compilations.The dip in quality is acceptable and colour and contrast remain superb throughout.
LP mode (3hr or 5hr 25min on DL) is less attractive, especially with fast moving material.Even with digital noise reduction on maximum,you can't ignore the rippling break-up surrounding moving objects and details are less distinct because the basic resolution is much-reduced. This is why Double-Layer discs are useful as you can get longer running times without harming quality. Remember though that to use DL discs with the GXD310 you are restricted to write-once DVD R,with no editing possibilities.
The lowest modes,EP,SLP and SEP,permit between 4-8hr on a DVD (or roughly 7-14hr on DL DVD R) but they are marked by soft detail and problems with fast motion. However, the recorder does a decent job of minimising these effects. If you aren't watching on a giant TV and you really must squeeze several hours onto disc, it's not too bad.
Progressive scan DVD playback makes the most of your movie collection.Again,despite the lack of upscaling, the picture is crisp, colourful and smooth running. It would benefit from an HDMI digital output,undoubtedly,but as analogue component video goes,it's first rate. Digital audio,too,sounds expansive and beefy,with the wide-scale destruction in Spielberg's War of the Worlds sending surround speakers shimmering into life.
Although it's not the least expensive DVD recorder you can buy, if your budget doesn't stretch to the featurepacked hard-drive combis,the RDR-GXD310 gives you a superb audio-visual performance,extra channels through Freeview and excellent ease of use. Ian Calcutt