The RDR-GXD500 is the first Freeview-equipped DVD recorder to be launched in the UK and is priced at a very reasonable £400. It's surprising that no one has done it before - combining a digital TV receiver and DVD recorder in one unit means one less box under the TV, fewer cables and less hassle overall.

What's more, DVD is the perfect medium for recording high-quality digital TV pictures in all their glory.

It may lack the awesome build quality and panache of the hard-disk-equipped RDR-HX1000, but in terms of looks, it's still head and shoulders above most other DVD recorders.

The RDR-GXD500 is based on Sony's entry-level recorder, the RDR-GX300, as the lack of a front i.Link input indicates. However, you do get S-video, composite and stereo audio underneath a flap that runs the length of the fascia. Also housed here are a few DVD recording controls, above which is a useful joystick that enables you to control the unit's menus.

The rear panel is generously equipped. Two RGB-capable Scarts are supplemented by non-progressive scan component video outputs, more AV inputs, plus optical and electrical digital audio outputs.

The RDR-GXD500 is a multi-format recorder, offering DVD RW and DVD-RW recording, plus their write-once R and -R variants. DVD RW offers wide compatibility, but for editing tricks stick with DVD-RW. Its Video Recording (VR) mode offers all the versatility of DVD-RAM, with features like non-linear editing, Chasing Playback and simultaneous recording and playback.

When editing in DVD-RW VR mode, you can make basic changes to the original title (label, erase or partial erase) or create a playlist. This allows you to take chunks from various titles and piece them together without affecting the original title. For DVD RW, you can erase part of a title using A-B Erase, but that's as sophisticated as it gets.

Multiple recording modes

The RDR-GXD500 boasts six recording modes, ranging from the best-quality HQ, for a maximum of 1hr recording time on a 4.7GB disc, to SLP, which offers up to 6hrs. Recordings are stored in the Title List, which offers thumbnails and takes programme information from the EPG (but you can change the titles).

Other worthy features include digital text, favourite channels, a pseudo surround-sound mode and synchro recording from external digiboxes.

The RDR-GXD500's operating system is a treat to behold. Rarely has a user interface been this slick, easy to follow or snazzily designed. The remote is also superb, boasting well-positioned and clearly labelled buttons. All of the recording controls are located under a flap at the bottom, which isn't entirely convenient but keeps them away from wandering fingers.

The Tools button brings up a very useful mini menu, providing access to the Recording Video Equaliser. This lets you alter the brightness and colour of the incoming signal before it's recorded, tweak the colour, contrast, brightness and hue levels for playback, or activate noise reduction.

The Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) makes it extremely easy to programme recordings. Simply find a show in the EPG, select it and you're given the option to add it to the timer list (which can store 30 programmes up to one month in advance).

Recordings can be set to repeat weekly, daily or on weekdays. On the downside, the EPG is a bit plain compared to the rest of the operating system, and it doesn't play live TV in a box.

First-class encoding

The GXD500's MPEG encoding is first class. It delivers rich and vibrant recordings in HQ mode, matching the quality of live pictures from the digital tuner. Our only minor qualm is that live pictures from the Freeview tuner aren't as pristine as we've come to expect from digital TV. There's a slight softness and a pinch of digital haze around moving objects, but you'll hardly notice it.

Every other aspect of digital TV viewing is superb, provided you live in an area with good reception. There's a very competent MHEG engine chugging away inside, as digital text services can be navigated very quickly with no irritating pauses and channel changing is instantaneous. We should mention that there's no analogue tuner to fall back on if your digital reception is poor.

Fast-moving action

HSP and SP are the ideal recording modes for sport or movies. There's very little reduction in picture quality from the top mode. The Sony copes with fast moving action smoothly, with very little shimmering or jerkiness, and detail levels only drop fractionally from HQ, as our Tech Labs results show.

Recordings in the lower quality modes - LP, EP and SLP - aren't pretty to look at, but the increase in digital artefacts stays within watchable levels, a perfectly acceptable trade-off for the extra recording time.

While playlist editing is extremely easy, the results aren't as impressive as Panasonic's RAM decks or even Pioneer's -RW machines. There's a brief pause between edit points when played back, and this might frustrate camcorder users who want seamless edits for their archived home movies.

One thing's for sure, however, this deck makes a terrific DVD player. Discs such as Spiderman 2, with its complex, detailed CG action and bright colours are handled with aplomb. Even without progressive scan, component pictures are clean and cinematic with terrific contrast levels, while RGB images are similarly spectacular. Finally, CD playback is solid, making this a great all-round deck.

A revelation

In short, this is the DVD recorder you've been waiting for. The digital tuner and EPG are a revelation, making recording a wonderfully quick and easy process.

The provision of DVD RW and DVD-RW recording gives you wide compatibility and versatility in one package, and the deck also boasts the bestlooking and most intuitive operating system that we've ever seen on a DVD recorder. What's more, recordings are of a very high standard in HQ, HSP and SP modes.

Any criticisms? Well, the lack of i.Link and prog scan is a shame and it should have been equipped with a hard-disk, leaving the DVD recorder for archiving, but that fact that Sony had the balls to launch a DTV product just for us folks in the UK means that we're willing to overlook such omissions.

So if hard disk's not your bag then this deck is the perfect excuse for ditching your archaic analogue system and going all-digital.