Sony is steadily improving its DVD recorders,avoiding the scramble at the bottom of the market by adding high-tech innovations.The RDR-HXD910 works with most types of discs and includes a large hard disk drive (HDD) for simultaneous play and record, archiving or editing. There's also the extraordinarily effective 'intelligent chapter creation' that helps skip adverts.However,the best news is that there's a built-in Freeview tuner and upscaled 1080-line video output via an HDMI digital AV port.

Despite its cumbersome name,the RDR-HXD910 is sleek,simple and elegant.A folding front flap conceals extra controls and spare AV inputs, including i.Link for DV camcorders. The back carries two Scarts (RGB and S-video in or out, in various combinations); analogue component phonos for progressive scan; two flavours of pure digital audio connections and the allimportant HDMI for combined digital audio and video output.

With its 250GB HDD,Freeview tuner and EPG for on-screen listings, it works as a fully fledged personal video recorder.You can pause live TV with one button or use the EPG to plan recordings.Unlike Sky ,you get the added advantages of a DVD recorder, so you can make disc copies with almost every type of blank,including DVD R Double Layer discs for nearly twice the capacity (but not DVD-RAM or dual-layer DVD-R).You can also edit HDD recordings and copy to DVD,sometimes at high speed.

The top recording mode is HQ , used only by the hard disk.With a maximum of 34 hours, it gives a spectacular bitrate of 15Mbps,which is 50 per cent better than DVD's top rate,but is best suited for DV camcorder transfers.The remaining, DVD compatible modes provide between 1-8hr in eight pre-set steps; about 2-14hr on DVD R DL,or approximately 54-428hr on HDD.

Ease of use

This model sees the return of intelligent chapter creation,as unveiled in Sony's earlier RDRHX510. This impressive automatic utility scans for major changes in the picture and marks recordings with what the machine thinks are the best places for chapters, resulting in navigation that's more like a shopbought DVD.A bonus is that ad breaks are spotted with uncanny accuracy, so it's quicker if you want to skip or delete them.

The Pioneer DVR-630H (reviewed in this issue) allows you to play or record using the hard drive even while high-speed dubbing. In contrast,the RDR-HXD910 prevents you from doing anything else while copying except watch live Freeview, so there are still some ease-of-use additions that Sony could make.

Getting the machine to copy at high speed is a challenge,even if your recordings can fit onto discs without adjustment.DVD-RW in VR mode is fine throughout,as is DVDRW in the more playable Video mode - but not if your recording contains a mix of 16:9 widescreen and 4:3 images (another reason to cut ads).The 'plus' formats,including double-layered DVD R,apparently dub in sluggish real time only. Furthermore,and as with the HX510, any anamorphic 16:9 recording on DVD RW or DVD R is downgraded to letterboxed 4:3,which looks awful on widescreen TVs.Despite the generally impressive technology on show, it's baffling why Sony has hobbled its recorders in this way.

Things improve with the Freeview tuner,which replaces the analogue one found in most other DVD/HDD recorders.VideoPlus is absent but won't be missed because the EPG is fast and simple for timer setting. You can set repeat events for regular daily or weekly timeslots and the recorder seems able to capture the whole programme - even beating Sky with the early start of an edition of Ricky Gervais' Extras, for example. You can't set your own 'padding' in case of overruns,though you can always add the following programme.A second tuner would be nice - for dealing with overlaps - but this is Sony's first step in an exciting direction.

Performance

Sony uses plenty of technology to make the picture look better, from a 12-bit/108MHz video DAC at its heart, to variable bitrate recording, time base correction,two-pass encoding plus multiple and variable noise reduction settings.The colour scheme is subtle and attractive. Its hues don't scream out garishly and, with its upscaled 1080i output,every kind of playback is enhanced.It's not a perfect fit for HD-ready screens,showing a touch of blockiness in fine detail,but compared to analogue connections, HDMI brings many benefits. If you can't use HDMI,the component output with progressive scan gives a smooth,if not quite as sharp, result, while the standard RGB Scart is acceptably clean.

With such a clear output,the RDR-HXD910 also makes the best of your recordings.Everything looks good until you reach LP mode (3hr on a normal DVD),where blocking becomes too noticeable.Even HQ can have some MPEG artefacts but with HDMI and DTV,the overall quality seems a natural fit on a large screen.However, if capacity is what you want, then the trade-off in pixels isn't too serious.The visible difference between the lower modes (LP-SEP) is marginal,which is a blessing given the amount of hours you can record at these levels, though again it helps if you are viewing via HDMI to compensate for the loss of resolution.

While not the sharpest for sound, the Sony is generally above average for combi player/recorders.Most HDMI flatscreens include digital audio via the link, and this recorder delivers a meatier sound compared to analogue audio from phono or Scart - even for TV programmes.In addition, the digital sound outputs for an amp produce decent results for CD or home cinema.

At the solo set-top box end of the Freeview market,connections such as HDMI are regarded as unnecessary frills. Ironically this recorder is classed as a luxury item because it has Freeview.

The fusion of this and HDMI means this is officially the first separate digital TV receiver with a direct digital connection.And it looks lovely. Although there's not long to wait until Sky adds high definition to the digital mix, this long overdue union of digital in/out removes some of the fuzziness of standard-definition TV, especially on a big screen.

Despite its occasional drawbacks in dubbing and widescreen recording, the RDR-HXD910 is a major advance in digital home entertainment.