To date, home DVD recorders have only recorded two-channel soundtracks - usually in Dolby Digital 2.0. This is fine for terrestrial TV programmes (analogue or digital) but does a disservice to multichannel movies.
Sky Digital's movie channels harness 5.1, but the only way to enjoy them with compatible equipment is with Sky - the only Sky box with a digital audio output. The Sky is also a PVR, and was the only way of recording 5.1 broadcasts. Until now, that is.
A look around the rear of the DVDR7250 HDD reveals a coaxial digital input. It's the first we've seen on any consumer DVD recorder, and Philips earns congratulations here. It also handles Dolby Digital and DTS.
Suitably configured, the 7250 will accept (RGB) video via Scart with 5.1 bitstreams from the digital audio input, and combine them to make 5.1 recordings. Great for archiving Sky movie playouts when its hard drive is filling up. Sadly, 5.1 recording, (enabled from the cumbersome setup menus) can only be made in the XP and SP modes. Also, the coaxial input isn't compatible with the Sky 's optical output. Gadgets are available to convert between the two (I used a USB-powered Terratec device called the Vice Versa), but why should we have to? Philips, do your homework!
Philips could not confirm whether the 7250 will be ready for Dolby Digital 5.1 DTT broadcasts, if they appear.
But what about the rest of the kit? Finished in the distinctive Philips DVD style - curved fascias, bright blue-green fluorescents and control discs that glow red during recording - there's little to physically distinguish this innovative recorder from the past. Internally, too, there are some old traits, some welcome, others less so. There may not be HDMI (a tall order for the price) but you do get an RGB Scart, plus a component output to switch between interlaced and progressive. Happily, analogue and (non-upgradable) Freeview tuners are specified for recording TV, onto DVDs ( RW/-RW, -R/ R or dual-layer R) or the hard drive.
The latter is a fairly generous 160GB, which records between 31 and 250 hours depending on which of the seven modes you use. Of these, only the top three and 2.5hr. per single-layer DVD) work at DVD's full resolution (720 x 576). The rest 'halve the horizontal', with a loss of detail. Philips could learn from their rivals here. For two years, Panasonic has been selling recorders with a full-res four-hour mode. Then there's the GuidePlus EPG, which has graced other Philips.
Replacing the 'standard' Freeview EPG, this service is the one way of setting the 25-event timer. Mercifully, GuidePlus does have manual and standard VideoPlus fallbacks. Set-top box control is another possibility. But there are disadvantages. Interactive 'cues' (those annoying red buttons) are burnt into DTT recordings. Furthermore, you can't specify a recording quality for each event. All recordings are made in the default modes. And you have to slug around the menus to change mode, as Philips' handset doesn't have a button for it.
The only editing options are divide and chapter modification - there's no partial erase, so removing adverts is a pain. Only timed off-air recordings are automatically chaptered.
Dubbing from hard drive to DVD may be quick, but you're stuck with the original recording mode. Great for preserving quality, but if you accidentally recorded that movie in XP, you'll have to use dual- layer media if you want it on one disc. Most of the competition has a real-time 'downconvert' option that changes your video to a lower mode so a selection of programmes can fit within the available space. Once you've copied everything to disc, you have to finalise it. The disc menu allows you to title the recordings and manually define the thumbnails.
Making a DVD from a 5.1 hard disk recording throws up another complication; the 5.1 soundtrack is compromised. While you can record 5.1 video to the hard drive (in XP or SP), the same isn't true of DVDs - whether recorded directly or existing programmes copied from the hard disk. Such DVDs are fettered with a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. Worse still, DVDs made from DTS-soundtracked hard-drive recordings are silent - the Dolby Digital 2.0 one is 'empty'. I tried playing these on several players, but always with the same phenomenon. Ironically, these discs play on the 7250 with their 5.1 soundtracks intact, suggesting they're non-standard.
All of this is a shame, because the 5.1 input worked better than I expected, with no lip-sync errors. Technically, this is impressive. Philips knows a lot about MPEG, and it shows in the crisp and clear video from RGB sources and Freeview.
To experiment, I took a DVD movie stripped of copy protection and, from a 5.1 feed and RGB Scart connection from a Pioneer player, copied it in SP mode to the 7250's hard drive. A comparison reveals little visual deterioration and sound quality isn't impaired. Background artefacting The stubby remote is effective, if not very glamorous The DVD7250 will record onto both R and -R media increases slightly (this largely disappears in XP) but detail loss is negligible.
The 5.1 incompatible SSP retains the resolution, but with more 'fizz' and blocking. Switch to the lower modes and it's clearly a recording. The picture is softer, with complex textures robbed of their clarity. Colours still look great though, and artefacting only becomes objectionable in the 4hr (or lower) modes.
As for its own two-channel soundtracks, there's no room for complaint - the 7250 is as dynamic and clean as the competition. DVD playback is engaging, too, but use the component output in interlaced mode for best results.
The DVDR7250 could almost have been a revolutionary recorder. It embraces 5.1 recording but the implementation is cranky. A shame, because Philips built the UK's first DVD recorder back in 2001. There's plenty of other attractions but the brand needs to play catch up on some of the basics before it can claim the high-end of the market.