With its £350 price tag, the RD-85DT is the UK's cheapest DVD recorder to bring us the benefits of both hard drive (a generous 160GB in this case) and digital-terrestrial TV (DTT) tuner. Not so long ago, the same sum would have bought you a very basic DVD-only recorder with analogue tuner.
Other 85DT advantages include multiformat support (albeit only DVD-RW, DVD-RAM and - single-layer - DVD-R) and JPEG/ MP3 playback. But at this juncture I had better make it perfectly clear how Toshiba has managed to make the £350 price point. For a start, both analogue TV tuner and i.Link input (for digital camcorder dubbing) have been sacrifi ced. And if you're after a machine with HDMI output, you'll have to look elsewhere!
Budgets may be tight, but thankfully the appearance hasn't been compromised. This is a distinctive and smart-looking machine distinguished by little fascia clutter. If only the same were true of the remote handset, which crams in a gaggle of buttons.
As with previous budget HDD/DVD Toshibas like the RD-XS24, you get a component-video output capable of working in progressive or interlaced mode. There are also RGB Scart and S-video outputs. Ridiculously, though, there's no RGB Scart input for cable/Sky boxes.
In other words, Toshiba is banking on potential purchasers remaining loyal to DTT - and even then only Freeview; like all other digitally-tunered HDD/DVD recorders to date, TopUpTV is not catered for. Playing a DVD while the HDD records is allowed, in common with competing products. You can also play any HDD recording currently in progress ('timeshift') or, for that matter, any others currently lurking on the drive. It's also possible to timeshift without having to make a permanent recording. Under these circumstances, the HDD is simply used as a 'buffer' - thankfully, the contents of the buffer can be 'saved' should you decide to keep the show.
Another feature that's unique to Toshiba hardware is that one of the 85DT's four recording modes can be customised. In this 'manual' mode, you can specify a video bitrate between the lowest-quality 1Mbps (up to 284 hours on the HDD) and the highest-quality 9.2Mbps (up to 37 hours) in no fewer than 39 steps. On top of this, you can choose between two Dolby Digital audio bitrates - 192kbps and 384kbps - and an uncompressed PCM option (for video-bitrates lower than 8.2Mbps). With a bit of juggling, it's possible to optimise recording quality for any given source.
The unit's 32-event/2-month timer can be programmed manually or using the 8-day EPG. Simple, yes - but overall the menu system that drives the 85DT is sometimes less than intuitive. You have to remember, for example, that additional submenus are involved for all but the most basic of functions. Another quirk is that you can't play any recording-in-progress by doing the obvious - in other words, directlyselecting it from the 'title list' contentsnavigation system.
A welcome idea is the 'garbage bin', into which unwanted recordings are dumped. These are only fi nally wiped when the bin is 'emptied', thereby reducing the chance of accidentallydeleting programmes.
With the 85DT, complex edits like the division of long recordings into programmes are accomplished through the use of non-destructive chapter-based 'playlists', which can be modifi ed without altering the original recordings. It is possible to permanently remove unwanted sections from a recording - but the job isn't as straightforward as it is with, say, Panasonic machines.
Playlists and recordings alike can be played from the HDD courtesy of the navigator, or dubbed to DVD at high speed (you can also transfer non copy-protected recordings from DVD to HDD). Dubbing alternatives include the ability to 'downconvert' to a lower mode, and a 'to-fi t' option that automatically optimises bitrates so that a batch of recordings can be accommodated within the available space. The disc can then be titled, and further authoring options dictate how it behaves when placed in a DVD player. On top of this, you're given plenty of control over the appearance of the DVD before it's fi nalised for compatibility. Chapter and/or title menus are both allowed; as an alternative to the preset DVD-menu backgrounds, it's possible to specify an image grabbed from the video. Cool.
Recordings made from the Freeview tuner look great in the SP mode, with accurate colour and plenty of detail potentially on offer. The higher-bitrate XP mode improves by a gnat's whisker, but it's wasted on digital telly unless downconversion is anticipated.
Even the LP mode holds up well, thanks to its ability to capture at DVD's full resolution. But you don't get something for nothing; it starts to fall down with diffi cult material like action sequences, when obvious blocking sets in. The resolution only drops noticeably with manual video bitrates of 1.4Mbps (over 6 hours per 4.7GB disc) or lower. Regardless of mode, interactive 'banners' are, unfortunately, burnt into recordings.
So too are subtitles - if selected. This is more welcome, especially if your hearing's not what it used to be. Subtitles cannot, alas, be scheduled for timer recordings. Dubbing from an external digital source (which forced us into that composite-fed corner) reveals some 'fuzziness' around sharp outlines, regardless of recording mode.
As far as DVD playback is concerned, the RD-85DT delivers distinguished visuals that sparkle with texture yet remain clean. What a pity that the machine won't play DVD RWs - something that will disappoint some upgraders. For playback and recording alike, subjective sound quality raises no concerns.
In all, a decent recorder that's well worth considering - provided you're not relying on Sky or digital cable!