Having unpacked Sony's gorgeouslooking RDR-HXD910 DVD recorder, wired it into my AV system and undertaken an idiot-proof installation routine ('Easy Setup' asks you plain-English questions about what you're using it with) I was rewarded with the best off-air TV picture I've yet experienced from a DVD recorder.
And when I say 'I', I'm indeed referring to my own particular circumstances - which, sadly, will also be familiar to many others. In my south-east Essex location, good analogue TV reception is difficult courtesy of the 'build 'em up' attitude of avaricious developers cashing in on the housing boom. Over the past five years, I've put up with increasingly ghost-ridden analogue pictures, as the signal from the transmitter competes with the deluge of indirect signals 'bounced' off ever-denser architecture.
Out with the old
But Sony's latest dual-format ( RW, R/- RW,-R) machine dispenses with yesteryear's analogue tuner - and all its foibles. It's replaced by a digital tuner, intended for use with Freeview transmissions and supporting the usual features like digital teletext, EPG and userdefinable 'favourite' channels.
Digital TV is much more resilient to the 'multipath' reception that causes ghosting. What the Sony gives you is crystal-clear 16:9 widescreen pics and an expanded choice of channels. Well, not quite as expanded as some 'stand-alone' Freeview boxes - there's no CAM or common-interface built in, so no TopUpTV subscription.
Which is a pity, because all channels are laid out nicely in the 7-day EPG (which can also used to schedule recordings with the 8-event/1-month timer). Even so, this Sony definitely points the way forward. It was the first manufacturer to launch a DVD recorder with in-built terrestrial digital. And now it's the first to bring us a Freeview DVD recorder with integrated HDD - all 250GB of it. What this means is that you can now timeshift all your telly to the hard disk, and archive what you want to keep onto blank DVDs.
Don't you know me?
That DVD can be a dual-layer DVD R - like its non-Freeview Sony stablemates, the 910 caters for these 8.5GB discs. Couple dual-layer DVD R with Sony's new LSP recording mode, and you'll fit nearly 5 hours of full-res recording onto a single disc.
The only problem is that such media fares poorly in the compatibility stakes. I recorded onto a dual-layer Memorex with the 910, and after finalisation discovered that it wasn't recognised by half of the DVD players I tried (including, ironically, a PC with a Philips dual-layer writer). Future's Tech Labs has discovered that newer players are happier with such media - but if compatibility is the name of the game, stick with the (much cheaper!) single-layer discs - which will give you up to 2.5 hours of LSP recording.
Sony gives you eight other recording modes, the bottom of which (SEP) allows as many as eight hours of recording to be squashed onto a single-layer disc (428 hours, if we're talking HDD)! One of these modes, the 'super-quality' 15Mbps HQ , only works with the HDD. The basic idea is that you record using this mode, edit the recording and then convert to a compatible bitrate when dubbing to DVD. The resultant 'dual-pass' encoding, Sony claims, yields better picture quality. HQ is really intended for digital camcorders, and to this end the 910's elegant front fascia sports an i.Link input that resides under a flap (alongside a comprehensive series of controls that allow most functions to be driven without the remote).
And so to the rear panel. Its two Scarts are RGB-enabled, and so you'll be able to get the best from that Sky/cable box. There's also a component video output (interlaced or progressive) and an HDMI output that will deliver 480/576p or hidef (720p/1080i) upscales to compatible displays. Only Pioneer's high-end recorder offers comparable output functionality, although others from competing manufacturers are inevitable. Also available are composite and S-video inputs and outputs, together with the accompanying stereo audio, and both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs.
Initial set-up couldn't be easier, while Sony's fancy onscreen menus make usage a doddle (pity they're a bit slow, though!). The only exception is editing - specifically the 'A-B erase' function that's provided for eliminating unwanted scenes, ads and so on. If the unwanted scene starts at the beginning of the recording, it's quite difficult to specify the exact point. But that's not to say it's impossible! Other editing functions include chapter mark/erase, playlists and 'one-touch dubbing' for digital camcorders.
If you're not on the list...
All recordings appear in a 'title list'. If they're sourced from Freeview, they're automatically-named from the EPG data. These titles can, then, be viewed while recording is still in progress ('chasing playback') or a different title altogether selected for playback. Pausing of 'live' TV is another possibility, as is watching a DVD while HDD recording is in progress. Subject to CPRM restrictions, you can also dub recordings from finalised or unfinalised user-recorded DVDs to the HDD. Ideal for backups and compilations!
Dubbing from HDD to DVD is possible, at high-speed if the recording mode is unchanged (less than a minute for a 1-hour SEP recording, if you're using an 8x DVD-R). If a different recording mode is specified, then dubbing takes place in 'real-time' (without monitoring, ridiculously).
An 'auto-dub' function will select the optimum recording-mode if you're dubbing multiple titles in one go. The 910 performed exceptionally well as both DVD player and recorder. Play a commercial movie through the HDMI output, and you can expect abundant texture and true-to-life colours.
The only noise to spoil your fun will be film-grain and less-than-competent DVD MPEG encoding (thankfully rare nowadays)! Whether you choose to upscale to 720p or 1080i really depends on how good your display's in-built scaler is. For those without HDMI-fed displays, the good news is that the component and RGB Scart outputs are capable of delivering a picture that's almost as good.
Thanks to the Freeview tuner and end-toend digital recording, the 910 will reward you with some of the best off-air recordings you've ever seen. Alas, that high-resolution HDMI connection is ruthless in showing up artifacts on the lower-bitrate channels.
But Sony can't take the blame for broadcast problems. In all, the 910 is something of a flawed gem. We look forward to a step-up model with improved HDD navigation, a CAMready twin digital-tuner version for more flexible viewing/recording - and more DVD players compatible with dual-layer DVD Rs...