The latest HDD/DVD combi from Toshiba has a great hard-disk capacity (250GB) than its rival and an two digital tuners. It's slightly dearer than some of its counterparts, but does it justify the extra expense?
It certainly does in terms of looks, with alluring black and silver styling. Toshiba has gone a bit logo crazy, listing almost the entire spec sheet on the fascia, but otherwise it's a minimal affair.
You can cram up to 424 hours of your favourite shows onto the hard disk, or up to eight hours onto a DVD-RW/-R or +RW/+R disc, but there's no dual-layer recording.
On board is a digital tuner with an eight-day EPG and digital text, plus an analogue tuner for good measure. It is a shame, however, that there's no series link for digital TV recordings as offered by Sony and Pioneer's latest recorders.
The unit upscales DVD and TV recordings to 720p, 1080i and 1080p via the HDMI output on the rear, which is good news for owners of HD Ready and full HD flatscreens.
Disappointingly, there's no USB port or jukebox functions, which means you can't transfer music, photo and videos.
The hard disk does allow you to pause live TV and chase playback, and there's a generous array of recording and editing features. Five recording modes (XP, SP, LP, EP, SLP) enable you to alter the quality to increase the maximum recording time, and recordings are tidily organised in a menu that lists each title with a moving thumbnail.
Here you'll find all of the editing options, the most advanced of which is playlist editing (available for HDD and DVD-RW VR mode recordings) where you can arrange scenes into your preferred order. Aside from that, you can add chapter markers, delete, split, combine titles or delete an entire unwanted section. All of these functions are easy to carry out due to the well-labelled menu options.
The deck boasts high-speed dubbing and a neat auto recording mode feature, which enables you to copy a recording exactly onto the remaining space on a disc.
Ease of use
In operation, Toshiba's machine seems half asleep and responds sluggishly to remote commands, particularly when it comes to changing digital TV channels. And the remote's ease of use is hindered by the rows of similar-looking buttons that disguise some of the most important controls.
But the biggest let-down is the clumsy EPG, which lays the programmes out in a rudimentary list with no additional information or visual flourishes. It's not made clear exactly how to call up programme info or set the timer either, all of which makes it frustrating to use and cancels out one of the main benefits of having a digital tuner on board. You also can't access the EPG while making a recording.
However, the main setup menu, recording list and onscreen playback displays are nicely presented and logically structured.
The unit's sublime live picture quality provides the perfect tonic for our ease-of-use blues. Tune into BBC News 24 and the pictures look incredibly vibrant, with rich-yet-realistic colour saturation and sharp edge definition. The signal is also smooth and stable with no picture break-up, which suggests there's a robust tuner ticking away inside.
These solid live pictures are captured in all their glory when recorded on the hard disk or DVD in XP mode. Strong colours lose none of their potency and the high encoding bitrate means there's little block noise that isn't already part of the incoming signal. What's more, the deck's top-drawer HDMI upscaling ensures that pictures look sharp and clean when they arrive on your hi-def screen.
In SP mode picture quality is virtually indistinguishable from XP, give or take some extra pixel noise, but in LP there's an increase in levels of block noise and a smeary outline around the edges of moving objects. These artefacts intensify in EP mode, but the results are tolerable as long as you stick to slow-moving material.
One point worth making is that the RD-97DT's internal tuner-to-hard-disk recording quality is superior to RGB recordings from many other similarly-priced decks.
The RD-97DT also makes an excellent DVD player, displaying the detail-heavy jungle scenes of King Kong with all the depth and sharpness of a good standalone deck. Colour reproduction is spot-on, demonstrated by the natural looking skin tones, while black level and shadow detail are outstanding.
There's nothing to choose between the two decks in terms of recorded stereo sound or multi-channel movie soundtracks piped to our audio test rig - dialogue, music and effects are clear and undistorted. CD playback is also presented with a high amount of sonic detail and plenty of bass and MP3 playback is enjoyable, but the lack of WMA support could be an issue for some.
Despite the presence of hi-def upscaling and a digital tuner, we feel that the RD-97DT is poor value for money. It lacks the frills found on some similarly priced rivals , such as USB connectivity, playback from the hard disk of media files, dual-layer DVD recording and series link. Add to this a sluggish operating system and awkward EPG and other cheaper decks start to look like a much better proposition.
But it's not all bad for Toshiba - the RD-97DT's Freeview and DVD picture quality is sensational, at least making it the top choice for picture purists.