Digital recorders continue to appear in ever-increasing varieties, from hard-drive-based personal video recorders, standalone DVD recorders and combinations of the two.A few stalwarts of the videocassette era also add VHS.
It's unusual to see Pioneer join the club because its video background has been in discs - from laser disc to DVD - but given that its digital recorders are among the finest for features and usability, it's a welcome development.
Unlike the slim build we expect with digital recorders,the DVR-RT601H is large and heavy due to the VHS mechanism.Its looks are more functional,too,with exposed front AV inputs (no i.Link for DV camcorders incidentally) and buttons of various shapes.
Rear inputs are fairly limited,as most things are built in,but there are two RGB Scarts for TV output or to take a decent input from digital TV boxes.The recorder also has component video for progressive scan playback but there's no HDMI digital AV connection.
This three-in-one combi copies from VHS to hard-disk drive (HDD) or straight to recordable DVD with either DVD-R or DVD-RW. It's best to go via the HDD so you can rename or edit before transferring to disc (at high speed in most circumstances). You can backup home-made DVD recordings onto new discs using the HDD or put live or previously recorded content onto VHS too.
The DVR-RT601H is based mostly on Pioneer's DVR-530H harddisk/ DVD recorder,except that instead of an ample 160GB,the HDD is only 80GB,so the capacity is halved to between 11-227hr depending on quality mode.The better news is that, in contrast to the company's disappointing new flagship,the DVR-930H,this model contains all of the 2005-2006 range's outstanding features,including the ability to edit or dub to DVD while recording something else on HDD.
Other notable features include GuidePlus,which provides free onscreen TV listings and sets the timer for you (including changing channel on set-top-boxes automatically).There's no built-in tuner for Freeview channels, unfortunately,but it's up to date in most other ways.There's an HDDonly 15Mbps top recording mode, support for larger-capacity Dual Layer DVD-R,and you can play or copy from DVD-RAM or use the digital 'jukebox' feature to store CD audio on hard drive.
A straightforward VHS Dub mode in the menu allows you to control videocassettes and when to start or stop copying to HDD.Alternatively the 'six-way' front panel buttons are a quick method of copying between any two of the three available formats in any combination.
The DVR-RT601H differs from rival Panasonic and JVC products in that you cannot record using both VHS and digital (DVD or HDD) simultaneously - not even the same source channel.Admittedly this machine is geared towards taking you from tape to disc,though you can play any supported media while recording something else on another medium.
The recorder takes DVD-R or DVD-RW blanks, so there's less choice compared to other brands' multiformat decks,but as you can use rewritable discs in VR mode for fancy DVD-RAM style editing or Video mode for compatibility in other players,you're not missing much.For high-speed dubbing,you must first record onto HDD at an appropriate quality for the amount you want to accommodate on disc.
The onscreen display is consistent and logical in assisting you in this and you can always adjust material in real-time (not high speed) if you need to make it fit.Real-time dubbing to disc or finalising DVDs are the only times when you can't carry out other tasks with the hard drive, so it's very adaptable overall.
Recording quality is consistent with its Pioneer stablemates.The machine uses a revised MPEG encoder that crams an astonishing 13hr onto a normal DVD or 24hr on Dual Layer DVD-R.This is in the lowest quality mode,however,but there are good results throughout the range of modes borne out by an impressive set of lab test results.The XP setting is for high-quality harddrive- only storage,while XP and SP are better suited for everyday DVD creation.The manual 'MN'mode has 32 user-definable steps for tailoring more precise running times.This is essential for recordings that total between 2 and 4hr,because the image degrades more noticeably in the LP or EP preset modes (4hr and 8hr on standard DVDs respectively).
Several video settings are available for changing picture quality,which are helpful if the source is too light,dark or saturated with colour.We'd advise turning off video noise reduction options,as they can make background details or skin tones smear when the image moves.General colour reproduction and detail are very good,especially via component video.
The same goes for pre-recorded DVD. If the movie is a clean all-digital production such as Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, then there are no problems,but some blockbusters,including Spielberg's War of the Worlds, reveal more grainy break-up than they should.Pricier HDMI-equipped devices may have a slightly more spectacular quality, so there's something of a compromise here, but you can't find this convenient combination of features and user friendliness elsewhere.
Digital audio is full-bodied and immersive,whether you're using standard stereo or the whole range of Dolby Digital and DTS surround. Sadly the VHS recording quality is below average.Colours are fine but there's a high level of dot crawl where strong hues clash,and Long Play recordings are extremely jittery. If you want to simply watch VHS, rather than use the dub functions, there's no apparent way of doing so with component video or a Scart set to RGB or S-video, so the best option is to use component for HDD/DVD viewing and keep a composite-video Scart hooked up for VHS.
The DVR-RT601H records to fewer formats than Panasonic or JVC's equivalents but that's less relevant when you've got the option of Dual Layer DVD and more efficient use of disc space,as Pioneer has here.
The GuidePlus programme guide also boosts to its generally excellent ease of use.This VHS-digital combi falls down with its relatively small hard disk,lack of Freeview tuner and limited connections to the outside world,but,overall, its bountiful benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Ian Calcutt