DVD/HDD recorders review

A DVD recorder with a 160GB hard drive gives you hundreds of hours of recording capacity.
 
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01 .Introduction

Please note: this information was current as of November 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Chris Ruggles sheds some light on the benefits of DVRs, the
digital take on the old VHS recorder.



Test results for four DVD/hard disc recorders, 160GB capacity, priced from $440 to $659

You can record TV programs onto the hard disc, and copy the ones you want to keep onto DVD.  Or you could flop onto the sofa and enjoy a cornucopia of pre-recorded HDD entertainment at the touch (or two) of a button – no need to fiddle around with DVDs.

These models have an analogue tuner only, if you want to enjoy digital TV you will need to purchase a separate High Defiinition HD set-top box or Standard Definition SD set top box.

We tested them for:

  • Picture quality
  • Ease of setup and use
  • Faulty disk handling
  • Standby energy use

Findings:

  • The 160GB hard drives of the four models we tested give you a maximum recording time of up to 477 hours (varying according to the model).
  • Playback quality of each would be improved with an HDMI (around $60) or component ($30) cable.
  • Only one model could handle a damaged disc well.

Models tested

  • LG RH277H
  • Panasonic DMR-EH57-K
  • Pioneer DVR-550H-S
  • Samsung DVD-HR753

Prices and availability checked April 2008.

 
 

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The following models scored the best results in our test 

What to buy
Brand Price
Pioneer DVR-550H-S $549
LG RH277H $499
# Samsung DVD-HR753 $440
# Panasonic DMR-EH57-K $659

The models tested have their relative strengths and weaknesses, so we’ve profiled all of them so you can choose according to your needs and desires. All could benefit from a better cable than the composite supplied.

The 160GB hard drives of the four models we tested give you a maximum recording time of up to 477 hours (varying according to the model). But the image quality at this level of compression wouldn’t be very good. For a good (VHS-like) quality image you’re looking at more like 140-odd hours storage capacity.

All models scored equally for quality of recording of broadcast TV and its playback. However, the playback quality of each would be improved with an HDMI (around $60) or component ($30) cable, instead of the composite cable supplied.

The faulty DVD test (see How we tested) sorted the sheep from the goats, with the LG scoring very well, the others rather poorly — hence the LG taking top performance spot.

Generally speaking, ease of use was good, with menus that are easy to navigate and intuitive — there was little need to refer to the manual. Here, the LG didn’t score quite as well as the rest: the remote control is a little awkward and you can’t record direct to DVD (you have to copy across from the hard drive).

The Pioneer stood out (just) for copying and recordings management, mainly because it’s possible to set up a list of programs for copying or deletion (with others you can only do one at a time).

Results table

Full results for all models are shown in the table below 

  Performance
Brand and model Overall score (%) Ease of use score (%) Playback and faulty DVD score (%) Standby energy score (%) Price ($)
Pioneer DVR-550H-S
www.pioneer.com.au
73 79 64 80 549
LG RH277H
www.lge.com.au
72 67 78 70 499
# Samsung DVD-HR753
www.samsung.com.au
71 75 67 70 440
# Panasonic DMR-EH57-K *
www.panasonic.com.au
70 73 70 50 659
 

  Features
Brand and model Records TV direct to DVD? Plays DVD regions Plays DivX Maximum claimed recording hours Dimensions (cm, HxWxD) Weight (kg) Hard disk capacity (GB)
Pioneer DVR-550H-S
www.pioneer.com.au
all 455 8 x 42 x 30 4.3 160
LG RH277H
www.lge.com.au
2, 3, 4 477 6 x 43 x 31 3.8 160
# Samsung DVD-HR753
www.samsung.com.au
2, 3, 4, 5 264 6 x 43 x 31 3.9 160
# Panasonic DMR-EH57-K
www.panasonic.com.au
all 284 6 x 43 x 31 4.1 160
 

 

Table notes

Overall score

The overall score is a combination of the following:

  • Ease of use: 50%
  • Performance: 40%
  • Stand-by energy score: 10%
Ease of use score

A panel assessed the following:

  • Remote control: 25%
  • Recording direct to HDD: 20%
  • On-screen display: 10%
  • Recordings management (HDD): 10%
  • Copying from HDD to DVD: 7%
  • Initial set-up and tuning: 5%
  • Front panel controls: 5%
  • Front panel display: 5%
  • Recording direct to DVD: 5%
  • User manual: 5%
  • Copying from DVD to HDD: 3%
Playback and faulty DVD score

The performance score is comprised as follows:

  • Playback quality: 80%
  • Faulty DVD: 20%

Playback quality is based on technical tests of the recorder’s ability to produce good-quality images recorded and played back from visual test signals at the recorder’s lowest, medium and high (though not highest) compression for DVD recordings.

The faulty DVD test checked how well each model could handle a DVD with imperfections.

Standby energy score

We measured the power each machine uses in standby mode or equivalent (when it’s been turned off by the remote control but is still connected to the power). The higher the score, the lower the energy consumption.

How we tested

  •  The devices were used to record broadcast analogue TV programs to their hard drives and directly onto a DVD (if the unit allowed it).
  • We evaluated all of the ease of use components and the quality of the recordings.
  • We played DVDs with different region codes to check how the machines coped with them.
  • We also used a DVD with deliberately produced faults to test their ability to cope with discs that might be dirty and/or scratched — as you might encounter when renting from the local video store, say.
  • Digital viewing and recording was assessed using a digital set-top box and the supplied composite cable.
  • Stand-by energy consumption was measured.

Pioneer DVR-550H-S

Price: $549

Good points

  • Upscales to 1080p. This feature enhances the DVD signal to the best quality picture that your TV is capable of displaying (1Pioneer080p is the best commercially available at present). You’ll need to buy an HDMI cable (assuming your TV has HDMI input) to make the most of this feature.
  • Plays DVDs from all regions.
  • Uses the least energy while on standby.
  • USB port allows easy connection of digital cameras, printers, keyboards, PCs (you can copy music from a Windows PC with Windows Media Player 10 to the HDD) and USB keys (so you can show pictures and play music).

Bad points

  • Let down by its score for playing a faulty DVD

LG RH277H

Price: $499

Good points LG

  • Very good score for playing a faulty DVD.
  • USB connection allows playback of pictures and music via a USB key.
  • It has the most HDD recording time.

Bad points

  • You can’t record broadcast TV direct to DVD – you have to record to HDD, then dub to DVD if you wish.

Samsung DVD-HR753

Price: $440

Good points Samsung

  • Nothing to mention

Bad points

  • Poor score for playing a faulty DVD.
  • Doesn’t record onto +R/RW format discs (though it does play them)

Panasonic DMR-EH57

Price: $659

Good points Panasonic

  • Upscales to 1080p (see Pioneer, above)
  • Plays DVDs from all regions.

Bad points

  • Uses the most energy while on standby.
  • There’s no eject button on the remote control.

Remote controls should have buttons that are sized, shaped and spaced so you can easily find and press them individually. They should be grouped so you can quickly go to specific functions, and the most commonly used buttons should be prominent. All should have clear English labels or obvious symbols.

Onscreen menus should be large and easy to read, with a logical structure, so you don't have to resort to the manual to find settings and functions. It's an advantage to have some control over how opaque the menu settings are, so you don't miss anything (on the TV or the menu) if you need to change a setting while your favourite show is on.

Written instructions should be detailed enough, in plain English, so you can easily set up and use the recorder. Clear descriptions and pictures are often very useful, particularly if you're connecting it to a number of other devices.

Timeshift, timeslip or chase playback are all names applied to a useful function that frees you from waiting for a recording to finish before you start watching it – so if you come home halfway through a show you're recording, you can watch it from the beginning while it records the end. You can even ‘catch up’ by skipping ads.

In addition, as long as you have timeshift on while you're watching TV, you can just hit the pause button while you answer the phone or make a cuppa. Then, when you're ready, you hit play. The recorder plays from where you paused it, while continuing to record ahead.

Timeshift also allows you to do your own instant replay. With it switched on, if you missed that last brilliant tennis shot, you just hit the back button and watch it, then fast forward to where you were and you don't miss a thing.

The number of recording events/types needs to match your normal recording patterns. Check not only how many events you can set but also what type - individually by date and time, or also daily and/or weekly. Also, see how many months ahead recordings can be programmed.

It's also useful to have simple, quick or one-touch recording (OTR), and timer recording. You can’t use the remote control to adjust the time when using the Panasonic’s OTR function.

The ability to play DivX files can be useful. DivX is a file format commonly used for movies and TV shows you can download from the internet.

Regional coding is a vital issue if you're likely to play DVDs from other regions. In our test:

  • The Samsung and LG models don’t play DVDs from regions 1 (the US/Canada) or 6 (China).
  • The LG doesn’t play Region 5 DVDs either (this region includes the former Soviet States, Eastern Europe, India, most of Africa, North Korea and Mongolia).
  • However, both LG and Samsung point out there are websites that provide codes to enable your DVD player to play all regions — but use them at your own risk.
  • The Pioneer and Panasonic models have no regional restrictions.

Screen ratio options should be easy to use. Look for menu options for 4:3 letterbox, 4:3 pan & scan and 16:9 ratio display (but the availability of the feature can depend on the disc being played).

Bookmarking allows you to set markers at spots in the recording that you want to return to later.

Progressive scan output in PAL is the Australian standard to make the picture more stable, but you do need a screen that can display it (mainly plasma and LCD screens).

G-code is a very handy feature. TV programs are coded with special numbers for each program, which are published in TV guides. To record a program, you type in your chosen program's number into the DVD recorder, and the machine automatically records the right channel at the right time.

Format frustration

If you want to play your recorded DVDs on other DVD players, be aware that different discs won't always work in different machines. That's because of the way data is distributed on DVD, which has been dictated by two competing groups, the DVD Forum and the DVD Alliance. Unfortunately for the consumer, these dictates don't always match. Here are some of the formats you might come across, and a guide to what it all means.

  • DVD-R – A write-once disc format (you can only copy onto it once) with 4.7GB capacity, which is supported by the DVD Forum.
  • DVD-RW – A rewritable DVD format that can be erased and rewritten up to 1000 times, supported by the DVD Forum.
  • DVD+R – A write-once disc with 4.7GB capacity that's supported by the DVD Alliance.
  • DVD+RW – A rewritable DVD format supported by the DVD Alliance.
  • DVD-Video – A read-only format commonly used for movies.
  • There's also a Panasonic-format DVD RAM, which is physically different from the others and not always supported by non-Panasonic products.
  • None of these models can play Blu-ray discs.

Get connected

Can't tell composite video from component? Don't stress: here's a guide to the different kinds of video connection DVD playerand what they're used for. They matter because your DVD/HDD needs to have connections that match the ones on your TV and any other device you want to connect it to. Note that, apart from SCART and HDMI, they all require separate audio connections.

Composite is found on most modern TVs. The brightness and colour signals are combined into the single video signal.

S-video is identifiable by a small, round, four-pin plug. It provides better picture quality than composite because the brightness and colour signals are kept separate.

Component separates the picture further into brightness and colour signals, providing even better quality. Three video cables are required.

DVI (digital video interface) can carry digital video signals to a screen that can display them. It's often used to connect a digital camcorder.

HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) is an all-digital connection for both video and sound in one cable. HDMI connections can accept DVI input, if you have a special cable, but you have to connect sound separately.

SCART (syndicat des constucteurs d'appareils radiorécepteurs et téléviseurs) is also known as a Euroconnector. This is a 21-pin connector for analogue video and sound. Some of the tested models have multiples of any one type of connection, but they may not be available all at once. To avoid any problems, tally up the number of devices you might want to connect to a recorder at the same time and check with the retailer that this is possible before you buy.

What about digital broadcasting?

Analogue TV is slated to be phased out between 2012 and 2014, so buying one of these analogue models now would give roughly four to six years of use as is. The relatively cheap and easy addition of a set-top box later on means you’ll be able to receive digital TV when analogue is a thing of the past. However, it could be something to consider right now if you want to watch ABC2, the action from Parliament House and other digital treats.

Digital standard definition (SD) DVD/HDD recorders currently cost about $650, so it might be time to decide whether buying one of these models is really good value in the long term.

All models in our test were able to receive and record digital transmission via a set-top box.

What's the difference?

An analogue television holds onto a signal even when reception deteriorates, attracting more and more ‘noise’ until it becomes unwatchable. We’ve all seen the ghosting that can occur on a TV picture in a poor reception area.

A digital transmission remains clear even when reception begins to deteriorate, until pictures suffer a dramatic drop in quality, before failing altogether. This point is known as the digital cliff, or threshold.

Your existing aerial, cabling and physical surroundings will make a difference (unless you’re simply in an area with no digital reception) but essentially it won’t be a matter of whether you get good digital TV reception or bad, but whether you get good digital TV reception or nothing at all.

Digital TV in apartments

Many apartment owners/renters will be aware of the hassles involved in getting access to a pay TV service such as Foxtel or Optus TV in their units. Meetings with the body corporate or fellow apartment occupants to work out what’s needed seem to quickly escalate into a major operation, and a similar tortuous path may be part of your move to digital TV.

While some antenna systems will escape with just a small adjustment, many installations will require significant refurbishment, depending on the quality of the existing cabling and antenna.

If your apartment block hasn’t moved over to digital TV, you may want to avoid a model without an analogue tuner or an SD tuner. Such a model would be unable to receive the old analogue TV signal while you wait for your block of units to upgrade their antenna system.

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