RECORDING QUALITY The Fine mode on both decks produced results that were close to indistinguishable from the originals, and SP recordings looked almost as good. The SP, LP, and EP recording modes are analogous to the VHS modes with the same names, but the results are way better except for maybe action scenes in EP. In essence, the longer the recording time (and the lower the bit-rate), the more encoding artifacts, or picture problems, you'll see.
The LP recording appeared noticeably softer, with visible "wateriness" (what I call this sort of block distortion) on fast-motion shots. EP delivered about the same look on the essentially motionless anchor-desk segments, with a little more noise or graininess, but fast-motion shots had obvious blocking, with areas of the picture breaking up into little square patches.
I recorded the first episode of ABC's new series Lost in Fine mode. Watching the result was essentially the same as viewing the show live except I could pause, skip, and scan at will.
DVD COPYING/EDITING Dubbing programs from the 520H's hard drive to a DVD-R/RW was especially easy thanks to the One Touch Copy feature. Load in a recordable DVD and hit the One Touch Copy key while watching any program recorded on the hard drive, and the 520H will burn it to DVD at the highest possible speed while you continue watching. Pretty cool.
Copy speeds depend in part on the original recording mode. For example, dubbing SP recordings proceeded at about 4 x speed even on my 2 x -rated Fuji DVD-RW blanks - apparently the recorder determines the maximum rate on its own. Pioneer says both recorders can use up to 8 x blank discs (I had none on hand), which should cut copy times in half again. There's also a manual copy mode for dubbing from the hard drive to a DVD (or vice versa) - this lets you set up chapters and headings, titles, recording order, and recording mode(s) for multiple recordings ahead of time. And you can pick a lower-quality recording mode for dubbing to DVD to fit more on a disc, but only at normal (1 x ) speed.
The 520H provides a useful array of editing functions for all recorded programs, whether on DVD-RW or the hard drive (and the 320 has the same for DVD-RW). You access these via the Disc Navigator screen, which provides a list of functions on the left and small thumbnails of recorded chapters or sections on the rest of the screen. It's a very well-designed system. Especially cool is that when you select a thumbnail for play or editing, it becomes an active inset window with full motion and sound, allowing you to preview your selection or edit without going full-screen. Extremely useful.
For faster searching/skipping, you can set the recorder to insert new chapter marks automatically at a selected interval, or you can insert marks manually after recording. You can split or join chapters, delete segments, assign titles to programs, chapters, and discs, and almost anything else you can do with any other DVD recorder. While it's not the kind of frame-accurate editing possible on a computer, it should be flexible enough for most users. On the other hand, to enter disc titles and the like, you have to select characters one by one from an onscreen map - it would be a lot easier if you could hook up a computer keyboard.
BOTTOM LINE The Pioneer DVR-320 and 520H DVD recorders are surprisingly easy to use. The onscreen graphics are big, readable, thoughtfully laid out, and largely self-explanatory. I was able to perform almost every important recording and editing job without having to crack the clear, succinct manuals. The absence of an electronic program guide makes finding programs and scheduling recordings a manual proposition. But these decks do their jobs elegantly, and they're hard to beat for value.
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