For all the advantages there are to recording on DVD rather than tape, it makes even more sense to use a hard-disk recorder to harvest and store TV programs you want to watch at a later date. So why not combine both in one box? Toshiba has done just that with its RD-SX32, a combination 80-gigabyte (GB) hard-disk/DVD recorder with a not-too-scary $600 price tag.
The silvery Toshiba's rugged build is exactly what I expect to see in a machine capable of doing lots of cool stuff. The top surface slopes down slightly near the front panel and is packed with a generous number of buttons. Along with the basic record/playback controls, these include buttons for switching inputs, changing channels, and selecting either the DVD drive or hard disk. Underneath a flip-up door on the front panel is an A/V input with composite- and S-video connections plus a FireWire port for hooking up a camcorder.
Along with the standard A/V inputs on the back panel (Click to view "Features Checklist"), the Toshiba has an output for an infrared (IR) blaster that you can aim at your cable or satellite receiver for VCR Plus+ automatic program recording. The supplied remote control is large - and needs to be to hold all the buttons spread over its surface. Happily, the main buttons for basic DVD playback are in the center where they can be easily found. The many other controls for recording, editing, and hard-drive functions are located above and below them, with additional buttons stashed below a flip-up latch at the bottom of the handset. This remote definitely takes some getting used to.
The deep onscreen menus were similarly daunting until I found the Easy Navi button. Pressing it calls up a screen that clearly lists the recorder's many features. The screen's top half contains a window displaying the currently selected program, an icon indicating if it's located on the hard drive or on disc, and additional information like date recorded, program length, and playback time. The lower half of the screen has a list of functions including TV Viewing, Timer Recording, Play Contents, and DV Recording (to dub footage from a camcorder). Other options let you delete programs, format DVD-RAM or DVD-RW discs, dub programs from hard drive to disc, or vice versa, and access the recorder's setup menu.
With both hard-disk and DVD-R/RW recording onboard, the Toshiba offers many editing features that the other two decks lack. For example, its playlist editing function lets you cut out and compile a bunch of scenes from programs stored on the hard disk. Using this feature, you could easily create, say, a DVD of scenes from early Star Trek episodes where Captain Kirk gets busy with the alien babes. The same method can also be used to edit camcorder footage, but the process of dividing your shots up into discrete chapters for editing on the Toshiba is ultimately clumsy and slow. If you're comfortable editing video on a computer, that's a much better way to do it.
The Toshiba lacks an onscreen electronic program guide, which made scheduling recordings something of a chore compared with the Dish Network satellite hard-disk recorder I normally use. I had to look up codes on the TV Guide Web site and manually punch them in via the remote to activate the deck's VCR Plus+ function. Otherwise, things worked smoothly, and besides the two standard presets, audio and video picture quality (encoding bit rate) could be adjusted in fine increments. The only glitch I encountered was when I tried to transfer MiniDV tapes to the hard disk using the FireWire connection. The Toshiba easily took control of my JVC camcorder's playback, but it couldn't capture any video - the only recorder here with this problem. MiniDV dubbing worked fine with a Sony camcorder, however.
Otherwise, the Toshiba's video performance was outstanding. An episode of The Wiggles I recorded for my daughter looked noise-free and crisp, and recordings of Buffy the Vampire Slayer made at the SP preset's 5-Mbps bit rate looked about as clean as the live cable-TV image onscreen. Progressive-scan DVD playback was also very good - definitely up to the high standard of other Toshiba players I've tested.
If you've got the extra money, a hard-disk/DVD recorder like this Toshiba is definitely the way to go. There's a lot to be said for a machine that lets you record programs to a spacious hard drive, edit out the commercials, and then dump everything to DVD on an as-needed basis. And I've really only just scratched the surface of the vast feature set. When you consider all the things this deck can do, its $600 price is more than reasonable.
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