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Video recording superstar: A hands-on review of Sony's RDR-HX900 DVR/DVD recorder combo

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As someone who's become addicted to the recording conveniences of my cable provider's set-top box — a combo cable box/digital video recorder (DVR), I was looking forward to taking home a high-end recorder like the RDR-HX900. This digital recording machine is equipped with a sizeable 160GB (gigabyte) hard drive, which can hold over 200 hours of video — that's over 8 days worth of all your favorite TV shows and home videos, available at the touch of a button. Add a DVD recorder, and you've got everything you need to create a very cool, very personalized digital video collection. The 'HX900 also comes with a built-in TV Guide® On Screen electronic program guide, which helps you find the programs you want and schedule recordings. With all of these powerful capabilities and smart features about to become a part of my home theater system, needless to say, I was psyched.



Recording — features and flexibility

The 'HX900 gives you a lot of choice when it comes to recording. Do you set it up through the snazzy On Screen guide, or use old-fashioned, simple timer recording? Do you want it on DVD or on the hard disk drive (HDD)? And what about recording quality?

For the most part, setting up my recordings was an owner's-manual-free experience. Menus were usually easy to navigate, and occasional on-screen instructions cleared up potential confusion. At first, I ran into some snags when I wanted to make changes to the recording settings. Because the 'HX900 offers you different contextualized menus depending on whether you record to DVD versus the hard drive, I found myself looking for options that weren't there anymore. I also have to admit that I'm not a fan of the remote control design — buttons are not grouped intuitively, and you have to slide the bottom panel down to access the recording buttons. But after a little face time with the manual, and some patience, I had gotten through my initial confusion, and had a collection of programs recorded how and where I wanted them.

Ways to make recordings

TV Guide On Screen gives you simple ways to find the programs you want and to schedule recordings.

TV Guide On Screen
Setting up TV Guide On Screen was simple. After a few basic questions, like my zip code and what kind of cable box I have, I was done. Leaving my cable box ON and 'HX900 OFF for 24 hours, my 'HX900 downloaded all of the channel information, and program listings for roughly 75% of the channels. By the following day, it had downloaded complete program listings.

Finding the programs I wanted was a snap. In addition to scrolling through program listings, there were handy sorting features. Alphabetical sorting gave me all of the episodes of a program coming on for the next 8 days — very handy for creating your own Friends marathon, or making a collection of your child's favorite shows for age-appropriate programming at any hour.

My favorite way to search for shows was by category. These included Educational, Movies, Series, Children's, Sports, and more. Each category included subcategories to further narrow down my search — then I had access to the next 8 days of programming that fit my interests. For example, I decided I wanted to find a new recipe to try over the weekend. Under the Educational section, I highlighted "Cooking." Using the Info button, I could see the dishes featured on each episode listed, and chose to record a couple that sounded particularly tasty.

One very cool thing about On Screen is that it lets you put your channels in whatever order you choose, and even turn channels off. While it is a bit tedious to move each channel to where you want it, when you've finished, it's like you have your own personalized cable service. In my case, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, BBC America and the Food Network went at the top of my list, while the Golf Channel got turned off. (Sorry, golf fans.)

Making recordings with On Screen was fairly straightforward, and there were a few different ways to go about it. I first pushed either the "HDD" or "DVD" button, depending on where I wanted the show to be recorded. (In fact, I had to choose one or the other at this stage in the process, since it's not possible to change it later on without resetting the recording.) Then I highlighted the show I wanted to save, and pushed "Record." Yes, just one button. It was that simple. If I wanted to change the recording settings, like quality or frequency, I could access that menu under the "Schedule" tab, where all of my upcoming recordings were displayed.

Check out this interactive demo of TV Guide On Screen. (Although the remote functions and on-screen display are slightly different than those for the 'HX900, this will still give you a good idea of how it works.)

Timer
Some users may have cable or satellite boxes that are not compatible with On Screen, and for that reason might find themselves relying more heavily on timer or VCR Plus+® recording. (See the "Troubleshooting" section on the last page of this review for more info on TV Guide On Screen compatibility issues.) But unlike older VCR versions, timer recording with the 'HX900 is one-button easy. And to make things ultra-simple, that button is labeled "Timer." Pressing this button brought up a screen, where I entered the date, channel, and time. I could also choose between HDD/DVD and change the recording quality. Brief, basic on-screen instructions made this already intuitive process that much more user-friendly. In fact, I found myself using the timer to set recordings more often than On Screen when I already knew the date, channel, and time of the show I wanted to save.

While I was reviewing the 'HX900, I came upon a customer review stating that it would not turn itself on to capture scheduled recordings. I tried, but could not duplicate the problem — the 'HX900 reliably made scheduled recordings, whether it was off or on.

VCR Plus+
An oldie but goodie, and oh-so-simple. At the bottom of the "Timer" settings screen, there's a space labeled "VCR Plus+ code." VCR Plus+ codes tell the 'HX900 the date, channel, and time of the program you want to record. Check out your local paper, or go to www.tvguide.com to find the 2-8 digit codes for the listings in your area.

Unfortunately for me, the VCR Plus+ codes in my area have not been updated to include my digital cable listings, so my results were less than perfect. If you encounter similar problems, report them on www.tvguide.com; they can update your VCR Plus+ codes so that the 'HX900 makes the right recordings.


Recording settings

DVD or HDD?
One of the coolest things about the 'HX900 is that you always have the option to record to either HDD or DVD, and shows recorded to one can easily be transferred to the other. Say you record a documentary to the HDD, and after watching it, decide you'd really like to keep it. Just highlight the recording, and press "select" to access the menu. From there, choose "dubbing," pop in a recordable DVD, and you're set!

You can also dub home-made DVDs to HDD. For example, if you record a TV airing of Fried Green Tomatoes to DVD, then realize that you want to edit out the commercials (see "Editing Features" below), you could copy the recording back to HDD. After deleting the unwanted footage, simply dub it back to DVD for a permanent copy.

One HDD feature I missed was live TV control. Since the 'HX900 doesn't automatically record what you're watching to the hard drive, you can't pause or rewind live TV. But there are a lot of times when the 'HX900's hefty hard drive really comes in handy. One afternoon, I was hurrying to set a recording during my lunch hour. I wanted to save it to DVD, but in my rush, forgot to put the disc in the drive. Fortunately, the 'HX900 was smart enough to realize my mistake, and simply recorded my show to the hard drive instead.

Qualities
There are 7 different recording qualities, ranging roughly from sub-VHS-quality (SLP) to near-DVD-quality (HQ or HQ+). The key thing to remember here is that there is always a balance between quality and space — better-quality recordings will take up more space on the HDD or DVD, while lower-quality recordings take up less space.

The quality you choose will depend on what you are recording and for what purpose. Shows that you watch once or twice and then delete can be recorded in a lower quality; you won't be missing much if you save the nightly news in SLP. Shows with a lot of action, or programs you plan to keep, should be recorded in higher quality. But remember, the recording is only going to be as good as the source — saving a fuzzy broadcast of Die Hard 2 in HQ is not going to make it look any better than it normally would. Since my digital cable service has somewhat mediocre picture quality, I found that the fourth highest quality (LP) made the most sense for me — lower qualities made the picture look worse, and higher qualities did little to improve it.


Recording Mode 4.7 GB DVD Recording Time 160GB HDD Recording Time
HQ (High Quality) 1 hour HQ+*: 21 hours
HQ: 33 hours
HSP 1.5 hours 51 hours
SP(Standard mode) 2 hours 67 hours
LP 3 hours 103 hours
EP 4 hours 137 hours
SLP (Long Duration) 6 hours 204 hours


One drawback to the 'HX900 is that it can't optimize DVD recordings. Some recorders can squeeze or stretch a program — by adjusting the recording quality — to make sure it fits perfectly on a DVD. Say you wanted to record a 2.5 hour movie to DVD using the 'HX900. SP can only fit 2 hours onto a DVD — not enough space for your 2.5 hour movie. LP can fit 3 hours on a disc — plenty of space for your movie, but that extra 30 minutes of space is wasted.

If quality is a priority, another option is to divide the recording into two or more sections and record each to separate DVDs, at the highest possible quality. The 'HX900 doesn't make it particularly easy to do this. I found that the simplest solution was to use the timer to set two or more consecutive recordings in one of the higher quality recording modes, and then copy those separately to DVD. Using the example above, if the movie aired from 7:00-9:30, you could set one recording for 7-8:30, and the next for 8:30-9:30. Then, instead of LP (which fits 3 hours on a disc), you could use HSP (which only fits 1.5 hours) for much better picture quality.

Editing features
After recording an hour-long episode of CSI, I decided I wanted to remove the commercials. Highlighting the recording, I choose the "A-B Erase" feature from the menu. Then, I used the rewind and fast-forward buttons to set the beginning (A) and end (B) points of the commercial breaks. The 'HX900 deletes all of the material between A and B — goodbye commercials!

As easy and straightforward as the 'HX900's editing features are, they can be somewhat time consuming. If you plan on deleting commercials out of a whole season's worth of episodes, be aware that the time commitment adds up.

The 'HX900's front panel inputs include S-video and composite for dubbing from a VCR, and DV (IEEE 1394) for dubbing from a digital camcorder.

Archiving home movies
Since I don't have a digital camcorder or any home-made VHS tapes, I couldn't test this feature. However, I did notice some handy front-panel inputs that would allow for very convenient archiving from a VCR or camcorder (analog or digital). Plus, the "One Touch Dubbing" feature makes it ultra-easy to save material from a digital camcorder to HDD or DVD — just plug your camcorder into the DV input, hit the "one touch dubbing" button, and you're done! The 'HX900 does all the work.

If you record your home movies to HDD, you'll also be able to take advantage of the 'HX900's editing features. Probably the most useful of these is the ability to create custom playlists. Organize your home videos chronologically, by event ("Birthdays," "Visits to Grandma's") or any way you like for easily accessible family memories.


Avoiding and troubleshooting potential problems

I didn't encounter any big obstacles using the 'HX900, but there were some glitches with TV Guide On Screen. As useful as it can be, it is a free service, and it's not perfect. Below, I've listed some common problems, along with some tips to help diagnose and work around them.

Problem: Time slots for some or all channels say "No listing."
Tip:
Make sure that your 'HX900 is OFF and that your set-top cable box (if you have one) is ON overnight, or whenever you are not using the 'HX900. On Screen info is sent to the 'HX900 from a Host Station via broadcast or cable, typically late at night or early in the morning. Turning your cable box on or 'HX900 off before or during this download will prevent it from receiving all or part of the programming info — resulting in the "No listing" blocks. And be patient! During initial setup, it can take On Screen units longer than 24 hrs to download all of the program listing information.

During my review, I ran into an additional complication; since my cable box/DVR has an energy save function, it automatically shuts down overnight. Unfortunately, this was not a changeable setting, so I had to trick it into staying on by setting some middle-of-the-night recordings (which I erased in the morning). A bit cumbersome, but it worked. Depending on your cable box, there are probably easier ways to overcome this. Contact your cable provider or set-top box manufacturer for more information.

Problem: You don't have access to a TV Guide Host Station.
Tip:
If you continually get "no listing" in ALL blocks for ALL channels after 3-4 days, you might not have a host station. But even if the 'HX900 can't get programming information, it can still control most major brands of cable boxes — so VCR Plus+ and timer recordings will still give you easy, high-quality DVD and HDD recording. Keep in mind that most localities do have access. Unfortunately, there is as yet no website, phone number, or other central resource that can tell you if you'll have access or not.

Problem: The 'HX900 can't control your cable box, or you have satellite TV.
Tip:
Set your timer recordings or VCR Plus+ codes as usual, then make sure that your cable or satellite box is tuned to the right channel at the right time. For example, if you wanted to record something during the day while you're at work, simply set the 'HX900, then leave your cable or satellite box on and tuned to the appropriate channel. There are a few brands of cable boxes known for not being compatible with On Screen units — the one that came up most consistently was Motorola. Also, On Screen units cannot currently control satellite TV set top boxes.

A brief comparison with TiVo®: TiVo recorders, for the most part, don't have the same problems as On Screen recorders. Since TiVo units get their information via your phone line or broadband Internet connection, they won't have the "No listing" or no Host Station problems. However, if you use a phone line, and the closest TiVo number for your unit to call is long distance, your phone bill will increase. TiVo units also cannot control all cable or satellite boxes, though there are resources online (such as the TiVo Community Forum) that make it easier to find out if your set-top box is compatible. Finally, remember that the full TiVo service requires a paid subscription.

Recommendations

You should get the 'HX900 if…
  • you want to record lots and lots of TV shows and movies.
  • you want to keep some of your recordings, particularly if you want to save programs that (a) aren't available on DVD or (b) are pricey on DVD (how much is a 1-hour History Channel program?)
  • you want to copy home movies from VHS tape or a digital camcorder to DVD. Handy front panel inputs, great recording quality, and useful editing features make for very convenient archiving.
You shouldn't get the 'HX900 if…
  • you don't want to record and keep very many programs, or if you prefer to have extras like interviews, outtakes, etc. that are only available on store-bought DVDs.
  • you are primarily looking for TiVo-like functionality. No live TV control and potential TV Guide finickiness could leave you disappointed.
Bottom line? The 'HX900 is a great recorder, with powerful, useful capabilities. Sure, it's not for everyone — in fact, it's probably not for me, as I rarely want to make a permanent copy of anything I record. However, for saving tons of TV shows and movies, and archiving home videos, the 'HX900 outshines standard DVD recorders.
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