Pioneer's slim and trim DVD recorder/hard disk combination might be missing an electronic programming guide, but its powerful archiving features and beginner-friendly menus help make up for lost ground.
We're big fans of the FreeView EPG included in units such as the Humax PVR-8000T, but if you want to edit out commercials, recorders such as this Pioneer are more appealing. The DVR-520H (available for £300 or less online) boasts an 80GB hard drive, an intuitive design, and a host of great HDD-to-DVD (and vice versa) copying and archiving features.While some users will bemoan the lack of a 2.5-hour recording mode, others who don't mind en EPG-less recorder should give the DVR-520H a serious look.
The first thing we noticed about the DVR-520H is that it's only 50mm high (419 by 304 by 50mm), a welcome change from the 76mm tall (or taller) DVD/HDD combinations we've been testing. The slim, silver front of the recorder boasts the usual array of controls, including DVD Tray Open/Close, Stop, Play, One-Touch Record and Copy, Channel/Input selector, and buttons that toggle the controls between the hard drive and the DVD recorder. There's also a small door on the left that opens to reveal a set of camcorder A/V inputs, including S-Video. A FireWire input is on the right, far away from the rest of the camcorder inputs -- an odd setup, but workable.
Pioneer's non-backlit remote isn't the most elegant we've ever seen, but it packs plenty of functionality into a logical layout. The large, five-way navigational keypad sits in the middle, surrounded by the disc, hard drive, and system menu keys, while the playback and record controls lie just underneath. We liked the remote's one-touch access to the recorder's recording speed settings, a design that's much more convenient than digging through a menu.
The DVR-520H's menus look more old school Nintendo than state of the art Xbox. That said, they're intuitively laid out. The setup process was easy, and we had no trouble making our first hard drive and DVD recordings. We also appreciated the onscreen help, which could help beginners understand the recorder's multiple functions. Nicely done.Features
Despite its embedded hard drive, the DVR-520H doesn't have the degree of DVR functionality you get with something like TiVo. It won't pause or rewind live TV (you have to manually engage recording, just like a VCR), and, as we mentioned, there's no interactive programming grid for setting up and labelling recordings easily. However, the DVR-520H does have a few tricks up its sleeve.
Firstly, the hard drive lets you chase the playback -- that is, watch a recording that's in progress from the beginning. The DVR-520H also boasts a wide range of options for copying video to and from the DVD recorder. For example, you can select one or more chapters to copy from hard drive to DVD or vice versa, changing recording modes to fit as much as eight hours of material on a disc. Even better, you can copy an entire DVD to the hard drive and make as many copies as you like. Using high-speed mode, we copied a 2-hour movie in about 45 minutes -- 12 minutes to upload it to the hard drive, 30 minutes to copy onto a new DVD-RW. (You can also dub 2X and higher DVD-R discs at high speed.) The resulting disc looked as good as the original, complete with menus and the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks. Don't try to dub DVDs with Macrovision copy protection, however -- the Pioneer won't let you.
The DVD recorder's menus and functionality mirror those of the hard drive -- you just press the DVD button on the remote to switch modes. While we found the DVD recorder easy to use, it has an annoying limitation: there's no 2.5-hour recording speed, only 1-, 2-, 4-, and 6-hour modes. That's a real pain if the programme you're recording to DVD happens to be a little over 2 hours. More disappointing is the 520H's lack of the fit-to-disc feature that's found on recent Panasonic recorders such as the DMR-E95. The unit can record to DVD-R and DVD-RW, but not to any of the + formats, nor to DVD-RAM. It can also play back a wide variety of formats including MP3, WMA, and JPEG files.
Making recordings with either the hard drive or DVD recorder is a simple matter of hitting the record button. You can also manually set up to 32 timed recordings, but while the recorder supports VideoPlus, there's no IR blaster to change the channel on your cable or satellite box. If you use such a box for unattended recordings, you'll have to remember to set the channel beforehand.
Video editing on the DVR-520H is good for a recorder of this class. For both hard drive and DVD recordings, you can add chapter breaks, divide and combine chapters, and erase sections of a chapter -- perfect for snipping out commercials. You can also create playlists on DVD-RWs in the VR mode. Just select the chapters you want in your playlist, juggle the order, and make cuts and edits, all without modifying the original chapters.
The DVR-520H sports a solid set of connections. You get both an RGB Scart input and output, meaning that recordings and video playback are relatively good quality. S-video is included on the back if you don't have a spare Scart input on your TV, which is also backed up by an S-video input on the front of the box and an i.Link camera input. Not bad, but some videophiles might hope for a component-video output, something which could be reasonably expected at this price.Performance
The DVR-520H scored highly in our performance testing. The recorder captured more than 450 lines of horizontal resolution in the 1-hour HQ recording mode. The crystal-clear, rock-solid images matched those of any DVD recorder we've tested. Recording quality was almost as good in the 2-hour SP mode, although we detected some small MPEG artefacts around the edges of objects. Unsurprisingly, picture quality dropped to about 250 in the 4- and 6-hour LP and EP modes, making for much softer, VHS-quality images.
In our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, the fleeing peasants escaping the malevolent flying probes looked sharp and detailed in the HQ mode and just a tiny bit softer in SP mode, with minimal background blockiness. Switching to EP mode, the picture predictably started to jutter and become choppier. During the dark, smoky scenes in the damaged Enterprise bridge, we also noticed that colours seemed to float within the dark backgrounds.
In terms of playback quality, the Pioneer DVR-520H had no trouble with our tests. Using the RGB-video output the player smoothly rendered the tricky haystacks, bridges, and rooftops in our Insurrection test, but there was some motion judder on our test LCD.
Edited by David Katzmaier
Additional editing by Tom Espiner