Now that VCRs have been banished to the annals of home-cinema history, there's been an explosion of interest in digital recorders. And prices have consistently fallen so you can now do it digitally for around £300-£400.
The best models are hybrid recorders such as Pioneer's DVR-545HX (available for around £410), which gives you the flexibility of recording either analogue or digital TV channels using the integrated 160GB hard drive or to blank DVDs -- with compatibility for all formats, including DVD-RAM and dual-layer discs. HDMI out enables video upscaling too.
The DVR-545HX's stocky design is less compact than similar recorders from the likes of Sony and Panasonic. Build quality is acceptable rather than exceptional at this price -- but we like the attractive neon-blue lighting.
The front has been kept relatively clean by concealing everything behind a flip-down panel below the display. Here you'll find some basic controls and easily accessible connections, including a DV input for digital camcorders, and a USB port.
Likewise, the simple remote control reserves space for oversized primary controls and hides the rest beneath a sliding panel, which makes it less daunting and easier to use than most.
All the remaining connections are spaciously arranged across the DVR-545HX's rear panel. There's a full range of video connections, including two RGB Scart terminals, which means you can record from a separate device such as a satellite box without compromising image quality.
There are also component outputs that support progressive scan and a digital HDMI output that can carry upscaled high-definition signals to a compatible HD Ready display. Sound-wise, there are standard stereo phonos and a coaxial audio output that can be used in home-cinema setups.
The DVR-545HX's 160GB hard drive has enough space for up to 455 hours of footage, depending on the recording quality mode you use. Pioneer offers more modes than most -- seven in fact -- but the lower-quality options are rarely worth using. We suggest sticking with the standard SP mode, which gives you around 68 hours.
Although there are other options, the easiest way of making recordings is using the versatile seven-day electronic programme guide (EPG) that accompanies digital broadcasts. All you have to do is highlight a programme and let the recorder do the rest. There's also a GuidePlus+ EPG. This offers more advanced features, such as moving thumbnail images, one-touch recording, profile setups and advanced searches. You can also use the supplied G-Link cable to receive GuidePlus+ information from external sources.
On-screen menus are incredibly easy to use, with a Set Up Navigator that guides you through the installation process and a Disc Navigator that lets you organise, edit and transfer recordings easily using moving thumbnails.
Of course, you can also use this recorder to play a variety of discs. DVD playback is enhanced by integrated video upscaling, which converts standard DVDs to 720p and 1080i signals. It's not 'true' high definition, but it comes close and is the easiest way of improving your existing collection -- provided you have a compatible HD Ready flat-screen TV or projector.
The recording performance of any DVD or hard-drive recorder is always dictated by the quality of the integrated TV tuner. The DVR-545HX's analogue reception is soft and grainy, but digital broadcasts are impressively stable and densely defined.
Typically bright daytime programmes such as Countdown appear evenly balanced, with black levels deep enough to offer crisp detail and good contrast. Picture noise is carefully controlled, with only the odd shadow gradation or expanse of a single colour exposing any instability. It finds movement more difficult to process, with fast-paced music videos and sport such as Champions League matches causing occasional smearing.
Using the three highest-quality recording modes produces copies that are extremely accurate to the original. Recordings of The Natural World wildlife programme, for example, retained plenty of composure with a young cheetah's movement and detail, while colours were untainted. But there's a definite decline when you move to the LP mode and below. Edges become gradually more frayed, picture noise worsens and movement staggers awkwardly across the screen -- leaving these lowest quality modes largely redundant.
As an upscaling DVD player, the Pioneer is competent but not the best. Playing Superman Returns demonstrated both the strengths and weaknesses of its playback performance. The rooftop scene where Superman stops a bullet with his eye boasts excellent detail and deep contrast without losing definition in the darkness. But, again, it's movement that creates a problem, with some of the flight sequences, including the aeroplane rescue, not appearing as fluid as some rival recorders can manage.
Pioneer's DVR-545HX offers a fistful of features for a reasonably affordable price. The impressive specification includes an integrated 160GB hard drive, digital TV tuner, complete recording compatibility and video upscaling. If you ignore the lower-quality recording modes then copies are excellent and the user-friendly menu system and programme guides are incredibly easy to use. But alternative models such as Sony's RDR-HXD860 and Panasonic's DMR-EX75 offer better build quality and playback performance for around the same price.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide