Sony RDR-HXD860 £400

25th Jan 2007 | 10:35

Sony RDR-HXD860

Combi deck with HDMI and auto series recording via Freeview

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

It's certainly not perfect but it's a step in the right direction for Sony

Like:

Series Recording; Excellent picture quality

Dislike:

Only one digital tuner and no analogue

There has often been a trade-off in features for the price when it comes to recording digital TV. You can opt for subscription-based recorders such as Sky or TV Drive with sophisticated features but ongoing costs.

However, Sony's RDR-HXD860 is one of the first recorders to embrace Freeview's next phase by adopting the Series Recording feature. This combined hard-drive/DVD recorder is smart looking too and provides the regular functions you'd expect in a digital recorder, such as simultaneous playback and recording.

The RDR-HXD860 offers hard-drive capacity of 160GB, allowing between 20 and a whopping 249 hours of storage across nine pre-set recording quality modes, though it's best to stick to the higher quality modes, meaning about 77 hours at most. The top HQ option records at 15Mbps, which is better than DVD and handy for DV camcorder users (connected via an i.Link port).

For TV recording, there is a built in Freeview tuner and onscreen programme guide. Bear in mind that there is only one tuner, so you can't watch or record another channel while recording another. It also lacks an analogue tuner, so make sure your reception is strong for all digital channels.

The video output has been improved with the addition of an HDMI port and up scaling to HDTVlike resolutions of 720p or 1080i. There are also analogue video Scarts for RGB or S-video in and out, as well as component video at up to 625p.

This model can record directly to DVD or transfer from its hard drive, where you can edit before archiving to disc. It works best with DVD-R and DVD-RW, though it will accept DVD R and RW with some restrictions. It also takes double layered DVD R but not DVD-R DL, and while it plays DVD-RAM discs, it won't write on them. Lastly, DiVX and XviD compressed video playback has been added, but not with anamorphic 16:9 support.

Overall, this is a simple machine to get on with. The remote control is arranged clearly but some operations are sluggish, especially when navigating the recording library or formatting DVD RWs. The Freeview guide is fast and easy, offering plenty of shortcuts for jumping to other channels or days.

Running channels and recording

The recorder's best aspect is the new Series Recording feature, which is Freeview's version of Series Link on Sky , meaning that all episodes of a series can be automatically recorded, even if they aren't in fixed time slots. It can even capture 'split events' such as films divided by news bulletins.

The series info option is also good for detailing any imminent repeats in case of schedule clashes. It is only running on BBC channels right now, but Series Recording will no doubt spread to other channels soon.

There are plenty of no-nonsense editing functions for tidying up hard-drive (or rewritable DVD) recordings, including partial erase, dividing and playlist compilation. You cannot edit or dub recordings while making a new one and there are other confusing limitations. For example, high-speed dubbing is not available to DVD R/RW from a 16:9 widescreen recording, or recordings made in EP or SLP settings.

Anamorphic widescreen programmes recorded directly to DVD R/RW are fine, but if dubbed from hard disk to DVD R/RW they are converted into inferior 4:3 mode that adds letterbox stripes. In contrast, DVD-R/RW discs seem unaffected across various recording and dubbing modes.

The HDMI digital output certainly takes picture quality to another level. Scaled up to 1080i mode, detail is vivid without appearing artificial. It's not up to HDTV or Blu-ray levels, but it delivers an exceptional performance from pre-recorded DVD as well as giving Freeview a boost.

Colours are vibrant too - especially in a slick and shiny CGI animation such as Pixar's Cars - and in non-digital movies it keeps grain and other image 'noise' under control. Contrast remains punchy, subtle shades are smooth with very few contouring side effects and motion is beautifully smooth.

For its own recordings, the image is particularly strong in the top five modes (HQ , HQ, HSP, SP and LSP). If the original Freeview broadcast is acceptable, then the recordings remain much the same and clean overall. The ESP mode (93 hours on hard drive or 3 hours on standard DVD) is still bright and colourful when needed, but edges are less sharp and fast movement shows some break-up.

Further down the scale

As you move down to the LP, EP and SLP settings, the image gets less distinct again, along with more break-up. For putting longer programmes at better qualities onto disc, you can almost double DVD capacity with DVD R DL, but with limits on 16:9 recording as explained earlier.

The RDR-HXD860's audio performance is above average for a machine whose primary task is to be a multipurpose recorder and player. Surround effects are conveyed clearly and vocals are rarely dull, though they can be somewhat harsh, and the machine's overall sound is not in the same league as standalone mid-range DVD players.

CD playback, too, is adequate and will sound okay for a range of discs, from the meaty Muse to mellow Midlake, for example, but it lacks refinement. Although it boasts videophile picture quality, audiophiles should keep their favourite disc player on hand.

For £400 the picture and build quality are enough to recommend it. You can get some better features in other recorders, though. However, it's admirable that Sony has put Series Recording into its range already, leaving many comparable brands behind. For picture quality it's near-perfect, but the product does have niggling drawbacks.

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