You've probably noticed that DVD/VHS recorders haven't dropped in price as much as you'd expect for technology that's been around for several years. One of the major reasons for the relatively high price this year is that all DVD/VHS recorders that include an analog TV tuner also must include a digital ATSC tuner to comply with federal regulations. The LG RC797T is one of this new breed of DVD/VHS recorders, and like other units we've seen, there are some limitations: no electronic programming guide (EPG) using ATSC program data and no true high-definition output. That's disappointing, but on the other hand, digital over-the-air signals almost always look better than their analog counterparts and make for much nicer recorded DVDs. That said, as just a plain DVD recorder, the RC797T has some notable drawbacks, including the lack of an S-Video input and an LP-recording mode that doesn't compare to Panasonic's similar DMR-EZ47VK. The RC797T's standout feature is the included IR blaster, which is useful if you're planning to control an external cable or satellite box for timer recording. If that's not an important feature--if you already own a DVR, for instance--you'd be wise to check out the DMR-EZ47VK, which is only slightly more expensive and offers more features and better performance.
The LG RC797T has the same nondescript look as most any other dual-deck VHS/DVD recorder. The unit is grayish black (no silver version is available), and its 3.25-inch height by 17-inch width by 11.5-inch depth frame is right in line with other combo recorders.
The included remote is passable, but it's definitely a step down from the remote on the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK. The clicker is littered with many very small, similarly sized buttons, which makes it difficult to use by feel. It actually performs a little better in use than you'd think by just looking at it, because the directional pad is conveniently placed, and the Play, Stop, and Pause buttons are differentiated just enough that we got the hang of it. When we needed to use one of the other functions, however, we had to hunt and peck to find the right button.
The RC797T is capable of recording to many different DVD media formats, including +R/-R, +RW/-RW, +R dual layer, and DVD-RAM. Notice that the RC797T can't record to -R dual-layer discs, which isn't that bad--just remember to buy the right type of DVD media. We especially appreciate the inclusion of DVD-RAM recording, because it's capable of chasing playback, which means you can watch programs from the beginning while still in the process of recording. Not only that, but DVD-RAM can take it even a step further--you can record something on DVD-RAM while watching another previously recorded program on the same DVD-RAM disc. It's pretty neat and effectively gives you something like mini-hard-drive functionality from the DVD-recorder--we could easily see someone using it as a DVR if they don't plan on recording a lot. On the other hand, don't expect the RC797T to be able to constantly record live TV like a DVR can--that feature is usually reserved for DVD recorders with hard drives, and we haven't seen such models announced by LG (or any other manufacturers) for 2007.
As required by the new federal mandate, the RC797T has an ATSC tuner, which means it can tune digital over-the-air broadcasts. This is a pretty nice feature, as in our experience digital over-the-air broadcasts almost always look better than the analog counterparts--plus ATSC can handle high-def programming as well. Unfortunately, it seems that the first generation of DVD recorders with ATSC tuners are somewhat crippled in that regard. We have yet to see a DVD recorder that can display a true high-definition signal when acting as a digital tuner. This is unfortunate, because many HDTVs sold only a few years ago lack a digital tuner; adding an ATSC-equipped DVD recorder to their setup would be a nice way to add that functionality. Still, if you don't need an ATSC tuner or would rather buy a standalone model with more functionality, LG does offer a RC797T without a tuner--the RC700N for $100 less ($250 MSRP).
When recording to DVD, there are five different recording modes you can use, each with tradeoffs regarding quality vs. recording length. In order of descending quality, there's XP mode, which offers one hour of recording length on a standard DVD; SP mode, which offers two hours of space; LP mode, with four hours of recording time; EP mode with six hours of recording time; and finally, MLP mode, which offers 11 hours of recording time.
One feature that is missing is the ability to set a flexible recording length, so that the recorded material maximizes the video quality to fill the disc. For example, with the LG RC797T, if you have a movie that is just over two hours, you need to drop down the recording quality to LP mode--which is a significant dropoff in video quality. With flexible recording length, the DVD recorder is able to set the quality level between SP and LP, to get the best image quality possible on a single DVD. It's not a deal-breaker that the LG is missing this feature, but if you're sensitive to video quality, you may want to look elsewhere.
Unlike the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK, the RC797T does include an IR blaster, which lets you control other devices. For example, we set the RC797T to record Wayne's World off of HDNET on our DirecTV HR20 HD DVR, and the RC797T was able to change the channel on the HR20 at the appropriate time and begin recording.
While we definitely appreciated the inclusion of the IR blaster, its usefulness is tempered a bit by the lack of an electronic program guide. Without an EPG, when you want to set a recording, you need to know the time and channel the show is on and then input it manually, like the old days of VCRs. To be fair, we haven't seen any new DVD recorders with built-in EPGs, but it's still a pain to need to refer to TV Guide to make a recording--especially if you've become accustomed to DVRs. We ran into another annoyance when we scheduled back-to-back recordings on the RC797T--say, an 8 p.m. show on CBS to a 9 p.m. show on ABC. The problem is that after a recording is done, the RC797T takes some time to finish up, and you'll lose up to a minute of the second recording while the RC797T completes the first recording. If your show starts exactly on the hour, you might end up missing a bit of the intro.
Digital TV performance
Although ATSC signals are fully capable of delivering a true high-definition picture, the LG RC797T is unable to display programs pulled off the digital tuner in high-def. Like on the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK we've tested, it appears that digital TV is downconverted to a standard 480i signal then upconverted back to 1080i. The difference isn't just academic--there is a lot of resolution lost when it's initially downconverted to 480i, which can't be recovered when it's upconverted to 1080i. The difference is easy to see in program material, and high-def connoisseurs will be disappointed.
It's definitely disappointing that the RC797T can't be used as a high-def tuner for anyone who bought an HDTV that lacks a built-in tuner. Still, digital over-the-air broadcasts generally look a lot better than analog broadcasts--the picture for HD broadcasts is essentially DVD quality, in wide-screen, and (if you've got a good signal) free of any distortion or interference. Also, plenty of shows still broadcast in standard definition, so you won't be missing out on any of those shows. So while the RC797T may fail as a high-def tuner, it's a nice upgrade of the standard analog tuner. Just remember that you'll need a good antenna or a cable company that supports QAM digital broadcasts to take advantage of the built-in tuner.
DVD recorder performance
We started off our testing of the recording quality using programs off the ATSC tuner--the only source (aside from FireWire) that's not hampered by a composite video connection. Recording quality was pretty good and mostly comparable to the DMR-EZ47VK at the higher-quality XP and SP recording levels. However, there's a big difference between the two units once they drop to LP quality (four hours per disc mode). While the DMR-EZ47VK is able to keep virtually the same amount of resolution in LP mode as SP mode, the RC797T took a significant hit in resolution when we dropped to LP mode. This was evident in program material, as graphics that continued to look crisp on the DMR-EZ47VK would become blurry on the RC797T.
We also compared recordings made using the inputs between the two DVD recorders. While you can argue that it's not a completely level playing field--since the 797T is limited to composite video and the DMR-EZ47VK has S-Video inputs--we felt it was fair, as that is the level of quality RC797T owners will experience. In short, the LG RC797T offers decent recording quality from external sources, but it doesn't stack up to the DMR-EZ47VK. One of the reasons, of course, is being forced to use the lower-quality composite video connection. For example, we recorded the same sequence of our DirecTV HR20 HD DVR on both DVD recorders using the highest-quality settings, and the RC797T wound up looking a little worse, largely due to dot crawl, which is a video artifact attributable to using the composite video connection. The other reason, as we mentioned before, is that the LP mode is clearly inferior on the RC797T, so when quality counts you'll generally want to use either XP or SP mode when making a recording.
That being said, programs recorded with the RC797T can still look pretty good when using the higher-quality XP and SP recording modes. We taped some episodes of Extreme Engineering and while we could definitely notice some defects to the picture, many people would be completely satisfied with the image quality.
DVD player performance
We started off testing the DVD playback performance of the LG by taking a look at Silicon Optix's HQV test suite. The LG started off strong, acing a resolution test and demonstrating that it can display the full resolution of DVDs. It also fared pretty well on the next two tests as well, with only some slight distortions on three shifting lines and a rotating line.
We were disappointed by its performance on a 2:3 pulldown test, as it struggled to stay locked into film mode as the racecar sped by the grandstands, resulting in intermittent moire. We were able to confirm that it does, in fact, have 2:3 pulldown processing, by watching the intro to Star Trek: Insurrection, where the curved lines of the hulls of the boats and railing of the bridge were smoothly rendered. Despite the LG's difficulties with the HQV tests, we didn't notice many jaggies on actual content material. It handled the difficult introduction to Seabiscuit with only a few minor jaggies, and we barely saw any jaggies in Pirates of the Caribbean. While the LG isn't up to the standards of a dedicated upscaling DVD player like the Oppo DV-981HD, we think most people would be satisfied enough with the performance that they wouldn't want a separate standalone DVD player.