Digital video recorders (DVRs) such as TiVo and spoil us by making it incredibly simple to record television. Naturally, many people long for a similarly easy-to-use DVD recorder that would let them capture shows to disc with minimal hassle. The Pioneer DVR-810H answers those couch potatoes' prayers by deftly combining a TiVo-powered hard drive recorder with a DVD burner in one tightly integrated machine. The DVR-810H is expensive and lacks a FireWire input for interfacing with digital camcorders. But despite these notable drawbacks, this über-recorder is the best TV-archiving device we've seen to date, and it's currently available for 30 percent less than its $1,000 list price.
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The Pioneer DVR-810H's attractive, silver body is a step up from the usual bland A/V component. A centered disc tray sits directly above a subtle array of message lights, which glow blue during playback and red during recording. A readout at the bottom of the face displays status information and the timer. The only other front-panel elements are five standard transport controls and buttons for ejecting the disc and turning on the power. This simplicity gives the recorder a tasteful, minimalist look.
For the remote control, Pioneer slightly modified the standard TiVo wand, throwing in a few more keys to cover DVD functionality. We found operation intuitive and comfortable. You can program the control to power on a variety of televisions, and the DVR-810H changes channels on your cable or satellite box, so you should need only one remote to handle DVD, TV, DVR, and channel-surfing commands.
The superb TiVo onscreen interface controls DVD recording and playback, setup, and all other functions. The menu is a model of intuitive design, especially compared with the convoluted system of Panasonic's competing. The TiVo solution provides easy access to everything, making for extremely simple operation.
The 810H offers all the great DVR functions that made TiVo a household name. You get a real-time onscreen electronic programming guide (EPG), and you can pause and rewind live TV, capture up to 80 hours of material on the 80GB internal hard disk, and play back one show while recording another. Less appreciated but just as important is a feature that most DVD recorders lack: control over cable and satellite boxes via an included IR blaster or serial cable. This capability makes it easy to record from the hundreds of channels available on just about any digital set-top box.
Like all TiVo-powered devices, the DVR-810H updates its EPG via the built-in dial-up modem or your home network; for the latter connection, you have to supply your own USB Ethernet or Wi-Fi adapter. Unlike standalone TiVo units, the DVR-810H includes TiVo Basic service, which doesn't add any fees but is stripped down: you get only 3 days of EPGs instead of 14, no Season Pass feature for easily recording all the episodes of your favorite show, and no ability to generate wish lists of genres, stars, or titles. To upgrade to TiVo Plus, you can pay either $13 per month or a $300 lump sum. As of June 2004, TiVo Plus service also includes the cool Home Media Option, which enables the DVR-810H to stream digital music and photos from your home network, share programs with other TiVos in your house, and even accept remote program commands via the Internet.
While the Pioneer DVR-810H can store TV shows on its internal hard drive or recordable DVDs, the deck falls short of the Panasonic DMR-E100H on two important counts: the Pioneer can't edit recordings, so you can't delete commercials, and since it lacks a FireWire connection, it can't digitally interface with MiniDV camcorders. It also can't capture 5.1-channel surround soundtracks from broadcast sources, but to be fair, no other standalone recorder can, either. These are the only glaring omissions in an otherwise ideal feature list.