Set-top DVD recorders have gone from being an exciting innovation to being one step less boring than VCRs, and even the addition of upscaling technology can't save them. But although it may not inspire rampant gear lust, Samsung's DVD-R135, with its ability to record to DVD coupled with the capacity to upscale DVDs to its HDMI output, promises to be a single do-it-all DVD unit. While the DVD-R135 mostly delivers on that goal, it's not quite up to the level we've seen from Panasonic recorders such as the DMR-ES25S, which offers better LP recording quality, DVD-RAM and dual-layer recording support, and a media card slot. That said, the stylish DVD-R135 will definitely look better in your A/V rack, and its superior playback compatibility might come in handy if you already have a lot of home-brew DVDs.
Samsung has made another slick-looking player, taking styling cues from the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player. The top half of the DVD-R135's face is glossy black with an LED to the right of the disc tray. The bottom half is silver and inward sloping, with a few front-panel control buttons such as play, record, and handy chapter forward/backward for when the remote goes missing. There's also a flip-down panel that reveals an additional A/V input, a FireWire/IEEE-1394 DV input, and a progressive-scan button. The power button on the left has a blue light encircling it, although home theater enthusiasts might be disappointed that it can't be dimmed. However, we think most people will find the design a notch above the competition.
The remote is thoughtfully designed, with enough differentiation between the buttons to make it easy to navigate by feel. The recording functions are clearly labeled and offset so that you won't hit one by accident. The only function we felt was missing from the remote was a button to easily change the output resolution; you have to go into the menus to change that. On the other hand, most people will probably set it once and never need it again.
While the menus and interface aren't very fancy, we found them easy to use. While we preferred Panasonic's menu style from a visual standpoint, Samsung's menus move faster and provide more information at a glance.
For DVD recording, the Samsung DVD-R135 offers four recording modes that all have trade-offs in recording quality vs. capacity. Only one hour of highest-quality XP-mode video fits onto one single-layer DVD; SP is two hours, LP is four, and EP is either six or eight. Unlike many other players, there is no support for dual-layer discs, which offer twice the recording capacity of standard recordable DVDs. That's a big missing feature in our book. While the unit accepts write-once DVD-R and rewriteable DVD-RW blank media, there's also no support for recording to DVD-RAM discs, which is a feature we've seen on Panasonic DVD recorders. On those recorders, DVD-RAM discs offer limited DVR-like functionality, such as the ability to pause the playback of a recording while the program continues to record.
There's no aspect-ratio control on the DVD-R135, which is a feature we really liked on Samsung's nonrecording DVD-HD960. The lack of aspect-ratio control is an issue with nonanamorphic wide-screen DVDs, which don't completely fill the screen. Because some HDTVs do not have aspect-ratio control on HD inputs, it's always nice to also have the control on the DVD player. That said, it's not a common feature on other DVD-recorders we've seen.