The JVC DR-MH50 DVD/HDD recorder seems, on first glance, to have everything going for it. It looks beautiful, has a massive 250GB hard drive and offers progressive-scan video output. But it has one monumental problem: it's lacking an RGB Scart input, meaning that recordings never look as good as they should.
The situation echoes that of Sony's Network Walkman series -- until recently, the company steadfastly refused to support the MP3 format. So no matter how good the audio quality, battery life or design, this one basic omission crippled the device. The DR-MH50 is exactly the same -- no matter how big the hard drive is, the lack of RGB video input is a travesty, especially at the price. At the beginning of the year, there were still some budget machines being released without an RGB Scart input, but even budget manufacturers like Liteon now include them as standard. It's just plain mean not to include it.
It's a shame, because anyone looking past this oversight will enjoy never running out of memory, and will find that the device is easy to use and looks great sitting underneath the TV. The parts are all in place for a decent follow-up machine, but for the moment it's only an AV curiosity.
We love the understated cool of this player, and we'd proudly put it on show in our living room. The main body is silver and graphite, with a few blue lights adorning the fascia as flourishes. It looks yummy without being flashy, even if the over-abundance of badges and logos make it cluttered. It's not too bulky or heavy and remains eerily quiet, even when accessing the hard drive or a DVD.
Connectivity is adequate, but not extraordinary. First, the good news: the component outputs are fully PAL progressive-scan compatible, so flat screen owners are in for a real treat. Otherwise, it's standard stuff, with aerial inputs and outputs in addition to S-video or RGB Scart outputs to link up to your TV. If you opt for either component or S-video outputs, you're free to use the second Scart socket as an input as well. We're not sure what you'd use it for -- perhaps to hook up an Xbox and record an outstanding Warthog jump in Halo 2 -- but at least you're given the option. On the audio side, you can send a digital signal to a receiver using either coaxial or optical connections, and the player supports Dolby Digital and DTS.
Now, the bad news. While AV inputs on the front (including FireWire) are perfect for linking in a camcorder without fiddling round the back, the main AV input isn't RGB video compatible. This means that your Sky or Freeview recordings lack that RGB shine, which we think is a serious problem for a £550 recorder -- more on this later.
As this is a premium recorder, the package also includes an infrared sender, allowing the DR-MH50 to directly control your satellite box. It works by having one end of the sender plugged into the back of the recorder, while the other sits pointing at the infrared receiver on your digibox. When you go on holiday or set up a recording schedule across multiple channels, the JVC will then be able to change channels by sending a signal through to the box. All you do is let it know which manufacturer made your digibox via a simple code. It's a nice feature, although one we'd reasonably expect given the price.
If you're happy to put up with sub-standard recording quality, you'll be in heaven with the size of the hard drive. Panasonic boasts a 400GB model, but we can't think of many people who would feel hard done by with 250GB storage, which equates to over 473 hours of low-quality recordings, or over 100 hours at high quality. And with DVD format support across DVD-R/RW/RAM media, there are plenty of archiving options. With the hard drive available as a scratch disc, it's unlikely you would want to timeshift or archive using -RW or -RAM, so most users will prefer to choose what they want to keep, edit it down using a playlist to chop out breaks, and archive to DVD-R. Strangely though, -RAM discs have to be taken out of their caddy to be placed in the tray, which misses the whole point of the format's robustness.
As with most DVD recorders, the DR-MH50 has modes that fit either one or two hours of high-quality material on a 4.7GB disc, plus modes for up to a maximum of eight hours if your preference is for quantity over quality. JVC has also implemented a cool feature called 'Free Rate' mode, which will automatically fit a recording within a designated amount of space to the maximum quality level. For example, if you want to dub across a short episode of a TV programme from the hard drive to the end of a disc, you can let the machine take care of the whole procedure. The results are pretty good, but the size of the hard drive gives you more than enough capacity to leave your treasured items on the hard drive for easy access.
We were impressed by the user help system on the JVC, which comes in the form of FAQs in the on-screen help system. If you're having trouble with any of the connections, it provides helpful diagrams to explain what the solution might be. It's a brilliant alternative to having to dig out the manual, and it's something we'd like to see all manufacturers include.
Continuing the ease-of-use theme, the system is also compatible with VideoPlus, and you can set up to 16 individual recordings in advance. As you'd expect from a hard disk recorder, it always buffers the current programme to the hard drive, but its capacity is so huge you can buffer up to three hours of material in total. The recorder then has the ability to RetroActively record it, by simply selecting the start and finish points from the archived material. So if you reach the end of a movie, even one as long as The Godfather, and decide you want to see it again (if, for example, you fell asleep), you can save it all to the hard drive afterwards. Such powerful user options were unthinkable only a few years ago, and it will certainly change the way you watch television if you're new to hard drive recording.
As we mentioned, the AV input isn't RGB Scart compatible, which means that if you have a Freeview, cable or Sky box, you have the unfortunate choice of resorting to a standard Scart cable or using S-video round the front. We thought we'd finally seen the end of non-RGB recording once the budget manufacturers managed to include the feature on their sub-£200 players, but it seems that you can't take it for granted just yet. We kick up a lot of fuss over this, because people with digital TVs deserve better than to be plunged back into the days of a picture with poor definition and washed-out colours.
While little can touch the sheer capacity of the DR-MH50's hard drive, we think theoffers much better value for money, offering adequate storage, excellent usability and a fuller features list. Toshiba's model also offers a much better selection of recording quality levels.
The DR-MH50 will also play MP3, WMA and JPEG files, but omits DivX compatibility.
JVC has offered some excellent DVD players in the past, and the DR-MH50 is no different. Playback through RGB Scart or component is wonderfully detailed, and with the latter, it's also beautifully smooth. We tested it on a Hitachi plasma panel, and the JVC provided a completely judder-free image. The component inputs can also be changed between progressive scan and interlaced video, but only the more antiquated flat screens will need to use the latter.
In case we haven't made it abundantly clear already, you shouldn't expect too much when it comes to recordings. They're not particularly detailed and colours tend to bleed into each other, but if you're used to analogue TV and you use one of the higher quality modes, recordings are indistinguishable. Audio is recorded in standard stereo and there's no option to drop the quality manually. If you choose the SP recording mode on the hard drive, you'll reach the right mix between video quality and storage capacity, and you can drop the quality down manually or automatically with the Free Rate mode when dubbing to hard drive.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide