The DVD recorder may still have some way to go before it replaces the vast number of VCRs out there, but those willing to change may have considered the combined DVD/HDD route. And why not -- since Sky+ has brought the virtues of hard drive recording to the masses, millions of people have been dramatically changing the way they watch TV. With the ability to pause live TV, make masses of recordings to the hard drive and then archive the best to DVD, the Toshiba RD-XS32 was one of the most popular combined models in this market. It shared top honours with Pioneer in the ease of editing stakes, and added a good AV performance including progressive scan output to become the choice of the serious user.
The RD-XS34 is the same unit but turned up a notch -- upping the ante with a 160GB hard drive, enough for over 276 hours of recording, or around 70 hours of a quality you'd want to watch. It's certainly been designed as a power machine, for users who not only want to record a lot of programmes to the hard drive, but those who want to archive them as well. Thankfully, the machine offers a great deal of power to this type of user (once they've learned how to use the dauntingly packed remote control), allowing them to cut programmes down, add thumbnail images and descriptions, and backup quickly and easily to DVD. Other advanced features include VideoPlus, while DVD-RAM and DVD-RW support means that you can timeslip recordings from one button.
Considering this is an integrated DVD and hard drive recorder, the RD-XS34 is amazingly slim. It's deep and heavy, yes, but it doesn't look like it houses anything other than a standard DVD player. The fascia, however, leaves you in no doubt that this offers all the trimmings -- a 160GB hard drive and support for DVD-R/RW/RAM discs, along with support for progressive scan, DTS audio and VideoPlus.
The connections roster offers both quality and quantity, with everything we could have realistically wished for at this time. An RGB Scart input is mandatory these days, and will most likely be taken up by your FreeView or Sky box. You can also output via composite (heaven forbid) and plug in a television aerial for recording a standard analogue signal (again, a bit of a last resort). Thanks to progressive scan component outputs, the box is ready to be connected to the latest CRT televisions, flatscreen displays and projectors, servicing them with a picture that's judder-free and full of colour. A nice touch, and one that brings recording into the modern world of the digital display.
You have a choice of analogue stereo outputs, or both digital optical and coaxial. Everything that you connect to the machine can be outputted via your designated connection, which makes rigging it up to your receiver or home cinema system that little bit easier.
On the front of the unit, tucked away very neatly under a flap, you can find a set of composite inputs with a DV Input for recording directly from a camcorder. All in all, it's a superb inclusion from Toshiba -- a DVI or HDMI connector would have been nice, but it's a bit too early in the game to be expecting amenities like this yet.
If someone in your family joked about needing a degree in rocket science before they could operate the VCR, they'll need the equivalent of a masters, PhD, Doctorate and Nobel Prize before they can get to grips with the RD-XS34. The remote control is a beast of some 59 buttons (plus 19 under another flap), and while the amount of features offered by the box makes all this necessary, it is a bit daunting when you first come to use it.
Thankfully, most common features are only a button press away, while advanced settings are neatly tucked away under menus. While the skill to operate the RD-XS34 correctly will take most people a couple of days to master, Toshiba's logic in design is well thought out. You can set up a recording preset that suits your need whether you're using the HDD or DVD recorder, leaving everyone else to just use it as a normal recorder, be it via the VideoPlus codes from the Radio Times or a simple press of the 'Record' button. Advanced functions such as TimeSlip are then only a button away - simply press it and the box will zip back to the beginning of the programme while it continues to record it.
When you want to edit and archive your hard-drive full of recordings, it couldn't be easier. It's in this area that the RD-XS34 excels. It features one of the simplest interfaces we've had the pleasure of using, but it still offers more experienced users plenty of options. There are a bewildering number of presets for both video and audio, and while you can still select two presets such as 'LP' and 'SP' to make it simple, there are 36 different levels of video quality to choose from. If you choose to do it manually, we recommend keeping the quality above the 5.6 mark, still higher than the default 'SP' setting, which will limit recording time to about 58 hours on the hard drive. You should still have enough space to record a variety of programmes in brilliant clarity, plus you can let the box drop the quality when archiving to DVD.
We'd have hoped that the player would support DVD+R/RW media as opposed to (or maybe as well as) DVD-RAM. The RAM format's major selling point is that it can act as a scratchdisk, so that you can delete advert breaks after you've watched a programme or watch the beginning of a recording while it's still being made, otherwise known as timeslipping. However, thanks to the integrated hard drive, we don't think that this will be high on a lot of user's wish lists. Instead, we suspect that the hard drive will be used as a platform for all recordings, while DVD media will be used for archiving.
Thankfully, the RD-XS34 has a number of tricks up its sleeve in compensation. One of the best features on it that elevates it beyond the status of the competition is the included infrared control lead that can be used to control your FreeView or Sky box. By telling the RD-XS34 what manufacturer made your set top box, it will synchronise recording schedules to make sure that the box is on the correct channel. You shouldn't underestimate the utility of this function, especially if you're going on a long holiday.
We have to say though, isn't it time that FreeView was included on these recorders as standard? Sony did package Freeview in a DVD recorder for the rather high premium of £500, and there are a few integrated HDD boxes out there for under £150, but if you had it all in one box your system would be much simpler. The same goes for DivX playback, which is also omitted on the RD-XS34.
The picture quality from the RD-XS34 is incredibly detailed. You can use the RGB Scart or component sockets to output everything to your TV, meaning that anything you're inputting looks just as good once it's passed through the machine. Whether it's a manufactured or home-made DVD, playback quality is superb, offering a great amount of detail and solid, judder-free movement. The best output to use is component if it's available when linking to your TV, but RGB Scart is also sufficient.
Recording modes are wide enough to accommodate a full range of picture qualities, and while you probably wouldn't want to sink lower than SP, using the 'High Rate Save' mode you can let the unit intelligently decide where to use the most compression. When using the hard drive, a rating of 6.6 or more is pretty indistinguishable from the original broadcast, while the two hours per DVD mode of 4.6 is more than enjoyable. It's great to see a unit that offers so much choice of quality recording modes.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Tom Espiner