Pioneer's entry-level DVD recorder is relatively easy to use, and the price is right, but other budget decks give you more bang for the buck. In its favor, the Pioneer DVR-233-S ($199 list) boasts respectable recording quality, simple onscreen menus, and a nicely designed remote. On the other hand, its feature list falls well short of the competition's, with sparse editing features, a lack of FireWire or S-Video front-panel inputs, and an inability to play MP3s or JPEG slide shows. The DVR-233-S is worthy of consideration if you don't care about the missing features and just want an easy-to-use deck, but options such as the and the Panasonic DMR-ES10S are just as easy to use and represent better values. The silver Pioneer DVR-233-S is thin and sleek, with a smallish LED on the front left, the DVD tray on the right, and six round playback and recording buttons in between. Also in front is a set of A/V inputs for a camcorder (no FireWire or S-Video inputs, unfortunately). Measuring 16.5 by 12.5 by 2.5 inches, the deck is about the same size as other basic DVD recorders we've tested.
Pioneer's nonbacklit remote is well thought out and nicely labeled, making for a shallow learning curve. DVD and recorder menu keys surround the five-way navigation keypad, with the large play button and other transport controls beneath and a numeric keypad above. We especially like the prominence of the recording-mode button (so you can change the recording speed without digging into a setup menu) as well as the large, clearly marked Audio, Subtitle, and Angle buttons up top.
The deck's internal menus are well laid out and easy to follow. While there's no onscreen help to explain more esoteric functions, the convenient Home menu--gathering various recording, navigation, and editing functions into one place--more than makes up the difference. Our main complaint concerned the DVR-233's disc-navigator menu, which was sluggish at displaying programs on a recorded disc. It made for tedious scrolling, especially given that the menu displays only four titles with thumbnails at a time rather than six or eight. Recording video with the Pioneer DVR-233-S is a simple matter of pressing the Record button on the remote or on the front of the unit. You can also set up to 32 timed recordings manually or with VCR Plus+, but as with all entry-level decks we've tested, there's no electronic programming guide or IR blaster to change the channel on your cable or satellite set-top box. For timer recordings, you'll have to make sure you've set the channel on your cable or satellite box beforehand.
The deck records to DVD-R/-RW discs only, and your video-editing options depend on whether you initialize -RW discs in VR or video mode. In VR mode, we were able to combine and divide chapters, erase titles and chapters, and change title thumbnails and names; however, VR-mode discs probably won't work on other DVD players (for example, they crapped out on our Zenith DVD deck and two DVD-equipped laptops). Discs recorded in video mode should play in other decks, but your editing options are limited to erasing titles or changing the title name--a weak selection compared to what you get with other budget recorders. You can set the recorder to add chapter stops every 15 minutes with both -R and -RW media, but you can't change that interval nor add chapter stops manually, although dividing a chapter in VR mode essentially adds a chapter stop.
The DVR-233-S serves up the standard recording speeds, ranging from the 1-hour XP mode to the 8-hour SLP mode, plus an extralong SEP mode for 10-hour recordings (see Performance for details on recording quality). The Optimized Recording mode will change the recording speed automatically if your first timer recording is too long for the space remaining on a DVD. That's a nice feature, but we would have preferred a true flexible-recording mode such as the one found on Panasonic decks, which squeezes a recording to fill the precise amount of space left on a disc.
Playback options also leave something to be desired. While we like the 30-second commercial-skip feature, there's no A-B repeat mode for playing a segment of video over and over. We were also disappointed that the deck won't play MP3s or JPEGs burned to recordable CDs--a standard feature on other decks we've tested.
We weren't thrilled by the DVR-233-S's so-so set of connections. Our biggest complaint concerns the front A/V ports, which are missing both FireWire and S-Video inputs; most budget recorders have at least one or the other. In back, you get the standard set of component-video and S-Video outputs with stereo audio, an A/V input with S-Video, a coaxial digital audio output, and RF inputs and outputs. Not too shabby, but we'd have liked an extra S-Video input and an optical digital audio output. The Pioneer DVR-233-S scored well on our resolution tests. As expected, the deck captured north of 450 lines of horizontal resolution (about the same resolution that a garden-variety DVD deck can display) in our XP and SP recordings. Resolution dipped to a much softer 250 lines in the 4-hour LP mode, while the recorder managed only about 225 lines or less in the EP, SLP, and SEP modes. In our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, the alien probes hunting the fleeing peasants looked rock solid in XP and SP modes, with little to no background blockiness. The picture looked much softer in the 4-hour LP mode, while our EP recording looked even worse, with background blockiness, juddery motion (where objects seem to stutter along instead of moving smoothly), and distracting artifacts around the edges of objects. Our 10-hour SEP recording was practically unwatchable, with an image so juddery that the action looked like it was in slow motion. Our XP and SP recordings of the damaged Enterprise bridge in Insurrection did a good job of handling the dark, smoky interiors and bright sparks, but again, the LP mode looked much softer, with juddery motion appearing in EP and slower modes.
The DVR-233-S easily passed our 2:3 pull-down test for DVD playback quality, smoothly rendering the tricky bridges and haystacks at the beginning of Insurrection.