Your cable company may offer a free digital video recorder (DVR) with a subscription, but chances are it's a poor cousin to TiVo, the industry leader in features and ease of use. TiVo upped the ante in 2003 by licensing its technology to Pioneer to create the DVR-810H, the first TiVo that could also archive TV programs to an integrated DVD recorder. It was a near-perfect marriage of technologies--one that made the 810H the highest-rated recorder on CNET for the better part of 12 months. Pioneer's monopoly finally ended when Humax entered the game with a pair of similar offerings: the $499 DRT800 and, more recently, the $399 DRT400, which offers a half-as-capacious hard drive, and forgoes the FireWire input found on its big brother. But the seemingly affordable price tags on the Humax models have a catch: they require the addition of full TiVo service for $13 a month or a $299 one-time charge. By comparison, the Toshiba RS-TX series offers larger hard drive capacities and works straight out of the box with the stripped-down TiVo Basic service--the full-service upgrade is entirely optional. The DRT400 and DRT800 are great recorders--we'd just like to see Humax lower its initial price tag or offer TiVo Basic service as well.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.The Humax DRT400 and DRT800 models look all but identical from the outside. They're each housed in a rather bland silver-and-black body that could easily be mistaken for that of an old VCR. A centered disc tray sits directly above two message lights, which glow orange to acknowledge signals from the remote and red during hard disk or DVD recording. A readout on the right-hand side displays status information and the clock/timer. Other front-panel elements include a small, five-way joystick for maneuvering the onscreen menus, six standard video-transport controls (Play, Stop, Rewind, Eject, and so on), and the TiVo Home button. A flip-down panel on the left-hand side hides a full set of front-panel A/V inputs, including S-Video and, on the DRT800, a FireWire connection.
Humax modified the standard TiVo mini barbell remote, 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 Humax changes channels on your cable or satellite box. Most users will need only one remote to handle DVD, TV, DVR, and channel-surfing commands.
The Humax uses the superb TiVo onscreen interface for all standard DVR and DVD functions, including setting up the device, listing recorded shows, displaying the electronic program guide, searching the guide, and controlling DVD recording and playback. The menu is a model of intuitive design, especially compared to the convoluted systems used on competing combo recorders from Panasonic and Philips.The Humax DRT series offers all the great DVR functions that made TiVo a household name. You get a 14-day real-time onscreen electronic programming guide (EPG) for antenna, satellite, or cable. You also get the ability to pause and rewind live TV, capture dozens of hours of programming on the internal hard disk (40 hours on the DRT400; 80 hours on the DRT800), and play back one show while recording another. Other TiVo-only goodies include WishLists (making it easy to record any show with a favorite star, director, or genre), Season Passes (to record all first-run episodes of your favorite programs), and Home Network Features (which let you schedule recordings through TiVo's Web site, stream music and photos from your networked PC, and watch programs recorded on other networked TiVos within your home). Humax and TiVo are pledging to add TiVoToGo support later in 2005, but since you can already convert your videos to a transportable DVD format, its current omission won't be missed by many. Not as sexy but just as important is a feature that most DVD recorders lack: control over cable and satellite boxes via an IR blaster or a serial cable (both included). This capability makes it easy to record from the hundreds of channels available on just about any digital set-top box.
While all of those features are compelling, they'll cost you $12.95 a month or a onetime fee of $299 (go for the latter if you intend on keeping the unit for more than two years). That's above and beyond the $400 (DRT400) or $500 (DRT800) purchase price. By comparison, the Pioneer DVR-810H and the Toshiba RS-TX20--both of which are all but identical to the DRT800--ship with the stripped-down TiVo Basic service. It's not nearly as versatile as the full TiVo service, but it offers basic recording functionality and a three-day electronic programming guide without requiring you to shell out any additional cash.
The Humax updates its EPG via the built-in dial-up modem or your home network; to use the latter, you have to connect your own Ethernet or Wi-Fi adapter to one of the recorder's USB ports. While the Humax is network-friendly, its initial setup routine requires you to use a standard phone line, which is a drag if you've switched to a Voice over IP (VoIP) provider such as Vonage.
The Humax can store TV shows on recordable DVDs or its internal hard drive, but the deck falls short of competing non-TiVo combo recorders from Panasonic (such as the DMR-EH50) on at least one major count: it can't edit recordings, so you can't delete commercials before burning to DVD. We could also nitpick about its inability to record HDTV and 5.1-channel surround sound, but neither is a feature we'd expect from a recorder in this price range.
Connectivity options are plentiful. Outputs aren't spectacular for a DVD recorder--progressive-scan component, S-Video, and composite video, plus analog stereo audio and optical digital audio--but they're a step above standard TiVos. The Humax accepts TV signals on a standard RF coaxial cable, a composite A/V input, or an S-Video connection. The aforementioned front-panel A/V inputs include S-Video and composite connections for quick camcorder hookups, but only the DRT800 offers a FireWire port for an easy single-cable all-digital connection to DV camcorders.A few clicks of the remote were all the Humax required to offload TV shows or other material from its hard disk to a DVD-R or a DVD-RW. The DVD menu, a natural extension of TiVo's interface, couldn't be easier to use. Burning a full disc can take about 45 minutes (with 4X media), but since the process occurs in the background via high-speed dubbing, you can watch and record TV or play back captured programs while you wait. A TiVo-style top menu gives homemade recordings a nice, professional sheen, though some may regret the intrusive branding. Another sensible addition: if your recording is too long to fit on one disc, the unit will automatically split the program over multiple discs, prompting you to insert blanks as necessary.
The Basic, Medium, and High recording modes cover roughly the same quality and time range as a VCR's EP, LP, and SP options. The respective modes give you 6, 4, and 2 hours of video per DVD and 80, 54, and 40 hours of programming on the DRT800's hard drive (the DRT400's half-as-large 40GB hard disk stores half as much video in each mode). We avoided Basic and Medium because they yielded predictably low levels of resolution and a soft, VHS-style picture. We opted for the default High setting and even ratcheted it up to Best on occasion (27 hours on the DRT800's hard drive, 13 hours on the DRT400, or 1 hour on DVD). Both settings yielded video quality that was as good as you could expect when limited to S-Video inputs. Unlike on recorders from Panasonic, there's no custom mode that allows you to record, say, a 2.5-hour movie onto a single disc without resorting to 4-hour mode.
The Humax covers all the DVD basics as well. Its progressive-scan playback (on DVDs, recorded video, and live TV) shined, exhibiting generally solid picture quality. Recordable DVDs of all flavors that we'd burned on other machines gave the unit no trouble. And MP3 CD-R playback, complete with shuffling, was better than average.
The Humax's main strength is its ability to archive television, but it also lets you dub your camcorder videos (or any other noncopyrighted video source) to the internal hard disk and subsequently to DVD. Both the DRT400 and DRT800 offer a streamlined dubbing process and front panel inputs for easy camcorder hook-ups, but only the DRT800 includes a FireWire/IEEE 1394 port for optimal connections to a DV camcorder. But those looking to do more than offload large, contiguous chunks of birthday, wedding, and travel videos will be disappointed. Unlike some rival recorders (including the bargain Lite-On LVW-5005) that offer more flexible editing options, the TiVo system doesn't allow for remote device control--you'll have to manually cue up the camcorder to the scene you want to dub. Furthermore, you can't edit the scenes you dub to the hard disk--they can only be offloaded to DVD in their original state.