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JVC DR-DX5S review: JVC DR-DX5S

Design
You'd think a component with both MiniDV and DVD decks would have a cluttered front panel, but not so with the stylish DR-DX5S. A silvery-gray door covers the entire front of the recorder, giving it a smooth, sleek appearance. Of course, you must flip open the door to load or eject a DVD or MiniDV cassette, but given the deck's handsome design--you can always leave the door open during heavy use--we thought it was a fair trade-off. Behind the front door you'll find the standard array of playback and recording controls, although there's no navigational pad for menu surfing when the remote goes missing. You'll also find a set of A/V inputs with S-Video and a FireWire input for digital camcorders. Measuring 17 by 13.5 by 3.5 inches, the DR-DX5S isn't exactly svelte, but that's to be expected with such a "three-headed" beast.

6.7

JVC DR-DX5S

The Good

Nice design; MiniDV deck; well-designed remote; intuitive menus; dubs audio and inserts scenes in MiniDV recordings; burns dual-layer DVD-R discs; HDD pauses and rewinds live TV; flexible recording speeds; six-way dubbing; above-average recording quality.

The Bad

No electronic programming guide; DV editing tools are relatively crude; no IR blaster; no component-video input; incompatible with +R/+RW discs; limited high-speed dubbing options; high price tag.

The Bottom Line

JVC's stylish new HDD/DVD recorder--the first we've seen with an integrated MiniDV deck--comes with an impressive, yet incomplete, set of features.
JVC's mouth-watering new HDD/DVD recorder--the first we've seen for consumers with an integrated MiniDV deck--comes with an impressive, albeit incomplete, set of features. For example, the DR-DX5S plays, records, and edits MiniDV camcorder tapes, DVD-RAM discs, and even dual-layer DVD-R discs, but doesn't work with +R/+RW formats. It has a massive 250GB hard drive that pauses and rewinds live TV, but no electronic programming guide or IR blasters, severely limiting its use as a DVR. The DR-DX5S features six-way dubbing between its three drives but has only limited high-speed dub options. Finally, the deck's MiniDV editing tools, while passable, don't come close to the editing capabilities available on an average computer. Although each of the DR-DX5S's individual drawbacks is forgivable, together they're tough to ignore--and for us, the jaw-dropping $1,500 price tag is asking too much. Most consumers looking for a HDD/DVD recorder would probably be better served with the , which offers much of the same functionality as the DR-DX5S at a fraction of the cost. On the other hand, we could see how the DR-DX5S could appeal to an enthusiast crowd that appreciates its dubbing flexibility or wants to transfer MiniDV tapes to DVD--or to a computer--without putting extra strain on an expensive camcorder. In the end, the DR-DX5S is an expensive deck with some glaring deficiencies, but if you're in the niche that appreciates its unique tools, it might be worth checking out.

The DR-DX5S's remote is predictably packed with buttons, but its layout is clear and logical. Channel and volume controls are located in one section, playback and recording controls in another, and a small flip-door near the bottom of the remote hides DVD functions. Dubbing, editing, and setup buttons are clearly marked, as are the three main buttons that take you through the deck's MiniDV/HDD/DVD modes. We especially liked the dedicated recording-mode and progressive-scan buttons, both of which save you time browsing the setup menu--which can be especially annoying for analog TV viewers who switch to progressive-scan mode by mistake.

The DR-DX5S's onscreen menus aren't as flashy as those we've seen on Sony's newer DVD decks, for example, but they're certainly intuitive. The tabbed setup menu makes it easy to plow through the myriad settings, and comes complete with diagrams that show how to navigate with the remote. The HDD/DVD navigation menus display nine title thumbnails at a time, plus a preview window for the highlighted title. While this is a nice setup, it does take about 15 seconds for a full page of thumbnails to load the first time.

Features
Let's start with the deck's main attraction: the MiniDV drive, which lets you dub video from your digital camcorder to the hard drive or to DVD, as well as perform a few basic editing tasks. You can play back video recorded on MiniDV cassettes, or record in either 12- or 16-bit modes. You can also dub MiniDV video to the hard drive or to disc, at which point you can edit using the standard HDD/DVD-editing tools (see below). You can also add a new audio track to MiniDV video through the A/V ports (provided the MiniDV is in 12-bit mode); just queue the tape to the scene you want dubbed, press the A.Dub button on the front of the deck, and start recording. Similarly, you can insert new video on a recording while keeping the audio intact (again, using the A/V ports). While useful, the process is still crude compared to the many DV-editing tools available for a PC. What's more, the DR-DX5S is compatible only with standard-definition video, not the high-definition video recorded on HDV camcorders.

The DR-DX5S's impressive hard drive, thanks to its 250GB capacity, is good for more than 50 hours of recording in premium XP mode or a whopping 328 hours in EP mode. The HDD also boasts a feature we rarely see on non-TiVo HDD/DVD combo decks: the ability to pause and rewind live TV with a video cache of up to three hours. Because the HDD is always recording, you can indulge in "retroactive recording"--that is, if you're watching a show and decide to record it half-way through, the deck can record the entire show, provided you were watching the show from the start. You can also chase playback while recording, which means you can watch the start of a still-recording title.

A huge, always-recording HDD deck would seem to beg for an electronic programming guide--unfortunately JVC failed to build one into the DR-DX5S. And while the recorder does have VCR Plus for timed recording (as many as 32 scheduled recordings at a time), there's no IR blaster to change the channel on your cable or satellite box, which means you'll have to change stations manually before your recording begins. For us, having such a powerful HDD without an onscreen programming guide or even an IR blaster is a big oversight.

The deck's DVD drive plays all -R format discs, plus dual-layer DVD-Rs (for as much as four hours of video at top-quality XP speed) as well as DVD-RAM discs, which is not bad. Yet for a recorder this pricey, we'd expect +R/+RW compatibility as well. When using high-speed DVD-RAM discs (as with the HDD), the deck also lets you chase playback as well as watch one show off the DVD-RAM while recording another on the same disc. We also liked the DR-DX5S's ability to record a precise amount of video on a disc's remaining free space (from 60 to 480 minutes on a single-layer DVD, in 5-minute increments), a handy way to record an odd-length program (for example, 130 minutes) with the best-possible picture quality.

Editing options on the DVD deck are good. With DVD-RAM and DVD-RW VR discs, you can change title thumbnails and names, add or delete chapter marks, snip scenes (nice for editing commercials), protect a title, and create or modify playlists, which lets you edit video without altering the original recordings. For DVD-R and DVD-RW discs in video mode, you can replace only the title thumbnails and names--pretty limited, but par for the course.

The DR-DX5S offers six-way dubbing, and it's a simple process: just press the Dubbing key on the remote, and the onscreen menus walk you through. High-speed dubbing is available from the hard drive to DVD, but only if you dub at the original recording speed--we dubbed a 30-minute SP title to DVD in about 7 minutes. Otherwise, all dubbing is performed in real time, which means you'll sit and watch the crawling progress bar during the dub. All in all, we've seen much more flexible options with other decks.

The deck comes with a good set of connections--although for the DR-DX5S's sky-high price tag, we'd expect better. In the back of the deck, you'll find a component-video out, two S-Video outs (one carries signals from the MiniDV deck, the other doesn't), an S-Video-equipped input, optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, and RF ins and outs. On the front panel is a set of A/V inputs with S-Video and a FireWire input for digital camcorders. Normally, we'd say this was a fine set of connections, but for a $1,500 deck, we would have liked more: maybe a component-video input, an extra set of S-Video inputs in back, or an HDMI output, for example.

As far as PC connectivity is concerned, you can connect a FireWire cable from the DR-DX5S to the corresponding input on your PC, and transfer footage from DV tapes to the PC (saving wear and tear on your camcorder). While this worked fine for us, the DR-DX5S's manual includes this disconcerting note: "When you connect a PC to the DV IN connector, we do not assure the normal operation of this unit." In other words, if that's an important feature for you, caveat emptor. Granted, at this price, you might be better off buying a secondary camcorder.

Performance
We were impressed by the DR-DX5S's better-than-average recording quality, although it wasn't immediately apparent in our standard tests. In our resolution tests, the DR-DX5S scored more than 450 lines of horizontal resolution in its one- and two-hour XP and SP modes, on par with what we've seen from other recorders. In four-hour LP mode, our test pattern looked noticeably softer, with resolution falling to about 320 lines--again, nothing unusual. In six-hour EP mode, resolution dipped to about 250 lines, and we saw noticeable--and moving--artifacts around the edges of objects when we switched to the eight-hour FR480 mode.

Next, we queued up Star Trek: Insurrection and forwarded to the bright, day-lit scene when malevolent probes dive-bomb a column of fleeing peasants. In the DR-DX5S's XP and SP modes, the picture looked rock solid, as we expected. Switching to four-hour LP mode, the image looked a bit softer, but we saw little digital blockiness in the background, an annoying artifact that affects most of the DVD recorders we've tested. In six-hour EP mode, the picture looked even softer, and the fleeing peasants became jerky, with artifacts around the edges of their frames--but again, we were struck by the lack of background blockiness. Finally, in eight-hour FR480 mode, the image was murky and stuttering, but still had little blockiness, which typically reaches critical mass at this stage. Skipping ahead to scenes of the dark, damaged Enterprise bridge, our XP and SP recordings looked excellent, and our LP recordings, while softer, did a better than average job of rendering smoke and sparks. In EP mode, the picture became even softer and people seemed washed out--yet the DR-DX5S rendered the smoke and sparks with aplomb, minus the usual blockiness and false contouring.

In terms of DVD playback, the DR-DX5S easily passed our 2:3 pull-down test, smoothly rendering the jagged bridges and boats during the opening credits of Insurrection.

6.7

JVC DR-DX5S

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 7