If features float your boat then JVC's DR-MH300 is equipped with almost every recording option imaginable. You can make copies using either the 160GB hard disk drive or software discs using DVD-RAM or –R/RW formats and there's an exhaustive list of accompanying editing and dubbing functions -- especially useful if you're a budding camcorder Spielberg.
There's also HDMI connectivity, still a rarity in recorders for under £300, which means you can watch upscaled images of nearly high-definition quality, provided you have a compatible HD Ready display.
The specification is tainted, however, by the exclusion of an integrated digital Freeview tuner and the design is cheaply constructed and unoriginal. You can always connect a separate set-top box and even access electronic programme guides to ease recordings, but it'll cost you extra time, money and convenience.
Both recording and playback performance is commendable, but there are alternative models around such as Panasonic's DMR-EX75 that can claim better image quality and an integrated digital tuner for around £50 more.
JVC may have crammed this recorder with a fistful of features, but the design fails to pack a punch. The boxy construction appears overweight, controls feel flimsy and the only imaginative embellishment is a blue neon light that streaks across the sober front panel.
Likewise, the lightweight remote looks uninspiring and feels economical, with practically every centimetre inundated with controls -- it leaves little room for manoeuvre. However, it's intelligently arranged and easy to get used to, with numerous short-cut keys to save you from always accessing the main menu.
A small panel on the recorder's right-hand side conceals several easy-access AV inputs, including a DV input that allows you to directly copy footage from a digital camcorder. Advanced DV recording and editing technology means you can precisely edit camcorder pictures in native DV format for better quality before dubbing back to MiniDV -- a useful feature if you're a home movie maker.
The rear panel is largely reserved for higher-quality video outputs. There are few recorders at this price that can claim HDMI connectivity and the inclusion of this direct digital output means you can watch upscaled 720p or 1080i (effectively high-definition quality) images, with sound, using a single cable. If your display isn't digitally compatible yet, using the analogue component outputs to support progressive-scan images offers the next best performance.
Otherwise, there are two Scart terminals to cater for conventional users and both are enabled to input and output RGB signals. This is especially important, as without an integrated Freeview tuner it's likely you'll connect a set-top box and using RGB, recordings will not be compromised in quality.
On the sound side, you can connect to an external amplifier or home cinema receiver using either standard analogue outputs or a coaxial digital output that will carry multi-channel film soundtracks for surround set-ups.
It's a shame that a recorder with so many flexible and convenient features should exclude an integrated digital tuner from an otherwise outstanding specification. Not only would a Freeview tuner offer more choice and improved performance, but it would also simplify recordings using electronic programme guides.
JVC has attempted to overcome this last problem using its Guide Plus+ system. This is basically a seven-day electronic programme guide for analogue broadcasts -- although you can also receive digital programme schedules by connecting to a set-top box using the supplied IR Blaster. The system does make recordings easier through simply highlighting a programme from the guide, but it's a chore to set up and programme listings can be erratic. Alternatively, you can use one-touch, timer and VideoPlus+ recording options.
That aside, it's difficult to fault the recorder's features. You get the versatility of making recordings using either the 160GB hard drive or software discs including DVD-RAM and –R/RW formats, although +R/RW disc recordings are ignored (they can be played, however). The hard drive and DVD-RAM discs also allow for time-slip functions such as pausing live TV and simultaneous recording and playback.
There are five recording quality modes with the recommended SP mode giving you 34 hours of footage from the hard drive, rising to around 300 hours using the lowest quality mode. The FR mode allocates you the best quality mode according to how much space you have left on your disc or hard drive.
The sizeable disk space means it makes sense to record and edit using the hard drive and then dub to disc if you want to archive or transport copies. A bit-rate optimiser ensures the best possible quality while dubbing by varying the bit rate between simple and complex scenes -- and high-speed dubbing means you can copy an hour's programme in less than a minute.
On-screen menus are blandly presented using dull colours, but they present an extensive array of recording, editing and playback options. It's easy to locate recordings using animated thumbnails from the library database, which also memorises DVD recording details so you know which disc to load. There are also plenty of post-editing and playlist features to tinker with.
In terms of recording, editing and dubbing functions, there isn't much the DR-MH300 can't do, which is great if you use them all, but the abundance of features can occasionally cloud basic operation.
The DR-MH300's integrated analogue TV tuner sets the template on which recordings are based. Unfortunately, analogue image quality doesn't equal that of digital broadcasts, with spongy detail and widespread instability giving pictures a consistently grainy tone -- especially if you have a flat-panel display. We suggest connecting the recorder to a set-top box, which improves the image quality of programmes and subsequent recordings.
Using the highest quality XP and SP modes produces recordings that are, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the original. We suggest sticking with the standard SP mode, as performance is fine and 64 hours of hard drive space should be enough for most people. Detail softens as you move down the recording modes and, as with most recorders, the lowest quality EP mode is subject to distracting background noise and stifled movement.
DVD playback is reasonably impressive too, especially using progressive-scan component or HDMI connections. These higher quality outputs produce cleaner images with greater depth and detail while movement appears more cohesive. There is still the occasional flicker in complex scenes, however, and colours are not as distinct and natural as class-leading models such as Panasonic's DMR-EX75.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide