Lite-On's first hard-disk/DVD recorder costs less than just about any comparable product on the market--close to $300 online. Competitors such as the Panasonic DMR-EH50 and the TiVo-driven models from Humax cost more and, in some cases, deliver inferior features. For example, the Lite-On has a FireWire input for recording from digital camcorders, but the Panasonic does not.
The Lite-On LVW-5045 also boasts a refreshingly simple interface that puts the arcane menus of competing, better-known decks to shame, and its speedy dubbing makes it a snap to archive your favorite recordings to DVD. So what's the catch? Aside from the deck's pedestrian styling and lack of a few important DVR-like features, the LVW-5045's tendency to introduce lip-sync problems into long recordings will keep most users away.
Measuring 12 by 17 by 3 inches (about as high and deep as other recorders in its class), the boxy, silver-and-black Lite-On LVW-5045 looks decidedly ho-hum, and its haphazard collection of logos and an ultrabasic LED display contribute to a somewhat downmarket feel. Nestled beneath the display are the unobtrusive open/eject, play, stop, HDD/DVD mode, record, and source buttons, while a set of A/V inputs (including FireWire but not S-Video) sits exposed in the bottom-right corner.
The LVW-5045's basic-looking remote comes with the typical five-way navigational keypad and such niceties as a one-touch button for copying HDD to DVD (or vice versa), as well as a time-shift button that lets you pause and rewind live video (see Features). We had little trouble using the remote, but we wish the display and setup buttons were closer to the playback controls, rather than up near the numeric keypad, and we would have also liked to see a dedicated button for record mode. More annoying was the deck's tendency to disable the eject function when certain menus are engaged.
We're big fans of Lite-On's beginner-friendly Guider menus, which take you step by step through the recorder's main functions, including playback, manual and timed recording, and copying. No other HDD/DVD recorder we've used makes everyday operation so reassuringly simple. Advanced users may grow annoyed by the hand-holding approach, and we wish the Guider took you through the initial setup process--as it stands, you must go through the deck's myriad setup options manually, which could be confusing for novices.
The list of recorded shows seemed less polished. We like the inclusion of thumbnails for each program, but the thumbnails are annoyingly slow to appear, and you can see only six programs on each page. Once you select a recorded program, pressing the big Enter key immediately causes playback to begin. We'd prefer Enter to summon a list of options for editing, erasure, playback, and so forth in this situation. With LiteOn's setup, you have to remember to press the tiny Edit button if you want to do anything besides initiate playback.
The Lite-On LVW-5045 has some limitations that aren't quite balanced by a few unique features. The worst limitation is its inability to do anything else while recording. You can't watch one title on the HDD while recording another--a feature found on every other hard-disk recorder we've tested so far--nor can you access any menus. This may seem like a small thing, but trust us, once you've been able to watch a recorded program while recording something else live, you'll never want to go back.
Like most standalone recorders, the LVW-5045 won't record two live shows at once, although it will let you chase playback--that is, begin watching a recording that's still in progress. To do so, you must hit the time-shift button, which pauses playback until you resume by hitting Play (annoyingly, hitting the actual pause button while watching a program has no effect). Unfortunately, you cannot skip ahead in 30-second increments; you must fast-forward manually.
The Lite-On's 160GB hard drive, significantly larger than most of its competition's, stores as much as 33 hours of video in HQ mode or as many as 198 hours in lowest-quality SLP mode. Once you've built up a library of shows, you can archive them in every recordable DVD format except DVD-RAM. The deck's high-speed dubbing is relatively speedy: HQ titles are dubbed at more than 2X, SP at about 3.4X, LP at close to 5X, EP (4-hour mode) at 6.6X, and SLP (6 hours) at about 8.3X. Annoyingly, you can't dub a title recorded at one speed to another speed--that is, if you recorded a title in HQ mode, you must dub it in HQ mode. Unlike other decks we've seen, the LVW-5045 can record to CD and CD-RW in VCD and SVCD, or audio-CD format. We don't see much use for VCD and SVCD these days with DVD media being so inexpensive, but being able to record audio CDs is a nice bonus.
Recording is a simple process; you can either hit Record or use the deck's Guider feature, which takes you step by step through manual or timed recordings. Unfortunately, the LVW-5045 doesn't have an EPG as the TV Guide-equipped Panasonic DMR-EH50 or as Humax's TiVo models, so setting up recordings takes some work. You can set the Lite-On's timer manually or via VCR Plus, but there's no IR blaster to change the channel on your cable or satellite box, meaning you'll have to make sure the channel is set properly before your recording begins.
We missed Panasonic's flexible-recording mode, which lets you squeeze a precise amount of video onto a DVD while maintaining optimal video quality--great for recording a 130-minute movie without resorting to the 3-hour EP recording mode, for example. On the other hand, we were pleased with the LVW-5045's range of editing options, which are even more extensive than those of the Panasonic. If you're recording to the HDD drive or to DVD-RW/+RW discs, you can split and merge titles, erase them, insert or remove chapter stops, hide chapters (which is good for snipping out commercials), or change the title thumbnail.
While many HD/DVD recorders just pay lip service to picture files and music, the Lite-On does an impressive job of handling MP3s, WMAs, and JPEGs. Just click the music or picture tabs on the deck's browser to see your images or to play music; there's even the option to watch a slide show while your tunes play in the background. Even better, you can copy your images and music to the HDD, then again to other discs if you want. You could conceivably use the LVW-5045's hard drive for your music library, as long as you don't mind sacrificing disk space for music.
The LVW-5045's connectivity options should be fine for most users but inadequate if you have more than two sources. Outputs include component video, S-Video, composite, and RF, plus both coaxial and optical digital-audio outs. Inputs include one composite, one S-Video, one RF, and a set of analog jacks on the on the back, while up front there's a composite video/stereo audio input and a FireWire port for a digital camcorder. In a perfect world, we'd have preferred a few more inputs, such as an extra S-Video input in back and one in front, too.
During the course of testing the Lite-On LWV-5045, we came across one major performance snag. In the third hour of a recording we'd made to the hard disk, we noticed that the audio became out of sync with the video. We double-checked the source and confirmed that the issue is the LVW-5045's fault and that earlier portions of the recording were synced properly. We tried it again in HQ mode, and the audio sync was fine. If you decide to buy the Lite-On, you should be aware of the lip-sync issue that arises with longer programs.
Otherwise, the Lite-On scored high marks in our image-quality tests, although it wasn't up to the standards of the Panasonic. It delivered a healthy 450 lines of horizontal resolution in HQ and SP modes, dipped to a much softer 260 lines in the three-hour LP and four-hour EP modes, and dropped below 250 lines in the six-hour SLP mode, with serious MPEG artifacts and background blockiness. In our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, the villainous probes strafing the fleeing peasants looked rock-solid in both HQ and SP modes, but much softer at LP speeds although we didn't note much background blockiness until we geared down to the very soft and juttery SLP mode. Switching to scenes of the damaged, smoky Enterprise bridge, the picture looked sharp in the HQ and SP modes, although colors seemed to float a bit while the tough-to-render smoke suffered from a little digital tiling. Our LP and EP test recordings looked predictably softer, with the SLP mode coming out very soft and juttery.
The deck aced our 2:3 pull-down test, smoothly rendering the tricky haystacks and bridges at the beginning of Insurrection. The LVW-5045 also breezed through the discs in our test suite, stumbling only with the DivX-encoded video burned on CDs and DVDs.