But what really matters is on the inside, and we liked Lite-On's straightforward graphical user interface. There's an easy step-by-step feature called Guider, which displays options such as Copy, Record, and Timer Record. You can press the Contents button on the remote to access recorded material on the HDD or a DVD. From there you also can edit titles on the drive, although we found Lite-On's editing interface cumbersome to use. For example, to edit out commercials, you need to split the files into multiple sections, delete the sections that have commercials, then merge them all back together. The part that makes it really tedious is that after doing each step of the process, you have to go back to the main menu and select the file again.
The remote is not backlit, but it's good enough. Our one major gripe is that we would have really liked a dedicated button to change between recording modes (XP, SP, and so on), but instead you have to navigate through the setup menu for that function. Otherwise the buttons are spaced out well and differently sized, so the remote is easy to navigate by touch. The Lite-On combo recorders can record straight to their internal hard drives--160GB for the HD-A740GX, 250GB for the HD-A760GX--which allows you to edit material as described in the Design section or record straight to a DVD. Most times, you'll want to record to the HDD first, then archive your favorite shows to DVD.
While these features are par for the HDD/DVD-recorder course, we did encounter some significant shortcomings. The Lite-On cannot play back a DVD while the unit is recording something to the HDD, nor can you watch previously recorded programs on the HDD while the deck records something new. In practice, once you've decided to record something on the HD-A740GX, you're pretty much stuck with watching your recording. Compared to the flexibility of a product like the Panasonic DMR-EH75V, the HD-A740GX and the HD-A760GX feel limited in this regard.
As DVRs, the HD-A740GX and the HD-A760GX fall a little short, too. As we mentioned at the outset, they lack both an EPG and an IR blaster, which are integral parts of DVRs such as TiVo, or even the DMR-EH75V, which uses the TV Guide EPG. An IR blaster controls a cable or satellite box, telling it when to switch channels, while an EPG provides a grid of program information that allows you to easily find and record future shows. The Lite-Ons do have VCR Plus+, allowing slightly easier programming compared to a manual timer, but you'll have to remember to leave your cable or satellite box set to the right channel.
Like most HDD/DVD-recorders and all DVRs, the Lite-Ons have "chasing playback," which allows you to watch the beginning of an in-progress recording while the end is still being recorded. It also has a Time Shift feature, which enables you to pause live TV, rewind, and fast-forward up to live time. You activate the feature by pressing the Time Shift button, which means it's not quite as convenient as an always-on buffer like TiVo, where you simply press Pause. Also, when you first hit the Time Shift button, it immediately pauses the program instead of just starting the buffer. A gray status bar pops up at the top of the screen, and you have to hit the Display button to make it go away. Unfortunately, this gray status bar likes to appear during other operations too, such as recording, so we quickly got used to finding the Display button.
Despite our gripes, there are some bright spots. We liked that there was an option for setting automatic chapter stops, in 5-minute intervals up to 30 minutes. Additionally, the HD-A740GX/A760GX had no problem recording wide-screen content in the proper aspect ratio, which is nice if you plan on recording downconverted HDTV for playback on your wide-screen television. Like all current DVD recorders, the Lite-Ons cannot record true HDTV.
Five total recording modes are available. In order of highest quality first, they include HQ (1 hour on a standard DVD+/-R); SP (2 hours); LP (3 hours); EP (4 hours); and SLP (6 hours). Dual-layer DVD+R DL discs can hold roughly twice as much. On the HD-A740GX, the 160GB hard disk can store up to 203 hours of video in lowest-quality SLP mode, but you'll probably want to use higher-quality SP, which fills the drive after 68 hours. On the 250GB hard disk of the HD-A760GX, those numbers climb to 321 and 108 hours, respectively. The Lite-Ons do have another mode called Just Fit that offers variable recording time, but it's only available for timer recordings, so isn't nearly as useful as the flexible recording mode found on Panasonic's recorders.
The connectivity of the Lite-On recorders is also pretty solid, although there's no HDMI output as found on many DVD players and recorders nowadays. In the front is an extra A/V input with S-Video and a FireWire jack, and around back there's an A/V input with S-Video, a component-video output, an A/V output with S-Video, and two digital audio outputs (one optical, one coaxial). There's also an RF in for connecting an antenna, and an RF out for pass-through. The HD-A740GX and the HD-A760GX can record to most recordable DVD media (+R/+RW, -R/-RW, +R dual layer). The exceptions are -R dual layer and DVD-RAM. We also had success playing a variety of XviD and DivX discs burnt on CDs. However, we did notice that it would not play some wide-screen XviD and DivX titles correctly, which the DivX-compatible Pioneer DV-588A, for example, handled without a problem. That's certainly not a deal breaker, but it could be a factor if you have a big DivX or XviD library.
We were very pleased by the recording quality of the HD-A740GX. (We didn't test the HD-A760GX, but it should perform identically.) While it wasn't quite as sharp as the Panasonic DMR-EH75V, it was very good, and we even felt that some of the lower-quality settings (such as EP and SLP) looked considerably better. For example, while we described the EP mode of the EH75V as "unwatchable," we felt that our EP recording of My Name Is Earl was definitely watchable, albeit still fairly artifact ridden. Unfortunately, there's no flexible recording option, but in most cases you'll be able to find a decent option between the HQ, SP, LP, EP, and SLP modes.
Video playback performance via progressive-scan component video was just about average. It did successfully pass all 480 lines of resolution from the resolution test on the HQV test disc, something HDMI players surprisingly struggle with. However, we did see some jagged edges along moving near-horizontal lines, such as the stripes on the waving American flag. And while the deck initially detected the 2:3 pull-down cadence properly, it did slip out of film mode a few times subsequently, resulting in moiré in the grandstands. In all, the HD-A740GX's playback performance won't wow videophiles, but it should be fine for everyone else.