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The silver, mirrored face of the Philips DVDR600VR looks slick enough to disguise it as high-end component--although the big VHS tape door is a dead giveaway. The usual front controls are present and accounted for, including play, stop, fast-forward, rewind, and record buttons for the VHS deck; separate stop/play/record controls for DVD; and a dubbing button and VHS/DVD source toggle. (A keypad for navigating the menus would have been a nice addition.) A small door on the lower left opens to reveal a set of A/V inputs, while a FireWire input for digital camcorders sits across the way on the lower right.
At 17 by 10 by 3.5 inches, the DVDR600VR isn't nearly as deep as other DVD-VHS combo recorders we've tested, although it is a bit wider than usual. It's also the only such deck we've seen--and heard--with a fan on the back panel. While not overly noisy, the hum of the fan was audible in our theater during quiet passages.
We found the DVDR600VR's sleek-looking, nonbacklit remote devilishly difficult to use. For example, the play, stop, fast-forward, and reverse controls are grouped together, but the pause button is on its own and in a different color. The button that lets you edit a title is confusingly labeled FSS, for Favorite Scene Selection--why not just call it the Edit button and leave it at that? The Display button works only in VCR mode, while the T/C button--which stands for Title/Chapter, naturally--is essentially the DVD display control. Ugh.
The deck's aggravating menu system doesn't make matters any better. The rows and columns of arcane symbols aren't labeled, and the menu screens offer little in the way of help. What's worse, the method for navigating the menus seems to change randomly depending on the screen. For instance, sometimes you press OK to make a selection, while other times you must hit Select, and if you want to go back to a previous menu, sometimes you press the right arrow, other times you must press the System Menu key. The DVD navigation screens are similarly confusing, and you can see only three titles at a time, compared to as many as eight with other decks. The VHS display, meanwhile, has the crude, blocky look of an '80s-era VHS deck, and you can't access the system menu at all in VHS mode. Philips has been using this same menu system for more than a year now in decks such as the HDRW720 and the DVDR615; at this point, we strongly advise the company to scrap it entirely and start from scratch.
The Philips DVDR600VR's main feature is, of course, its VHS-to-DVD dubbing capability, and we were less than impressed by the results. For one thing, there's no one-touch dubbing here; you must get off the couch and press the dubbing button on the front of the deck to start the process. The recorder also fails to prompt you for a recording speed before dubbing, it cannot automatically generate thumbnailed chapter menus à la GoVideo's VR2940, and it delivered subpar video quality in our test dubs (see Performance). At least you can watch VHS tapes over the component-video output (in interlaced mode only), which doesn't really improve video quality but can make setup less of a hassle.
Like most of its kind, Philips's deck lacks an electronic programming guide, so you'll have to program VHS or DVD recordings manually or with the help of VCR Plus. Since there's no IR blaster to change the channel on your cable or satellite set-top box, you'll have to make sure the channel is set correctly for your shows to record.
The DVD recorder works only with DVD+R/RW discs--a bit disappointing, as quad-format DVD recorders such as the LiteOn LVC-9006 and the Sony RDR-VX500 are becoming more prevalent--but it packs in a reasonable set of recording and editing features. You can divide titles with DVD+RW discs, and with both DVD+Rs and +RWs, you can insert and delete chapter marks, hide chapters, or set a new thumbnail--not bad, especially considering the paltry editing options write-once DVDs typically get. The DVD deck has six recording modes, ranging from M1 (for one hour on a disc) to M6 (six hours), as well as the 2.5-hour M2x mode. Unfortunately, there's no flexible recording option as is found on Panasonic's decks for squeezing odd-timed recordings such as, say, a 160-minute film onto a disc using the best video quality possible.
The Philips DVDR600VR's connections are impressive for a VHS-DVD recorder. In back, you get component-video outputs and inputs--Philips is still the only DVD recorder manufacturer to offer component-video (interlaced only) inputs--and a set of A/V inputs and outputs with S-Video, along with the standard RF input and output jacks and a coaxial digital audio output. Up front you'll find the FireWire input for digital camcorders and an A/V input with S-Video. We would have liked an extra S-Video input and an optical digital audio input in back, but those are just quibbles.
The Philips DVDR600VR's VHS-to-DVD video quality was shockingly bad, by far the worst we've seen in a VHS/DVD combo recorder. Many recent tape/disc combo decks have incorporated some type of video-processing technology to clean up the video on older VHS tapes, but Philips seems to have skipped that for the DVDR600VR. Even worse, the deck could never find the right tracking setting for our 12-year-old test tape, resulting in a noisy, snow-covered image that was marred further by distorted audio. We tried again with a cleaner, 4-year-old cassette; again, the picture was rife with video noise.
The deck's DVD recordings from other external sources were on a par with the competition. In our resolution tests, the Philips scored good marks in its one- and two-hour M1 and M2 recording modes, capturing about 450 lines of horizontal resolution. The recorder's 150-minute M2x recordings also looked sharp, if a shade softer than the M1 and M2 recordings, while our M3 and M4 clip dropped to a much softer 250 lines, as expected. The deck captured fewer than 250 lines in the six-hour M6 modes, but we were surprised by the smooth action of the image, as opposed to the juttery, low-frame-rate images we've seen in other recorders.
Our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection looked quite good. The bright, sunlit scene with the flying probes kidnapping the fleeing peasants looked rock-solid in M1 and M2 modes, with some slight background blockiness evident in the M2x mode. The image looked much softer when we cranked down to the M3 speed, with severe blocky MPEG artifacts in the M4 and M6 modes, although we were pleased by the lack of jutter in the action. The deck had a tougher time rendering the smoke during the scenes of the dark, damaged Enterprise bridge; even in the high-quality M1 mode, we noticed some false contouring in the smoke and tiling in the showers of sparks.
The Philips DVDR600VR handles 2:3 pull-down with aplomb, rendering the haystacks and bridges at the beginning of Insurrection with no sign of jaggies.