Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
The deck's compact, nonbacklit remote does a fair job. The five-way navigational control is right in the middle, just above the largish Play button and flanked by the hard drive browser and programming guide buttons, while the one-touch Record button is on the top-left of the remote. Some of the buttons are confusing (what's the difference between Select and OK, for example?) but we eventually got the hang of it.
Philips is notorious for its labyrinthine menus, and the HDRW720 is a chip off the old block. The hard drive and DVD menus are easy enough to figure out, but the various system and settings menus are tough to navigate and offer little help for beginners. (The menu system on the Sony RDR-HX900--a similar DVR/DVD combo deck--is much slicker and easier to use.) After several head-scratching hours of trial and error and flipping through the poorly written manual, we finally figured out the menus, but novices are in for a steep learning curve.
Less impressive was the HDRW720's flawed TV Guide electronic programming guide (EPG). The free guide gets points for letting you browse--but not search for--programs alphabetically or by genre, while warning you of recording conflicts. That's all well and good, but here's the catch: this EPG doesn't work with digital cable or satellite receivers. The included IR blaster will change the channels on your set-top box, but without the EPG data, it's a wasted feature. See Performance for more details.
Although recording shows on the hard drive is a snap, burning programs to a DVD+R/+RW (the HDRW720 won't record to DVD-RW or DVD-R) is a bit of a chore. Unlike other DVR/DVD combos we've tested, the Philips deck won't record video directly to DVD; you have to record to the hard drive first, then archive your shows to DVD later. Complicating matters is the fact that you can't change the recording quality while archiving. For example, if you recorded a show on the hard drive at the high-quality M1 setting (an hour of which fits on a 4.7GB DVD), you can't archive it to DVD at the two-hour M2 speed--you're stuck with the one-hour mode. Other DVR/DVD recorder decks we've tested, such as the Panasonic DMR-E95HS, will let you change the recording mode when you archive, even squeezing the video to fit the remaining space on your recordable DVD. The Philips deck archives top-quality M1 recordings at a real-time speed of 1X, but archiving accelerates to 5X for the 2.5-hour M2x mode and 10X for the eight-hour M8 mode.
The HDRW720 has decent, if not exceptional, editing features. From the hard drive, you can add chapter markers to a title, hide specific sections, and chop up one title into multiple pieces. With a DVD, you can add chapter markers and hide chapters to edit out scenes or commercials. Not bad, but we missed advanced features such as the ability to edit scenes together in a playlist you can burn to DVD.
We can't complain about the HDRW720's excellent connectivity options. Behind the deck, you'll find a set of component-video, S-Video, composite and RF inputs and outputs, as well as optical and coaxial digital-audio outs. Flip open the front panel, and you'll find another set of A/V inputs, complete with S-Video and FireWire connections for a digital camcorder.As expected, the HDRW720 scored high marks in our video resolution tests, capturing 450-plus lines of horizontal resolution in both the top-quality M1 mode (which gives you about an hour of video on a 4.7GB recordable DVD) and the two-hour M2 mode. We noticed some small artifacts around the edges of our test patterns when we switched to the 2.5-hour M2x speed, although video resolution held steady at about 450 lines. We were happy with the crystal-clear images in our M1 and M2 test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, although we saw some background blockiness in the 2.5-hour M2x mode. Unsurprisingly, picture quality dropped off to a much softer 250 lines at the four-, six- and eight-hour recording speeds, complete with blocky MPEG artifacts and juttery images.
TV Guide makes no secret of the fact that its electronic programming guide doesn't work with satellite receivers; however, in our tests, we've found that it won't work with digital cable either. We followed the onscreen setup process with our Time Warner New York digital cable connection, entered our ZIP code and left the recorder off overnight, as per the instructions. Unfortunately, programming information never flowed into the guide. We've had this trouble with TV Guide-equipped decks before, and we attribute it to the fact that digital cable carriers often strip out the information that TV Guide uses to power its EPG. (It works fine with an analog cable connection.) Anyone expecting the easy EPGs of TiVo and other satellite/cable providers will be sorely disappointed by the absent or incomplete program listings, although TV Guide reportedly works better with other digital cable providers.
The HDRW720's playback quality was excellent, especially in progressive-scan mode using the component-video connection. The deck passed our 2:3 pull-down test with flying colors, breezing past the tricky haystacks, boats and bridges in our Star Trek: Insurrection benchmark.