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Pioneer's nonbacklit remote isn't the slickest wand we've ever seen, but it packs plenty of functionality into a logical layout. The large, five-way navigational keypad sits right in the middle, surrounded by the disc, hard drive, and system menu keys, while the playback and record controls lie just underneath. We liked the remote's one-touch access to the deck's recording speed settings, a design that's much more convenient than digging through a menu.
The DVR-520H's menus look more old-school-Nintendo than, say, state-of-the-art Xbox. That said, they're intuitively laid out: the setup process was a snap, and we had no trouble making our first hard drive and DVD recordings. We also appreciated the onscreen help, which should aid beginners in understanding this deck's many functions. Nicely done.Despite its imbedded hard drive, the DVR-520H doesn't have the degree of DVR functionality you get with something like TiVo. It won't pause or rewind live TV (you have to manually engage recording, just like a VCR), and, as we mentioned, there's no interactive programming grid for easily setting up and labeling recordings. However, the deck does have a few tricks up its sleeve.
First, the hard drive lets you chase playback--that is, watch an in-progress recording from the beginning. The DVR-520H also boasts a wide range of options for copying video to and from the DVD recorder. For example, you can select one or more chapters to copy from hard drive to DVD or vice versa, changing recording modes to fit as much as eight hours of material on a disc. Even better, you can copy an entire DVD to the hard drive and make as many copies as you like. Using high-speed mode, we copied a 2-hour movie in about 45 minutes--12 minutes to upload it to the hard drive, 30 minutes to copy onto a new DVD-RW. (You can also dub 2X and higher DVD-R discs at high speed.) The resulting disc looked as good as the original, complete with menus and the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks. Don't even try to dub DVDs with Macrovision copy protection, however; the Pioneer won't let you.
The DVD recorder's menus and functionality mirror those of the hard drive; you just press the DVD button on the remote to switch modes. You can choose from four standard DVD recording modes (1, 2, 4, or 6 hours on a disc) and although the Pioneer lacks the custom recording speed option found on Panasonic's DMR-EH50, it has a Manual Recording mode that does the next-best thing. It offers 32 different speeds in 10-15 minute intervals from one to six hours, allowing you to fill a disc with just about any length of program without wasting space. The unit can record to DVD-R and DVD-RW, but not to any of the + formats, nor to DVD-RAM. It can also play back a wide variety of formats including MP3, WMA, and JPEG files.
Making recordings with either the hard drive or DVD recorder is a simple matter of hitting the record button. You can also manually set up to 32 timed recordings, but while the deck supports VCR Plus, there's no IR blaster to change the channel on your cable or satellite box. If you use such a box for unattended recordings, you'll have to remember to set the channel beforehand.
Video editing on the DVR-520H is good for a deck in this class. For both hard drive and DVD recordings, you can add chapter stops, divide and combine chapters, and erase sections of a chapter--perfect for snipping out commercials. You can also create playlists on DVD-RWs in the VR mode. Just select the chapters you want in your playlist, juggle the order, and make cuts and edits, all without modifying the original chapters.
The DVR-520H sports a solid set of connections. You get a progressive-scan component-video output, three sets of A/V inputs, each with S-Video (two in back, one up front), two sets of A/V outputs, a FireWire camcorder input, optical and coaxial digital audio outs, and RF ins/outs. Not bad, but some videophiles might hope for a component-video input (as found on the Philips HDRW720).The DVR-520H posted high grades in our performance testing. The deck captured more than 450 lines of horizontal resolution in the 1-hour HQ recording mode; the crystal-clear, rock-solid images matched those of any DVD recorder we've tested. Recording quality was almost as good in the 2-hour SP mode, although we detected some small MPEG artifacts around the edges of objects. Unsurprisingly, picture quality dropped to about 250 in the 4- and 6-hour LP and EP modes, making for much softer, VHS-quality images.
In our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, the fleeing peasants escaping the malevolent flying probes looked sharp and detailed in the HQ mode and just a tiny bit softer in SP mode, with minimal background blockiness. Switching to EP mode, the picture predictably started to jutter and become choppier. During the dark, smoky scenes in the damaged Enterprise bridge, we also noticed that colors seemed to float within the dark backgrounds.
In terms of playback quality, the Pioneer deck had no trouble with our 2:3 pull-down test. Using the component-video output and in progressive-scan mode, the player smoothly rendered the tricky haystacks, bridges, and rooftops in our Insurrection test.