Pioneer's slim and trim DVD recorder/hard disk combo might be missing an electronic programming guide, but its powerful archiving features and beginner-friendly menus help make up for the lost ground. We're big fans of the TiVo EPG included in units such as the Humax DRT800, but if you don't want to pay for TiVo service or if you want to edit out commercials, decks such as this Pioneer are more appealing. The DVR-520H ($599 list, but available for $500 or less online) boasts an 80GB hard drive, an intuitive design, and a host of cool HDD-to-DVD (and vice versa) copying and archiving features.
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 first thing we noticed about the DVR-520H is that it's only 2 inches high (16.5 by 12 by 2 inches), a welcome change from the 3-inch-tall (or taller) DVD/HDD combos we've been testing. The slim, silver front of the deck boasts the usual array of controls, including DVD tray open/close, stop, play, one-touch record and copy, channel/input selector, and buttons that toggle the controls between the hard drive and the DVD recorder. There's also a small door on the left that opens to reveal a set of camcorder A/V inputs, including S-Video. A FireWire input is on the right, more than a foot away from the rest of the camcorder inputs--an odd setup, but workable.
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.