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We've seen a spate of hybrid digital recorders recently, all featuring similar 160GB hard drive specifications and all from big name brands. Pioneer's DVR-540HX is one of the more expensive models and its price tag is some way justified by an impressive feature count.
The DVR-540HX boasts integrated analogue and digital tuners, universal disc compatibility, a full range of user-friendly functions and recording performance is excellent if you ignore the lower quality modes. However, build quality is surprisingly average and for this price you can get a model that includes HDMI connectivity if you want it. DVD playback performance also struggles against the class leaders.
So, while this is a feature-packed recorder that's more than capable, there are more attractive alternatives out there for the same price or even less.
Compared to some of the recently reviewed slim recorders, Pioneer's DVR-540HX appears somewhat chunky -- the construction looks more like an outdated VCR than a piece of state-of-the-art technology.
It's also comparatively more expensive than most of the similarly specified models, although you wouldn't immediately tell from the average build quality. The front section is divided into a dark display housing the disc drawer with a silver fold-down panel beneath that conceals numerous controls and a set of easily accessible AV inputs. Both sections are constructed from lightweight plastic materials with ordinary finishing that fails to impress at this price.
You can use the standard front AV inputs to connect devices like a camcorder, but there's no dedicated DV input for direct copying of digital camcorder footage -- a surprise omission in this day and age.
Otherwise, all main connections are arranged across the crowded rear panel. There's a reasonably comprehensive collection that includes a pair of RGB-enabled Scart terminals that let you input and output high quality signals -- this is particularly useful if you want to connect a separate device like your old VCR or satellite receiver and record without suffering a loss of quality. If you are connecting another set-top box then you can link the two devices using the supplied G-link cable, which allows you to change channels and set up timer recordings from the recorder using the GUIDEPlus+ system.
There are also component outputs capable of supporting progressive scan video, but you might expect a little more for your money. Digital connections are still a rarity among recorders but Panasonic's DMR-EX75 does afford an HDMI output for around the same price. But, HDMI connectivity has been ignored on the DVR-540HX so you won't be able to improve the quality of standard DVDs by playing upscaled images using a high-definition display.
There is a coaxial digital audio output that will carry Dolby Digital and DTS signals to an external home cinema amplifier used in surround-sound systems, as well as a pair of standard stereo outputs that can be connected directly to your TV.
The remote has been intelligently designed with plenty of space reserved for oversized keys controlling primary functions, and a comfortable central cursor for scrolling through menus. All other keys are concealed beneath a slide-down panel, which keeps them from being pressed accidentally and appears less intimidating.
As far as features go, this hybrid recorder has it all and advanced usability means it's exceptionally easy to operate -- although with so many options for playback, editing, copying and recording it takes time to explore everything.
Both analogue and digital TV tuners have been integrated. Unless you are unable to receive digital broadcasts we advise you use the Freeview tuner as performance is better and the accompanying Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) eases recordings.
Pioneer has also incorporated the GUIDEPlus+ EPG, which offers a more comprehensive system than the standard digital version. It can take 24 hours to download but GUIDEPlus+ includes features such as moving thumbnails, one-button recording options, advanced searches, creating user profiles and an integrated overview of recorded programmes. You can use GUIDEPlus+ for any broadcasts, including analogue and satellite or cable channels, provided they carry the necessary information.
There are few more flexible recorders, especially with software disc compatibility. You can record using all disc formats including DVD-/+ R/RW, DVD-RAM and dual layer (DL) discs, which double the recording time on offer. Playback compatibility is equally inclusive and extends to various CD formats including discs encoded with MP3, WMA, JPEG and DivX files.
It makes sense to use the integrated 160GB hard drive for everyday recordings and then copy them to disc if you want to free up space, archive or transport your copies. There are a generous six recording quality modes available, which balance image quality with recording time length. The highest quality (XP) mode gives you 34 hours, SP provides 68 hours, LP gives you 136 hours, EP produces 204 hours, SLP provides 272 hours and SEP up to a whopping 340 hours. There's also a manual mode that lets you select the best quality setting according to remaining disc space, which ranges from 34 to 455 hours. It's unlikely you'll ever need to use the lower quality modes and we recommend sticking with the highest three modes if you can.
You can also use the hard drive to store music tracks and digital photo images stored on disc, which can then be edited and organised, or played as a slideshow accompanied by music.
Setting up the recorder is incredibly easy using the Set Up Navigator, which guides you through tuning and settings options without any fuss. There are several ways to make recordings, including one-touch and manual timer settings, but the simplest way is using either of the EPGs to select a programme and the rest is done automatically.
Menu systems are well presented and simple to navigate making it easy to find and organise recorded titles, apply a full range of post-editing functions or copy footage between discs and the hard drive when you need to.
The quality of recordings always depends largely on the quality of the incoming signal from the integrated TV tuner. It's best to ignore analogue channels as images are overwhelmed by graininess and poor detail, but digital TV broadcasts fare better.
Freeview images are sufficiently stable with decent detail and contrast, and colours appear more engaging. Shadow and colour gradations are susceptible to occasional blocking and challenging movement can cause problems, but the picture compares reasonably well with dedicated digital receivers.
Recordings using the highest two (XP and SP) quality modes are indistinguishable from the original and it takes a severely critical eye to notice any deterioration. With more quality modes than typical recorders however, it's no surprise that images depreciate more noticeably using the lower quality modes. As you move down the hierarchy detail and edge definition softens, digital artefacts invade more frequently and movement loses cohesion -- until you're left with an image that would put a VHS to shame. Still, if you ignore the three lowest quality modes, recording performance is excellent and allows enough time for most uses.
You also need to remember that this device is going to operate as your main DVD player too -- that's where the DVR-540HX falls short of its class leading competitors like Panasonic's DMR-EX75 or Toshiba's RD-85DT. Detail is not as solidly defined, especially around the edges and subtle nuances are left unexposed compared to the best models we've seen.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield