John P. Falcone is an executive editor at CNET, where he coordinates a group of more than 20 editors and writers based in New York and San Francisco as they cover the latest and greatest products in consumer technology. He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
Despite its worthwhile DVR features and lack of a monthly fee, this attempt at a digital-media server falls short.
What if you had one device in your living room that could screen DVDs, display digital photos, play digital music, and even record hours of TV programming? Enter the Scenium DRS7000N Digital Media Recorder, RCA's first attempt at the brave, new world of digital A/V servers. Pairing a hard disk media recorder with a DVD player is a great idea, but this execution of the concept could use some fine-tuning.
On the outside, the DRS7000N looks like an oversized DVD player. The extra bulk accommodates a 40GB hard drive, which warehouses all the digital media--TV shows, music, and photos--that you can cram onto it. This RCA's attractive, silver-and-chrome face incorporates a large display, while the disc tray is dominated by a neon-blue light that shines brightly during recording. Unfortunately for light-sensitive home-theater buffs, the massive, blue recording beacon cannot be dimmed.
A handful of buttons grace the front panel, but you'll be running the show from the unit's remote. In addition to controlling the Scenium's myriad of features, the mammoth universal wand can be programmed to operate five other devices.
An extensive menu system controls the DRS7000N's DVD player, digital video recorder (DVR), and TV tuner, as well as its music-/photo-storage and playback capabilities. The menus and controls are straightforward and usable, but the interface won't win any competitions in terms of design or intuitiveness.
In addition to being a fully capable, progressive-scan DVD player, the DRS7000N is a digital media recorder. Pop in a CD-R full of MP3s, and you can listen to the tunes from the disc or copy them to the hard drive to build a customized digital jukebox. If visual stimuli is more your style, you can queue up a slide show of your digital photos, either via the CD drive or by attaching a compatible media-card reader to the unit's front-panel USB port.
The DRS7000N's biggest selling point, however, is its ability to pause, rewind, and record live television. And unlike DVR standard-bearers TiVo and ReplayTV, the Scenium does not carry a monthly fee or a hefty lifetime surcharge. The catch: This unit relies on Gemstar's Guide Plus+ Gold service instead of a proprietary, real-time programming guide.
This RCA sports outputs for composite video, S-Video, component video, stereo audio, optical audio, and coaxial digital audio. You'll also find an RF input, as well as composite-video, S-Video, and stereo audio inputs. Two minijacks connect to the included IR blaster, allowing the DRS7000N to control your cable or satellite box. A manual switch located on the back of the unit toggles the component-video outputs between interlaced and progressive-scan (480p) modes. The front panel includes a USB port, composite-video inputs, and stereo RCA inputs, as well as an old-school, 1/4-inch headphone jack.
In terms of competition, the unique DRS7000N is probably closest to Panasonic's DMR-HS2, a hard drive-based recorder that offers the highly desirable ability to offload your stored programs to recordable DVD. Among DVRs, satellite users can check out integrated solutions such as DirecTiVo and DishPVR. Cable customers should compare the DRS7000N to the aforementioned TiVo or ReplayTV units.
On the DVD side, the Scenuim provides progressive-scan playback and good disc compatibility; DVD+Rs and DVD+RWs played fine, as did VCDs, MP3 CDs, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs. Most--but not all--DVD-Rs worked, although DVD-RWs came up blank.
As a digital slide projector, the unit fared poorly. JPEG photos from a variety of sources--different digital cameras, scanners, and the Web--were often unviewable or severely distorted. Musically, the Scenium did better; it instantly recognized MP3s on a CD-R and was able to play them individually, as a group, or at random. For both photos and music files, only the first eight characters of the filename are visible.
The built-in DVR was a mixed bag. It worked fine when pausing live TV, fast-forwarding through commercials, and playing one show while recording another. When it loaded, Guide Plus+ listed three days' worth of programming information, so we could scroll through channels and times, clicking the shows to record as well as choosing the frequency of recordings. There's also a feed of news headlines and Web-style advertisements tiled around the screen--"free" always comes with a price, after all.
Unfortunately, the all-important programming guide didn't always load. On our Time Warner digital-cable feed, the guide downloaded only when the cable was plugged directly into the DRS7000N, bypassing the cable box and hundreds of channels. Adding the box to the loop cut off the Guide Plus+ data stream, leaving us without a programming guide. We could still program the Scenium manually--for example, we recorded a certain channel from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m--but the same thing can be done with a VCR.
Another major problem soon surfaced. Despite the fact that our service has hundreds of channels, ranging from 001 to 999, the Scenium could not switch easily to any stations above 125. We were out of luck if we wanted to record, say, one of the HBO feeds, which occupy 201 through 207. In short the Scenium's Guide Plus+ system works best if you don't use a cable or satellite box and have 125 or fewer channels.