Many of us may live in a high-def world, but if you want to archive your favorite TV shows, you're still going to have to turn to your trusty standard-def DVD recorder to get the job done. The Samsung DVD-AR650 is a member of the new breed of DVD recorders that boast an ATSC tuner, which allows for reception of digital and HD broadcasts via an antenna. (Tunerless models are also available--and those are better deals for anyone who already has a DVR.) While it seems to be a perfect product for those in love with the idea of free over-the-air HDTV, there's a catch: All those HD broadcasts aren't shown in true high-def on the Samsung, either when watched live or recorded to DVD.
But that disappointment aside, there's a lot to like about the DVD-AR650. For one, it's the only DVD recorder we've tested this year with a built-in EPG (electronic programming guide) for ATSC signals, so you can pick your favorite shows by name and set up a timer recording without having to consult a channel guide for info. The DVD-AR650 also includes an IR blaster, which allows you to control a satellite or cable box, making timer recordings even easier. While it didn't beat our current recording quality champion--the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK--it still has very good recording quality, thanks to an S-Video input (notably missing from the LG RC797T, and restricted to the front panel on the Sony RDR-GXD455). Altogether, while it's not the absolute best DVD recorder we've seen, the DVD-AR650 has a nice blend of features and performance that should satisfy digital video archivists who are looking to record from cable, satellite, or over-the-air TV sources.
Samsung is known for its stylish designs, but the DVD-AR650 is more utilitarian than eye-catching. Like nearly all DVD recorders, it has a boxy design, with the front panel angled back and the top edge hanging over like an awning. On the left side, there's the DVD tray on the top half and below is a flip-down tray housing an extra AV input and the FireWire port. On the right side, there's a reasonably large LCD display on the top half and several useful buttons on the bottom half, including chapter forward/backward, record, input select, and channel up/down.
The included remote is a variation on the standard Samsung DVD player remote. Toward the bottom is a directional pad for navigating menus, which is surrounded by important buttons such as menu and disc menu. The play, stop, and fast-forward/rewind buttons are reasonably well-differentiated making it possible to navigate by feel. While the standard DVD playback buttons are fine, DVD recorder specific buttons feel like more of an afterthought. Buttons we found ourselves using frequently--such as CM Skip, EPG and Timer Record--are lost within a sea of similarly sized keys, when they should have larger, more prominent positioning. As always, you can alleviate these problems by picking up a solid universal remote.
The graphical user interface for browsing discs is pretty good. The left side of the screen plays the selected video from the beginning and includes the date and quality at which it was recorded. The right side lists all the programs on the disc by date and length. This isn't perfect--we preferred how the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK pulled the title of the program from the digital signal data--but it works fine.
If you click on a title, you can rename it, delete it, or--for recordings on DVD-RAM and DVD-RW recording in VR mode--edit it. You select the start and end times of the portion you want to remove, and then select delete. We had no problems editing out a few commercials--although with the CM Skip button (see the Features section below), we probably wouldn't go through the effort.
Unlike the other DVD recorders with ATSC tuners we've reviewed this year, the DVD-AR650 has a built-in electronic program guide (EPG). The interface is reasonably straightforward and intuitive: You can view four channel listings at a time while the last channel you were watching continues to play in a smaller screen in the upper left-hand corner. We would love for Samsung to upgrade to high-def graphics for the next year's version to offer up even more screen real estate--but that's more of a wish than a knock.
The DVD-AR650 is capable of recording to the following disc formats: DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-R Dual Layer, and DVD-RAM. Support for +R/RW support is noticeably missing, but in our opinion it's not a big loss--just remember to buy the right discs.
Despite having DVD-RAM support, the DVD-AR650 does not have chasing playback functionality--a feature we've raved about in reviews for Panasonic DVD recorders. Chasing playback refers to the ability to watch a program from the beginning while still in the process of recording, or you can record something on DVD-RAM while watching a previously recorded program on the same DVD-RAM disc. We would have loved to have seen this feature, but its absence isn't a deal breaker.
For DVD recording, the unit offers four recording modes that all have trade-offs in recording quality vs. capacity. Only 1 hour of highest quality XP mode video fits onto one single-layer DVD; SP is 2 hours; LP is 4; and EP either 6 or 8 (the 6-hour mode gives better audio quality).
Thankfully, if you have a program that doesn't nicely fit into one of those time frames, the DVD-AR650 has one of our favorite features: flexible recording. Selecting this option allows you to completely fill a DVD with your program, thereby maximizing the video quality. This is particularly useful if, for instance, you have a 2-hour movie and you want to use a dual-layer disc. Instead of having to drop down to lower-quality SP mode, you can maximize the quality using flexible recording. You can only select the flexible recording speed option in timer record (it needs to know how long you're going to record to set the appropriate quality level). But there is a workaround: Just set the start time to the current time if you want to record a 2-hour-and-10-minute movie on a standard DVD without using LP mode.
The DVD-AR650 is also capable of JPEG, DivX and MP3 playback off DVDs and CDs. We would've liked to see a USB port for pulling those files off a flash drive, as well, but again, its absence isn't a deal breaker.
As now required by federal law, the DVD-AR650 comes equipped with ATSC and NTSC tuners, which means the unit is capable of picking up digital over-the-air broadcasts as well as analog TV. When we first heard about DVD recorders equipped with ATSC tuners back at CES, we were pretty excited about the idea, but we've found ourselves a little disappointed with the 2007 models. For basic use, it worked well; the tuner picked up all our local digital channels (not much of a challenge given CNET Labs' proximity to the Empire State Building). Additionally, digital stations always looked better than their analog counterparts, at least in our testing area--with a clear signal, you essentially get DVD-quality video, free of the interference, ghosting, and "snow" found on analog broadcasts. On the other hand, it was disappointing that the DVD-AR650 does not output true high-definition TV. Over-the-air digital signals are fully capable of displaying high-definition TV, but instead the DVD-AR650 displays a 480p signal upconverted to 1080i--which is far from true high definition (more on this in the Performance section).
As mentioned before, one of the standout aspects of Samsung's digital tuner implementation is the built-in EPG. While almost every standalone digital tuner has a built-in EPG, previous digital-tuner-enabled DVD recorders we've reviewed (the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK and the LG RC797T) lacked this crucial feature. With the EPG, recording programs from the built-in digital tuner is extremely easy. Simply navigate the channel guide with the remote and then hit "timer record" to select a program. This is a great convenience--instead of having to tell the recorder to record CBS from 11:30 to 12:30, you can just browse to Late Show with David Letterman and hit the timer record button.
Another nice touch is the "CM Skip" button on the remote. It stands for commercial skip, so you can blast by any commercials in your recorded programs. The default skip length is 15 seconds, but you can go into the setup menu and change it to 30 or 60 seconds.
We were also very pleased that Samsung included an IR (infrared) blaster with the DVD-AR650, which allows you to control a cable or satellite box. The wire for the IR blaster is connected to the back of the unit and the actual blaster is placed by the IR receiver on the cable or satellite box. The main purpose of the blaster is to enable timer recordings from your cable or satellite box--the DVD-AR650 (via the IR blaster) is able to change the channel on your cable/satellite box at the specified time so it can record your favorite show. Some might not like the extra wire hanging around, but it's really the only way to solve the problem.
The connectivity of the DVD-AR650 is pretty solid. There's an HDMI output, which is capable of upscaling video to 1080i and carrying audio signals. The rest of the video outputs include a component video output, an S-Video output, and a composite video output. Note that, as always, component video output is limited to 480p.
Video input selection is healthy, with both an S-Video input and a composite video input on the rear panel. The S-Video input is especially important--it's typically the highest quality connection you can use with a DVD recorder (component video inputs are very rare), and it's the one connection we were really missing with the LG RC797T. On the front panel, there's also an additional composite video input and a DV input, for connecting a digital camcorder directly.
For surround audio, there's the aforementioned HDMI output, along with both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs. For analog audio, a standard stereo RCA output (red and white jacks) is present.
If you're not interested in over-the-air signals, there are alternatives in the Samsung recorder line. The DVD-R155 has no tuner at all, so it's ideal for simply backing up recordings from a DVR. The same goes for the step-up models, the DVD-R157 (adds support for DVD+R, +RW recordings), the DVD-VR357 (adds a VHS tape deck), and the DVD-R160 (adds upscaling to 1080p), which lacks a tuner.
Digital TV performance
First things first: Like every other DVD recorder with a built-in ATSC tuner we've tested, the DVD-AR650 is not capable of outputting a true HD signal. This was easily apparent in the softness of the images and we were able to easily confirm it by looking at the CBS logo. Instead of the smooth round edges you'd see with true high-def signal, there were jaggies where it should have been a curved line. It's a little confusing using the HDMI output because the signal is upconverted to 1080i--so your HDTV will say it's accepting a 1080i signal--but it's interpolated from an image that's far less detailed than the full 1920x1080 lines of resolution.
We were able to confirm our observations using the Sencore VP403C signal generator, which has an RF output capable of sending an ATSC signal. We dialed in a resolution test on the Sencore and it clearly could not pass the resolution of either a 1080i or 720p signal. Even more interestingly, it didn't quite resolve all detail of a 480p signal either, which the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK was able to do. While we don't know for sure, we imagine the DVD-AR650 down-converts the original high-definition signal to 480p--which loses much of the actual detail--and then it up-converts it back to 1080i.
Despite the fact that it's not true high-definition, in our experience digital TV signals look much better than analog signals, and also are able to preserve the wide-screen aspect ratio of high-def shows. So while the DVD-AR650 can't output high-def, you'll still enjoy superior image quality than you'd get with a standard analog tuner.
DVD recording performance
Recording quality on the DVD-AR650 is very good, although it's still a notch below our recording quality champ, the DMR-EZ47VK. The two highest quality modes--XP and SP--offer similarly excellent image quality overall, mostly free of the compression artifacts that can mar the image. There's a slight difference between the XP and SP modes, but it's so small we're guessing almost everybody will prefer the increased recording length offered by SP. LP mode suffers a significant image quality dropoff from SP mode. This was easily visible watching some episodes of Arrested Development--in LP mode, the background had some significant compression artifacts and the image overall looked a good deal softer. This is the main area where the DVD-AR650 falls short of the DMR-EZ47VK, as the DMR-EZ47VK can maintain nearly the same image quality in LP mode as SP mode. EP mode, as you might expect, is another large dropoff in quality and will most likely be borderline unwatchable for most people.
DVD playback performance
We started off our testing of DVD playback performance using Silicon Optix's HQV test suite. We set the DVD-AR650 to 1080i mode and it started off strong, acing the initial resolution test by displaying all the detail of DVD without any instability to the image. It also did an excellent job on the two following jaggies tests, displaying both three pivoting lines and a rotating white line without any significant jaggies. The DVD-AR650 wasn't perfect though--it failed the difficult 2:3 pulldown test, as there was moirÃ© in the grandstands as the car drove by.
Of course, most people won't be watching test patterns, so we took a look at some actual program material. Looking at the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection demonstrated that despite failing the HQV test, the DVD-AR650 does have 2:3 processing--the hulls of the boats and the curved railing looked smooth without any jagged edges. Next we popped in the difficult Seabiscuit intro sequence, and it performed commendably. The black-and-white photos were rendered accurately, and we didn't see any of the distortions that often pop up. We've been critical of the DVD playback performance of some Samsung recorders in the past, but the DVD-AR650 gets it mostly right.