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).