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.