Sony's DVD recorders are famed for their ease of use, and even when the company has included features such as hard-drive recording and Freeview integration, it has never complicated things. Its latest way of upping the ante is through dual-layer recording, offering twice the capacity of a normal recordable DVD, and as yet there have been very few models to offer this. Sony's first model, indeed the first one we've seen, offers DVD+R dual-layer recording and an 80GB hard drive.
So, this is a DVD recorder that includes cutting edge tech for the price of a decent-sized hard drive. The recorder is extraordinarily easy to use and looks delicious, from the outside chassis to the recording menu system. If you like to make high-quality movie recordings to one disc (and DVD+R DL discs are now just about cheap enough to do so), then the RDR-HX510 is an attractive upgrade.
Like most Sony products, the RDR-HX510 looks extraordinarily cool. The company excels in clean design and high build quality, and they combine here to fight the forces of evil -- cheap, plasticky DVD recorders. The main unit itself is thinner than most recorders we've seen, despite housing that 80GB hard drive.
Connectivity is just as we'd expect from a mid-range recorder. There are RGB Scart inputs and outputs, so you can record and transmit a high-quality signal. If you get stuck, there's also S-video and composite inputs/outputs, but they don't offer the same level of quality. Then there are progressive-scan component video outputs, so you can send a rock-solid picture through to your flat-screen TV or projector. This is particularly useful if you plan to use the recorder as your main DVD player, as component offers a high-quality video stream. If you want the highest quality audio as well as video, you can use either the coaxial or optical outputs, both of which are digital. If you plan on using a home-cinema system with the device, you should be making use of either of these.
Camcorder owners will be disappointed to learn the box features no i.Link (as Sony calls FireWire) input. This is a worrying trend -- a few of the mid-range boxes we've seen omit this connector -- as DV editing is much easier with i.Link. It's a hassle to use a slow, standard video input when you want to edit and backup your home movies to DVD or the hard drive.
The design of the remote control on a DVD recorder is paramount, because editing and dubbing from hard drive to DVD can be a daunting task. Sony's remote is big, but it looks just like a DVD player remote. In fact, unless you pull down the slider at the bottom, it's difficult to tell that it goes with a DVD recorder at all. Underneath the slider you'll see three big red buttons (which scream "don't touch me unless you know what you're doing") that control recording, as well as controls to let you set up chapter stops. It's annoying if you record regularly, but if some innocent visitor tries to watch a DVD on the machine, at least they won't be scared off by a remote that has about 700 buttons.
When you kick the machine into life, you'll notice how silky the Sony interface is. The menu fades in smoothly and spreads itself across the screen -- it's one of the many small touches that are missing from the simple, static interfaces found on nearly every manufacturer's products (even Panasonic's superb recorders). We set the box up through its first-time installation wizard (encouragingly named 'Easy Setup'), at which point we told the box in which country we resided and our language. The RDR-HX510 then scanned for channel lists and clock data, a process that took a long time -- we clocked it at eight minutes from start to finish. The box failed to find the time automatically (possibly because of a weak TV signal) so we had to enter it manually.
The Sony RDR-HX510 supports recording to DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW discs, so the only format missing is DVD-RAM. Sony has never supported Panasonic's proprietary format, which is a shame as it is slightly more versatile than the RW formats and more durable thanks to a plastic chassis. The hard drive is 80GB in size -- not huge by any means, but it will store 33 hours of recordings at the standard SP recording level. Even Sony's website admits that this hard drive is 'low capacity'.
SP will fit two hours on a standard DVD disc or 3 hours 40 mins on a dual-layer disc, which should work out about right for most people, especially as the quality is excellent. The number of other recording options is quite daunting, stretching to a further eight different quality settings. Anyone investing in a dual-layer recorder probably has an interest in retaining quality so we'll start at the higher end. The flagship mode is HQ+, which Sony boasts is 'better than DVD'. The '+' mode of HQ is so high-end that Sony has tucked it away in the system menu -- standard HQ mode should suffice for most people. Remember that you can use the hard drive at highest quality and then dub to DVD at lower quality, though -- the hard drive offers 16 hours capacity at HQ and 10 hours at HQ+.
As you move back down to SP mode and then further down still, the machine basically breaks down the amount of time that can be fitted to a single-layer DVD by two hours, so at the end of the spectrum you have the SEP mode which will fit eight hours on a single platter. We'd never recommend you stoop to such depths, especially as DVD discs are stupidly cheap these days, but this lowest quality level is nowhere near as bad as some of the first-gen recorders we saw a few years ago.
As for setting recordings, VideoPlus+ is your best option. It would be perfect if the box had integrated Freeview, as you would be able to select recordings with ease from the electronic programme guide. As a consequence, using a digibox with the Sony recorder and making a large number of reservations isn't as easy as it would be if it was all integrated. Say you're going on holiday -- you'll have to set the Sony box up with all the right recording times (as VideoPlus+ won't work through the Scart input) and then put the same information into your digibox so that it changes channels at the right time. And that is if your digibox lets you do that -- most of them don't. Sony's machine doesn't include an IR sender to do this automatically, which is a real shame for a mid-range recorder such as this. The only other option is to record horrible analogue TV signals.
The RDR-HX510 does, however, support Smartlink, which is compatible with equipment from Philips, Panasonic, Toshiba and JVC. It allows a conversation between the two devices so that the right channels can be switched automatically, but we didn't have any digiboxes from those manufacturers to try. Indeed, Panasonic's TUCTH100 features a hard-drive recorder anyway. The downside is that it only works when you have the Scart outputting in Video mode and not RGB, so the picture quality is much worse.
We've been impressed with Panasonic's DVD recording and editing functions, but Sony's takes it one step further in ease of use. The automatic chapter creation is an amazingly useful feature that analyses video as it's being recorded and sets chapters when it thinks the content is changing (an advert break, for example). This allows you to go back through the recording and cut out the breaks before you dub to DVD, and it's made much easier thanks to the large thumbnail images shown for each chapter. You can also rename titles when you've finished editing, and the first frame of any recording becomes the main thumbnail, so you can quickly glance through a group of recordings on the main library page.
The final feature that needs mentioning is dual-layer recording. If you plan to record from TV to a dual-layer disc in realtime then the slow speed of recording won't matter, but we suspect most of you will want to record to the hard drive, make edits, then backup to a DVD+R DL so that you can fit a whole movie in high quality. But as the write speed is only 2.4x, you are looking at a wait of over an hour if you're filling it up from the hard drive -- much slower than the 16x speed that the single-layer format offers. Currently, dual-layer discs cost around £2 at the cheap end and £5 from a high-street retailer like Dixons, so you won't want to waste one. They are not rewritable either -- in fact, apart from their size, DL discs are pretty limited in terms of functionality.
The Sony RDR-HX510 is very strong when it comes to video performance. In theory, SP mode loses some quality from the broadcast, but in reality the difference isn't noticeable. HQ mode is definitely the same quality as the original recording, but it helps, if you are recording a TV source, to make sure it's a digibox. Analogue TV doesn't look good when it's blown up on a flat-screen TV (and digital doesn't look great either), but the component video outputs will service your TV with a solid picture that shows no degradation from passing through Sony's recorder.
Recordings are made in Dolby stereo and they sound nice and clear across the whole range of recording levels, especially if you use either of the digital audio outputs. We were also surprised at the quality of the DVD video playback -- this is a player to rival most standalone mid-range decks.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide