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Sony RDR-HX900 review: Sony RDR-HX900

Sony RDR-HX900

Ben Patterson
5 min read
Sony RDR-HX900
When we first laid eyes on the gorgeous silver faceplate of Sony's new 160GB DVR/DVD recorder combo, we could barely wait to hook it up to our home theater. Our pulse quickened when we beheld the easy setup and the oh-so-cool animated menus, but our dreams of video-recording nirvana led to a rude awakening when we faced its crippled electronic programming guide (EPG). Yes, the TV Guide EPG for the RDR-HX900 suffers from the same malady as the one found on the Panasonic DMR-E95HS: it doesn't work with digital cable. If you want a hard drive in your DVD recorder that includes a working EPG, consider instead the much cheaper Humax DRT800 or the powerful Toshiba RS-TX20. But if your recording needs lean away from TV and toward archiving, the RDR-HX900 may have more appeal, especially if you want to record on both plus and minus media.

Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.


Sony RDR-HX900

The Good

Excellent recording quality; high-speed DVR-to-DVD dubbing; sleek design; cool animated menus; top-notch connectivity options.

The Bad

Ballyhooed TV Guide programming guide doesn't work with digital cable or satellite; half-baked DVR functionality; no repeat modes; pricey.

The Bottom Line

Sony's slick, promising 160GB DVR and DVD recorder combo is hobbled by a well-nigh useless programming guide.
The RDR-HX900 is about as large and deep as you'd expect for a DVR/DVD recorder combo, measuring 17 by 3.6 by 13.6 inches. We love the sleek front panel, which boasts a brushed-metal finished, controls for all of the recorder's major functions, and a circular five-way navigational control. A wide section of the front panel flips open to reveal even more recorder controls and a set of A/V inputs, complete with S-Video and FireWire hookups for a camcorder.

Our spirits fell when we got ahold of the remote, however. We're usually pretty impressed with Sony's clickers, but the RDR-HX900's suffers from poor key placement, especially for the playback controls. Even worse, the recording controls are hidden behind a sliding cover and separate from the main controls; to stop a recording, for example, you have to use the hidden Record Stop button instead of the main Stop button.

Sony makes up some ground with its slick, intuitive setup and menus. A setup wizard guided us through the initial settings and channel search, and we got a kick out of the translucent animated menus, which slide across the screen and open to reveal the choices. The system was much easier to use than that of the Panasonic DMR-E95HS, but will still overwhelm newbies with its myriad options.

The RDR-HX900's combo of a DVR and a DVD recorder promises all kinds of cool playback and recording functionality, especially given its much-hyped TV Guide On Screen programming guide. So does it deliver? Well, yes and no.

With the RDR-HX900, you can watch a recorded title while you're "taping" another show, but it doesn't always record like a TiVo does. That means you can't pause or rewind live TV, even if you happen to be recording the channel you're watching. And while you can chase playback--that is, watch an in-progress show from the beginning--and watch a recorded title while another show is being recorded, you can't record two shows at once, a feature found in DVRs available from satellite and cable providers but not in any standalone models.

Even more problematic is the fatally flawed TV Guide electronic programming guide, or EPG. On the plus side, the guide is free, the actual programming grid is serviceable (although we wish there were more than two columns of time slots), and the guide lets you browse--but not search for--programs by genre or alphabetically, while warning of recording conflicts. The guide's main drawback is a deal breaker, though: it doesn't work with digital cable or satellite receivers. See Performance for more.

The unit does offer a good selection of recording features, and it's one of the few models available that can record to any of the four major formats: DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, and DVD+RW. Besides one-touch recording and the ability to create playlists of your recordings (so that you can put video together without chopping up the original titles), you can also dub video recorded by the DVR onto a DVD. We dubbed some DVR'd snippets of Survivor onto a DVD+RW with no problems and with no noticeable loss in quality. You can also perform high-speed dubbing depending on the original recording speed, ranging from 2X for an HQ recording to a DVD-RW to 24X for an SLP recording to DVD-/+RW. Playback options were OK except for one surprising oversight: the Sony has no repeat options of any kind. No repeat all, no chapter repeat, no A-B repeat, nada.

The RDR-HX900 boasts an enviable collection of A/V connections. Everything is here: a component-video input, three S-Video inputs (two in the back and one up front), and a FireWire input for digital camcorders. Outputs are just as impressive, including a component-video out, two S-Video outputs, and coaxial and optical digital audio. Throw in the basic RF input/output, and you have a top-notch set of connections.

Like that of most DVD recorders we've tested, the RDR-HX900's recording quality was excellent. At its highest-quality recording setting, which gives you about an hour of recording time on a 4.7GB recordable DVD, the recorder captured crystal-clear, rock-steady images and delivered more than 450 lines of resolution. In the two-hour SP mode, the resolution held steady at about 450 lines, although we noticed some slight artifacts on the edges of our test patterns. We were pleased with the detail in our HQ and SP test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection; the peasants fleeing from the attacking probes looked vivid and detailed, as did the smoky interior of the damaged Enterprise during the Riker maneuver. Recording quality plunged to a much softer 250 lines in the four- and six-hour EP and SLP modes, and we noticed blocky MPEG artifacts and juttery images, although we've seen much worse with other recorders.

As advertised, the TV Guide EPG does not work with satellite receivers. Its biggest flaw in our experience, and one that's definitely not advertised, is that it doesn't work with digital cable feeds either. We hooked it up to our Time Warner New York digital cable connection and followed the instructions, inputting our zip code and other specifics, and waited the 24 hours for program information to appear. In short, it never did. We've seen this sort of failure with TV Guide-equipped gear before, and we attribute it to the fact that digital cable systems often strip out the layer of information that TV Guide uses to power its EPG. The result is a lack of listings or, at best, incomplete listings. Compared to the no-brainer EPGs of TiVo and satellite/cable providers, this system is unacceptable.


Sony RDR-HX900

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7