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.
We've long been admirers of Sony's sleek, easy-to-use remote controls, but we're not this time. The long, thin wand that's included with the RDR-VX500 is saddled with a poor keypad layout. While the five-way navigation pad is fine (if a bit small), relegating the Play button to the bottom corner with the Pause and Stop buttons to the right isn't exactly intuitive. Even worse is the sliding plastic door that hides the recording controls; it feels a bit like childproofing.
On the other hand, we were pleased with Sony's easy-to-use menus. While missing the flashy animation in Sony's pricier decks, the RDR-VX500's menus make a virtue of simplicity--within minutes of the beginner-friendly initial setup process, we were surfing though the various functions with ease.The RDR-VX500 may not include the automatically generated menus found on the GoVideo VR2940, but otherwise its feature array is on a par with any combo VHS/DVD recorder on the market.
First, the Sony records in four recordable DVD formats (DVD+R/+RW and DVD-R/-RW), a rarity for products like this. The deck will also play MP3s and display JPEGs. Better yet, it lets you play VHS images through the component-video output at 480p, saving you the trouble of switching to an S-Video or a composite output when you're watching a tape instead of a DVD.
Dubbing from VHS to DVD or vice versa is a snap; just hit one of the one-touch dubbing buttons, and you're off. You can choose from four different recording speeds: one hour (highest quality), two hours, three hours, or eight hours (lowest quality) per disc. Unlike the Panasonic recorders, there's no flexible recording mode that fills up a disc regardless of recording time. Another complaint: we wish the deck prompted us for the recording speed before dubbing began.
You can program up to 12 timed recordings, although the Sony lacks the TV Guide EPG found on standalone and hard disk DVD recorders. The deck does support the years-old VCR Plus feature, but there's no IR blaster to change the channel on your cable or satellite box, so you'll have to set the channel manually before a recording begins. Another option for those with timed cable or satellite boxes is synchro recording, which detects the video signal when your box snaps on and begins recording.
The RDR-VX500's editing options are par for the course. You can review recorded chapters and snip out segments (good for deleting commercials) and add and remove chapter marks, or the deck will automatically add chapter marks every 5 or 15 minutes. Provided you're using a DVD-RW disc in VR mode, you can also create playlists that let you edit or shuffle chapters without altering the original recordings.
The deck's set of connections is good, although not as complete as we'd like to see. In back, you'll find component-video, S-Video, composite, and RF outputs, along with analog and optical/coaxial digital audio outputs. Inputs on the back panel are rather light: just one composite A/V and one RF--a disappointment for anyone who wants to connect an S-Video-equipped satellite or cable box to the Sony's rear. The front panel is well connected, however, with a composite A/V input plus S-Video, as well as the aforementioned FireWire port for pristine recordings of digital camcorder footage.For our VCR-to-DVD dubbing test, we dredged up a 12-year-old VHS tape that was originally recorded in the two-hour SP mode. Our SP-mode DVD-RW copy exhibited rich and vibrant colors, but it also faithfully reproduced the tape's considerable video noise. While we've seen other VCR/DVD combos that did a better job of reducing the shimmering veil of VHS noise, they tend to darken the picture or dull the colors in the process; either way it's a trade-off.
We tested the RDR-VX500's recording quality using the S-Video input on the deck's front panel, and we were pleased with the results. In our resolution tests, the recorder captured more than 450 lines of horizontal resolution in the one-hour HQ and 90-minute HSP modes, as expected, while we detected some slight artifacts around the edges of objects in the two-hour SP mode. Resolution plummeted to about 260 lines in the three-hour EP mode, making for a much softer picture, and we saw big, blocky MPEG artifacts in the eight-hour SLP mode--no surprise there.
The deck's recordings looked just as good with actual programming. In our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, the peasants fleeing from the murderous probes looked clear and detailed in the HQ and HSP modes, as did the smoky, tough-to-render scenes of the damaged Enterprise bridge. When we dialed down to the two-hour SP mode, we noticed a little blockiness in the backgrounds and murkiness as the peasants ran across the screen--again, not that unusual. The picture became much softer in the LP mode, while our SLP recordings were unsurprisingly jittery and marred by severe MPEG artifacts.
The RDR-VX500 had no trouble with our 2:3 pull-down detection test, handling Insurrection's jaggy-baiting haystacks and bridges with nary a hiccup. The unit performed well in our DVD playback compatibility tests, although it did fail to handle one relatively easy DVD+RW disc.