DVD recorders have lost most of their relevance. Between DVRs and online video services like Hulu, couch potatoes can already record their favorite shows, and archiving seems less and less attractive now that everything is released on DVD or available online. Still, DVD recorders do have their place, as many bristle at the idea of monthly DVR subscriptions or prefer backing up their favorite TV moments to a physical DVD. Toshiba's basic D-R140 seems like a good solution for people who still want to record DVDs. It may not have as many features as competing models, but many people don't need those features and will appreciate its budget ($130 list) price tag.
That being said, the D-R410's list of limitations is long, especially compared with the competing Panasonic DMR-EA18K. It doesn't include an IR blaster, so scheduling recordings means you need to have your cable/satellite box tuned to the right channel. There aren't any extra features, such as a flexible recording speed, DVD-RAM compatibility, or extra connectivity, like a USB or SDHC card slot. And recorded video quality was mediocre on all recording settings other than XP, which is pretty constraining when you consider you can only record an hour in XP mode. If you can live with less than pristine recordings and don't want to spend more for extra features, the Toshiba D-R140 is a perfectly competent DVD-recorder. But, if you have some extra money in your budget--and will appreciate better recording quality and more features--the Panasonic DMR-EA18K is a superior choice.
Unlike large DVD recorder/VCR combo drives, the D-R410 has a relatively slim profile, measuring 16.54 inches wide by 2.32-inches high and 9.72 inches deep. The unit is fashioned in a metallic sliver and matte black color scheme, with a silver band running along its bottom. The unit also has an indicator for the output resolution, so you can easily see what type of signal the D-R410 is outputting.
The D-R410 sports some front panel buttons, and they're logically placed, with the power button on the far left and the eject button right next to the DVD tray. Toshiba, fortunately, has placed its Power button far away from the tray on the left side of the unit, where it logically should be; the eject button is positioned to the right of the DVD tray. Buttons for Skip, Stop and Record are also available on the front of the unit if you happen to bury the remote under the seat cushion. A fold-down door on the far right of the unit reveals an S-Video, FireWire, and composite video inputs.
We found the D-R410's remote to be harder to use than we'd like, especially compared with the Panasonic DMR-EA18K's clicker. First off, one of the most important functions of a DVD recorder--scheduling recordings--should have a prominent place on the remote, but instead it's accessed by the pedestrian Timer Prog button lumped in with other unimportant buttons. We definitely prefer the design on the DMR-EA18K, where important functions have irregularly shaped buttons surrounded by the directional pad. Secondly, the buttons are mostly rectangular, flat and small, which makes them difficult to navigate by feel.
The simplest way to make a recording is to pop in a disc, select an input, press Record, and hit Stop when you're done. Scheduling a recording seems easy enough; simply press the Timer Prog button and set the date and time, but since the D-R410 can't control a cable/satellite box, you'll need to turn it to the correct channel before the program. Plus, you also need to remember to turn the unit completely off before the recording starts, which is a common feature on DVD recorders. It's hardly the "set it and forget it" activity that you'd like it to be.
The Top Menu button brings up the main user interface, which shows the contents of a DVD, with thumbnail videos of six recordings at a time. You can enter title information through this interface, erase and record segments, and perform simple editing to remove commercials (on -RW/+RW discs), for example. This is also your media browser for photo slide shows and MP3 playback. The overall experience wasn't quite as ascetically pleasing as Panasonic's implementation, but it was still intuitive enough to accomplish basic tasks without resorting to the manual.
Unlike some other DVD recorders, the D-R410 does not have a built-in tuner, so any recordings will need to be made from an external video source--such as a cable/satellite box--connected to the unit's S-Video or composite video input. As with nearly every DVD recorder, the Toshiba does not have component video or HDMI inputs and cannot record high-definition material at full resolution.
The unit includes five recording modes: highest-quality XP fits 1 hour of video; SP fits 2 hours; LP fits 4 hours; EP fits 6 hours; and SLP fits about 8 hours. While the D-R410 does include one more recording mode than the Panasonic, we didn't find it added much functionality to the product, as LP, EP, and SLP were barely watchable and XP was imperceptible from its source--we'll explain further in the performance section. The D-R410 also supports dual-layer DVD-R and DVD+R discs, doubling the video capacity to 2 hours for XP mode and 16 hours for EP.
Toshiba may offer five recording modes, but the unit doesn't include a flexible recording speed--which is a mode that optimizes the video quality to completely fill the disc. That's disappointing, because it can be a very convenient feature. For example, flexible recording is perfect if you're recording a film and it's scheduled to run for 2 hours and 10 minutes, but you don't want to drop down to LP mode and reduce the quality of the recording. With the D-R140, you'll have to drop down to LP mode.
The unit also doesn't support DVD-RAM discs, which would allow chasing playback. This means you could watch a program from the beginning, even while in the process of recording. We did like, however, that Toshiba included a "commercial skip" function, which allows you to fast-forward in 30 minute intervals for television commercials.
The Toshiba also doesn't include an IR blaster, which would have been helpful to make scheduled recordings. Instead during our testing, we had to be sure that the desired channel was set for the time of the recording--an annoyance if you watch another channel before the recorder kicks in. Toshiba does offer what it calls Satellite Mode to start a recording whenever it detects a video signal from an external tuner. Your cable box or satellite recorder will need to be equipped with a timer function for it to work, and you'll have to set two devices to ensure your favorite show is recorded.
The D-R410KU supports playback of MP3 and WMA music, as well as displaying JPEG images if the material is recorded to a CD-RW/-R disc. Both file formats worked flawlessly on the unit at several bit rates and resolutions in our tests. It does not support DivX video files, so downloaders will want to look elsewhere.
To test the recording quality, we connected the Toshiba D-R410 to our DirectTV HR20 via S-Video, and compared it with the DMR-EA18K. Throughout our battery of tests, it was clear that the D-R410 just couldn't keep up with the recording quality of the DMR-EA18K. Starting by recording in XP mode, we noticed the D-R140 was just slightly softer than the DMR-EA18K, although both units overall had very good recording quality at this recording speed. When we dropped down to SP, The D-R140 lost a significant amount of its crispness, while the Panasonic looked virtually identical to its own XP mode. The differences were made clearer when we recorded resolution tests from Silicon Optix's HQV test suite; and you could clearly see the dip in resolution when changing recording modes on the D-R410. It's also worth mentioning that the D-R140 finalized its recordings sometimes as much as 30 seconds slower than the Panasonic.
When we dipped into the lower quality settings on the D-R140, things got worse. For example, in the resolution test pattern from HQV, the lines tended to bleed into each other. In one scene from Seinfeld, a newspaper is tossed across Jerry's apartment and we noticed that the paper "doubled up" with plenty of compression artifacts. The Toshiba faired poorly on all three of its high-capacity settings--we noticed little difference between LP, EP, and SLP, all of which were comparable to Panasonic's EP mode. Comparatively, Panasonic's LP mode looked almost as good as its SP mode, which means you can fit 4 hours of video in a standard recordable DVD without losing much quality. All in all, videophiles will be disappointed with the D-R140's recording quality.
We didn't have any trouble getting the Toshiba to record on all the disc types it supports, including DVD+R/-R, and DVD+RW/-RW, and have it display in the correct aspect on wide-screen TVs.
As we do with all our reviews of DVD recorders, we looked at the D-R140's playback performance, as many may choose to use it as their primary DVD player in addition to a recording device. We set it up side-by-side with the DMR-EA18K, and popped in Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on DVD. The Toshiba failed the first resolution test, as it could not render the most detailed section, washing out the vertical lines into a flickering box. On the next jaggies test, the Toshiba again came up short, as it showed way too many jaggies on a test with three shifting lines. The DMR-EA18K performed better on both of these tests. Both units had some trouble with the detail test, as we saw curved lines, known as moire, in the white marble steps on both players. On the other hand, they both also passed the 2:3 pull-down test, successfully kicking into film mode right away.
Test patterns are helpful for spotting flaws, but we wanted to see if these issues popped up in regular program material. We starting off with the film, Star Trek: Insurrection, and noticed almost immediately that the Toshiba could not smoothly render the curved railings of the bridge and the contours of the ship's hull as it swiftly passed on the screen--there were plenty of jaggies, which we found distracting. The introduction to Seabiscuit revealed the same issues. While the Panasonic had a jaggy here and there, Toshiba's performance was poor in comparison, with many of the black-and-white photographs in the introduction sporting jagged edges. The bottom line is that those who pay attention to video quality won't be satisfied with the D-R140's DVD playback performance.