The RD-XS34's designers clearly went for a utilitarian look with the unit, as all of design is geared towards being useful, rather than particularly pretty. It's an average sized unit, measuring 430 x 58 x 333mm. In the middle of the unit sits the recessed drive tray, with function buttons and a hidden input panel to the left, and a simple LED display to the right. At the rear of the unit are connections for just about every input type, although it should be noted that if you're not using component video cables with the RD-XS34, you'll either have to buy an additional SCART to composite adaptor, or have composite cables snaking around to the front panel.
The remote that comes with the RD-XS34 is fully featured, and consequently quite terrifying to the first time user. We tested this theory with a number of test subjects, all of whom were left scratching their heads while they tried to work out how to start simple playback - let alone record to DVD or the internal hard disk drive. Once you get to grips with the remote, with its inbuilt steep learning curve, however, you'll find it handy to have absolutely everything at your fingertips at one time.
The RD-XS34 boasts double the internal storage of its RD-XS32 predecessor, with a weighty 160GB internal hard drive. That'll give you up to 206 hours of recording time, although there is one minor catch here; the unit will only record in single blocks of eight hours each. For many users that won't be too much of an obstacle, but if you like recording long sporting events, or even program marathons on Foxtel, you'll have to do some careful stopping to record everything you want. It's also capable of recording to DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM. Just as with the RD-XS32, DVD plus formats are not supported.
The depth of the RD-XS34's feature set becomes apparent when you first lift up the weighty 175-page manual, which covers everything that the unit can do in quite exhausting depth. To briefly cover the most interesting features, it's capable of progressive scan playback, can simultaneously play back and record, use timeslip to "pause" live TV, and edit and transfer files to and from rewriteable media and the internal hard drive. One nice feature of the editing suite - which, like the rest of the RD-XS34's feature set, is initially a bit baffling but quickly becomes second nature - is that there's a selection of menu themes for your created discs, and some of them are relatively clean and pleasant to look at.
One thing we noticed instantly with the RD-XS34 was that it's a noisy little unit. A certain quantity of noise is to be expected from a hard-drive equipped unit, but the internal fan on our test unit seemed louder than units we've previously tested. That's only likely to be a factor if you're using the RD-XS34 in a small space, however; in an average sized living room (like the one we tested in) once you step away from the TV and plonk yourself on the sofa, the noise becomes essentially inaudible.
We hit one noteable snag with recording to DVD media with the RD-XS34 (aside from the lack of multi-format support), and that came when recording to DVD-R media. The read/write laser in our test unit was very fussy indeed about which discs it did or didn't like, refusing some name brand discs straight out of the box. In some cases we were able to heavily polish the discs and get some joy out of them, but it's worth keeping in mind that the unit doesn't like discs that aren't as close to perfect as possible.
As previously mentioned, the RD-XS34 isn't the easiest unit to get to grips with, but that's as much a function of it being as feature rich as it is rather than any inherent design flaws. To its credit, most of the onscreen options are well explained once you find them; we'd still advise you to keep the product manual handy for a week or two, regardless.