If we were to lay the DVD evolutionary chart on top of the human evolutionary chart, we're currently two or three guys in from the right. DVD has come a long way, and it continues to penetrate mediums and platforms that I never imagined. That said, DVD still has plenty of room to grow. A case in point is the DVD recorders. These machines made (and still make) a lot of sense, and there are a large number of units that will record as well as play back DVDs. But, wouldn't you know it, like a child who realizes, "Why walk when I can run?" DVD recorders are already giving way to DVD recorders with integrated hard disk drives (HDD). The new RD-XS32 from Toshiba is just such a machine. If nothing else, this versatile deck is considerably evolved.
A HDD/DVD recorder is the ultimate toy for anyone who likes to record a lot of material but doesn't necessarily have the time to watch it all right now. Thanks to the spike in popularity of DVR services such as TiVo, people are beginning to change the way they watch television. HDD/DVD recorders such as the RD-XS32 allow you to record a tremendous amount of content on the internal hard drive and then archive that content to blank DVD media for subsequent viewing. The bottom line is this: if you're still using your VCR to record, the RD-XS32 will banish that VCR to your next yard sale.
Unique Features - Although there are several makers now offering HDD/DVD recorders, their design is still worthy of mention. Like other HDD/DVD machines, the RD-XS32 features both a DVD drive for playback and recording as well as a built-in hard disk drive -- also for playback and recording. The RD-XS32 will allow you to record content from a connected cable or satellite signal and store that content on either DVD or a HDD. You can also transfer content from one drive to the other, meaning you could take the four episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm you have stored on the HDD and burn them to a blank DVD, freeing up space on your HDD. The RD-XS32 features an 80GB hard drive, which is a good size but could certainly stand to be bigger. If you ask any DVR convert, he or she will tell you that space runs out fast.
The feature set on the RD-XS32 is far too long to list here, but suffice to say this is one complicated piece of hardware. Due to the fact that at any point in time you can be recording TV, watching a DVD and have timer recordings scheduled for later in the evening, you need a centralized place to view and control your content. Toshiba uses a button on the remote labeled "Easy Navi" to access this recording headquarters. From Easy Navi you can browse the saved content on your hard drive, play what's in your DVD drive or access the Timer Recording menu, among other things. I can't say I'm crazy about the name, and I wouldn't exactly call it "Easy," but this interface is certainly better than many others out there.
For me, TiVo is still the gold standard for an intuitive and easy-to-understand user interface. Toshiba already offers a TiVo-based media server (SD-H400) so I am hopeful that Toshiba will partner with TiVo for the next iteration of the RD-XS32. Ideally, I'd like to see a "Lite" and "Advanced" version of the navigation system, so novice users aren't inundated with a bunch of options they're not ready to (and may never) use.
The editing functions available on the RD-XS32 are quite numerous, and too elaborate to detail here. For editing fans, the RD-XS32 is a thrill, allowing you to customize content titles, edit playlists, create custom thumbnails and even cut up and re-combine stored content for storage on DVD. (Who said the "mix tape" is dead?) In addition, the RD-XS32 also allows you to burn DV content from a Digital Video camcorder directly onto either a HDD or DVD. This is great for users looking to burn DVDs of home movies for family members.
Last but not least in the features category is the "Timeslip" function, which transforms your recorder into a true DVR. Allowing you to pause, rewind and fast-forward live television, including content that is currently being recorded, Timeslip is a fantastic addition. I only wish this function was active all the time, so you would have a buffer of recorded content behind you in case you walk in on something you wish you'd seen more of. My Philips DirecTiVo gives me a 30-minute buffer on both tuners, and because it's always recording, I don't have to worry about engaging this feature before I can save content. Hopefully future iterations of the RD-XS32 will see similar functionality.
Click to Page 2 for Installation, Evaluation, and the Final Take.
Installation/Setup/Ease of Use - Setting up the RD-XS32 was fairly
cut and dry. Function settings in the Setup Menu have colorful and
intuitively-grouped sections for getting the recorder set up the way you
want. In these menus, you are asked to select things such as TV shape,
black level, progressive output and virtual surround sound. Owners of
Toshiba RPTVs will feel right at home as these on-screen menus have a
distinctly Toshiba feel to them. Unfortunately, accessing the Setup
menu is a royal pain. Toshiba foolishly decided to hide the Setup button
on the Island of Misfit Buttons, which is accessed under a foldable lid
on the lower half of the remote. What's interesting is that there's
actually room on the main button pad to control Setup, but the designers
opted not to use that space. Yes, I'm nitpicking, but I'm very
particular when it comes to my remotes.
On the subject of remotes, the RD-XS32's remote is a big (and I do
mean big) mixed bag. Button size and feel is great. It's not backlit,
but I like the rubbery texture of the buttons and the four color-coded
buttons are very effective. However, I don't like that Toshiba has put
the DVD menu button way up top, away from the directional cursor pad. It
makes two hands a necessity and leads to awkward handling from time to
time. Finally, the Easy Navi button is a little further off-center than
I'd like. As a TiVo owner, I'm partial to that button being at the
12:00 position just above my cursor pad. These complaints aside, I did
eventually get the hang of the remote and it's not bad considering all
it has to do.
Final Take - When I finally broke down and watched something, the
RD-XS32 was a joy to watch. Bells and whistles aside, this is still a
DVD player. I was happy to see that progressive output via BetterCables
component video was excellent and free from distracting artifacts.
Discs spun up rather quickly, although the machine does take a while to
"warm up" when you first turn it on.
Recording an episode of The Daily Show, I found the SP picture
quality to be on par with the quality of my live DirecTV broadcast. When
burning to DVD, the lower quality recording speeds greatly reduced
picture quality to that of a VHS recording, but depending on what you're
archiving, that may not be an issue. The RD-XS32 is an extremely
versatile machine and it's sure to please users looking for recording
freedom. I love the fact that you can record from HDD to DVD and
vice-versa (except copyrighted titles featuring copy prevention). I love
that Timeslip gives you much of what TiVo offers, but without a monthly
fee. The remote could stand to be improved and I'd love to see the HDD
always recording without the need to engage Timeslip. Finally, I'd like
to see a bigger hard drive, closer to the 200GB neighborhood. The reason
for this can be summed up in two little words: high definition. I fully
expect that by this time next year, all HDD/DVD recorders hitting the
market will also feature ATSC tuners for recording HDTV. Evolution of
the species -- isn't it wonderful?
Toshiba RD-XS32 HDD/DVD Recorder
80GB hard disk drive
DVD-R/RW and DVD-RAM recorder
480p progressive scan
Up to 6 hours of recording per DVD-R
VCR Plus+ C3 timer recording
Timeslip, chasing playback
16 15/16"W x 3 1/16"H x 12 5/8"D
Warranty: 1 year (p)/90 days (I)