Personal video recorders (PVRs) might have revolutionised the way we watch TV, but nothing beats a DVD/hard disk combi for sheer versatility. Not only do they allow you to store hours worth of TV programmes on a hard disk, but you can also chop out the adverts and transfer them to DVD, all inside one compact, convenient unit. Sky+ eat your heart out!
Hard disk capacity
The first thing people usually want to know is the size of the hard disk, as it determines how many hours' worth of programmes you can record. The largest capacity is currently 500GB, found on the Pioneer DVR-LX70D and Sony RDR-HXD1070, both of which offer over a thousand hours - a lot by anyone's standards. The two most common capacities are 250GB and 160GB (roughly 400 and 300 hours respectively), but 80GB models are increasingly rare.
DVD/HDD recorders generally offer a range of recording modes, which let you increase the available recording time by dropping the recording quality - the above times are what you can expect when using the very lowest quality mode.
DVD recording formats
There are three rewriteable DVD formats available - DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD+RW - and two 'write-once' formats, DVD-R and DVD+R. There are also 'dual-layer' versions of DVD-R and DVD+R that offer roughly twice the recording capacity of conventional single-layer discs.
DVD-RAM is the most versatile format, affording you a wide range of 'non-linear' editing and playback features, but on the downside there are few DVD players that can handle these discs.
DVD+RW and DVD-RW are two similar formats, in that they both offer a basic array of editing features and are compatible with a wide range of players. However, DVD-RW discs can additionally be formatted in a special 'Video Recording' mode, which offers many of the versatile editing and playback features of DVD-RAM - but these recordings can only be played in a select number of players.
All that said however, the question of which formats a DVD recorder supports is a lot less important than it was back when digital recording was in its infancy. Most of the latest models offer multi-format recording, which means they can use all of the formats listed above (Panasonic and Pioneer's latest decks are a good example). Buy one of these and it's doubtful you'll have to worry about which discs to buy ever again.
Last year (2007) marked the start of digital switchover in the UK, and as a result most of the latest DVD/HDD recorders offer built-in digital tuners, bringing you the entire Freeview channel line-up. Sadly none of the combi players currently available sport two digital tuners, which means you'll have to buy a hard disk-only PVR if you want to record one channel while recording another - though some models offer an analogue tuner as well as Freeview.
With a Freeview tuner usually comes a seven-day Electronic Programme Guide (EPG), which allows you to browse the schedules and set the timer at the touch of a button. The very latest 'Freeview Playback' models offer additional features like series recording, which will automatically record every programme in a series by setting the timer just once. They'll even alert you when scheduled recordings clash and recommend alternatives, plus they recognise when a programme has been split in two (eg for the news).
Many DVD/HDD recorders now offer HDMI outputs with video upscaling, turning them into high-performance DVD players when hooked up to HD Ready or Full HD displays.
If you want to record from an external digital TV receiver, it's important to check that the DVD/HDD deck offers RGB through its Scart input (and even if it does, you may have to set it up in the settings menu) - this means video will be captured in the best possible quality.
Also look out for an i.Link or FireWire input (usually found on the front panel) which allows you to connect a DV camcorder and transfer footage to the hard disk in double quick time - sometimes in better-than-DVD quality.
Other useful but not essential outputs include component video and a digital audio output for piping 5.1-channel soundtracks to your amp. If you're lucky you might also find a USB port or card slot for playing or transferring digital media files, but be prepared to pay more for this.
The presence of a hard disk makes it possible to edit your recordings by chopping out entire chunks or rearranging user-defined scenes into a new sequence. As well as these more advanced functions, you can also make basic changes like renaming recordings, splitting, dividing or combining chapters/titles, or erasing stuff completely. In many cases, these functions can also be performed on DVD-RAM and DVD-RW (VR mode) discs.
Any edited or unedited recordings that you want to keep for posterity can be copied (usually at high-speed) to DVD internally - and keeping the signal in the digital domain reduces the likelihood of signal degradation.
There are many other features that aren't exactly essential but their presence makes for a more enjoyable user experience. Like regular PVRs, DVD/HDD recorders also allow you to pause live TV or watch a programme stored on the hard disk from the start while it's still recording.
Most models offer a full range of DVD playback features, including Dolby Digital/DTS output and compatibility with MP3, WMA, DivX and JPEG files. Finally, some decks also feature set-top box control, which uses an infrared transmitter and special EPG to control an external digital TV box, changing it to the correct channel when a timer recording is about to start.
You can find DVD/HDD recorder from lesser-known brands for under £150, but for well-known Japanese or Korean brands prices range from £200 to £400, though high-end, high-capacity models can set you back as much as £900.
DVD/HDD combi recorders
Three to try
Budget Daewoo DHR8100P, £130
A sub-£150 job from Comet boasting a 160GB hard disk and support for DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW and DVD+RW discs.
Midrange Sony RDR-HXD870, £295
This awesome unit is one of the few at this price point to offer series recording, and delivers 1080p upscaling to boot.
High midrange Pioneer DVR-LX70D, £900
An absolute killer proposition with a mammoth 500GB hard disk and tons of features.
I was fortunate to be able to buy the 250GB version of this recorder [the RDR-HXD970] at a bargain price around last Christmas. It is otherwise identical to the RDR-HXD870. My opinion: Excellent picture and sound- well up to Sony's high standard. Only reservations; setting of programs easy, but I prefer the Panasonic method of displaying thumbnails of recorded programs. Front panel displays are practically unreadable, being very dim and too small. Other Sony products I own have excellent displays. Verdict: An excellent machine, spoilt for a ha'porth of tar.