Upside: With their built-in CableCard slot and ability to receive and record standard and high-def channels, these DVRs are designed to replace your existing digital cable box. And unlike your current cable box, each also includes an over-the-air HD tuner, so you can receive and record any local digital and high-def stations that aren't available on your cable system. Both models include roomy hard drives for storing plenty of video content; the HDD500 can store a whopping 60 hours of high-def video or 400 hours of standard-def programming, while the HDD250 holds half as much. Both use the TV Guide On-Screen EPG, which--unlike TiVo's service--is completely free of monthly service charges. High-def video output is available via HDMI or component video, and Sony promises flexible aspect-ratio control for optimal viewing of wide-screen and standard content.
Downside: The Sonys look good on paper, but they're up against some serious competition in the cable DVR arena. Scientific-Atlanta's 8000HD, for instance, offers many of the same basic features, and it adds dual-tuner functionality not found on Sony's models, enabling you to watch one live cable program while recording another. Perhaps the bigger issue, though, is price. Cable companies are offering high-def DVRs for just a few bucks more than the standard monthly rental fee for a regular cable box; Time Warner New York, for example, charges $9 per month extra. Other potential hang-ups: earlier implementations of CableCard and the TV Guide EPG have had some growing pains--the latter, for example, works only sporadically with digital cable systems--so it remains to be seen how well Sony has smoothed out those rough edges.
Outlook: Cable company freebies may put a damper on Sony's sales, but more consumer choice can never hurt. At the very least, Sony's HD DVRs mean that HDTV owners won't be dependent on their local cable company's often limited options for digital recording. Look for our full review, where we'll let you know how the DHG models perform in our hands-on tests.