Measuring 16.5 inches wide by 10.5 deep by 3 high, the Gateway's dimensions are in line with those of most other A/V devices. But at 6 pounds, 6 ounces, its heft is more reminiscent of a cheap VCR than a state-of-the-art digital recorder. And it isn't exactly one of the more attractive pieces of electronic equipment we've encountered.
Alas, the dull, mirrored strip of silver that runs across the front face is trimmed in the same ugly champagne gold that Gateway chose for many of its new home-theater products. The disc tray is situated on the left, and a frustratingly basic LCD readout--featuring bright-orange numbers--is located along the right. A few front-panel controls are available, and a flip-down door houses a front A/V input and FireWire connection.
The medium-size champagne-colored remote is comfortable and well laid out. In addition to the standard DVD-transport and setup controls, it includes keys for switching channels on the AR-230's internal tuner. Unfortunately, its functions are limited to the recorder, so you'll still need a separate remote for your TV and satellite/cable tuner.
The saving grace of the AR-230 is its straightforward, well-designed onscreen menu system. You configure setup and recording options by navigating through simple, easy-to-use graphical menus.
Of course, the AR-230's bargain pricing precludes a built-in hard disk, as found on the far more expensive Pioneer DVR-810H and Panasonic DMR-E100H, but we expected a little better than this. Unlike the $400 RCA DRC8000N, the AR-230 doesn't have an electronic programming guide or an IR blaster, and the model lacks even VCR Plus+ for shortcut timer recordings. Those with an off-air antenna or analog cable can use the built-in tuner to manually set as many as five recordings at a time (including repeat monthly and weekly sessions), but satellite and digital-cable viewers will have to jump through familiar hoops--namely, leaving the box powered on to the correct channel--to record their favorite programs.
Four recording options are available: HQ (one hour), SP (two hours), EP (four hours), and SLP (six hours). As always, a longer recording time means lower video quality. The AR-230 records to DVD+R/RW discs, which are slightly less compatible than DVD-R/RW discs, but they still play back on most DVD players.
On the playback end, the AR-230 supports just about every standard disc you can throw at it. In addition to DVDs and DVD+R/RWs, DVD-R/RWs, the Gateway accepted CD-R/RWs, MP3 CDs, VCDs, and photo CDs in our tests without a hitch.
A flip-down front panel reveals a composite A/V input and, impressively, a four-pin FireWire connection for digital camcorders--a feature not found on any of its like-priced competitors. The next-least expensive deck we've seen with FireWire is Panasonic's DMR-E60.
The back panel of the AR-230 has all the standard DVD outputs, including progressive-scan component jacks and both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs. On the input side, there's a stereo A/V connection with composite or S-Video available. Additionally, an RF input and output allows a direct cable or antenna connection, as well as output connectivity with all but the oldest TVs.
For recordings in the 1-hour and 2-hour modes, video quality was impressive and far beyond that of any VCR. Resolution exceeded 450 horizontal lines, and video was largely free of motion artifacts. The 4-hour EP mode was decidedly VHS-like, producing a softer picture and some MPEG pixelization, while the 6-hour SLP mode was unacceptably muddy and blurry. Those looking for optimal video quality will want to record from the S-Video or FireWire input using either of the top two modes.
The AR-230's video playback quality was below average. The middling performance on the Video 2000 test disc and jagged contours evident in the opening scene of Star Trek: Insurrection indicated poor 2:3 pull-down implementation. Even nonvideophiles will be able to spot the less than stellar playback. If not for this flaw, the AR-230 would have achieved an average score in performance.
A unique Disc Tools button gives users one-click access to playback and recording options, including disc formatting (erasing rewritable discs) and finalization so that DVD+R discs can be played on other machines. The record option allows you to toggle through the various inputs on the onscreen menu while watching an inset picture-in-picture view of what's available on each one. After choosing the speed on the subsequent menu, you simply click Go to start recording. It's an effective and simple system that allows even the most technophobic to make coherent discs from their home videos.
The resulting discs have few customization options, however. The menus are bland, and you're stuck with the screen grab from the opening second as the thumbnail for each title. Program titles can be edited but are limited to eight characters. On the plus side, chapter lengths can be set to range to up to 15 minutes, rather than locking into the default 5 minutes found on most other DVD recorders.