Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
The 8000N's face is classy but unremarkable, black on the bottom two-thirds and silver above. A discreet selection of buttons flanking the drawer allows you to change inputs, for example, but not navigate the menu system. The blue LED display is dimmable, easy to read, and refreshingly free of incomprehensible icons, but it isn't all that informative.
Operation relies heavily on the onscreen menu system, so it's good that RCA kept things simple. Helpful text explains each menu item, and plain-English choices such as Watch TV and Disc shouldn't confuse anyone.
We're not big fans of the dinky remote, whose buttons are tiny, labeled with a small font, and arranged a bit illogically. For example, the Menu key calls up either the DVD menu or the 8000N's main control menu, depending on whether you're watching a DVD or TV. The channel-up/down rocker also skips forward and backward through chapters.
The Guide Plus programming guide is as intuitive as any cable or satellite guide, and it even includes an inset window for monitoring live TV. Guide setup entailed indicating our location and leaving the 8000N on overnight while it downloaded program information from the cable system. The guide failed to find info on a digital cable hookup, and though it succeeded with our analog line, we know from experience that it might not work with yours.
The 8000N's principal distinguishing feature is the free Guide Plus electronic programming guide. It lets you select an upcoming program and schedule the deck to record it once, daily, or every time it comes on. The listings, which you can sort by name or theme, extend a week into the future. RCA included two IR blasters: one for automatically changing channels on your cable box and another for controlling satellite boxes. But since Guide Plus doesn't work with satellite systems, you must schedule satellite recordings manually.
RCA's Disc Library function is exclusive to this recorder. The 8000N names and numbers each burned disc, tracks programs by date, and allows you to name discs and programs. Unfortunately, the deck shows information for only the current disc, so you can't search the entire library.
Like Philips recorders, the 8000N uses DVD+R/RWs; DVD+Rs are write-once, while the more expensive DVD+RWs allow you to record over and over again. The format is slightly less compatible than DVD-R/RW (Pioneer's choice) but certainly beats DVD-RAM (which Panasonic uses along with DVD-R).
RCA offers a whopping six recording modes: Best, High, Good, Normal, Basic, and Low. With a standard 4.7GB disc, the respective modes translate to one, two, three, four, six, and eight hours of recording time. You can also activate the Smart Record function, which will automatically lower the recording quality as necessary to fit a scheduled program on the disc.
The back panel has an A/V in and out with S-Video, a progressive-scan component-video output, and both optical and coaxial digital-audio outs. The biggest omission is a FireWire input, which would have enabled digital transfer of camcorder footage. Instead, RCA gives you the option of viewing digital still photos with a USB input designed for flash memory-card readers.
Like every DVD recorder we've seen, the 8000N trounces VCRs in image quality and can make excellent recordings--as long as you can spare the disc space. The main factor in video quality is the recording-quality mode. Best, High, and Good all produced acceptable video with 450 lines of resolution and few motion artifacts, though between the three modes, High and Good introduced more interference and moving lines in highly detailed areas. Good's three-hour option was particularly impressive and achieved a nice balance between quality and quantity.
When we switched to Normal, Basic, and Low, the picture looked much softer. Resolution dropped to around 250 lines or less, and blocky bunches of MPEG appeared much more frequently. We recommend using the three highest-quality modes for TV programs and movies you'd like to keep for a while, but Normal is sufficient for shows you'll erase soon. Avoid the final two modes unless you're recording a low-quality source.
The 8000N's DVD video playback was average. The deck easily recognized 2:3 pull-down in film-based movies but had a hard time with some of the Video 2000 test patterns. And artifacts appeared in 30-frame video-based material; the stripes on the waving flag in Video Essentials had jagged lines.
To test the USB port, we used a Lexar card reader to play MP3 and JPEG files from CompactFlash media. The deck offers a variety of JPEG slide-show speeds and a nice zoom function. When we tried to copy our pictures to a Philips DVD+RW, however, the recorder told us to change the disc. A Memorex DVD+RW worked fine, but it turns out that the 8000N can't place JPEG images and standard video on the same DVD+RW, so our photos erased our existing footage.