You'd think a component with both MiniDV and DVD decks would have a cluttered front panel, but not so with the stylish DR-DX5S. A silvery-gray door covers the entire front of the recorder, giving it a smooth, sleek appearance. Of course, you must flip open the door to load or eject a DVD or MiniDV cassette, but given the deck's handsome design--you can always leave the door open during heavy use--we thought it was a fair trade-off. Behind the front door you'll find the standard array of playback and recording controls, although there's no navigational pad for menu surfing when the remote goes missing. You'll also find a set of A/V inputs with S-Video and a FireWire input for digital camcorders. Measuring 17 by 13.5 by 3.5 inches, the DR-DX5S isn't exactly svelte, but that's to be expected with such a "three-headed" beast.
The DR-DX5S's remote is predictably packed with buttons, but its layout is clear and logical. Channel and volume controls are located in one section, playback and recording controls in another, and a small flip-door near the bottom of the remote hides DVD functions. Dubbing, editing, and setup buttons are clearly marked, as are the three main buttons that take you through the deck's MiniDV/HDD/DVD modes. We especially liked the dedicated recording-mode and progressive-scan buttons, both of which save you time browsing the setup menu--which can be especially annoying for analog TV viewers who switch to progressive-scan mode by mistake.
The DR-DX5S's onscreen menus aren't as flashy as those we've seen on Sony's newer DVD decks, for example, but they're certainly intuitive. The tabbed setup menu makes it easy to plow through the myriad settings, and comes complete with diagrams that show how to navigate with the remote. The HDD/DVD navigation menus display nine title thumbnails at a time, plus a preview window for the highlighted title. While this is a nice setup, it does take about 15 seconds for a full page of thumbnails to load the first time.
Let's start with the deck's main attraction: the MiniDV drive, which lets you dub video from your digital camcorder to the hard drive or to DVD, as well as perform a few basic editing tasks. You can play back video recorded on MiniDV cassettes, or record in either 12- or 16-bit modes. You can also dub MiniDV video to the hard drive or to disc, at which point you can edit using the standard HDD/DVD-editing tools (see below). You can also add a new audio track to MiniDV video through the A/V ports (provided the MiniDV is in 12-bit mode); just queue the tape to the scene you want dubbed, press the A.Dub button on the front of the deck, and start recording. Similarly, you can insert new video on a recording while keeping the audio intact (again, using the A/V ports). While useful, the process is still crude compared to the many DV-editing tools available for a PC. What's more, the DR-DX5S is compatible only with standard-definition video, not the high-definition video recorded on HDV camcorders.
The DR-DX5S's impressive hard drive, thanks to its 250GB capacity, is good for more than 50 hours of recording in premium XP mode or a whopping 328 hours in EP mode. The HDD also boasts a feature we rarely see on non-TiVo HDD/DVD combo decks: the ability to pause and rewind live TV with a video cache of up to three hours. Because the HDD is always recording, you can indulge in "retroactive recording"--that is, if you're watching a show and decide to record it half-way through, the deck can record the entire show, provided you were watching the show from the start. You can also chase playback while recording, which means you can watch the start of a still-recording title.
A huge, always-recording HDD deck would seem to beg for an electronic programming guide--unfortunately JVC failed to build one into the DR-DX5S. And while the recorder does have VCR Plus for timed recording (as many as 32 scheduled recordings at a time), there's no IR blaster to change the channel on your cable or satellite box, which means you'll have to change stations manually before your recording begins. For us, having such a powerful HDD without an onscreen programming guide or even an IR blaster is a big oversight.
The deck's DVD drive plays all -R format discs, plus dual-layer DVD-Rs (for as much as four hours of video at top-quality XP speed) as well as DVD-RAM discs, which is not bad. Yet for a recorder this pricey, we'd expect +R/+RW compatibility as well. When using high-speed DVD-RAM discs (as with the HDD), the deck also lets you chase playback as well as watch one show off the DVD-RAM while recording another on the same disc. We also liked the DR-DX5S's ability to record a precise amount of video on a disc's remaining free space (from 60 to 480 minutes on a single-layer DVD, in 5-minute increments), a handy way to record an odd-length program (for example, 130 minutes) with the best-possible picture quality.