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 silver, mirrored front of the Philips HDRW720 (which measures a standard 17 inches wide by 3 high by 13 deep) looks pretty slick. We especially liked the look of the two circular, five-way navigational keypads on the right side of the front panel; one of them lets you navigate the player's hard drive browser, while the other has playback controls and a one-touch record button. Just below the twin controls is a small panel; flip it open, and you'll find a set of camcorder and A/V inputs.
The deck's compact, nonbacklit remote does a fair job. The five-way navigational control is right in the middle, just above the largish Play button and flanked by the hard drive browser and programming guide buttons, while the one-touch Record button is on the top-left of the remote. Some of the buttons are confusing (what's the difference between Select and OK, for example?) but we eventually got the hang of it.
Philips is notorious for its labyrinthine menus, and the HDRW720 is a chip off the old block. The hard drive and DVD menus are easy enough to figure out, but the various system and settings menus are tough to navigate and offer little help for beginners. (The menu system on the Sony RDR-HX900--a similar DVR/DVD combo deck--is much slicker and easier to use.) After several head-scratching hours of trial and error and flipping through the poorly written manual, we finally figured out the menus, but novices are in for a steep learning curve.The Philips HDRW720 makes for a nimble DVR. While it won't record two shows at once (indeed, only satellite and cable-specific DVRs have that desirable feature), it will pause and rewind live video, a critical feature missing in other standalone non-TiVo-based decks. You can set the hard drive buffer to hold between one and six hours of video. Like what you're watching? Just click the Record button to save the program to your hard drive.
Less impressive was the HDRW720's flawed TV Guide electronic programming guide (EPG). The free guide gets points for letting you browse--but not search for--programs alphabetically or by genre, while warning you of recording conflicts. That's all well and good, but here's the catch: this EPG doesn't work with digital cable or satellite receivers. The included IR blaster will change the channels on your set-top box, but without the EPG data, it's a wasted feature. See Performance for more details.
Although recording shows on the hard drive is a snap, burning programs to a DVD+R/+RW (the HDRW720 won't record to DVD-RW or DVD-R) is a bit of a chore. Unlike other DVR/DVD combos we've tested, the Philips deck won't record video directly to DVD; you have to record to the hard drive first, then archive your shows to DVD later. Complicating matters is the fact that you can't change the recording quality while archiving. For example, if you recorded a show on the hard drive at the high-quality M1 setting (an hour of which fits on a 4.7GB DVD), you can't archive it to DVD at the two-hour M2 speed--you're stuck with the one-hour mode. Other DVR/DVD recorder decks we've tested, such as the Panasonic DMR-E95HS, will let you change the recording mode when you archive, even squeezing the video to fit the remaining space on your recordable DVD. The Philips deck archives top-quality M1 recordings at a real-time speed of 1X, but archiving accelerates to 5X for the 2.5-hour M2x mode and 10X for the eight-hour M8 mode.