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 Pioneer DVR-810H's attractive, silver body is a step up from the usual bland A/V component. A centered disc tray sits directly above a subtle array of message lights, which glow blue during playback and red during recording. A readout at the bottom of the face displays status information and the timer. The only other front-panel elements are five standard transport controls and buttons for ejecting the disc and turning on the power. This simplicity gives the recorder a tasteful, minimalist look.
For the remote control, Pioneer slightly modified the standard TiVo wand, throwing in a few more keys to cover DVD functionality. We found operation intuitive and comfortable. You can program the control to power on a variety of televisions, and the DVR-810H changes channels on your cable or satellite box, so you should need only one remote to handle DVD, TV, DVR, and channel-surfing commands.
The superb TiVo onscreen interface controls DVD recording and playback, setup, and all other functions. The menu is a model of intuitive design, especially compared with the convoluted system of Panasonic's competing DMR-E100H. The TiVo solution provides easy access to everything, making for extremely simple operation.
The 810H offers all the great DVR functions that made TiVo a household name. You get a real-time onscreen electronic programming guide (EPG), and you can pause and rewind live TV, capture up to 80 hours of material on the 80GB internal hard disk, and play back one show while recording another. Less appreciated but just as important is a feature that most DVD recorders lack: control over cable and satellite boxes via an included IR blaster or serial cable. This capability makes it easy to record from the hundreds of channels available on just about any digital set-top box.
Like all TiVo-powered devices, the DVR-810H updates its EPG via the built-in dial-up modem or your home network; for the latter connection, you have to supply your own USB Ethernet or Wi-Fi adapter. Unlike standalone TiVo units, the DVR-810H includes TiVo Basic service, which doesn't add any fees but is stripped down: you get only 3 days of EPGs instead of 14, no Season Pass feature for easily recording all the episodes of your favorite show, and no ability to generate wish lists of genres, stars, or titles. To upgrade to TiVo Plus, you can pay either $13 per month or a $300 lump sum. As of June 2004, TiVo Plus service also includes the cool Home Media Option, which enables the DVR-810H to stream digital music and photos from your home network, share programs with other TiVos in your house, and even accept remote program commands via the Internet.
While the Pioneer DVR-810H can store TV shows on its internal hard drive or recordable DVDs, the deck falls short of the Panasonic DMR-E100H on two important counts: the Pioneer can't edit recordings, so you can't delete commercials, and since it lacks a FireWire connection, it can't digitally interface with MiniDV camcorders. It also can't capture 5.1-channel surround soundtracks from broadcast sources, but to be fair, no other standalone recorder can, either. These are the only glaring omissions in an otherwise ideal feature list.
Connectivity options are plentiful. On the output side, an optical digital-audio jack and the ability to send progressive-scan component video move the DVR-810H a step above standard TiVos. The other outs comprise two sets for composite and S-Video A/V, along with one RF hookup. For EPGs, a telephone jack handles dial-up updates, while a USB port enables Ethernet or Wi-Fi access via a third-party networking adapter. The Pioneer DVR-810H accepts TV signals on a standard RF coaxial cable, a composite A/V input, or an S-Video connection. A second composite A/V in doesn't have S-Video but allows the recorder to burn DVDs of VCR and camcorder material.
If the DVR-810H's 80GB hard drive isn't big enough for you, check out the step-up model. The Pioneer Elite DVR-57H, listed at $1,800 (though available for much less), has a 120GB capacity and a black, glossy finish.
A few simple clicks of the remote offload any material on the hard disk to a DVD-R or a DVD-RW. The DVD menu, a natural extension of TiVo's interface, couldn't be easier to use. Burning a disc can take as long as an hour (but can go up to twice as fast with 4X media), but since the process occurs in the background via high-speed dubbing, you can watch and/or record TV or play back captured programs while you wait.
The DVD-RWs we burned worked on some other machines, but we recommend DVD-Rs for maximum compatibility, especially with older players. Our DVD-Rs, true to the format's status as the most compatible type of recordable disc, played back in all the DVD decks we tried. A TiVo-style top menu gives homemade recordings a nice, professional sheen, though some may regret the intrusive branding.
The Basic, Medium, and High recording modes cover roughly the same quality and time range as a VCR's EP, LP, and SP options. The respective modes give you 6, 4, and 2 hours of video per DVD and 80, 55, and 28 hours of programming on the hard drive. We avoided Basic and Medium because they yielded expectedly low levels of resolution and a soft, VHS-style picture. True videophiles can choose the optimal resolution of the Extreme/Fine setting, but as it offers only 1 hour of material per disc, many will go with High to get 2 hours and more than 400 horizontal lines of resolution.
Thanks to Pioneer's use of Sage/Faroudja's video-processing technology, the 810H played back DVDs with generally top-notch image quality. Recordable DVDs of all flavors that we'd burned on other machines gave the unit no trouble. And MP3 CD-R playback, complete with shuffling, was better than average.
The Pioneer DVR-810H's main strength is its ability to archive television, but it also records noncopyright material from camcorders (on the analog input only), VCRs, and other external sources. Unfortunately, if this content comes in on the S-Video connection, the DVR-810H automatically labels it as a TV show, and you cannot change that title. Custom labeling is possible only if you use the second composite-video input.