Editors' note: This product includes the TV Guide EPG, which depends on your local cable service to receive its program listings. Unfortunately, the guide simply doesn't work with some digital cable systems, which could severely affect the capabilities of this product. It would be advisable to check with your local provider for compatibility and to be aware that service could end without warning, depending on the actions of your cable provider. The latest HDD/DVD combo recorders are smaller and sleeker than their bulky predecessors, and the Sony RDR-HX715 is no exception. Measuring 17 by 13 by 3 inches, the deck is relatively shallow and short for a recorder in its class, and its understated silver-and-gray front cut a fine figure in our component stack. Along the top seam of the Sony's face sit the power, eject, and play/stop/pause buttons; the recording and HDD/DVD mode controls lie within the deck's central gray bevel. Flip open the long, thin door that runs the length of the recorder and you'll find a set of A/V inputs for a camcorder (including S-Video and FireWire inputs), a navigational keypad for surfing the Sony's menus, channel-selector controls, system and TV Guide menus keys, and a one-touch dubbing button.
We've been complaining about Sony's poorly designed remotes for some time now, and unfortunately, the RDR-HX715's clicker doesn't buck the trend. While the five-way navigational keypad in the center does the job, we never got used to the odd layout of the playback controls, and the recording buttons are once again hidden by a stiff, annoying sliding panel on the bottom third of the remote.
The Sony RDR-HX715's slick, animated menus are easily the coolest we've seen in a DVD recorder. The translucent system menu slides out from the left side of the screen and splits open, revealing the various submenus, which all glide open as well. One quibble: The fancy menus take a long second or two to appear, so we can imagine power users becoming frustrated by the delay, especially during menu-intense operations such as editing. The HDD/DVD title menu displays only four thumbnail titles at a time, which is a bit disappointing, although we were able to scroll through the titles relatively quickly. Clicking a title pops up a contextual menu with the various playback, editing, and dubbing options--a much smarter approach than those decks that isolate editing and dubbing functions on separate menus. We would have liked more onscreen help, such as details on the deck's myriad options, which might be overwhelming for novices, but overall, Sony's sleek menus make a winning impression. The Sony RDR-HX715's 160GB hard drive boasts all the features we've come to expect from an HDD/DVD combo deck, including the ability to chase playback--that is, begin watching the beginning of a title while it's still being recorded--or watch one prerecorded title while another program is recording. The hard drive also lets you pause live TV--sort of. Instead of the true always-on recording that you get with DVRs such as TiVo or certain DVD recorders (such as the JVC DR-DX5, the Humax DRT800, and the Philips HDRW720) that let you instantly pause or rewind whatever you're watching, the Sony begins recording only when you hit the pause button. After waiting several seconds, you can then hit the play button or rewind to the moment when you pressed pause, but not before. Most other DVD recorders share this type of recording interface.
The RDR-HX715's DVD deck supports the four main DVD formats (DVD-R/-RW and DVD+R/+RW), as well as dual-layer DVD+R discs, giving you a full 2 hours of video at the top-notch HQ recording mode or 16 hours with the low-quality SEP speed. There are eight total recording modes: HQ (highest quality, 60 minutes on a single-layer disc), HSP (90 minutes), SP (2 hours), LSP (2.5 hours), LP (3 hours), EP (4 hours), SLP (6 hours), and SEP (lowest quality, 8 hours). Ufortunately, there's no flexible-recording mode that would let you fit a precise amount of video onto a disc at highest quality, a handy feature we've come to expect in high-end DVD recorders.
The deck comes equipped with TV Guide's free onscreen EPG and an IR blaster to control your cable set-top box--the guide won't work with satellite systems such as DirecTV and Dish Network. Setup is simple enough; just enter your zip code and your cable box's command code, then leave the RDR-HX715 turned off for 24 hours or so while it grabs programming information from your cable signal. Provided the grab goes smoothly and fills the guide with listings, you can select shows to record (either single showings or an entire series, similar to TiVo) to the hard drive or to DVD.
In the past, we've found TV Guide's EPG to be quite a bit slower and clunkier than TiVo's sleek, intuitive interface, but that's not its biggest flaw. It has a spotty record with some digital cable carriers and will simply refuse to load program information in those cases--and without program information, an EPG is useless. For example, at the time of this writing, TV Guide's EPG doesn't work with Time Warner Cable in New York, where we conducted our testing, and TV Guide reps say they don't know when the problem will be fixed. We've had some success with it in the past, but it's definitely unreliable compared to subscription EPGs such as TiVo or the one available from digital cable providers. While the guide may work well in other areas, we recommend that you check with your local cable company before cracking open your wallet for this deck.
Editing options on the Sony RDR-HX715 are impressive. With titles recorded to the hard drive or to DVD-RW discs in VR mode, you can erase or protect titles, change title names, delete chapters or portions of a title, or change the thumbnail in the title navigation menu. You can also create playlists that let you edit your video without altering the original titles. Note that DVD-RW discs recording in VR mode are more flexible in terms of editing but are less likely to be compatible with other DVD players. On +RW discs, you can perform all the same edits except for deleting chapters or setting thumbnails, while with -RW and +R/-R discs you're restricted to erasing titles and changing title names--but we can live with that, considering you can edit titles on the hard drive and dub them to disc later.
Speaking of dubbing, the RDR-HX715 boasts plenty of high-speed dubbing options: as fast as 16X with high-speed +R/-R discs, 8X with DVD+RW discs, 6X with DVD-RW discs, and 2.4X for DVD+R dual-layer discs. You can also dub titles at different recording speeds--for example taking a program recorded in HQ on the HDD and dubbing it to DVD in SP mode--but if you do so, you'll have to dub in real time. While dubbing is in progress, you can perform other functions on the deck, such as watch other titles, which is a nice change from recorders that force you to stare at a progress bar.
The Sony RDR-HX715 comes with the best set of connections we've seen on any DVD recorder to date. Its biggest claim to fame is the aforementioned HDMI output, which can upscale DVD resolutions to 720p or 1080i. While it won't provide a major boost in video quality (see Performance for more), HDMI will look slightly better on many compatible displays, and either way, it's nice to combine audio and video in one connection. The Sony also has a component-video input, another rarity. While the component jack will not accept progressive-scan or high-def resolutions, it may provide a minor boost in image quality from certain sources.
The remainder of the rear-panel jack pack is filled out by a component-video output, two sets each of A/V inputs and outputs with S-Video, and an RF input and output. On the audio side, the deck boasts both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, while up front, you get a third set of A/V inputs with S-Video and a FireWire input for digital camcorders. The Sony RDR-HX715 DVD recorder turned in an impressive performance during our resolution tests. Using the Avia resolution test via the RDR-HX715's component-video input, the deck delivered crystal-clear, rock-solid results in the 1-hour HQ, 90-minute HSP, and 2-hour SP recording modes, easily capturing more than 450 lines of horizontal resolution. Once we dialed down to the 3-hour LP mode, the test pattern looked slightly softer, though still impressive with at least 450 lines of resolution visible. Image quality plummeted to about 250 lines at the 4-hour EP mode, as expected, with some artifacts visible around the edges of the test patterns; while the 6- and 8-hour SLP and SEP modes fell south of 250 lines, with detectable motion artifacts in the background.
Switching to live-action video, we tested the Sony's recording capabilities with Star Trek: Insurrection on DVD. In the scene where flying probes strafe a column of fleeing refugees in broad daylight, we once again got rock-solid recordings in the HQ, HSP, and SP modes. In the 150-minute LSP mode, our recording still looked excellent, if perhaps a hair softer. Once we geared down to the 3-hour LP mode, the picture lost even more detail, with artifacts visible around the edges of artifacts and jaggies along the edges of the swooping ships. The edgy artifacts became even worse in the 4-hour EP mode, and the image began to jutter distractingly in the 6- and 8-hour SLP and SEP modes. Switching to a dark, smoky scene of the damaged Enterprise bridge, we were impressed by the lack of false contouring in the smoke, the nicely rendered sparks, and the lack of digital blockiness in the background, although the image became juttery and jaggy again in the SLP and SEP modes.
The RDR-HX715's HDMI output performance was solid. First, we tried a naked-eye test with our Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith DVD over the DVI input on our 32-inch Sony Wega direct-view HDTV (we used an HDMI-to-DVI cable for this test). Compared to the deck's component-video output, we were immediately struck by the increase in detail in the hull of the Republic star destroyer just after the opening crawl. Switching to our Dead Ringers DVD, the HDMI output clearly brought out more detail in the Mantle brothers' stylized examination room--almost to a fault, as it highlighted the DVD's inherent graininess and false contouring in the dark shadows. Note that different HDTVs treat HDMI and component video differently, so your mileage may vary.
The deck also passed our standard Star Trek: Insurrection 2:3 pull-down test, smoothly rendering the tricky boat hulls and haystacks, as well as the resolution tests in our HQV and Digital Essentials benchmark discs, demonstrating its ability to display the full 480 lines of resolution. However, the picture from the RDR-HX715 was slightly less detailed than that of the HDMI-equipped Sony DVP-NS975V.
We also recorded some down-converted HDTV via the S-Video output of a DirecTV HD TiVo, and the results were impressive--while obviously standard-def, the image looked good, and the wide-screen aspect ratio was preserved. HDTV downconversion performance varies widely from source to source, which has nothing to do with the recorder. A recording of downconverted HD from a cable box, for example, looked much worse, with lots of motion artifacts.