We weren't thrilled by the Sony RDR-VX-515's clumsy remote, which features the five-way navigational keypad in the middle, the playback controls just beneath, and the channel and volume rockers stacked up in the top-right corner. While the main menu and playback controls are logically laid out, there's a stiff sliding door on the bottom third of the wand that annoyingly hides all of the recording and editing buttons. We also wish a one-touch VHS-to-DVD dubbing button had been included on the remote; instead, we had to get off the sofa to press the one-touch dub control on the front of the deck.
The RDR-VX515's onscreen menus aren't as slick as those on Sony's higher-end DVD recorders such as the RDR-HX900, but the pared-down screens do the job with a minimum of fuss. The responsive DVD title-list menu displays seven titles at a time with a preview thumbnail for the selected title, and we like that the list scrolls down rather than having to click Next for another page of titles. We are also pleased that the VHS functions are nicely integrated into the standard menu system, a welcome change from the decks we've seen that still use blocky, '80s-era icons when you're using the VCR. We would have liked a bit more onscreen help--such as details on the various menu items at the bottom of the screen--but overall, we had little trouble navigating the various setup screens. The Sony RDR-VX515 makes a big first impression with its mastery of the four major DVD formats--DVD+R/+RW and DVD-R/-RW--as well as its support for double-layer DVD+R discs, which effectively double your recording capacity (the more obscure DVD-RAM format is not supported). One blank DVD+R double-layer disc can hold 2 hours of video at the high-quality HQ mode, 4 hours of SP video, and so on, to as much as 16 hours. The deck can't record on dual-layer DVD-R discs, but that's a mere quibble.
VHS-to-DVD recording (or vice versa) is a snap: just press either of the one-touch dubbing arrows on the front of the deck to begin the process or to navigate to the dubbing screen from the system menu. Unfortunately, there's no one-touch dub button on the remote, and the deck doesn't prompt you for the recording speed, so you'll have to make sure you've set the right speed before you start. Naturally, the deck won't record copy-protected VHS tapes or DVDs.
The Sony RDR-VX515's timed-recoding options are disappointingly slim. You can program recordings for as many as 12 future shows on either the DVD or VHS decks, but there's neither an electronic onscreen programming guide nor an IR blaster to change the channel on your cable or satellite box, so you'll have to make sure your tuner is set to the right channel before your recording begins. Making matters worse is the lack of VCR Plus functionality--a feature we've taken for granted in almost every DVD recorder we've ever tested. To set up a timed recording, you'll have to enter all the date and time settings manually.
There are a total of eight recording speeds to choose from, ranging from the standard 1-hour HQ mode all the way to an 8-hour SEP mode, with plenty of selections in between, including the 90-minute HSP mode, the 2-hour SP mode, and the 150-minute LSP mode. However, there's no flexible recording mode that lets you squeeze a precise amount of video on a disc, a handy option that we're finding on more and more DVD recorders. Naturally, all of the above recording times are doubled when using DVD+R double-layer discs.
In its favor, the RDR-VX515 boasts a strong set of editing options. You can rename, erase, and protect titles with write-once DVD+R/-R discs, while rewritable DVD+RW discs let you add or erase chapter marks and divide titles. With VR-formatted rewritable DVD-RWs, you can also erase chapters, snip out specific parts of a chapter or title, or create video playlists that leave your original titles intact. Not bad, but for some reason, you can't set title menu thumbnails, no matter what format of DVD you're using, a bummer for those who take pride in designing their DVD menus.
The Sony RDR-VX515's set of connections falls slightly below par. In back, you'll find the standard RF and A/V inputs and outputs, a component-video output that also passes video from the VHS deck (a nice plus that cuts down on cable clutter), and a single S-Video output, as well as both optical and coaxial digital audio outs. Unfortunately there's no S-Video input on the rear panel, an inexcusable omission for a deck in this price range. At least there's an A/V input with S-Video input up front, along with a FireWire input for digital camcorders. We tested the Sony RDR-VX515's VCR-to-DVD dubbing abilities with a 12-year-old VHS tape from our collection, and the results were only fair. While the deck did a nice job of finding the best tracking settings to counter the wear and tear on our aging tape, the final dub looked soft and a bit noisy, with faint but distracting wavy lines of interference. While the RDR-VX515's dubbing quality wasn't the worst we've seen in a VHS-DVD recorder, it pales when compared to that of the stellar dubs delivered by the aforementioned LiteOn LVC-9006 or the Panasonic DMR-ES30V.
When hooked to an external source, the DVD recorder itself scored respectable marks in our resolution tests. In its 1-hour HQ and 2-hour SP modes, the Sony RDR-VX515 captured more than 450 lines of horizontal resolution for a rock-solid image, while the 150-minute LSP mode still looked excellent, with slight artifacts visible near the edges of objects. Predictably, the picture turned noticeably softer in the 3-hour LP mode, falling south of 250 lines in the 4-hour EP mode. By the time we'd reached the 8-hour SEP mode, our test image was marred by severe blockiness and motion artifacts.
Turning to our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, the peasants fleeing the swooping probes looked sharp at HQ and HSP speeds, with a bit of background blockiness apparent in the 2-hour SP mode, growing even worse in the 150-minute LSP mode. The picture became much softer in the 3-hour LP mode, with moments of fast action looking murky and clear blockiness in the background. The 8-hour SEP mode was practically unwatchable, with severe blocky artifacts and stuttery frame rates. Changing scenes to the smoky interior of the damaged Enterprise bridge, the deck did a fine job of rendering the smoke and the showers of sparks all the way down to the 150-minute LSP mode, with little sign of false contouring, although the image turned soft and blocky by the time we reached the 4-hour EP mode.
The Sony RDR-VX515 had little trouble in our 2:3 pull-down test, smoothly rendering the haystacks and bridges at the beginning of Insurrection with nary a jaggy.