Toshiba RD-XS32 DVR/DVD Recorder
DVD recorders are quickly replacing VCRs as the component of choice to capture and archive TV shows—and rightly so. After all, the picture quality is generally better, and the discs take up a lot less shelf space than VHS tapes. Still, blank disks are relatively expensive, especially the rewritable varieties. In addition, rewritable discs aren't as compatible with conventional DVD players as the write-once discs.
These considerations present a difficult choice when you want to record a show of unknown content: If you record on a more-expensive rewritable format, you can erase the program if you don't want to keep it, but it might not play in another DVD player. Or you can record on a write-once disc, which is less expensive and has a better chance to play in another machine; however, if you don't want to keep the program, you're left with another shiny drink coaster.
A new type of product addresses these concerns beautifully: a device that includes a DVD recorder and hard-disk drive. With such a device, you can record shows on the hard disk and dub the ones you really want to keep to a write-once DVD. Among the manufacturers that have entered this particular market segment is Toshiba, whose latest offering is the RD-XS32, which combines an 80-gigabyte hard-disk drive and a DVD-R/-RW/-RAM recorder.
The RD-XS32 has a slim, uncluttered face, thanks in large part to the placement of the controls on top of the case near the front. This cleans up the front panel nicely, but it also limits where you can put the unit; you need to allow enough clearance above it to reach the controls. The disc drawer is center-mounted, with the display to the right. Below the drawer are several status indicators, including a large, bright, blue light that illuminates when the hard drive is selected. The front-panel inputs are on the lower left behind a flip-down lid; above them are more indicator lights. The rear panel is well organized, separating inputs from outputs.
The non-illuminated remote offers full control of the RD-XS32, and it can control the basic functions of a TV and cable box. As with many remotes these days, some of the buttons reside on top of a flip-down panel at the bottom; when you open this panel, there are more buttons beneath it. Unfortunately, some of the buttons on top of the panel are used less often than some of those underneath it. For example, the number buttons are under the panel, as are the setup, search, and record-mode buttons, while the buttons to control the TV, which you probably won't use unless you have the most basic system, are among those on top of the panel.
On the plus side, the remote's central navigation cluster is surrounded by four rocker buttons that handle things like skipping chapters, fast- and slow-forward and reverse, and increasing or decreasing parameter values. This arrangement took a bit of getting used to, but it's a clever design that works well.
When you first plug in the RD-XS32, you're confronted with the dreaded blinking 12:00 in the display. Haven't we evolved beyond this? Most modern devices automatically set their clocks from the signal broadcast on a local channel, usually PBS. When you power up the RD-XS32 for the first time, an initial-setup menu appears, which lets you select manual or auto time and date, but this should happen automatically. The initial-setup menu also lets you engage the automatic channel search, which goes pretty quickly.
Overall, the menu system is excellent. The main category icons appear across the top of the screen, with the menu for the selected category underneath, taking up much of the screen. The menu is semitransparent, so you can see the picture behind it, and the level of transparency is user-adjustable, which is way cool.
The RD-XS32 comes with a Quick Reference sheet and two manuals: The Installation Guide is 52 pages, and the Operations manual is a beefy 176 pages. Neither manual has an index, so it wasn't always obvious where to find information on certain topics. Still, I was able to find what I wanted most of the time, although my success occasionally felt accidental.
Among the unit's notable features are Easy Navi and Quick Menu, each of which provides quick and easy access to various controls. Another cool feature is a picture-in-picture function that displays the incoming TV signal in a small window while playing a pre-recorded program. Also impressive are the instant-skip and instant-play functions, which jump ahead or back, respectively, by a user-specified time interval—something I've never seen before.
It's easy to select either the DVD transport or hard drive by pushing the corresponding button on the remote or front panel. Interestingly, the RD-XS32 transcodes the coaxial RF feed and sends it to the component outputs, as well as the S-video and composite outs; all three sources are available from all three outputs. In addition, the component signal can be interlaced or progressive, which means you can watch live TV as a progressive component signal. However, you need a display that can apply a 4:3 aspect ratio to its progressive component input in order to watch a TV image that isn't stretched horizontally; many displays lock into widescreen mode with their progressive component inputs.
Another unique feature is the ability to set the recording bit rate. There are five record modes: SP (4.6 megabits per second, which allows two hours of recording on a 4.7-GB DVD and nearly 36 hours on the hard drive), LP (2.2 Mbps; four hours on a DVD, 70 hours on the hard drive), and three manual modes, each of which can be set to any bit rate from 1.4 to 9.2 Mbps. You can also specify one of three audio bit rates: Dolby Digital at 192 or 384 kilobits per second or uncompressed PCM at 1,440 kbps, which provides higher-quality audio but seriously reduces overall recording time.