Zenith HDR230 HD DVR
Photos by Tony Cordoza
With its ultra-clear widescreen picture, there's a lot to like about high-definition TV, and it's now starting to hit its stride in many parts of the country (see "HDTV: What's On and Where to Get It,"). But if you're not home when NYPD Blue is on, is there a way to record it in its full high-def glory?
Time-shifting analog video isn't a problem-simply hook up a VCR or hard-disk recorder (HDR) to your cable or satellite box and program it to do your bidding. But if you've just bought a new digital TV (DTV), you may be surprised how many obstacles there are to recording programs in high-def. At the moment, no off-the-shelf recorders let you time-shift high-def offerings on satellite, and your options are pretty limited for cable as well. But there are a few ways to record off-the-air HDTV broadcasts.
One is Zenith's HDR230 ($1,000), which combines an HDTV tuner and 80-gigabyte (GB) hard-disk recorder in one slim, silver-toned component. The tuner can handle digital TV broadcasts and any cable channels that share the same 8-VSB encoding format used for terrestrial digital broadcasting. (A few cable systems carried some channels in this format, but virtually all of them have since switched over to the 256-QAM encoding that's the standard for the industry.) Programs can be recorded in both the standard-definition 480i (interlaced) and 480p (progressive-scan) formats, and in the 720p and 1080i high-definition formats-those are also the output options. The 80-GB drive can store about 9 hours of programming in high-def format and 27 hours in standard-def format.
The Zenith's front-panel control buttons let you navigate its onscreen program guide and setup menus without fumbling for a remote control. Other buttons allow for instant recording and selecting the display format that's right for your TV. The only additional feature is a strip of LEDs that indicate the current format, whether the hard disk is full, and if a recording has been programmed or is in progress.
Connections on the back panel include an antenna input, wideband component-video and VGA-style RGB outputs, and coaxial and optical digital audio outputs. There aren't any inputs-digital or analog-besides the antenna jack, and there's no way to make the HDR230 perform fancy media server-type functions like storing programs from an external video source or JPEG image files from a computer. It's more VCR-like in its sole focus on time-shifting digital TV broadcasts.
A poorly translated preliminary manual that came with the HDR230 made setup a trial-and-error process, but it didn't take too long to get it up and running. After punching in the current time and selecting a 16:9 screen and Dolby Digital audio output in the Options menu, I connected a Zenith Silver Sensor indoor antenna and used the recorder's onscreen DTV signal meter to adjust its position for optimal reception. Next, I selected EZ Scan from the Setup menu, which quickly scanned the airwaves for available digital channels. The four-count 'em!-stations in New York City were highlighted in the Channel Edit submenu, where they could be added to a Surf list for easy access.
Zenith's remote control is a universal model that can be set up to operate a TV, VCR, and DVD player. The handset is crowded with buttons and the keypad isn't backlit, which make it hard to find some buttons in a dim room. However, the all-important channel up/down buttons are set apart by shape and located in the center of the remote, while the controls for selecting, scanning, and pausing programs that you've recorded are conveniently located within thumb's reach on the lower half.
Most hard-disk video recorders have an onscreen electronic program guide (EPG) with a continually updated grid of program choices and interactive features like thematic lists and one-touch recording. In some cases, you pay a subscription fee for the program listings and connect the recorder to a phone line so it can download information. In others, you get a no-fee GuidePlus+ program guide that picks up information carried in the analog broadcast signal to create listings.
The HDR230 takes another approach. Its program guide fills its grid by using PSIP (Program System and Information Protocol) data embedded in digital broadcasts. Although PSIP is a specified component of the new digital TV system, none of the channels that I received-including WCBS, which went digital in New York City in November 1998-carried any information beyond a basic channel ID. The upshot here was that the cells in the program guide came up blank, and there was no way to activate one-touch recording. Zenith was clearly too optimistic about broadcasters minding this detail when it designed the HDR230, but you may have better luck in your area.
TV Guide and most newspapers are no help, either. Thankfully, there are other sources of information to find out what's on HDTV, including Zenith's own Web site (zenith.com). Click on the HDTV Programs option, enter your address, and you'll get a complete set of listings for your area. With this information, I manually programmed the HDR230 to record a cluster of shows. Most of it was upconverted dreck like Star Search and Star Trek: The Umpteenth Generation, but there was also some cool stuff-specifically, CSI, which is a great show and a visual treat in high-def.
The quality of the Zenith's high-def recordings was excellent-they looked as good as the actual broadcasts. My only complaint is that a nonremovable timer bug pops up in the corner of the screen when you're watching a recording and sticks there. Also, after a number of hours of use, the preproduction unit I initially tested tended to freeze up during playback. However, a production sample that I tested later appeared to be free of the problem.
What folks love most about hard-disk video recorders is being able to "pause" live programs. TiVo and ReplayTV do this by automatically buffering video while you're watching a show. Their machines constantly record any program they're tuned to, so you can replay a scene or pause the program and pick up later at the spot where you left off.
The Zenith doesn't automatically buffer programs, but it does offer a Timeshift mode that emulates that feature. Say you're watching Frasier and the phone rings. Just hit the Timeshift key on the remote, and the HDR230 makes a temporary recording up to an hour in length-more than enough time to talk on the phone, go to the bathroom, or make a trip to the fridge. When you return, just press stop, and the segment you missed shows up as the top entry in your Program List.
A cool feature of the Zenith that's not found on most hard-disk recorders is Clip Edit, which lets you delete commercials and other unwanted sections of a recorded program. This makes up for its lack of an automatic commercial skip or a 30-second program advance button-features that other hard-disk recorders and even some VCRs use to avoid ads.
There aren't a lot of products out there that let you record HDTV, so Zenith's HDR230 fills a gap. But with a recording capability that's limited to broadcast digital TV signals, it's also a niche component designed for those who rely on an antenna to get high-def programming. Hopefully it won't be long until a product appears that will let us record the ever-growing HDTV choices on satellite and cable as well. Until that day comes, however, I'll be counting on the HDR230 to make sure I don't miss any episodes of CSI.