Philips DVDR985 DVD recorder

Ever since DVD first appeared five years ago, I've longed for the ability to record video material to disc rather than VHS tape. Well, as the old saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it." Not only is it now possible to record onto a DVD disc, there are no fewer than five formats available! Among these are DVD+R (write-once) and DVD+RW (rewritable), both created by Philips.

The DVDR985 is Philips' second-generation DVD recorder, and includes an upgraded MPEG2 encoder and DVD+R capabilities as well as DVD+RW. The original DVDR1000 and DVDR1500 were limited to DVD+RW, although they can be upgraded to accommodate DVD+R with a simple—and free—software upload. In addition, the DVDR985 lists for $1000 less than the '1000 and '1500, which retailed for $1999; cost-cutting measures include consolidated circuit boards and a faceplate that is no longer of solid aluminum. Like most standalone consumer DVD recorders, the DVDR985 includes an NTSC tuner, which clearly indicates that it's designed to replace a VCR.

Throughout this review, I will compare the DVDR985's DVD+R/RW capabilities to DVD-R/RW. Unless otherwise specified, my comments about DVD-R/RW apply to the Pioneer DVR-7000, which is the only standalone DVD-R/RW recorder on the market as of this writing. Panasonic's latest DVD-RAM units also record DVD-R, and there are some differences in how they do it compared with the Pioneer (which I will describe in due course), but in terms of DVD-RW, Pioneer is currently the only game in town.

The DVDR985's front panel is a model of simple beauty, its few buttons flush-mounted in a very attractive, aluminum-look faceplate. In the center of the front panel is a large electroluminescent display with easy-to-read blue characters above a bar-graph indicator that shows the progress of various disc operations—or, when you set the recording volume manually, the stereo audio levels. This bar graph is very cool; for example, when playing a DVD, the beginning and end of each major segment—or title—on the disc are indicated with short vertical line segments. As you play through a specific title, a blinking line segment on the display follows the progress of playback, providing continuous feedback on where you are

The alphanumeric characters normally indicate track, title, chapter, various time parameters (track time, total time, time remaining, time of day), channel number, and selected input. In addition, various messages scroll across this region of the display according to the current activity. The only thing I wished for here was to have the date displayed along with the time of day when the unit is powered off. The display can be dimmed or turned off, which is great—it gives off quite a bit of light.

Other indicators, such as disc format, audio format, record/playback speed, and so on, are much smaller, but this is no problem because you typically don't need to see them at a distance. One of these indicators flashes when the unit receives an IR command from the remote, which you can see from across the room. This is useful for confirming that the command was received; if nothing else happens, at least you know the button you pressed has no effect under the current conditions.

The front-panel connectors are located behind a removable cover. The inputs include DV i.Link (IEEE 1394), S-video, composite, and stereo audio. Oddly, the labels are grouped together to the left of the connectors themselves, rather than being printed immediately next to each connector as they should be.

Whereas the front panel is generally excellent in its organization, the rear panel is exactly the opposite, with video inputs and outputs grouped separately from the corresponding audio ins and outs. This layout of video and audio inputs and outputs is quite confusing. I wish the audio and video connectors for each external input had been grouped together, and the same for the outputs. However, this annoyance is more than offset by the presence of a component input, which is missing from all the other DVD recorders I've seen.

There's also a special jack for an optional wired remote, although why you'd want to use a wired remote is beyond me. The supplied IR remote is long and lanky, with well-organized buttons, most of which have both text and graphic-icon labels. It is not illuminated, but the most-used buttons are relatively easy to find by feel after a short learning period. I particularly liked the separate Disc and System Menu buttons, which make it easy to access the menu you want. The remote can also be used to control the TV, after you've found the appropriate preprogrammed codes; holding the button on the side of the remote causes it to send TV commands instead of DVDR985 commands, which is pretty slick.

Still, I have a few nits to pick. Unlike on most remotes these days, the OK button is not located in the center of the four cursor-navigation buttons; it's below and to the right, which is somewhat odd. And there's one glaring omission: no jog/shuttle control on the remote or front panel. There are three slow and three fast scanning speeds forward and reverse, but that's not the same as having a jog/shuttle control for precise cueing.

The onscreen display system is excellent, with logical status indicators for things like tuner channel, timer setting, etc. When scanning forward or backward, a small box appears that indicates the type of disc, scanning speed, total time of the current title, and current location within the title. After about four seconds, the box disappears.

The onscreen menu is called up by pressing the T/C (title/chapter) button on the remote. This button should be labeled Display or Menu, because it provides access to much more than title and chapter control. The primary menu items are located across the top of the screen, including controls to specify title, chapter, audio language, subtitles on/off, camera angle, audio format, zoom, pause, scan rate, time search, etc. These controls are labeled only with icons, which takes a bit of getting used to. On the plus side, the remote includes direct-access buttons for most of these functions.

The leftmost item in the main menu is labeled with an icon representing tools; selecting it accesses a series of submenus that are labeled with icons along the left side of the screen. These submenus provide various sets of controls for video, audio, language, record settings, and general system parameters (which are thankfully labeled with words), and are translucently overlaid on the DVD image. If you're watching the NTSC tuner, the picture disappears completely when you call up the menu, which is unfortunate. Overall, however, the menu system is well-organized, and the annoying beep that sounds at each menu selection can be disabled.