Pioneer DVR-57H DVR/DVD Recorder

Pioneer and TiVo go on the record.

It baffles me that the digital video recorder hasn't caught on with mainstream consumers. Everyone I know who's spent 10 minutes with one of these gems is instantly addicted. It has a VCR's functionality, a digital cable box's user-friendliness, and a computer's brain. As far as I can tell, only two things are preventing the DVR from making it big: price and permanent storage.

In the performance department, my old-school VCR holds but one advantage over the DVR: that pesky but oh-so-transferable videotape that I can file away or loan to my mom when she misses this week's episode of Angel. (Yeah, my mom watches Angel—what of it?) If you're not that into TV, you may not care that the DVR lacks permanent-storage capability. Then again, if you're not that into TV, would you ever buy a DVR? Those of us who are into TV want permanent storage. That's why we did a little dance of joy when we heard that combination DVR/DVD recorders had finally arrived.

Pioneer has introduced two recorder/hard-drive combi units: the 80-gigabyte DVR-810H and the 120-GB Elite DVR-57H that I received for review. Both units come with TiVo Basic service installed, which I'll delve into more fully in a moment.

First things first: Setting up the DVR-57H is a breeze, although you might suspect otherwise when you see how many manuals come in the box. Relax. Pioneer is just being thorough, explaining the many DVR, recording, and optional networking features. A nice, condensed setup pamphlet tells you how to connect the player based on your existing components. I connected my digital cable box to the DVR-57H, which I then connected to my TV.

The player is a progressive-scan DVD player and consequently offers a component video output to connect to your display. However, the highest quality input is S-video; if, like me, you've got a digital cable (or satellite) box with a component (or perhaps DVI) connection, you won't be able to pass that signal through the DVR-57H to your display. The player has both optical digital and stereo analog audio outputs.

Next, you connect the machine to your phone line with the supplied phone cord (a splitter is included), and you connect an IR or special serial cable that lets you change your cable/satellite box's channels from the DVR-57H's remote. The small remote fit comfortably in my hand, but it lacks backlighting, which is hard to forgive when you think about how often you'll use it in the dark.

Once everything's hooked up, the intuitive TiVo onscreen interface walks you gently through Guided Setup, which tells the unit how you receive your signals, which channels you receive, etc. Finally, the DVR-57H calls a TiVo server to download the program info. Once this is completed, you're ready to watch a DVD or TV show. You can immediately enjoy TiVo functions like pausing or recording live TV and setting up manual recording, but you have to wait four to eight hours before you can set the unit to automatically record selected programs, as it takes awhile for the unit to fully download the program guide for the first time.

TiVo Basic is a scaled-down, free version of the TiVo service through which you can enjoy the user-friendly TiVo interface, view three days' worth of programming info, pause and record live TV, and record shows from the program guide with the touch of a button. What you don't get is a search function that lets you find a program by title, genre, etc. You have to scroll through the program guide hour by hour, channel by channel, to find a show that you want to record. You also don't get the Season Pass manager that lets you set the DVR-57H to record multiple episodes of your favorite shows. Take heart, though. All of this functionality can be yours if you upgrade to TiVo Plus, which will run you $12.95 per month or $299 for a lifetime subscription—and that's the lifetime of the unit, not you. The upgrade also gets you 14 days' worth of programming info, the ability to add time to the beginning or end of a recording to ensure that you don't miss anything, and other enhanced recording functions. Trust me, once you've tried the Plus service, you'll never go back. The only TiVo Plus function that I wasn't crazy about was TiVo Suggestions, in which the DVR automatically records tons of programs that it thinks you might like. Personally, I don't want my TiVo to think for me. It's just a bit too Terminator for my tastes. Happily, you can turn it off.

You didn't think I just glossed over that whole S-video dilemma, did you? Sadly, it's not something you can ignore if you plan to integrate the DVR-57H into a higher-end home theater system. While the player's component video connection to the display helps your DVDs look great, you're still getting S-video from your cable or satellite box to the DVR, and you'll see a step down in the image quality of these programs as a result. My husband's highly technical description was that the picture looked "gooey." Sure, you can run the DVR-57H into your display's S-video input and your set-top box into its component input, but then you won't be able to pause live TV, and you'll still have to watch whatever you've recorded through a lower-quality connection. If you've got a more-basic setup with a smaller TV or you're looking to fill a void in your family room as opposed to your theater, the S-video output will likely be fine.

Lest we forget, this one-box solution is also a DVD player/recorder that can play back and record DVD-R/-RW discs—and it can do so while you continue to record content to the hard drive. As a standalone DVD player, it's a definite success, its performance akin to that of its Elite brother, the DV-47A. The unit passes PLUGE through its interlaced component, S-video, and composite outputs, which is good because the picture is a bit dark out of the box, so you'll want to make some adjustments to your display. Resolution ranges from 485 lines through the S-video output to almost 500 lines with a progressive signal. Our waveform monitor revealed only slight high-frequency roll-off through the S-video and interlaced component connections; there was a tad bit more through the progressive component connection.

The DVR-57H features Faroudja's DCDi chip and Pioneer's PureCinema 3:2 pulldown circuitry. It did a fine job with both the film and video modes in the Snell & Wilcox Zone Plate test on Video Essentials, and I didn't see any stair-stepping or combing artifacts in Video Essential's "Montage of Images" or our Apollo 13 torture test on the DTS Demo Disc.

As a recorder, the DVR-57H transfers material directly from the unit's internal hard drive to a DVD-R or -RW disc. In addition to the TV content, you can transfer content from a VCR or a camcorder to the hard drive and then burn it to a DVD. The TiVo user interface is burned along with the program material, which lets you access the material in a familiar way, even when you put the disc in a non-TiVo-equipped DVD player. The burning process couldn't be simpler: The menu tells you what's on the hard drive, how much room it would take up on a DVD, and how long the record process will take (an hour maximum). The beauty is, you can watch live TV and record stuff to the hard drive during the burning process.

The DVR has four recording-quality settings: Extreme (Fine), High (SP), Medium (LP), and Basic (EP). With programs that were recorded at the Extreme setting, you can only fit an hour's worth of content on one DVD; the Basic setting allows for about six hours of content, but the picture quality is virtually unwatchable. I'd rather pay for more discs and archive at the High or Extreme setting than suffer through the poor video quality of the Medium and Basic settings. It's worth noting that, if you're trying to record something to the hard drive while you watch it and you set the quality setting to Basic, it doesn't just record at Basic—it also displays at Basic. According to Pioneer, by the time you read this, a software upgrade will be available that will improve the video quality of the Basic and Medium settings.

The recorder's ease of use does come at the expense of some of the flexibility that you'd find in a standalone recorder. You can't set your own chapter breaks (the machine automatically inserts them in five-minute increments) or determine a recording's exact starting or stopping point. It burns exactly what the hard drive recorded, including commercials. You also can't add content to a half-empty DVD-RW disc, so you should wait until you have enough content to fill a disc before doing a burn. If you add the Home Media Option, you can network the DVR-57H with other Series2 TiVos in your home to share content and access the hard drive via the Internet, but you can't burn a program that was transferred from another TiVo unit to the DVR-57H.

All in all, there's a lot to like about the DVR-57H. It's a great DVD player, it handles its DVR and recording duties well, it's convenient, and it's not intimidating to use. The flexibility and connection issues might concern hard-core archivists and videophiles, but overall it's a great solution to the permanent-storage hurdle on the road to mass acceptance of the DVR.

As for the price hurdle. . .well, that $1,800 price tag might cause more than a few mainstream consumers to stumble. If you're willing to give up 40 GB of drive space, you can enjoy the same features in the DVR-810H for $1,199, but that's still pricey for the average consumer. In all other respects, this device seems perfectly suited to the mainstream audience, an audience that loves TV, recording, and—above all else—simplicity.

• A 120-GB TiVo DVR
• DVD recorder is very easy to use but lacks flexibility
• Great DVD player