Sony RDR-GX7 DVD Recorder

You can have it all (almost).

If you're like me, you're sick and tired of format wars. When will these companies learn that having to choose between formats only leads to consumer frustration and, sometimes, outright rebellion? Perhaps this is why DVD-Audio and SACD have not taken off like their proponents might have wished. And perhaps this is why several companies have introduced universal players that will play both formats in addition to DVD-Video and good ol' CD.

The problem is even worse in the realm of DVD recording. With no less than five distinct formats in three different camps, it's no wonder that consumers are confused when it comes to upgrading their tired old VCRs. Which type of recorder should I buy? Will the recorded discs be compatible with my regular DVD player? Am I going to miss some feature that I now take for granted with my VCR?

Sony's answer to these questions is the RDR-GX7. It can record three of the five DVD-recordable formats—DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW—and it can play DVD+R in addition to these three. (The remaining format is DVD-RAM.) If you're not familiar with these formats, let me bring you up to speed. DVD-R and DVD+R are write-once formats, much like CD-R; after recording something on them, that's it—you cannot erase or write over the data. DVD-RW and DVD+RW are rewritable formats, which means that you can erase old data and record new data in the same place on the disc. All four of these formats can be made more or less compatible with normal DVD players. DVD-RAM is also rewritable, but it is rarely compatible with standard players.

Since the RDR-GX7 can record and play DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW, it doesn't much matter which type of disc you use; you can choose the format that best suits your needs. If you want your recordings to play in the most DVD players, use DVD-R; you can only use blank discs once, but they're the cheapest of all the formats.

On the other hand, if you want to be able to record, erase, and re-record stuff, use one of the rewritable formats. DVD-RW offers two recording modes: video and VR. The video mode is more compatible with other DVD players (although it's not as compatible as the write-once formats) and, as with the DVD-R format, you must finalize a disc if it is to have any chance of playing in a normal player. The VR mode gives you more editing capabilities at the expense of general compatibility.

Then there's DVD+RW, which behaves more like videotape than any of the other formats because it requires no finalization. You can record something, take the disc out, put it in another player, play it, put it back in the recorder, record some more, play it in another player, and so on, just like videotape. You also can record over existing material, just like videotape. Neither rewritable format is as compatible with standard players as the write-once formats, but the chances go up significantly if you try them in newer players.

The RDR-GX7 is a fine-looking, silver-tone unit, with a center-mounted disc drawer and an unusual display that flanks the drawer. To the left is the main display, which has a dot-matrix alphanumeric readout (time, channel, title/chapter number, etc.); to the right are various indicators that reveal the type of disc and other parameters. Above the right display are the basic transport controls (play, pause, stop, record, etc.). Below the drawer and displays is a flip-down panel that hides various controls and inputs, including S-video, composite video, stereo analog audio, and DV for a digital camcorder.

On the back are two more inputs, each with S-video, composite video, and stereo analog audio jacks; two outputs with the same complement of connections; a component video output; two digital audio outputs (one coax, one optical); RF in and out; a Sony-specific Control S connector; and a power-cord receptacle. The rear panel is laid out well, but I can't fathom why Sony labeled the rear inputs 1 and 3 and the front input 2.

The remote is a long, skinny affair that can control a TV or the recorder at the flip of a switch. Most of the buttons are too small for my taste, and there's no illumination (although the play, pause, and stop buttons glow in the dark after some exposure to light). On the plus side, the centrally located thumbstick is well placed, and the rocker right below it easily controls forward and reverse shuttling. I also like the system menu, title list, and tools buttons immediately above the thumbstick. The lower portion of the remote is a slide-down panel that reveals the buttons to control recording and select the input; the record, record pause, and record stop buttons also glow in the dark after some exposure to light, which they don't normally get under the panel.

Once everything is connected and the unit is powered on, it takes you through a setup procedure that works well, although the automatic channel scan is quite slow. The procedure for manually deleting the channels you don't want in your rotation is pretty good, but it takes a couple more button pushes than I'd like.

Recording broadcast signals or anything coming into one of the inputs is fairly straightforward. Like a VCR, you can start and stop recording manually, or you can program the timer to record a particular channel at a particular date and time. It also has VCR Plus+ to help with programming. You can program up to 30 timer recordings up to one month in advance, which is more than most VCRs can do. Not only that, if the source device (such as a satellite receiver) has a timer, you can set the RDR-GX7 to start recording when it starts receiving a signal from the source. Very slick. There's also a one-touch dub mode that automates transfers from a DV camcorder.

Like all digital recorders, this one lets you specify a record mode that trades picture quality for recording time; the higher the quality, the less time you can record on a disc. The RDR-GX7 offers six record modes: HQ (60 minutes on a disc), HSP (90 minutes), SP (two hours), LP (three hours), EP (four hours), and SLP (six hours). I found virtually no difference among the highest three modes and virtually no difference among the lowest three modes, although there was a lot of difference between the two groups. The low-quality modes looked quite a bit softer than the high-quality modes, so I recommend using the SP mode, which gives you the most time without sacrificing quality. The unit even lets you check to see how much recording time is available using all of the record modes on any disc, which is cool.

Unlike most DVD recorders I've tried, the RDR-GX7 lets you specify the recording's aspect ratio (4:3 or 16:9), at least in some cases. You can select an aspect ratio when using DVD-R or DVD-RW's video mode and the record mode is SP or higher. With DVD-RW's VR mode, the incoming signal's aspect ratio is recorded regardless of the aspect setting. With DVD+RW, the aspect ratio is fixed at 4:3. Other recording controls include noise reduction and a video equalizer that adjusts contrast, brightness, color level, and hue. These controls might be very useful when dubbing a poor-quality videotape. (There are also quite a few controls that adjust the playback quality.)

The available editing capabilities depend on the recordable DVD format you use. In all cases, you can name and finalize entire discs, as well as name, write-protect, and erase titles, but that's as far as you can go with DVD-R, DVD-RW's video mode, and DVD+RW. (You can also erase and reformat an entire DVD-RW or DVD+RW disc.) With DVD-RW's VR mode, you can also write-protect the entire disc, erase segments of titles, insert and erase chapter markers, and create and edit a playlist, which is a list of titles and the order in which to play them.

You can set the component video output to interlaced or progressive, which uses Sony's Precision Cinema Progressive circuitry. This works on commercial DVDs, recorded discs, and even an input or broadcast signal, and it works very well. My favorite torture tests include waving American flags, mixed video and film, bad edits, and other clips on a demo disc from Faroudja/Sage (which is not generally available), and the RDR-GX7 did a great job on all of them. My only regret is that the unit can't compensate for a display that can't apply its 4:3 aspect ratio to its progressive input, so all nonanamorphic material is distorted. That means you can't watch 4:3 television programs from the progressive output. Oh well.

The RDR-GX7 might be a relatively small step for a consumer electronics company, but it's a giant leap for consumers who don't want to worry about which recordable DVD format to use. If you want to record a disc that will be compatible with most normal DVD players, use DVD-R; if you want to be able to reuse discs like videotape, use DVD-RW or DVD+RW. Personally, I prefer DVD+RW because it's easier to deal with—no modes to think about and no finalization required. In any event, the RDR-GX7 is a great solution to a vexing problem, and I salute Sony for making it available.

• Records on multiple formats, reducing concern about which one to use
• Extensive record and playback quality adjustments
• Excellent progressive output
• One-touch dubbing from DV camcorder