Tapeless Video Recorders Page 2

Toshiba SD-H400The SD-H400 is a hybrid component that takes a different approach to recording. Instead of recording on DVD, it combines a DVD player with an 80-gigabyte (GB) hard-disk drive controlled by a TiVo-system recorder/electronic program guide (EPG). toshiba sd-h400

Besides the usual inputs and outputs, there are two USB ports and a phone jack so the SD-H400 can dial up TiVo to download program information. To display live TV and to record programs, the recorder needs to be able to change channels. If you use an antenna or cable without a box, you connect that to the SD-H400, and it feeds the signal to the TV. Otherwise, the cable or satellite box needs to be controlled. The control signals can be sent along an IR or serial control cable (both are provided). The IR cable talks to the remote sensor on the component via a flasher, while the serial cable uses a nine-pin connector.

toshiba sd-h400 remoteThe DVD player has all the usual features as well as picture zoom and programmed playback. I particularly appreciated the onscreen remote control, which was easy to use in a darkened room. I also liked Toshiba's Navi menu, which takes you to submenus such as Strobe Viewer (still frames of a selected scene), Preview (thumbnails of titles or chapters), Capture (for grabbing a frame and using it as a background), and Picture Setting (for fine-tuning picture quality - you can store your tweaks in three custom picture presets).

The player also lets you pick how it converts the interlaced DVD video signal to progressive-scan format for output to an HDTV or other progressive-scan display. You can specify a Film Source (24 frames per second, or fps) or a Video Source (30 fps), or opt for the Automatic setting in which the player senses the signal type and chooses the conversion that will provide the best picture quality.

DVD playback quality was very good. In a scene from Ghost Ship, rain streams down, backlit by powerful searchlights. I could make out individual rain drops, and the fast-moving detail looked quite sharp. Also, the plaid pattern of a flannel shirt worn by one of the ship's crew looked clean and was free of any smearing.

As the crew begins to explore the ship, their flashlights project beams of light through the haze, which reflects from water pools on the floor, creating shimmering highlights on the rusted walls. These subtle gradations of light and dark looked chillingly real.

DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 16 7/8 x 3 1/8 x 14 1/8 inches WEIGHT 10 pounds PRICE $550 MANFACTURER Toshiba, Dept. S&V, 82 Totowa Rd., Wayne, NJ 07470; www.tacp.toshiba.com; 800-631-3811

The SD-H400's prime draw is the TiVo system with its features-driven channel guide. TiVo stores programs on a hard-disk drive, which yields a number of perks: You can easily fast forward through commercials. You can pause live TV while you leave the room for more pretzels. Although playback is stopped, the program continues to be recorded to the hard-disk drive, waiting for you to return and resume playback from where you left off - or you can catch up to real time if you fast forward.

TiVo's strength lies in its program guide. Free services such as VCR Plus+ and Guide Plus+ perform similarly, but TiVo's guide is more refined. If you pay for the full TiVo service, it can automatically record any program with, for example, "Everest" in the title. It also knows the difference between a first-run show and a rerun, and it will look up to two weeks ahead and pick shows to record while you're away. toshiba sd-h400 back

All TiVo recorders used to require a fee. But the SD-H400 provides basic TiVo service with a three-day electronic program guide at no charge. You can pause, fast forward, rewind, and watch slow-motion playback of live TV, and you can manually record by time and channel. For $12.95 a month (or $299 for the lifetime of the recorder), you get the full service, which adds perks like a 14-day program guide, the ability to record every episode of a show no matter when it airs, find and record programs that feature your favorite actor or director, and search for a show by title.

The SD-H400 is also a TiVo Series2 recorder, so if you have a wired or wireless home network, you can download Home Media Option software to network two or more TiVo recorders. After you pay $99 to activate it, you can move programs between the SD-H400 (via its USB ports) and another Series2 TiVo. For instance, you could watch a show on the TiVo in your bedroom even though it was recorded on the TiVo in your home theater. Also, via the network, the SD-H400 TiVo can play MP3 files or display photos stored on your PC. And while you're away on vacation, you can tap into your TiVo via the Internet and tell it to record Monday Night Football.

Setting up TiVo takes about 15 minutes after you hook it up. But then you'll have to wait from 30 minutes to several hours while your account status is verified and programming information is downloaded and processed before you're ready to record.

As with any digital recorder, the Toshiba's picture quality depended on bit rate, which differs for each of the four recording modes. The SD-H400 is equipped with an 80-GB drive, which provides almost 24 hours recording time in Best (quality) mode, about 38 hours in High, 49 1/2 hours in Medium, and 82 1/2 hours in Basic. The Best mode was excellent, providing a picture that was nearly indistinguishable from the original, with only slight softening.

High mode was a step down from Best, with some loss of detail but still providing a nice picture. Medium mode was okay, but betrayed smearing and further loss of detail as well as oversaturation and some motion artifacts on fast pans. Still, for casual viewing it was adequate. The Basic mode stretched disk capacity, but picture quality was grainy, and entire details were wholly lost. Yet even this lowest rate provided a usable picture for casual viewing.

The Toshiba SD-H400 is an interesting hybrid that's perfect for TV fans who do a lot of time-shifting and appreciate the convenience of having one component that handles those recording needs and plays DVDs. Its use of a hard-disk drive means there's a limit to how many programs you can archive (unless you export them to a VCR or DVD recorder). On the other hand, this is mitigated by TiVo's networking capabilities - two or three TiVos can hold a lot of "keeper" programs.

Although TiVo's hard-disk tricks can now be enjoyed on other, non-TiVo hard-disk recorders, and its free basic service is similar to other free services, there's no denying that its full-service subscription guide brings a lot to the party. Add to that the full complement of video adjustments, and the Toshiba SD-H400 is a great choice if you don't mind the service fee and aren't worried about creating a big archive of recordings.