Zenith HDR230 HDTV Receiver-Digital Video Recorder

As the US stumbles forth into the age of digital television, Zenith is pretty much sitting in the catbird seat. That's not because Zenith and its parent company, LG Electronics, make a slew of HDTV-ready monitors, integrated HDTVs, plasma displays, and LCD TVs (they do); nor is it because they're one of two major manufacturers of ATSC set-top receivers (they are). It's because Zenith holds the patents on the 8VSB modulation system employed for terrestrial digital television. As each new Zenith receiver and integrated HDTV comes to market, the company is pretty much in the lead with the latest 8VSB demodulator chipsets.

That means, in theory, not only should Zenith's latest set-top receivers perform well, they should also be able to add new, cutting-edge features with each new generation of ATSC receivers. In practice, Zenith does both, which is why I now have a Zenith HDR230 in my studio. It's a combination terrestrial (over-the-air) ATSC receiver and hard-disk-based digital video recorder (DVR) for timeshifting DTV programs. By timeshifting, I mean recording sessions both scheduled and on the fly, such as when my old college buddy calls on the phone 41 minutes into CSI or Alias.

Timeshifting to a tapeless format is still a mystery to the majority of TV watchers in this country. DVR leader TiVo has yet to cross the threshold of 1 million units sold, even after half a decade. However, for those who've been using DVRs from TiVo or its long-suffering competitor, Replay, choosing hard-disk recording over videotape is a no-brainer. Since the majority of TV shows are viewed once and then dumped from memory, a device that can record numerous shows to a hard drive and let you play them back when you want and how you want (i.e., skipping commercials) makes a lot of sense for home viewers. I've had a TiVo DVR since the late 1990s, and it's a popular gadget with everyone in my house. My daughter would, if she were allowed, watch and timeshift the Disney Channel 24/7.

As an early adopter of HDTV who is blessed to live in a very active market for terrestrial DTV broadcasts, I've often found myself wishing for a TiVo-like device for recording and pausing my favorite HDTV programs. Granted, I can do this in a limited fashion with the current D-VHS VCRs from JVC and Mitsubishi. (Of course, VCRs can't pause while recording as DVRs can.) But I watch most of the shows I record only once. Why go through all the work of taping, labeling, rewinding, guessing where the commercial breaks end, and having to stop the tape when that inevitable phone call comes in at 10:41pm?

Out of the Box
The Zenith HDR230 is housed in an attractive brushed-aluminum cabinet with a mirrored front panel and a minimum of buttons. In addition to a power button, there are Select, Exit, and menu navigation keys, buttons for controlling the output format (480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i), and instant record (just hit it to start recording what you're watching).

LED indicators behind the mirrored front panel are Standby, Display Format, Record, Disc Full, and Reserved Recording (which indicates that a programmed recording is waiting to happen).

The rear panel has a full complement of analog video connections (no DVI on this model), as well as analog and digital audio. You can connect the HDR230 to your TV via RCA jacks for Y-Pb-Pr component HD signals, a 15-pin D-sub connector for 720p and 1080i RGB displays, and composite and S-video jacks for 480i output.

For audio, there are two pairs of RCA jacks. One is assigned to the component/RGB output, the other to the composite/S-video output. If you prefer to get your audio in bytes, use the optical TosLink or coaxial connectors to interface with your TV or home theater system.

Two F-connectors provide the RF input and a loop-through from your antenna. This means you can add the HDR230 to an existing system that uses off-air reception, but the HDR230 will not receive digital cable signals. These use the Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) format, which is incompatible with 8VSB. (Interestingly, the HDR230 provides a menu option to select off-air or cable reception at the RF input, but few if any cable providers use 8VSB, making this option relatively useless.)

I found the supplied remote, a typical Zenith "big stick," a bit hard to figure out—the buttons are all quite similar in size and shape, and the labels are not very legible. The labels of the remote's buttons are a bit difficult to read, particularly since none are backlit and the upper half of the remote is dark gray. You'll need a little light to find the Menu key, not to mention the Signal Strength, Guide Info, and Aspect Ratio buttons. Fortunately, the Timeshift and Record buttons are easier to locate against the silver background of the remote's lower half. (Their big red bullseyes don't hurt, either.)

Menus and Operation
The HDR230 is quite simple to operate. Connect your antenna, hook up your video and audio connections, and power up. First, you'll want to scan and save all active DTV stations into channel memory. Using my rooftop antenna, I scanned channels 2–69 in about 34 seconds; in that time, the HDR230 found and saved all 14 local DTV stations.

The next step is to determine whether you want to use a manual clock setting or the System Time Table (STT) clock information generated by DTV stations. It's still early in the DTV game, and not all stations generate the correct STT data. An easy way to find out if a DTV station does is to select it from channel memory and hit the Info button on the remote. You'll see the station callsign, a description of the program (or not), and the current time to the left of the callsign and channel ID box. If the time shown is reasonably correct (the DTV standard is within 4 seconds), you can then select Auto time mode. Otherwise, select Manual mode and enter the time and date. In either case, be sure to enter the correct time zone for your area.

The reason for all this attention to the HDR230's clock is simple: Timeshifting programs is next to impossible if you don't have accurate start and stop times. And remember that the HDR230 will reset its internal clock as it moves from one channel to another and reads each station's STT data if you have selected the Auto clock setting.

This is how the ATSC DTV system is supposed to work, but broadcasters need to make certain their clock information is correct. Otherwise, you might select a channel for recording, schedule the recording based on one station's accurate STT data, then have the HDR230 fail to record when it changes to the programmed channel and can't find the correct STT info—or discover that the STT info is off by minutes, hours, or even days.