Saturday, February 3

Sony's top of the line video recorder is a lame duck

I can remain silent no longer: this is less a product review, more a desperate cry for help. Sony, longtime champion of the home entertainment enthusiast, has produced a stinker in the form of its top-of-the-line SVR-HD900 hard-disk video recorder.

On paper, the specs (and the $1,199.00 retail price) are very impressive: twin high-def digital tuners, massive 250GB hard drive, picture-in-picture, and all the features that make a true twin tuner machine so useful - chase play, pause live TV, watch a recording while taping another show. Add HDMI, Component, Composite and S-Video video outputs and both PCM and Dolby Digital audio output and you walk out the store thinking you've achieved TV nirvana.

But in everyday use with Australian free-to-air digital TV, the HD900 is so let down by some basic interface problems that it is almost too frustrating to use. It's particularly shocking to read this about a product from Sony, a company long associated with good interface design, but it's sadly true. Unless you really can't find another twin HD tuner product out there to buy, I would strongly recommend you steer clear of the HD900. It will drive you nuts, for a few simple but significant reasons:

The remote buttons don't repeat!

When you hold down a cursor key on a remote control button, you expect the cursor to keep scrolling in the direction you've selected, through, for instance, a long list of programs recorded on a 250GB hard drive. Not so on the HD900. To scroll down through a list of 10 shows, you must press the 'down' cursor key ten times. If you want to type in the name of a recording, you can't whizz across a row of letters on the on-screen keyboard, you have to keep pressing the left or right cursor key until you get the letter you want.

You can't remove or reorder channels from the station list!
When are too many SBS Radio stations too many? When they and a lengthy list of parliamentary debate channels and channel guides stand between you and the channel you want when you're repeatedly jamming the up or down cursor keys on the HD900's remote.

True, you can add any stations you like to one of four Favourite Channels lists. But even after your favourites are setup, it makes going from Channel Nine to Channel Ten at least a two key press operation, when it should just be one press of the cursor key. And those Favourite Channels lists are only accessible when you're browsing live TV. If you're setting up a recording, you're stuck with the full list of channels, including all the identical SD and HD channels for each station.

The channel guide is glacially slow!
The only thing slower than using the remote control on the HD900 is waiting for it to load the channel guide information. The artic icecaps will be long gone and all the polar bears extinct before you've programmed the night's viewing with the HD900. You will have read the TV guide section of the paper for the entire week before you've managed to scroll through an hour's Australian digital channel guide on the HD900.

The channel guide is pointless anyway. To be fair, this isn't Sony's fault, but Australian networks (with the exception of the ABC) only publish the information for the currently-screening program and the following program in their channel guides. Presumably in more enlightened nations, stations publish the rest of the week too, as the HD900 is designed presuming that you will schedule all your recordings via the channel guide. But unless the show you want to watch has already begun or is next in the schedule, it won't appear in the guide, meaning you can't use the guide for most of your recordings. Which brings us to...

Timer recordings can't be named in advance!
You've abandoned the channel guide method of recording in frustration, you decide to use the timer function to record a show the 'good, old-fashioned way' using the incredibly slow remote control. Now you discover that you cannot name a timer recording when you schedule it.

You read that right: recordings scheduled with the timer function are automatically saved with a filename including channel, date and time, and you can't change the file name until after the program has been recorded. That means your week's TV viewings appear in the (incredibly slowly scrolling) file navigator as "ABC HD, Sunday 22 January 2007, 21:30PM" and the like. Unless you are blessed with a photographic memory, the only way to remember what was recorded is to begin watching it, or to turn to the newspaper's TV guide. You'll also need to do refer to your paper guide when it comes time to modify your (incredibly slowly scrolling) list of recording schedules. This is an extraordinary failing in such a high-end device - why not allow me to save the name of the show when I set up the timer recording?

Fortunately, all these would appear to be software problems that a user interface-aware company like Sony could rectify with a quick software patch or two. I've contacted Sony customer support about this review and since the HD900 does have an RS-232 port for service upgrades, perhaps these shortcomings can be rectified. Until they are, however, keep your $1200 in your trousers, as the temptation to blow the lot by throwing your new Sony SVR HD900 out the nearest window will be almost overwhelming inside a week, and we can't have innocent bystanders getting hurt over interface issues.

Buy content through ScooptWords