In the coming transition to digital television, it isn't only TVs that will need new tuners. So will anything that gets its programming over the air through an antenna, including TiVos, VCRs, and DVD recorders. To that end, RCA deserves kudos for releasing one of the first TV recorders with a tuner that can handle digital signals, as well as the standard analog, and one that even combines a DVD recorder with an old-fashioned VCR.
But that's about all that's special about the RCA DRC8335 ($220). This is one basic product, so basic that it can't even set its own clock, reminding us of the snickers about folks whose VCRs still blink 12:00. Most VCR owners never learned to set the clock, much less schedule a recording for later. Eventually, most VCRs learned how to keep time using a signal transmitted by PBS stations. So it seems bizarre that a modern DVD recorder can't do the same, especially one with a newfangled digital tuner.
The RCA deck is otherwise fine, with a single button for transferring old VHS tapes to DVD (though many commercial tapes are copy protected). The DVD recorder handles both major standards in traditional disks, though can't capture high-definition programming. It does a great job in recording digital broadcasts in standard definition, which look about as good as any commercial DVD. And one family-friendly feature is a "TV guardian" that will mute objectionable language when playing back many programs.
That is, if you're willing to go through the many-click hassle of setting up a recording. I hoped the deck might include a simple program guide, as digital broadcasts include program information that some tuners display, in a cablelike grid. It wouldn't seem too hard to combine a program guide with recording functions, giving a DVD recorder some of the ease of a digital video recorder like TiVo.
Maybe that's expecting too much at this price, and we should be happy it can record digital broadcasts at all. But, please, don't make me set the clock.