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How To Be a Professional Couch Potato

September 19th, 2004

I recently purchased of the Toshiba RD-XS53, the TiVo-like HDD/DVD recorder, and am quite satisfied with how it’s turning out. After a steep initial learning curve, I got it all programmed and am now training myself through the various procedures, which are lengthy–the thing has countless options, which can be both good and bad. If you’re not interested in techy, gadget-oriented home video kind of stuff, you may want to go on to the next post. Otherwise:

Essentially, this is like a TiVo or ReplayTV machine, but with added features. Like other DVRs, it records video on a hard disk in the MPEG-2 format (the same as on DVDs). Because it’s digital, it can then be manipulated in a variety of ways.

There are a variety of Toshiba machines that do similar things, but the RD-XS53 is the only one that has the ability to work with SkyPerfecTV. Although that connection is limited to turning the tuner on and off and changing channels, that’s really all you need, at least right away. The SkyP connectivity is important if you’re living in Japan and want to record a good amount of English-language video. Unless your local cable has a good selection of channels and its tuner can work with a DVR box, the SkyP-Toshiba combo is probably best. The machine can also get the “BS” satellite feed as well, and of course can record off of local broadcast stations. You can also record any video input, like from a DVD player, a VCR, a video camera (there is a Firewire/iLink port for digital video cameras) or from the video-out on a PC. Want to make a DVD of a demonstration on your computer? This will let you do it.

Also, the RD-XS53 (at least in Japan) has a whopping 320 GB of hard drive space, allowing for up to 570 hours of recording at the lowest quality setting–144 hours at “high.” That’s more than enough to have a great deal of video saved up before archiving is necessary–and that’s where the DVD recorder comes in handy; more on that later. The large hard drive also allows you to record all your shows while you’re on vacation, and it even claims (though I have yet to come close to figuring it out) that you can set programming by remote control using your cell phone, sending a text message with coded instructions that the machine will receive via the Internet connection.

The RD-XS53 does fall short in a few areas, such as ease-of-use, as evidenced that sharp learning curve I mentioned. There are four different main special activity areas, dozens of preferences screens, and so many menus that I can’t count them. And not all processes are easily performed; deleting commercial breaks, for example, requires you to go to the editing area, going through a process of determining “chapters,” and then going back to the recorded-shows area, and deleting the vaguely-titled chapters one by one, each time having to navigate back to the recorded-video area. Another problem not really Toshiba’s fault is the inability to record “bilingual” shows in English on Fox or Disney channels–they have a unique bilingual mode which must be set by hand each time.

But if you can put up with little stuff like that, there is a lot of compensation. You can access an Internet-based program schedule with the next week of programming included, with search options available. You can surf the programming schedule area, up and down for channels, left and right for times, with all the available broadcasts shown on the grid. Unfortunately, it’s all in Japanese (if you can’t read at least Katakana, then you shouldn’t get this), though the SkyP box can show you the same grid in English for reference if you want. The programming has to be done on the Toshiba, though.

Once you find a show, you can reserve it for automatic recording. You’re given the flexibility to change the exact time it starts and ends, which days it will record the show (every Tuesday, or every Monday-Saturday, for example); you can set the recording quality exactly on a 1-9 scale or use presets, and you can direct the recorder to save the show in a specific folder. Unlike most VCRs, which only allow 8 programmed recording times, this machine can keep a large number of pre-set recordings. I don’t know if there’s a limit–I have 21 set at present.

The machine also has two tuners/encoders, so it can record two shows at the same time–though only if they are on different inputs. For example, you could record two shows simultaneously if one is on SkyP and the other is on local antenna, but you can’t do that if both shows are coming from SkyP.

Like most DVRs, this one has “Timeslip,” which allows you to “pause” live TV. This comes from the ability to both watch and record at the same time. When you hit “Timeslip,” the DVR starts recording the show on the hard disk, and at the same time plays back the file it is recording, but pauses it at the start. The show can keep on recording for as many hours as you like, and you can come back any time and then play the recording from the beginning, going forward or “rewinding” or pausing or skipping around to your heart’s content, until you “catch up” with the live picture.

My father uses this on his ReplayTV to avoid endless commercials in football games. He sets the Timeslip, then keeps it on pause and does something else for half an hour. Then he comes back and watches the part of the game that was just recorded (as the recording continues), skipping through commercials until he catches up with the live game. Then when a live commercial rears its ugly head, he pauses and goes away for a half hour again so he can come back and skip through the commercials again. But this feature is handy in other ways, too–have you ever been settling down to watch your favorite show and the phone rings? Just pause it, and pick up where you left off.

While the file system is a bit clunky on the TV display, because this machine connects to your computer network (in order to download the programming information) it is also visible from your PC. The Toshiba people did a pretty good job of creating a browser control interface for the machine. Just find out which IP Address the machine was designated (e.g., and type it into the browser’s address box, and you get the machine’s control interface. You can program recordings, create and title folders, see the recorded show titles and view and alter their information (titles, show info, assign chapter titles, etc.)–and most handy, you can author DVD titles and menus.

For example, I recorded Groundhog Day as a test. On the RD-XS53 directly, I then cut off the excess recording before the start and after the end so it was just the movie. Then I broke it into chapters, like on a DVD, and for each one set the thumbnail image. Then I went into the browser interface and viewed the thumbnails, giving each a title (it is so much nicer to type that than to use the cell-phone-like remote control typing feature). Then, also on the computer, I searched the Internet for a nice photo from the movie. I found a few, patched them together in Photoshop, and saved it as a BMP image, which I could them export to the RD-XS53. Also using the browser controls, I set the exact color scheme for the titles, then went back to the RD-XS53 and went through the DVD authoring process. After recording the DVD, I had the equivalent of a commercial DVD of the movie, with menus like this:

Granted, it’s a bit of a chore, especially at first, but if you don’t mind it or even enjoy it, you can build a pretty nice library on your own.

The DVD recording features are very nice–with them, you can archive any number of shows or movies. It is still a little pricey–the cheapest brand-name DVD-Rs I can find are ¥150 ($1.35) apiece. In high-quality mode, you could save three episodes of a one-hour TV show on one DVD, costing perhaps ¥1200 (about $11) for one season–but considering the $40 ~ $130 cost of these seasons on commercial DVD, this is an acceptable price. Record enough stuff like this and the machine pays for itself, in a way. The RD-XS53 can also record on DVD-RW or DVD-RAM media, for those of you who don’t keep permanent copies of your recordings (I usually do, so I stick with the cheaper DVD-Rs).

There are a lot more features, some too insignificant to explain, others I haven’t discovered or figured out yet. But as you can tell from the length of this post, I am sort of getting into it. One thing I’ll admit, it’s not gonna be good for my health; I am turning into a veteran couch potato!

  1. Djfb
    September 21st, 2004 at 13:05 | #1

    Very useful. I commend both your willingness to take on such a project and to share your findings with others via your blog. I hope you’ll post further discoveries as you work your way through those endless menus.

    Thanks to you, I think I’ll take the plunge and buy the thing. If you don’t mind a question or two, did you, indeed, buy yours at Yodobashi Camera, or did you surf over to Kakaku.com to find an even better, internet price? I’m also wondering: how do you connect your computer to the device, with a cable (straight-cable or cross-cable), or wirelessly?

    In case you’re curious about how I found this post,and your blog, I found it by looking for a review of this device on CNET. The other postings and links look equally good, so I’m very pleased to have found your blog.

    Thanks again,

  2. Luis
    September 21st, 2004 at 13:33 | #2


    Thanks for reading. I have, as evidenced by the post, found the machine very useful.

    I wound up buying the machine from Yodobashi, becasue with the points it worked out to almost the same as the Internet prices, maybe 5-7% higher. Still, I figured it was less hassle buying from a place I know.

    Something I forgot when I bought it was to get Yodobashi’s repair insurance, covering one big repair over a 5-year period at varying rates. They take it out of your points, 6000 of them, I believe–but it slipped my mind when we were getting the thing packed up and ready, and you can only get it on the same day.

    My next task is to call Toshiba and see if they have some kind of extended warranty program.

    As for the networking: they supply a cross cable, and it works exactly like hooking up another computer to your network. Plug it into the hub, and it picks up the address via DHCP. If you’re not running DHCP, it might be more complicated.

    Let me know how it goes, maybe we can exchange new dicoveries about the machine.

    By the way, when the same machine comes out in the US, I’m going to try to get the English-language manual, in the hopes that the machines are similar enough to be useful. I’ll keep you posted.

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