The arrival of the Panasonic DMR-E20 marks
the unofficial start of the much-anticipated DVD recorder format war; the
battle could be a long one and we must be expect casualties… The first shots
were fired back in November 1999 when Pioneer launched its DVR-1000 using the
maverick DVD-RW system. Three months ago Philips introduced the DVDR-1000,
based on the DVD+RW format and now Panasonic have joined the fray with the
DMR-E20 and DVD-RAM.
After an initial flurry of hype the DVD-RW
camp seems to have gone fairly quiet and it’s looking increasingly like a
two-horse race between DVD+RW and DVD-RAM, the latter being officially
sanctioned by the DVD Forum, the industry body that looks after the technical
We’ve already had a good look at the Philips
DVDR-1000 (HE97) and apart from a few relatively minor operational quibbles we
were quite impressed. The DMR-E20 gets off to a promising start with a price of
£1000, some £300 below the opening price of the DVDR-1000, though the gap
between street prices will probably be narrower. The DMR-E20’s core facilities
are similar to the Philips machine in that it can record and time shift off-air
TV programs in much the same way as a VCR, and discs can, in theory, be played
on most ordinary DVD Video players, but we’ll deal with that later.
Panasonic has tried hard to make the DMR-E20
look different to a regular DVD player. The sculptured fascia, big blue-backlit
rotary ‘Timeslip’ control (more in a
moment) looks quite smart, as does the mirrored display panel and flap,
covering secondary controls and AV input sockets (until they get their coating
of greasy finger marks...). The disc loading tray is slightly awkward and feels
a bit flimsy, it’s an odd shape as it has to accommodate both ordinary DVDs,
DVD-R and DVD-RAM discs, which are encased in protective caddies. Incidentally
RAM discs can be extracted from their caddies and used like a normal disc,
though this is not advisable as they are apparently quite delicate.
Timeslip is a variation on the
‘pause-live-TV’ theme first seen on the TiVo hard disc video recorder and
latterly on devices like the Sky+ box and JVC HM-HDS1 hard-disc/S-VHS video
combo. Basically it means the DMR-E20 can record and playback at the same time.
You can pause play whilst the machine continues to record the programme you’re
watching, handy if the phone or doorbell rings, you can then resume playback
and even catch up with the live broadcast using fast play (no sound in Timeslip
mode unfortunately) or picture search.
Like the Philips recorder the DMR-E20 has a
‘FireWire’ digital video (DV) input on the front panel, for downloading
recordings from a digital camcorder. Once on a DVD- RAM disc the recording can
be edited, scenes can be removed and swapped around, but we suspect the DMR-E20
will disappoint a lot of home movie enthusiasts. Unlike the Philips machine it
doesn’t have a DV output and edited digital recordings cannot be recorded back
onto DV tape, nor can they be ‘burnt’ onto CD-R discs (for replay on a normal
DVD player). Recordings of edited footage can be made on a VCR using the
machine’s analogue output but that will result in a noticeable drop in picture
Talking of which, the DMR-E20 has four
recording modes. The top quality XP setting gives around 1 hour’s worth of
recording on a standard single sided 4.7Gb DVD-RAM or DVD-R blank. In SP mode
quality picture drops a little but recording time doubles to 2 hours. LP mode
runs for 4 hours and EP mode lasts for 6 hours.
Secondary features are surprisingly thin on
the ground, it has bog standard audio facilities and even DVD player regulars
like picture zoom and 3D sound are nowhere to be found, though the multi-brand
TV remote does have glow in the dark buttons.
Day to day operation, like recording and
playing back TV programs and replaying DVD Videos is reasonably straightforward
though to get the most out of it you need to know your discs and be aware of
the differences between DVD-R and DVD-RW as it has a significant impact on how
the machine behaves and what it can and cannot do. The DMR-E20 has a much less
coordinated feel about it, compared with the Philips offering, more like a DVD
player that’s had the DVD recorder functions tacked on and the sheer number of
on-screen displays and menus is quite daunting.
There’s a vaguely familiar disc menu showing
what’s on a pre-recorded disc with a program list or set of thumbnail images.
On recordable discs there’s further layers of menus to contend with. The Top
Menu lists recordings, and Top Window covers everything from timer recording
and editing to initial setup. This includes a lot of fairly important and
frequently used functions – some of them buried quite deeply – and this menu is
activated by a tiny button in the midst of other equally small buttons.
One of the most noticeable differences
between DVD recorders and VCRs is all the waiting around for things to happen.
It takes a good 30 seconds for the playback or recording controls to become
useable after a disc has been loaded and when recording on DVD-R discs it takes
another 15 to 20 seconds or so after recorder has stopped, before you can start
playback or eject the disc. DVD-R discs have to be ‘finalised’ before they can
be played on a normal DVD Video deck and the instructions warn that this can
take up to half an hour (in fact 5 to 10 minutes is more usual). Recordings can
be selectively ‘erased’ on both types of disc, but you won’t free up any space
on a DVD-R disc as once data is written it cannot be removed.
DVD Video picture quality is very similar to
Panasonic’s current range of players, with plenty of fine detail, graduations
in colour are cleanly rendered and the contrast range is wide enough to show up
detail and texture in shadows and darker scenes. The underwater Gungan Palace
interiors in The Phantom Menace look really crisp; there’s no smearing or
blurring in action scenes nor does it mind rapid changes in brightness or
Off-air recordings of analogue terrestrial
and digital satellite channels (downconverted by the receiver box to analogue)
in XP mode look very good – better than S-VHS -- but some noise is apparent. XP
mode really comes into its own with digital camcorder material where it’s almost
impossible to tell the original from the copy. The SP recording mode works best
for off-air TV, it’s as good as S-VHS. There’s comparatively little difference
between XP and SP in this instance but there is a marked reduction in sharpness
when you crank it down to LP mode. It’s akin to standard VHS on a good day with
an increase in grain and rapid movement can look a bit jerky. EP mode comes
somewhere between SP and LP recordings on a VHS VCR, the picture is still
perfectly watchable but really only suitable for heavy-duty time shifting.
We tried a finalised DVD-R disc in a variety
of players and contrary to the blurb about them being ‘DVD compatible’ we found
the hit rate with XP and SP recordings was about the same as DVD+RW tests and
our test disc played on only three of the five machines we tried it on (all
recent models). LP and EP recordings tended to confuse most players and DVD-RAM
discs – once removed from their caddies – wouldn’t play at all. (By the way,
not surprisingly the DMR-E20 refused to read a CD+RW recording made on a
It sounds good, the stereo soundtracks on
movie discs give full reign to Dolby Surround effects and the bitstream output
(optical only), which carries Dolby Digital and dts data is as clean as it
gets. Soundtracks on homemade recordings – made from an analogue source -- are
made in 2-channel Dolby Digital and it works superbly well, in effect what goes
in comes out.
On the evidence so far the DVD-R/RAM
proposition is not as simple or straightforward as DVD+RW and we’re a little
concerned about the compatibility of finalised DVD-R recordings. Panasonic has
missed a trick by not giving it a DV output facility and the operating system
could do with tidying up, but performance is fine, it’s a contender and battle
can now commence.
Panasonic (08705) 357357, www.panasonic.co.uk
BOX COPY 1 – RECORDABLE FORMATS
It could have been a lot worse… From the late
1980s to the mid 90’s more than half a dozen disc-based recording formats were
in development, vying for the highly lucrative prize of becoming the
replacement for VHS as the home video recording system for the new millennium.
In the end only three formats have reached the market but the apparent lack of
industry backing from companies other than Pioneer probably means that the
DVD-RW challenge could be fairly short-lived, leaving DVD+RW and DVD-RAM to
slug it out in the marketplace.
DVD-RAM is the ‘official’ recordable DVD
format and is endorsed by the members of the DVD Forum. DVD+RW is a comparative
latecomer, developed by Philips and Sony and supported by an Alliance of
companies including Hewlett Packard, Ricoh, Thomson and Yamaha.
DVD-RAM is actually a bit of a compromise and
its adoption was largely a result of the DVD Forum’s decision to broaden the
DVD specification to encompass computer data, as well as video and audio
material. At the time – around 1994/5 -- it was felt that the format’s success
depended on it becoming a ‘cross platform’ media and in order for it to be any
use as a PC peripheral it had to be able to selectively record and erase data
on a disc, hence the ‘RAM’ (Random Access Memory) configuration. DVD-RAM discs
are held in protective caddies so they can’t be played in DVD video machines (a
more robust removable version has since been developed) but compatibility with
home DVD players is a bit of a fudge and largely dependent on record-once DVD-R
discs. Recordings cannot be erased and discs have to be ‘finalised’ before they
will play in ordinary DVD players.
This is one of the main differences between
the formats. Data can also be selectively written and erased on DVD+RW discs
but there’s no need to finalise discs and they will, in theory, play on most
recent players straight away.
However, we have found that in both cases –
finalised DVD-Rs and DVD+RWs – there’s no guarantee that recordings can be
played on regular DVD players and in our tests they were rejected by between a
third and a quarter of the machines we tried them on, including several brand
new models. At this very early stage there doesn’t seem to be any sort of
pattern but the advice is clear, compatibility with existing DVD players cannot
be taken for granted!
We haven’t mentioned picture and sound
performance; that’s because – on paper at least – there should be little or no
difference between the three systems. All DVD recorders, irrespective of
format, convert the analogue video and audio signals from a TV tuner (satellite
and terrestrial) or digital data from a DV camcorder) into an MPEG-2
datastream, which is exactly the same type of data as you’ll find on a standard
DVD Video disc. Incidentally copy protection systems prevent DVD Recorders from
‘cloning’ pre-recorded DVDs, moreover there’s no provision to make a direct digital
connection with another player.
In practice there is likely to be some
relatively small differences between DVD recorders due to the different makes
and types of encoder chips etc, but the current sample of just two machines is
too small to make any meaningful comparisons and as the technology matures
these are likely to become increasingly insignificant.
BOX COPY 2 – BACK PANEL SOCKETS
There are no surprises on the DMR-E20’s back
panel and nothing you won’t find on any normal DVD player, apart from the
sockets marked ‘input’. Unlike the rival Philips DVD recorder there’s no DV
output facility, so it’s not possible to re-record edited movies back to the
camcorder (on models with ‘enabled DV inputs) or DV VCRs.
A pair of SCART connectors carry the normal
compliment of composite video and stereo audio outputs, additionally AV2 has an
S-Video input and there’s a switchable S-Video and RGB video output on AV1.
A bank of phono sockets carry stereo audio
and composite video inputs and outputs and a pair of 6-pin mini DIN sockets
handle S-Video in and out.
There’s only one digital audio or ‘bitstream’
output – for connection to an external Dolby Digital/dts decoder and this is
the optical type using a TOSlink connector.
On the front panel there’s an extra set of
audio and video inputs for connecting a camcorder. Composite video and stereo
audio are via a set of three phono sockets, there’s a 6-pin mini DIN for
S-Video input and a DV ‘Jack’ or FireWire socket (also known as iLink and IEEE
1394) which is meant to be used by a digital camcorder.
BOX COPY 3 – REMOTE CONTROL
Needless to say the extra recording functions
of what amounts to a well specified video recorder entails adding a few extra
buttons to the standard DVD player remote. There’s also a set of TV controls
thrown in for good measure, but apart from the miniscule Top Menu button, which
accesses a rather important set of menus, but it looks worse that it is and
eventually you used to it.
PANASONIC DMR-E20, £1,000
Picture Quality 5
Sound Quality 5
Ease of Use 3
Build Quality 4
Value for Money 4
DVD BUYERS GUIDE XTRA INFO
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