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PANASONIC DMR-E20

 

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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 standards.

 

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 quality.

 

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.

 

PERFORMANCE

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 explosions.

 

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 Philips recorder…)

 

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

 

Ratings

Overall              4

Picture Quality            5

Sound Quality            5

Features                       4

Ease of Use                  3

Build Quality                  4

Value for Money            4

 

DVD BUYERS GUIDE XTRA INFO

 

PANASONIC DMR-E20         

£                                  £1000

VERDICT                      4

STATUS                       

COMMENTS    

TYPE                            DVD/DVD-RAM/DVD-R

5.1 OUT                        N

OUTPUT                       Dig

COMP’NT VID            N

SCARTS                       2

ISSUE                         

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 2001, 0811

 

 

 

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