Someday in the not so distant future, a device such as Panasonic's DMR-E20 will replace the VCR. Just imagine recording TV programs onto DVD discs that can be played back on almost any DVD player. But for the privilege of owning this cutting-edge technology today, you have to pay big bucks. For some, that will be worth the cost, especially when you consider that the DMR-E20 is actually the least expensive consumer-level DVD-recordable deck currently available. Someday in the not so distant future, a device such as Panasonic's DMR-E20 will replace the VCR. Just imagine recording TV programs onto DVD discs that can be played back on almost any DVD player. But for the privilege of owning this cutting-edge technology today, you have to pay big bucks. For some, that will be worth the cost, especially when you consider that the DMR-E20 is actually the least expensive consumer-level DVD-recordable deck currently available.
The DMR-E20 was designed to act exactly like a VCR and is actually easier to use than many of those tape-based dinosaurs. It has a built-in tuner and the familiar screw-type RF input and output jacks for direct connection to cable or a cable box. It even has VCR Plus, so you can enter a number from TV Guide and program a recording in about 10 seconds. Aside from lacking a cable/satellite box control to change channels on an external tuner, this box has everything you'd expect to find on a high-end VCR.
The setup is a snap, although the automatic-clock-setting procedure didn't work with the cable box we used. When you press the Record button, the unit immediately begins recording, unlike with many VCRs, which delay starting for a split second. The DMR-E20 can record on DVD-RAM ($15 to $20 each for 4.7GB) or DVD-R ($7 to $10 each) discs and can play back CD-R/RWs. However, don't think of a DVD-R as a higher-capacity clone of a write-once CD-R; DVD-R actually lets you erase programs--or the entire disc--before finalizing. What does that mean? Well, finalizing essentially turns the DVD-R into a standard DVD Video disc that you can play on many--but not all--DVD players. We tried playing DVD-Rs on numerous units, and only a couple of older ones (an Apex AD-600A and an Onkyo DV-S525, both from 1999) couldn't read the finalized disc.
The kings of convenient TV recording are the TiVo/ReplayTV digital video recorders. And while the DMR-E20 lacks a DVR's built-in program guide, it does include key features, such as the ability to watch any program on a disc while simultaneously recording to the same disc. You can also view (and pause, rewind, and fast-forward) the same program you're recording at any point while the unit keeps recording. It's incredibly convenient if you come home in the middle of, say, a ball game you're recording, and you want to immediately start watching from the beginning. Be advised that these time-slipping features work only with DVD-RAM, not DVD-R media.
Where's the Fire(Wire)?
The DMR-E20 has plenty of connections, including three composite/S-Video inputs and two composite/S-Video outputs, so that you can record from sources other than TV, but it's missing a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port. This is an issue if you plan on transferring MiniDV footage to DVD and want perfect digital quality. Then again, if you want to do any real editing of home video, you're probably better off with a computer-based DVD recorder. Though it offers some very limited editing features, the DMR-E20 can't separately record sound and video tracks and wasn't really designed as an editing deck. But you can use it to erase whole programs or parts (commercials, for example), as well as play back programs in a particular order.