Sometimes what you want to record doesn't fit well with the available recording modes. For instance, say you want to record a movie that's 2 hours and 5 minutes long, but don't want to drop down to LP mode. Panasonic has a solution for this, and it's one of our favorite features: flexible recording, which allows you to completely fill a DVD with content and optimize the video quality. Unfortunately you'll need to schedule a recording at a specific start and end time, which may not be a doable option, for example if you're recording a Yankees game that slips into extra innings.
We liked that Panasonic included chasing playback again on DVD-RAM discs, which means you can watch a program from the beginning, even while it's in the process of recording. Additionally, you can watch a different program recorded on the disc, while it's in the process of recording. Think of chasing playback as a limited, DVD-RAM based DVR, which may be adequate if you don't plan on recording much. On the other hand, it's not as DVR-like as you might expect; you can't pause or rewind live TV, and the capacity of a single disc is pretty limited. We did appreciate the inclusion of the "CM Skip" button, which allows you to blast by commercials a minute at a time.
The DMR-EA18K includes an IR blaster, which allows you to control a cable/satellite box to make scheduled recordings. Plug in the blaster, peel off the adhesive, and place it close to the IR input of your satellite receiver or cable box. While we expected to thumb through page after page of remote IR codes, the initial setup was a more manual ordeal. We had to activate the IR blaster in the setup menu, choose our device, and then select among 36 possible codes for one that works--if you have the patience. We were able to get our DirecTV HR20 to recognize the signal on the second try, but we imagine this system might be annoying for users who have to try a dozen or so codes. So while we definitely appreciate the inclusion of an IR blaster, we wish it was a little easier to use.
As for connectivity, the DMR-EA18K comes with an HDMI output, which is capable of upconverting DVDs and incoming signals to 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. There's also a component video output, which is capable of upscaling coming signals and homemade DVDs to 1080i, but is limited to 480p for commercial DVDs. For older TVs, there is also a standard AV output with S-Video. For inputs, there are two A/V inputs with S-Video and composite video (one front and one back) used to connect to standard home theater components, as well as a FireWire input for connecting a camcorder. Rounding out the connectivity is an optical digital-audio output, which can be used to playback surround sound on commercial DVDs.
In addition to AV connections, the DMR-EA18K also sports a front panel SDHC card slot and a USB port. The SDHC card slot can display JPEG images, and you can display JPEGs and listen to MP3s off a USB memory stick. You can also access media burned onto both DVDs and CDs. We were surprised to see that the DMR-EA18K cannot playback DivX files, so downloaders are out of luck.DVD recording performance
To test DVD recording image quality, we put the DMR-EA18K head-to-head with the Toshiba D-R410, with both of them connected to our DirecTV HR20 via S-Video. In terms of recorded video quality, the DMR-EA18K defeated the D-R410 in our battery of tests. The video quality in both XP and SP was excellent and virtually identical, making it easy for us recommended choosing SP mode and gaining the extra hour of recording time. Compared with the Toshiba D-R410's XP and SP, the difference was clear: the Panasonic had the edge. The D-R410's video processor couldn't handle the full resolution of DVDs--as exemplified by recording HQV's tests--and it showed on a relatively soft recording of the The Late Show with David Letterman. The Panasonic also finalized its recordings sometimes as much as 30 seconds faster.
As usual, we were impressed by the Panasonic's video quality in LP mode. While most recorders experience a big drop-off in image quality from SP to LP mode, the DMR-EA18K's drop-off is slight. Comparing clips of Arrested Development in XP and LP mode, we could see a slight difference--XP mode occasionally had slightly more detail in the backgrounds, and we saw slightly more compression artifacts and jaggies at various times in LP mode--but it's very slight and the vast majority of users will treat it as equivalent. That means you can get 4 hours of near-XP quality on a single DVD, and no other DVD recorder we've tested can do that.
Stepping down from LP to EP mode drastically reduced the video quality. Plenty of detail was lost in the resolution test pattern from Silicon Optix's HQV test suite, with lines bleeding into each other and in one scene from Seinfeld, a newspaper is thrown across Jerry's apartment and we noticed that the paper "doubled up" with plenty of compression artifacts. The Toshiba faired poorly on all three of its high-capacity settings--we noticed little difference between LP, EP, and SLP, all of which were comparable to Panasonic's EP mode.
We didn't have any trouble getting the Panasonic to record on all disc types, including DVD-RAM, DVD+R/-R, and DVD+RW/-RW, and having it display in the correct aspect ratio on wide-screen TVs.
DVD player performance
For pure upconversion performance, we once again started off with HQV. The Panasonic did fine on the first test, demonstrating its ability to handle the full resolution of DVDs. The Toshiba, however, fell apart right away. It could not render the 1080p section, washing out the vertical lines into a flicking box. The Panasonic had middling performance on the next jaggy tests; it had trouble handling the third of the three shifting lines, and the rotating white line had more jaggies than we'd like to see. The Toshiba failed this altogether. On the flag test, the Panasonic also produced quite a few jaggies. Despite handling the resolution test well, the DMR-EA18K had some trouble with the detail test, as we saw curved lines known as moirÃ© in the white marble steps. On the other hand, it did an excellent job on the 2:3 pull-down test, successfully kicking into film mode in a fraction of a second.
We also took a look at some actual program material. We started off with Star Trek: Insurrection, and the DMR-EA18K handled it well, as it smoothly rendered the curved railings of the bridge and hulls of the boats. Next up was the introduction to Seabiscuit, and we were impressed that that the DMR-EA18K's performance. Sure, we saw a minor jaggy here and there, but overall the picture looked excellent on this notoriously difficult sequence. It won't compare to high-priced DVD upscalers like the Oppo DV-983H, but it's definitely good enough to be your DVD playback machine if you're not a picky videophile.