Today, it's commonplace for multiple home-theater products to be wrapped into one, such as DVD recorder/DVRs and VCR/DVD players. But a lot of us prefer a specialized device to a combo unit, especially if it costs less and gets the job done. The Panasonic DMR-ES25S, the most basic DVD recorder in Panasonic's extensive 2006 lineup, strives to do one thing and do it well: record video to DVDs that can be played back anywhere. During testing, we did encounter some issues with disc compatibility and DVD playback quality, but they were overshadowed by Panasonic's excellent LP-recording mode, its HDMI connectivity, and its great flexible recording-length feature. With an entirely reasonable price, the Panasonic DMR-ES25S makes a perfect complement to your VCR, camcorder, or TiVo-style DVR. Most people--especially first-time DVD-recorder buyers--will be more than satisfied. Although we like its raked-back look, in general, the Panasonic DMR-ES25S looks like most other DVD recorders on the outside. Its mostly silver chassis sports a black horizontal midsection containing the readout and disc drawer. There are a few front-panel controls, including record, stop, and play buttons, but we were disappointed that it lacked chapter-skip controls for when the remote goes missing. In the middle of the black section, there's a small retracting hatch for the SD memory card slot, and beneath is a flip-down door that reveals a FireWire input for easy camcorder recordings, an additional A/V input with S-Video, and channel-up/down buttons.
The interface is similar to that of other Panasonic DVD recorders, and we found it relatively easy to use. It takes a while to get used to its logic, but after the first few recordings, we got the hang of it. Most of the navigation is accomplished using the remote's directional pad, and there are plenty of other functions given their own button, including a welcome commercial-skip button that jumps a minute forward. We do have some nitpicks, such as the somewhat confusing Drive Select button that toggles the remote between the DVD recorder and the SD card slot. The clicker can also control most brands of TVs. The Panasonic DMR-ES25S has one of our favorite features: flexible recording length. This option allows you to specify exactly how long your program is, then completely fill the DVD, maximizing the video quality.
We also love the ability to edit video, although you can do so only with DVD-RAM discs, and the method is not immediately intuitive. For example, the easiest way to edit out commercials is to set chapters--using the handy Chapter button--before and after commercials, then delete the chapters using the Submenu button on Disc Navigator. It sounds harder than it is, and it's pretty easy to get the hang of, even if it does get tedious.
While Panasonic claims compatibility with all types of recordable DVD media--DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, and both -R and +R dual-layer discs--the DMR-ES25S could not record to any of the DVD+RW discs we tried (see Performance). That's not a big deal, however, since you can always buy another type of rewriteable DVD. Naturally, recording to dual-layer media allows you to fit nearly twice as much video onto one disc.
Its connectivity is highlighted by the HDMI output, which has the aforementioned ability to upconvert to 480p, 720p, and 1080i resolution. Upconversion by a DVD player isn't necessary since every HDTV can do it on its own, but the supposed benefit is that the video processing of the DVD player might outclass that of the TV. The rest of the connectivity suite is rounded out by two standard A/V inputs and one A/V output (both with S-Video), a component-video out, a FireWire port, an SD card slot, an optical digital audio output, and RF/antenna input/output.
We would have liked a component-video input, but it's really not necessary. Like all DVD recorders, the DMR-ES25S can't record progressive-scan or HDTV sources anyway, so the improvement in video quality over S-Video would be minimal. Unlike some other recorders, this Panasonic lacks an IR blaster, so if you use a cable or satellite box, you'll have to make sure it's tuned to the correct channel for timer recordings. There's also no VCR Plus or TV Guide EPG to ease timer programming, although for this price, we expect neither a blaster nor an EPG.