Panasonic's next-generation VHS/DVD-recorder combo raises the stakes dramatically in terms of recording quality, but a pretty picture isn't everything. Although the easy-to-use Panasonic DMR-ES30V ($350 list) delivers some of the best images we've seen yet from a VHS/DVD deck and supports the Tivo-like abilities of DVD-RAM discs, it won't add chapter stops to non-RAM discs--a deal breaker for anyone who wants to easily skip through the recorded DVDs they've made. If you're one of those folks, try , which adds chapter stops, creates thumbnailed DVD menus automatically, and costs a bit less than this Panasonic. If you don't mind the lack of easy skippin', however, the DMR-ES30V has a lot to offer.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.The silver Panasonic DMR-ES30V looks reasonably slick for a VHS/DVD-combo recorder, with a threaded, circular dubbing control on the right side, and play/record/channel-select buttons for the VHS and DVD decks flanking the LED display. Flip open the small gray panel on the left side of the deck and you'll find a set of A/V inputs for a camcorder, including S-Video (but no FireWire, unfortunately), as well as fast-forward/reverse controls for the VCR.
The DMR-ES30V's remote may not be pretty, but it gets the job done with a minimum of confusion. The large five-way navigational keypad is surrounded by Menu and Setting controls, with the play/pause/stop and chapter-skip/fast-forward/reverse controls sitting just above. We like the one-touch VHS/DVD dubbing buttons, which we typically don't see on a remote, as well as the prominent VHS and DVD buttons that govern which deck you're controlling at any given time. All that's missing are buttons to cycle through the DVD player's repeat and angle modes.
The recorder's menus are relatively straightforward, with plenty of onscreen help and handy diagrams that show you the available controls on the remote. After a little trial and error, we were surfing through the various DVD menus and functions with ease. We were disappointed by the VHS deck's primitive menu, which has the big, blocky letters and blue background of a VCR from 15 years ago. The Panasonic DMR-ES30V handles VHS-to-DVD (and vice versa) dubbing with ease--just press the one of the dubbing buttons on the remote or on the face of the deck and you're in business. (The device won't let you record copy-protected VHS and DVD media, naturally.) The recorder's Setup menu lets you determine the recording speed for the DVD or VHS deck, and you can also set a timer that stops the recording after a set period. We had no trouble dubbing our shows in either direction, but we wish the deck would prompt us for the recording speed just before dubbing begins, rather than making us dig through the Settings menu. We'd also like the deck to create disc menus and thumbnailed chapters automatically, à la the YesDVD feature on GoVideo's VR2940 VHS/DVD-combo recorder.
As with all the other VHS/DVD decks we've tested, the DMR-ES30V doesn't have an onscreen programming guide for setting up recordings. While you can program recordings manually or using VCR Plus, the deck lacks an IR blaster for changing the channel on a cable or satellite box, so you'll have to make sure the channel is set properly beforehand.
The DMR-ES30V records to all DVD formats with the exception of DVD+RW. When you record with a DVD-RAM disc, you get a handful of hard drive-type features, such as chasing playback--that is, watching a program that's still being recorded--and the ability to watch one title while another is recording. You can also edit, split, and combine chapters, as well as create playlists that reference your recordings without altering the original titles--but only with DVD-RAM discs, not DVD+R, DVD-R or even VR-mode DVD-RW, which usually supports a variety of editing features. As it stands, all you can do with non-RAM discs is change the title name or thumbnail. Even worse, you can't add chapter stops in any of the DVD+R/-R/-RW formats, although you can with DVD-RAM discs, and even then, the deck won't add them automatically--a crucial oversight that makes for tedious, tapelike navigation when you're ready to watch your DVD recordings.
In its favor, the DMR-ES30V starts quickly when you press the power button. We tried it with a DVD-RAM disc, and indeed, we were recording in about a second, although DVD-R/+R/-RW discs take a several more seconds to get started. We also liked the Commercial Skip button on the remote, which advances your DVD playback 60 seconds ahead (although we'd prefer 30 seconds), as well as the deck's Flexible Recording mode. This useful feature lets you fit a precise amount of video onto a DVD--anywhere from an hour to eight hours--and maintain optimum video quality. It's great for recording those movies that last just over two hours without having to resort to the four-hour recording mode.
The DMR-ES30V's connections are hit and miss. In back, you get composite, S-Video, and progressive-scan-capable component-video outputs; an A/V input with S-Video; and an optical digital-audio output, along with the standard RF and composite ports, while behind the front panel sits an S-Video-equipped set of A/V inputs. While we like the rear S-Video input (which is often missing in VHS/DVD combo decks), we were disappointed by the lack of a front FireWire input for digital camcorders. Likewise, the omission of a coaxial digital output is puzzling. We also wish the deck could upconvert VHS video for the component-video output; instead, the VCR plays through only the relatively low-quality composite-video output. There's been a steady drumbeat from Panasonic about the improved recording quality of its DIGA decks, thanks in part to new, 12-bit analog-to-digital converters, and the folks there aren't lying. In our tests, the Panasonic DMR-ES30V went above and beyond the performance of other recorders in its class, including the former champ, . We were especially impressed by the quality of its four-hour LP mode.
Our VHS-to-DVD dub using a dusty, 12-year-old tape looked superb--in fact, it's the best we've seen so far from a VHS/DVD combo recorder. The image was solid and almost totally free of the muddy, distracting video noise we usually see in our tape-to-DVD dubs. While other decks sacrificed color or cranked up the brightness to cover up VHS imperfections, the DMR-ES30V delivered rich colors with nice contrast. Our only complaint is that the deck had a little trouble with the tracking on our VHS tape, resulting in some slight distortion at the very bottom of the picture (and covered by the frame of most TVs) and light, almost imperceptible static over the soundtrack.
The DMR-ES30V scored exceptional marks in our resolution tests. The DMR-ES30V delivered more than 450 lines of horizontal resolution--the video output of a typical DVD player--in its high-quality one- and two-hour recording modes; no surprise there. However, the deck hit almost the same score in its four-hour LP mode, quite a feat considering that the other recorders we've tested struggled to reach 325 lines in LP mode. In the six- to eight-hour EP mode (depending on the setting), the deck's recording quality fell sharply to about 250 lines; again, not unusual. In our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, the peasants fleeing from the deadly flying probes looked nearly perfect in XP and SP recordings modes. In the four-hour LP mode, the picture still looked detailed but grew murky during fast motion, such as when the peasants ran quickly across the frame, and we saw a little blockiness in static backgrounds. Our EP recordings looked quite soft, with distracting MPEG artifacts and blockiness.
The deck had no trouble with our 2:3 pull-down test, smoothly rendering the difficult haystacks and jaggy-prone bridges in Star Trek. It also had little trouble playing the dozens of DVDs and CDs in our test suite, stumbling only with DVD MP3s and also with CDs and DVDs with DivX-encoded movies.