Just when you thought DVD recorders had finally run out of life, the federal government stepped in to spice things up. Because of the looming analog TV cutoff date, all DVD recorders this year include digital ATSC tuners, which means you can tune into local digital stations using an antenna. The Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK ($300 MSRP) DVD recorder/VCR combo is one of the first of these new decks, and although we were disappointed in how it implemented the ATSC tuner (details below), it mostly delivers the excellent performance we've come to expect from Panasonic DVD recorders. It offers a relatively painless way to record over-the-air digital shows from HDTV channels to DVD which, when played back on a wide-screen HDTV, can look better than any analog TV recording. The unit's flexible recording length lets you optimize the video quality of content to fill a disc, plus it has an excellent LP recording mode allowing you to essentially double the amount of video a DVD can store without hurting the video quality too much. Our biggest annoyance is the price has not decreased much from previous models--which we suspect is due to the required ATSC tuner--but it's hard to knock since it's comparable to the competition. There are plenty of places you can nitpick about the DMR-EZ47VK, but as a feature-packed DVD recorder/VCR combo it does almost everything right.
We've become accustomed to the familiar silver color scheme of Panasonic's DVD recorders, but this year the company changed it up and went with an all-black color scheme. The top half of the unit is dedicated to the two main drives--the VCR is to the left and the DVD player to the right. Below that, starting from the left, is an additional front-panel A/V input with S-Video, followed by the LED screen, which can be dimmed. Further to the right are One Touch transfer buttons, and there's a flip-down panel that reveals some additional controls along with the high-capacity SD card slot (aka SDHC) and a FireWire input. DVD recorder/VCR combo decks are boxy by nature, and the DMR-EZ47VK is no exception, but it doesn't look bad compared with its competitors.
The remote is largely unchanged from previous models, which isn't a bad thing. It has pretty good button differentiation, and most of the buttons you'll usually use are conveniently placed. Toward the bottom of the remote is the main directional pad, which is flanked by three important buttons: Direct Navigator, Schedule, and Functions. One annoying omission is the lack of a disc open/close button. We would like to see some kind of illumination, but to be fair, very few decks offer illuminated remotes anymore.
The user interface on the DMR-EZ47VK is pretty simple once you get over the initial learning curve. To access the media from any drive, you'll want to hit the Direct Navigator button to the left of the directional pad. On a DVD, for example, this brings up six thumbnail images of the videos stored on the disc. Even nicer--for programs recorded off the ATSC tuner--it also lists the program title taken from the ATSC signal (as long as the broadcaster provides one). To access advanced functions, such as editing, you can press Submenu which brings up more options.
Unfortunately there's no EPG, so recordings have to be scheduled manually, similar to regular a VCR. DVR owners will feel like they're going back in time, but the lack of an EPG is pretty common for DVD recorders without a hard drive. Hitting the schedule button allows you to input the specific channel, the time, and the duration of the program. One thing we didn't like is that you have to remember to turn off the DMR-EZ47VK for the scheduled recordings to work. This is annoying because if you forget to turn the unit off for some reason, it will miss the recording. The other important button around the directional pad is Functions. It brings up a variety of options, the most important being Copy, which leads you step-by-step through the process of copying a VHS tape to a DVD disc or vice versa. You can also use the One Touch transfer button on the front of the unit for quick copying. Naturally you can't record copyrighted material, which includes most commercial DVDs and VHS cassettes.
Although the method for editing out commercials isn't exactly spelled out in the user manual, we were able to do so fairly easily--albeit on DVD-RAM discs only--by creating chapter stops around the commercials, and then deleting the chapters that contained the commercials. This method also has the convenient advantage of setting the chapters based on the commercial breaks, which is a logical way to skip through a TV program.
In addition to VHS, the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK allows you to record to all standard types recordable DVD, including DVD-RAM and both "plus" and "minus" versions of dual-layer discs. DVD-RAM is especially useful because it allows chasing playback, which means you can watch a program from the beginning while still in the process of recording, or you can record something on DVD-RAM while watching a previously recorded program on the same DVD-RAM disc. This effectively gives you something like mini hard drive functionality from the DVD recorder, and we could easily see someone using it as a DVR if they don't plan on recording a lot. However, one thing the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK doesn't do that DVR fans will definitely miss is constantly record live TV, which means you can't pause and rewind live TV. Of course, you could always start recording something to DVD-RAM and get essentially the same functionality, but few people will want to do that every time they watch TV--plus you'd have to remember to delete your recordings afterward. The ability to constantly record live TV is usually included in Panasonic's step-up models with hard drives, such as last year's DMR-EH75V, but unfortunately Panasonic has not announced any DVD recorders with hard drives for this year.
As now required by federal law, the DMR-EZ47VK comes equipped with an ATSC tuner, which is capable of picking up digital over-the-air broadcasts. When we first heard about DVD recorders equipped with ATSC tuners back at CES, we were pretty excited about the idea, but we found ourselves a little disappointed with the DMR-EZ47VK's implementation. For basic use, it actually works quite well; the tuner was very quick in scanning for channels and picked up everything it should have. Additionally, digital stations always looked better than their analog counterparts, at least in our testing area. On the other hand, it was disappointing to see that Panasonic did not include an EPG with the DMR-EZ47VK. Many standalone digital ATSC tuners have EPGs, as program guide data is included in ATSC signals. The other major limitation is that the DMR-EZ47VK does not output true high-definition TV. Over-the-air digital signals are fully capable of displaying high-definition TV, but instead the DMR-EZ47VK displays a 480p signal upconverted to 1080p--which is far from true high definition (more on this in the Performance section). One other minor note regarding the ATSC tuner is that it is not possible to record digital channels to VHS tapes, although the downconverted versions can be recorded to DVD.
For DVD recording, the unit offers four recording modes that all have trade-offs in recording quality vs. capacity. Only 1 hour of highest quality XP mode video fits onto one single-layer DVD; SP is 2 hours, LP is 4; and EP either 6 or 8 (the six-hour mode gives better audio quality). Dual-layer discs have slightly less space than you might imagine: 1.75 hours for XP; 3.5 hours for SP; 7 hours for LP; and 14.25 hours for EP mode.
Luckily, if you have a program that doesn't nicely fit into one of those time frames, the DMR-EZ47VK has one of our favorite features, flexible recording. Selecting this option allows you to completely fill a DVD with your program, thereby maximizing the video quality. This is particularly useful if, for instance, you have a two-hour movie and you want to use a dual-layer disc. Instead of having to drop down to lower-quality SP mode, you can maximize the quality using flexible recording. You will have to tell the recorder exactly how long you want it to record, so this isn't the best option for programs of variable length, such as a football game.