Panasonic has jolted the DVD-recording arena with an industry first: in addition to being a DVD burner, its DMR-HS2 includes a built-in hard drive that can store hours of video. The HS2, then, has its sights set on replacing your DVD player, your VCR, and your TiVo. Like many a jack-of-all-trades, the unit isn't quite ready to master all three functions. For those who like simply to record their favorite TV shows--and aren't interested in doing rudimentary editing or backing up programming to DVD--a dedicated DVR such as a TiVo or ReplayTV unit is a much better choice. The HS2's only current competition, Toshiba's RD-X2, costs a bit more and doesn't include a progressive-scan output. Videophiles with cash who are seeking a VCR replacement, basic editing functions, and the ability to burn videos to DVD will not be disappointed by the DMR-HS2. Although it shares the same chassis as the step-down DMR-E30S, the HS2's silver faceplate sports a mirrorlike shine worthy of the chrome on a prized Harley. A miniature joystick on the front panel allows full navigation of the onscreen menus. Two flip-down panels reveal a handful of additional buttons and, more importantly, a set of A/V inputs, including S-Video and FireWire ports. The front also has a port for a PC card, to be used for transferring digital photos to the hard disk. As with the E30S, a cooling fan juts out from rear of the unit.
The remote handles the unit's TV-viewing, hard disk, and DVD-recording functions, mostly through onscreen menus. A dozen more buttons hide under a slide-down door--a frustrating arrangement since even casual usage will require frequent access to these functions. The tiled onscreen menus are neither intuitive nor straightforward; even expert users will need time to decipher the myriad of options. Don't expect your VCR to see much action once the DMR-HS2 hits your home-theater system. Whether you set the timer, input VCR Plus codes, or just hit Record, the DMR-HS2 can do everything your VCR can--and its hard disk can store up to 52 hours of video in the lowest-quality mode. You can record to the internal hard disk or directly to DVD-Rs or DVD-RAMs. Best of all, videos stored on the hard disk can be dumped to DVD with a few simple clicks of the remote.
The unit has a 30-second commercial skip feature and the ability to begin playing the beginning of a recording before it's finished. Four recording speeds provide for various levels of video quality; as always, higher quality takes up more space on both hard disk and DVD.
DVD-RAM provides a lot of flexibility with its rewritable discs, but DVD-RAMs won't play back in most DVD players. Write-once DVD-R media is compatible with many DVD players, especially those manufactured more recently.
Those looking for the convenience of a dedicated DVR will be disappointed. Unlike TiVo and ReplayTV, or even the RCA Scenium DRS7000N, there's no built-in programming guide. The bigger oversight, however, is the lack of an infrared blaster for external tuner control. Users with satellite or cable boxes will have to make special arrangements when recording with the timer--such as remembering to leave the receiver powered on and tuned to the correct channel.
The DMR-HS2 doesn't lack for jacks. The rear panel sprouts two full sets of A/V inputs and outputs, each with S-Video as well as standard composite video. An RF input and output allows connection straight to your cable system or antenna. And a component video output provides switchable interlaced or progressive-scan output, but video purists will lament the absence of a component video input, which is found on the competing Philips DVDR985. Likewise, a digital optical output is present, but no input, so forget about recording The Sopranos in 5.1 surround sound. The front panel includes a third set of A/V inputs with S-Video as well as a FireWire connection, which accepts a pure digital connection from your DV camcorder. The DMR-HS2's picture quality is governed by recording speed, and in highest-quality mode, which allows for 1 hour of material on a single-sided DVD-R, the quality was excellent. We were also pleased by the look of DVDs made in 2-hour SP mode. Although SP introduced more MPEG compression artifacts, such as dancing motes in the background, casual viewers probably wouldn't notice any quality loss when using satellite TV or digital cable as a source. The other two modes looked much softer, and test patterns revealed that they offer only 250 lines of resolution as opposed to the 500 lines recorded by the other modes.
We also checked out some home-video footage dumped via FireWire to the hard disk, and again, it looked great in the higher-quality modes. Looking at a dub from HDD to DVD, test patterns didn't detect any difference between the original HDD recordings and the resulting DVD. One other note: although the manual claims that the HS2 cannot record wide-screen 16:9 material to DVD-R, we had no problem doing so ourselves.
The hard disk half of the DMR-HS2 performed well given its limitations. Basic editing functions allow you to delete commercials from recorded programming or nip and tuck old home movies imported from a VCR or DV camcorder--or any other non-Macrovision-protected external video source--before permanently archiving to DVD-R. Without the hard disk, you'd have to laboriously work the pause button to delete commercials in real time or tediously rewind, fast-forward, pause, and play your videotaped source material.
Unfortunately, the HS2 allows little customization of the final product: chapter stops are automatically inserted at five-minute intervals, and you can't customize the final DVD menu. Advanced editors looking to do frame-by-frame MTV-style cuts or more customized chapter stops and menu designs will want to stick with a PC-based editing and DVD-authoring solution. Nevertheless, the DMR-HS2 is a huge step forward for more casual, living room-based nonlinear editing.