Panasonic was present at the birth of the DVD recorder, celebrating the occasion with a baby of its own in the form of a brand-new disc format called DVD-RAM. Now, all its investment, research and success has paid off for the consumer, as you can buy this multi-format recorder for the princely sum of £200. Of course, the smaller Korean and Chinese manufacturers have been happy to knock out recorders for under £150 for a while, but Panasonic's features list make the ES10 make it worth the (small) extra investment.
Like any proud parent, Panasonic has only had eyes for its DVD-RAM technology until now, but it's finally recognising that other formats do exist by offering DVD-R/RW and DVD+R recording as well. However, it misses out on the full house by omitting DVD+RW recording. And while there may still be notable weaknesses, such as the lack of DVD-RW VR mode editing and a DV input, the AV performance and quality of recordings can't be beaten, even by more expensive players. And with component outputs as well, this great-value recorder will even make a good accompaniment to a flat-screen display.
For a £200 DVD recorder, the ES10's connectivity is absolutely brilliant. Not only do you get PAL progressive-scan component outputs around the back, but also there's RGB Scart in and out, S-video in and out, composite in and out, an aerial loopthrough and a digital optical audio output. Around the front, there's yet another set of composite and S-video inputs, making a grand total of six sources to make recordings from -- you'll certainly be hard pushed to fill them all.
The only thing missing from this impressive roster is a FireWire input, which is usually fitted to all but the cheapest DVD recorders. FireWire allows you to make high quality recordings from your camcorder via a direct digital link, usually housed on the front panel. Panasonic's omission of the connection isn't critical, but it's likely to cost them more than a few potential customers.
Despite housing all this connectivity and supporting a wide range of disc formats, the ES10 is a futuristic-looking recorder. There are nice touches to be found, from the hidden front panel of connections to the LCD display, which has lovely, elongated characters that are easy to read. The fascia isn't cluttered with those annoying logos most manufacturers seem to have an inadequacy complex about.
Rival manufacturers take note: Panasonic has the last word in DVD remote controllers. Of course, it helps immensely to have a menu system that's easy to navigate, but the remote's buttons are well organised, and the frequently-used controls are enlarged for effect. There are also direct controls for VideoPlus and Time Slipping, two vital functions of the recorder itself. While there's no electronic programme guide, the ES10 will name recordings automatically once they are made. We're not sure how it does it, and that kind of witchcraft scares us.
If you're new to recording on DVD, its versatility can be a little daunting. You can use DVD-RW like an old video tape, recording programmes and then writing over them when you're finished. However, DVD-R media is so cheap now (under 20p a disc) you can easily afford to buy write-once media and have it sitting in the drive ready for you to press record at any time. Through experience, we've found that the best way to use a DVD recorder is to pair it up with a hard drive-based machine, using the latter as a scratch disc and the former as a means of archiving.
However, without this functionality, the ES10 still makes a good go of it thanks to DVD-RAM's versatility. You can use the format to time slip, playing the programme from the beginning a few minutes after it has started recording, so you can fast-forward through the adverts. You can then edit the ads out after it's finished. Sadly though, with no means of copying these re-edited discs, you might want to use the less expensive DVD-RW media with anything you might end up keeping.
While Panasonic has welcomed DVD-RW into the family, it's treating it as the ugly, unwanted cousin next to its own favoured-son DVD-RAM format. Part of the attraction of DVD-RW is the VR format, which allows you to edit the disc to remove adverts or make playlists. Inexplicably, Panasonic hasn't included VR mode compatibility for DVD-RW discs, meaning you have to revert to DVD-RAM for these features. While it's true that DVD-RW VR discs are only compatible in very few standard DVD players, it's still an oversight, albeit a minor one. And while the recorder doesn't support +RW recording, its playback of the format means it has complete support for every DVD out there, in addition to playing MP3 and JPEG discs.
Recording presets are offered at 1-, 2-, 4-, 6- and 8-hour intervals. The first two settings retain top quality, but the 4-hour LP setting stands up much better than the competition. Panasonic's latest innovation is to increase in resolution at LP mode to 500 horizontal lines. Usually, at around the 4-hour mark the recorder would have to drop the resolution down to fit more material on, which would result in VHS-quality video. While LP still has noticeable motion artefacting, the detail remains sharp, and we'd be happy to use it if we were short on space.
However, if you do start to run out of room, or you forgot to buy more discs for that final episode of Desperate Housewives, you can use Panasonic's superb FR recording mode. This is useful for two important situations. First, you don't have to worry about choosing the right quality level if you want to fill up the end of a disc. Second, you can fit movies onto one disc at their maximum possible recording level. For example, if your film is 100 minutes long, you can use this to produce a quality level that's between XP and SP, eradicating some of the minor image loss that you'd get at the 2-hour SP level.
Thanks to an RGB Scart input, recorded programmes are vibrant, detailed and solid. There was absolutely no degradation in image quality at the highest XP setting, and only a minor amount of detail loss at the SP setting. You certainly can't do any better on a recorder under £250.
The bar was set high by the recording quality of the ES10, but playback manages to exceed this high standard. If you've got a flat-screen TV you're in for a treat, because the component outputs provide a really solid picture. The contrast levels are spot-on, and even though it doesn't upscale the pictures in any way, they sparkle with brilliance even on a large, high-resolution screen. If you think you might be compromising on DVD playback performance by buying a budget recorder, Panasonic sets you straight with the ES10.
Audio performance is fairly perfunctory -- certainly no better or worse than a standard DVD player. However, if you have an AV amplifier, there's Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 output via optical digital out. The recorder captures standard stereo when recording to disc, which sounds fine no matter what quality level you choose.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide