In preparation from the upcoming analog-to-digital DTV transition, any device manufactured since 2007 and equipped with a standard analog NTSC tuner has been federally mandated to also include a digital ATSC tuner. For manufacturers of DVD recorders, that leaves two options: include a digital tuner, which increases the price a bit, or opt to exclude tuners completely. Cheaper, tunerless models are perfectly sufficient for most buyers, since an over-the-air ATSC tuner is largely unnecessary for cable and satellite subscribers.
The Panasonic DMR-EA18K may not include an ATSC tuner, but it does outdo your basic DVD recorder with some step-up features, such as a USB port and SDHC card slot for playing MP3s and viewing JPEG picture files. More important is the DMR-EA18K's top-notch performance, which gives crisp recordings even in 4-hour LP mode. The unit also includes our favorite feature, flexible recording, which automatically optimizes the video quality of the content to fill a DVD. Panasonic has delivered a sleek-looking unit that's an excellent DVD recording solution for the majority of us that don't need a digital tuner.
Unlike chunkier DVD recorder/VCR combo players, the DMR-EA18K has a slick, slim profile. Sporting an all-black design, the unit has a minimalist touch, with a bright LCD screen that can be dimmed and a silver horizontal crescent accenting the Panasonic logo. Two buttons exist on the top--Power and Eject--while the bottom has a fold-down door that reveals an S-Video, component, SDHC card slot, a FireWire port, and a USB flash input. Keys for Stop, Play, Record, and Fast-forward come in handy when the remote goes missing. The only problem we found--and this is nitpicking--was with the placement of the Eject button, which we often confused with the Power key.
The well-designed remote is identical to that of previous models. Most of the buttons are large enough to differentiate, including the most important: Direct Navigator, Schedule, and Functions. There's a prominent directional pad in the center, and above that are large, blue playback buttons such as Play and Pause. We're still baffled by the fact that the remote lacks an Open/Close button, which we like to use to open the tray before walking up to switch a disc.
The simplest way to make a recording on the DMR-EA18K is to pop in a disc, select an input, press Record, and hit Stop when you're done. To schedule a recording or edit it, you'll need to plunge more deeply into the interface, which requires a bit of a learning curve, but offers more functionality. Scheduling works easily enough, but you'll need to remember to turn off the DVD recorder before your scheduled program comes on--a minor annoyance if you want to use your recorder in the meantime.
The Direct Navigator is the main interface that you'll use to access your recordings. The main screen displays six recordings at a time, represented by thumbnail images that start to play back when you hover the cursor over them. You can enter title information through this interface and, if you're using DVD-RAM discs, erase and rerecord titles and perform simple editing to remove commercials, for example. The Direct Navigator also acts as a media browser for your MP3 music and JPEG images. You can also begin a slide show through this menu with your images--off a thumb drive, an SDHC card, or a CD--and play your MP3 music to accompany it. We found the overall experience to be intuitive enough if you're familiar with using the interface of a satellite receiver or cable set-top box.
As we mentioned before, the DMR-EA18K's does not have a built-in tuner, so any recordings will need to be made from an external video source, and connected to the unit's S-Video or composite video inputs. Like nearly every DVD recorder, the Panasonic cannot record via component-video or HDMI and can't record high-def.
This unit includes the standard four recording modes: highest-quality XP fits 1 hour of video on a DVD; SP fits 2 hours; LP fits 4 hours; and EP, the worst video quality, fits about 8 hours of video. The trade-offs in video quality vs. capacity can be drastic--XP is nearly indistinguishable from the source, while EP is barely watchable. As we'll explain below, however, 4-hour LP mode looks very good. The DMR-EA18K also supports dual-layer DVD-R and DVD+R discs, doubling the video capacity to 2 hours for XP mode and 16 hours for EP.
Sometimes what you want to record doesn't fit well with the available recording modes. For instance, say you want to record a movie that's 2 hours and 5 minutes long, but don't want to drop down to LP mode. Panasonic has a solution for this, and it's one of our favorite features: flexible recording, which allows you to completely fill a DVD with content and optimize the video quality. Unfortunately you'll need to schedule a recording at a specific start and end time, which may not be a doable option, for example if you're recording a Yankees game that slips into extra innings.
We liked that Panasonic included chasing playback again on DVD-RAM discs, which means you can watch a program from the beginning, even while it's in the process of recording. Additionally, you can watch a different program recorded on the disc, while it's in the process of recording. Think of chasing playback as a limited, DVD-RAM based DVR, which may be adequate if you don't plan on recording much. On the other hand, it's not as DVR-like as you might expect; you can't pause or rewind live TV, and the capacity of a single disc is pretty limited. We did appreciate the inclusion of the "CM Skip" button, which allows you to blast by commercials a minute at a time.