The DMR-E20 was designed to act exactly like a VCR and is actually easier to use than many of those tape-based dinosaurs. It has a built-in tuner and the familiar screw-type RF input and output jacks for direct connection to cable or a cable box. It even has VCR Plus, so you can enter a number from TV Guide and program a recording in about 10 seconds. Aside from lacking a cable/satellite box control to change channels on an external tuner, this box has everything you'd expect to find on a high-end VCR.
The setup is a snap, although the automatic-clock-setting procedure didn't work with the cable box we used. When you press the Record button, the unit immediately begins recording, unlike with many VCRs, which delay starting for a split second. The DMR-E20 can record on DVD-RAM ($15 to $20 each for 4.7GB) or DVD-R ($7 to $10 each) discs and can play back CD-R/RWs. However, don't think of a DVD-R as a higher-capacity clone of a write-once CD-R; DVD-R actually lets you erase programs--or the entire disc--before finalizing. What does that mean? Well, finalizing essentially turns the DVD-R into a standard DVD Video disc that you can play on many--but not all--DVD players. We tried playing DVD-Rs on numerous units, and only a couple of older ones (an Apex AD-600A and an Onkyo DV-S525, both from 1999) couldn't read the finalized disc.
The kings of convenient TV recording are the TiVo/ReplayTV digital video recorders. And while the DMR-E20 lacks a DVR's built-in program guide, it does include key features, such as the ability to watch any program on a disc while simultaneously recording to the same disc. You can also view (and pause, rewind, and fast-forward) the same program you're recording at any point while the unit keeps recording. It's incredibly convenient if you come home in the middle of, say, a ball game you're recording, and you want to immediately start watching from the beginning. Be advised that these time-slipping features work only with DVD-RAM, not DVD-R media.
Where's the Fire(Wire)?
The DMR-E20 has plenty of connections, including three composite/S-Video inputs and two composite/S-Video outputs, so that you can record from sources other than TV, but it's missing a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port. This is an issue if you plan on transferring MiniDV footage to DVD and want perfect digital quality. Then again, if you want to do any real editing of home video, you're probably better off with a computer-based DVD recorder. Though it offers some very limited editing features, the DMR-E20 can't separately record sound and video tracks and wasn't really designed as an editing deck. But you can use it to erase whole programs or parts (commercials, for example), as well as play back programs in a particular order.
The DMR-E20 also has a component-video output for connection to high-quality monitors. It cannot, however, output progressive-scan video--an inexplicable oversight for such an expensive DVD deck. The video playback performance is very good, although some of the test patterns we saw were slightly less sharp than we've seen on other players.
No noise and nary a jitter
The video-recording performance in both XP (one hour per single-sided disc) and SP (two hours) modes absolutely blew away that of videocassettes. The results in both modes looked better than recordings made on a JVC HR-S3800U VCR in S-VHS ET mode, the highest-quality setting, with less noise and jitteriness, more accurate color, and generally excellent reproduction of difficult pans. The other two modes, LP (four hours) and EP (six hours) were also less jittery and noisy than S-VHS but had more blocky artifacts.
The LP and EP modes also captured fewer than half of the 525 lines of resolution recorded by the XP and SP modes. We recorded a cable-broadcast basketball game at various modes and could detect no difference between XP and SP. However, the quick camera motion and player movement played havoc in LP and EP, introducing heavy MPEG artifacts with the latter. On the other hand, the audio sounded great in every mode. Like other DVD recorders, though, this deck cannot record multichannel sound and lacks a digital audio input.
For most, the DMR-E20 is an expensive luxury; it lists at $1,500, but you can find it for as low as $850. However, compared to other DVD-R home decks, such as Pioneer's DVR-7000 ($1,999 list), which boasts high-end components and a FireWire input, it's a relative bargain and should find a market with early adopters. If you're not a high-end consumer or a borderline videophile, though, your best bet is to wait for the next generation of recorders, which are due out by late 2002 and promise to be less expensive and somewhat more versatile.