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Panasonic DMR-ES45V review: Panasonic DMR-ES45V

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While the graphical user interface can be a little daunting at first, we got the hang of it after a while. If you have a DVD with several programs on it, you'll most likely want to access them through the Direct Navigator. This brings up a series of thumbnail images corresponding to the programs on your disc. From here, you'll either select an image to view, or bring up the submenu for other options, such as editing or setting chapter stops. The other important menu is the function menu, which you'll want to access for settings related to VHS-to-DVD copying, and vice versa.

7.4

Panasonic DMR-ES45V

The Good

Records video to DVD or VHS; outstanding recording quality, especially in LP mode; HDMI output; slot for Secure Digital media cards; flexible custom recording speed; DVD-RAM compatible with editing ability; FireWire input.

The Bad

Subpar HDMI upscaling video quality; some disc compatibility issues.

The Bottom Line

Excellent recording quality and an HDMI output make the Panasonic DMR-ES45V a top contender in the DVD/VHS recorder market.
Intro
Buying a component with a built-in VCR might feel a little 20th century, but there's an still almost never ending supply of home movie VHS tapes that are waiting to be digitized. The Panasonic DMR-ES45V is DVD/VHS recorder that aims to bring your memories into the digital era, offering one-button copying from VHS to DVD, as well as a FireWire input so you can record straight from your camcorder. There's also some distinctively 21st-century features, including DVD-RAM support and an HDMI output with upconversion--although we didn't see much of an improvement in picture quality from the digital connection with this unit. The DMR-ES45V does the most important thing right: its recording quality is top-notch, especially in LP mode, which looks considerably better than the competition's, and which lets you fit four hours of content on a single-layer DVD. We wouldn't rely on this as our main home-theater DVD player, as its disc compatibility is spotty and its playback performance isn't enough to satisfy videophiles. On the other hand, as a dedicated unit for burning DVDs and transferring VHS tapes to DVD, the DMR-ES45V is a tough candidate to beat. DVD/VHS recorders are unavoidably boxy to begin with, but given the lowered standards, the Panasonic DMR-ES45V isn't an eyesore. Viewed from straight on, the top half of the unit is silver; to the left is the VHS drive, and to its right is the DVD drive. Underneath is a glossy-black strip that features a decent-size LCD in the middle. Also within the black strip are a few front panel buttons, such as fast-forward, rewind, stop, play, and record. These buttons control each of the devices; you use the Drive Select button to toggle between device you're controlling--either VHS, DVD, or an SD card. On the right is a large silver circle that's divided in half and functions as the One Touch Transfer control. Just hold down the arrow in the direction you want to transfer for 3 seconds, and it will start the transfer with no questions asked. Also on the front panel is an additional A/V input with S-Video, as well as a flip down panel, which reveals the SD card slot as well as a DV input.

Unlike the step-up DMR-EH75H, the DMR-ES45V does not have the TV Guide EPG. This makes sense, since the DMR-ES45V lacks a hard drive and is less likely to be used as a DVR. However, it would still be nice to be able to schedule recordings from an electronic program guide, especially since the flexible DVD-RAM format can be used almost like a mini hard drive--more on this below. The DMR-ES45V does have onscreen scheduling capability, which means you have to tell it the time and channel you want to record--but once you've used an EPG, it's hard to go back to VCR-style recording. The Panasonic DMR-ES45V allows you to record to numerous types of recordable DVDs, including DVD-RAM, as well as to VHS. DVD-RAM is especially useful in that it is capable of chasing playback, which means you can watch programs from the beginning while still in the process of recording. In fact, DVD-RAM can take it even a step further--you can record something on DVD-RAM while watching another previously recorded program on the same DVD-RAM disc. It's pretty neat and effectively gives you something like mini-hard-drive functionality from the DVD-recorder--we could easily see someone using it as a DVR if they don't plan on recording a lot. You're also able to edit titles on DVD-RAM if, for instance, you want to cut out the commercials--see the tips and tricks section for a note on this. However, one thing the Panasonic DMR-ES45V 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 afterwards.

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 6-hour mode gives better audio quality). Dual-layer discs have slightly less space than you might imagine: 1.75 hour 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-ES45V has one of our favorite features: flexible recording. Selecting this option allows you to completely fill a DVD with your program, maximizing the video quality. This is particularly useful if, for instance, you have a two-hour-long movie and you want to use a dual layer disc--instead of having to drop down to SP, 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.

In terms of connectivity, the highlight is the HDMI output, which allows you to upconvert to 480p, 720p, and 1080i resolution for DVDs. The HDMI output can also be used for VHS playback, although it is limited to 480p. Rounding out the rest of the connectivity is a component-video output, two A/V inputs with S-Video (one front, one back), one A/V output with S-Video, and optical digital audio output, a FireWire input, and screw-type RF input/outputs. Recording quality on the Panasonic DMR-ES45V was excellent overall, highlighted by an impressive LP mode. Whereas most recorders we've tested suffer a large drop in resolution when switching from 2-hour SP to 4-hour LP mode (usually from about 450 lines of resolution to 250), LP mode on the DMR-ES45V maintained almost exactly the same resolution as SP mode. This is a big deal, as you can double the amount of content you can fit on a DVD with relatively small loss in video quality.

When we compared footage from 24, for example, the difference between XP and SP modes was small--only hard-core enthusiasts will be able to spot it. As usual, longer-play EP mode was almost unwatchable, with a huge loss in resolution and a large number of video artifacts, especially in scenes with a lot of motion. We recommend using EP mode only for shows with simple animation, such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The loss in resolution is noticeable, but the resulting video is still watchable. As we said, the true sweet spot for most people will probably be the LP mode--which is slightly worse than SP, but still very watchable and allows you to record double the amount you could in SP mode. Additionally, the DMR-ES45V had no problem recording wide-screen content straight to DVDs from our DirecTV HD TiVo box, maintaining the correct aspect ratio and filling our wide-screen TV completely.

For standard DVD playback, image quality performance was largely disappointing, a problem we've mentioned with previous Panasonic DVD recorders. Using the HDMI output at every resolution (480p, 720p and 1080i), we ran the DMR-ES45V through Silicon Optix's HQV test suite. Resolution tests in 720p and 480p mode revealed that the DMR-ES45V was not passing the full DVD resolution--the bars on the test pattern were solid where there should have been detail. At 1080i, the performance was better, but each individual line could not be seen--we tried the same test with the Oppo DV-970HD, and it displayed the test pattern perfectly. The DMR-ES45V struggled on other tests too; it couldn't handle a rotating line or three shifting lines without producing jaggies, a waving flag was also jaggy-laden, and scrolling titles suffered from comb-like artifacts and jittery performance, as well. The only test on which it performed well was a 2:3 pull-down test, as it successfully locked into film mode as the race car drove by. Since we've seen HDMI players struggle with resolution tests in the past, we thought the DMR-ES45V might perform better using the component-video output--but its performance was nearly identical.

Disc compatibility overall was spotty and represents the Panasonic DMR-ES45V's greatest weakness. When we ran our test suite of discs, the unit often displayed a message indicating the disc would need to be formatted before it could play. If we declined the formatting option, it refused to play the disc. Considering that other players handled these discs without a problem, we'd exercise caution if you plan on using the Panasonic to play older recorded DVDs. On the other hand, we had good success burning to a variety of recordable DVD media, including dual-layer media and DVD-RAM.

7.4

Panasonic DMR-ES45V

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 8