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.
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.
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.