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.