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Just when you thought DVD recorders had finally run out of life, the federal government stepped in to spice things up. Because of the looming analog TV cutoff date, all DVD recorders this year include digital ATSC tuners, which means you can tune into local digital stations using an antenna. The Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK ($300 MSRP) DVD recorder/VCR combo is one of the first of these new decks, and although we were disappointed in how it implemented the ATSC tuner (details below), it mostly delivers the excellent performance we've come to expect from Panasonic DVD recorders. It offers a relatively painless way to record over-the-air digital shows from HDTV channels to DVD which, when played back on a wide-screen HDTV, can look better than any analog TV recording. The unit's flexible recording length lets you optimize the video quality of content to fill a disc, plus it has an excellent LP recording mode allowing you to essentially double the amount of video a DVD can store without hurting the video quality too much. Our biggest annoyance is the price has not decreased much from previous models--which we suspect is due to the required ATSC tuner--but it's hard to knock since it's comparable to the competition. There are plenty of places you can nitpick about the DMR-EZ47VK, but as a feature-packed DVD recorder/VCR combo it does almost everything right.
We've become accustomed to the familiar silver color scheme of Panasonic's DVD recorders, but this year the company changed it up and went with an all-black color scheme. The top half of the unit is dedicated to the two main drives--the VCR is to the left and the DVD player to the right. Below that, starting from the left, is an additional front-panel A/V input with S-Video, followed by the LED screen, which can be dimmed. Further to the right are One Touch transfer buttons, and there's a flip-down panel that reveals some additional controls along with the high-capacity SD card slot (aka SDHC) and a FireWire input. DVD recorder/VCR combo decks are boxy by nature, and the DMR-EZ47VK is no exception, but it doesn't look bad compared with its competitors.
The remote is largely unchanged from previous models, which isn't a bad thing. It has pretty good button differentiation, and most of the buttons you'll usually use are conveniently placed. Toward the bottom of the remote is the main directional pad, which is flanked by three important buttons: Direct Navigator, Schedule, and Functions. One annoying omission is the lack of a disc open/close button. We would like to see some kind of illumination, but to be fair, very few decks offer illuminated remotes anymore.
The user interface on the DMR-EZ47VK is pretty simple once you get over the initial learning curve. To access the media from any drive, you'll want to hit the Direct Navigator button to the left of the directional pad. On a DVD, for example, this brings up six thumbnail images of the videos stored on the disc. Even nicer--for programs recorded off the ATSC tuner--it also lists the program title taken from the ATSC signal (as long as the broadcaster provides one). To access advanced functions, such as editing, you can press Submenu which brings up more options.
Unfortunately there's no EPG, so recordings have to be scheduled manually, similar to regular a VCR. DVR owners will feel like they're going back in time, but the lack of an EPG is pretty common for DVD recorders without a hard drive. Hitting the schedule button allows you to input the specific channel, the time, and the duration of the program. One thing we didn't like is that you have to remember to turn off the DMR-EZ47VK for the scheduled recordings to work. This is annoying because if you forget to turn the unit off for some reason, it will miss the recording. The other important button around the directional pad is Functions. It brings up a variety of options, the most important being Copy, which leads you step-by-step through the process of copying a VHS tape to a DVD disc or vice versa. You can also use the One Touch transfer button on the front of the unit for quick copying. Naturally you can't record copyrighted material, which includes most commercial DVDs and VHS cassettes.
Although the method for editing out commercials isn't exactly spelled out in the user manual, we were able to do so fairly easily--albeit on DVD-RAM discs only--by creating chapter stops around the commercials, and then deleting the chapters that contained the commercials. This method also has the convenient advantage of setting the chapters based on the commercial breaks, which is a logical way to skip through a TV program.
In addition to VHS, the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK allows you to record to all standard types recordable DVD, including DVD-RAM and both "plus" and "minus" versions of dual-layer discs. DVD-RAM is especially useful because it allows chasing playback, which means you can watch a program from the beginning while still in the process of recording, or you can record something on DVD-RAM while watching a previously recorded program on the same DVD-RAM disc. This effectively gives you something like mini hard drive functionality from the DVD recorder, and we could easily see someone using it as a DVR if they don't plan on recording a lot. However, one thing the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK 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 afterward. The ability to constantly record live TV is usually included in Panasonic's step-up models with hard drives, such as last year's DMR-EH75V, but unfortunately Panasonic has not announced any DVD recorders with hard drives for this year.
As now required by federal law, the DMR-EZ47VK comes equipped with an ATSC tuner, which is capable of picking up digital over-the-air broadcasts. When we first heard about DVD recorders equipped with ATSC tuners back at CES, we were pretty excited about the idea, but we found ourselves a little disappointed with the DMR-EZ47VK's implementation. For basic use, it actually works quite well; the tuner was very quick in scanning for channels and picked up everything it should have. Additionally, digital stations always looked better than their analog counterparts, at least in our testing area. On the other hand, it was disappointing to see that Panasonic did not include an EPG with the DMR-EZ47VK. Many standalone digital ATSC tuners have EPGs, as program guide data is included in ATSC signals. The other major limitation is that the DMR-EZ47VK does not output true high-definition TV. Over-the-air digital signals are fully capable of displaying high-definition TV, but instead the DMR-EZ47VK displays a 480p signal upconverted to 1080p--which is far from true high definition (more on this in the Performance section). One other minor note regarding the ATSC tuner is that it is not possible to record digital channels to VHS tapes, although the downconverted versions can be recorded to DVD.
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 six-hour mode gives better audio quality). Dual-layer discs have slightly less space than you might imagine: 1.75 hours 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-EZ47VK has one of our favorite features, flexible recording. Selecting this option allows you to completely fill a DVD with your program, thereby maximizing the video quality. This is particularly useful if, for instance, you have a two-hour movie and you want to use a dual-layer disc. Instead of having to drop down to lower-quality SP mode, 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.
The DMR-EZ47VK is also capable of displaying JPEG photos, whether they're on an SD card or burned onto a CD or DVD. There's also DivX and MP3 playback, which works for files on CDs and DVDs, but not on SD cards. SD cards can only be used to display JPEG photos; you can't play music or video off them nor can you record video onto them.
In terms of connectivity, the highlight is the HDMI output, which allows you to upconvert to 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p resolution for DVDs, VHS tapes, and even digital TV. Rounding out the rest of the connectivity is a component video output, two A/V inputs with S-Video (one front, one back), two A/V outputs (one with S-Video), an optical digital-audio output, a FireWire input, and screw-type RF input/outputs. The two A/V outputs are labeled "DVD/VHS common output" and "DVD priority output." There are some restrictions about how you can use them; for example, when you're recording a DVD, you can't use the DVD priority output to watch a tape. It's a small nuisance that slightly limits your ability to multitask on the DMR-EZ47VK.
A component video input would have been nice, but they're pretty rare on DVD recorders. The lack of an IR blaster could be viewed as a slight omission, given that the competing LG RC797T has one. An IR blaster can be used to control an external source, such as a cable or satellite box, so that it changes the box to the appropriate channel when it's scheduled to record.
Digital TV performance
As we mentioned before, the DMR-EZ47VK is incapable of outputting true high-definition content from ATSC signals. We first noticed this simply by looking at a high-definition program from a built-in ATSC tuner on the Panasonic TH-58PX600U and comparing it to the DMR-EZ47VK. The difference was definitely noticeable, with the easiest place to spot it simply being the CBS logo which looked sharp with nice rounded edges on the TH-58PX600U, while it looked soft and had more jagged edges on the DMR-EZ47VK.
We were able to test that resolution was in fact being lost with our Sencore VP403C signal generator, using its RF output. From there, we looked at resolution patterns, and it was apparent that the DMR-EZ47ZK could not pass the full resolution of 1080i or 720p signals, despite the fact that it puts out a "1080p" signal. It did, however, display all the detail of a 480p signal. What we imagine is happening inside the device is that it downconverts the original high-definition signal to 480p--which loses much of the actual detail--and then it upconverts it back to 1080p.
To be fair, downconverted digital TV looks much better than anything we were able to see with analog over-the-air signals, and it is able to preserve the wide-screen aspect ratio on high-definition shows. Additionally, there are still many programs that only broadcast in standard definition, and those shows won't suffer. So while the DMR-EZ47VK's performance is disappointing to anyone looking to use it as a high-definition tuner, others simply wanting to take advantage of standard-definition over-the-air programming will be pleased.
DVD recording performance
We've lauded Panasonic's DVD recorders in the past, and the DMR-EZ47VK is no different. Overall, the recording quality is excellent. XP and SP modes are very close in terms of image quality; you might be able to eke out a slightly better picture in XP mode, but in most cases it won't be worth the extra disc space. On most DVD recorders we test, we tend to see a big drop in image quality going from SP to LP mode, but not so on the DMR-EZ47VK. We recorded the The Late Show With David Letterman, and it was very difficult to pick out specific instances where SP mode was superior to LP mode. This allows you to double the amount of content that fits on a DVD with almost no loss of video quality. Dropping from LP to EP mode had a drastic effect on image quality. EP mode suffered from very low resolution and plenty of compression artifacts that severely impacted the overall image quality. For instance, it was difficult to make out any detail in Letterman's face in EP mode, while he could be seen much clearer in XP, SP, and LP modes. It's worth noting that we had no trouble recording wide-screen content to any of the disc types, including DVD-RAM, DVD+R/-R, and DVD+RW/-RW, and having it display properly on wide-screen TVs.
DVD player performance
The DMR-EZ47VK is also capable of upscaling standard-definition DVDs to 1080p. This doesn't mean they'll look anywhere near as good as Blu-ray or HD DVD discs, but it might make DVDs look a little better, depending on the capabilities of your HDTV. We've had DVD player performance issues with Panasonic's previous DVD recorder/VCR combo, the DMR-ES45V, so we were interested to see whether the company made any improvements.
To test DVD upconversion performance, we started off with Silicon Optix's HQV test suite. Considering that the DMR-EZ47VK is not a dedicated upconverting DVD player, we weren't expecting much, so we were actually a little surprised by its capabilities. It aced the first resolution test, demonstrating its ability to output the full resolution of DVDs. It fared a little worse on the next two, jaggy tests; it did a pretty good job with a rotating line, but on the next it wasn't able to handle the third of three shifting lines. It also aced the 2:3 pull-down detection test, as it correctly locked into film mode almost immediately when the race car zoomed by the grandstands.
The DMR-EZ47VK also showed off its 2:3 pull-down capabilities on the intro to Star Trek: Insurrection, rendering the curved lines on the railing of the bridge and the hulls of the boats with no problem. We took a quick look at the Windows DVD Test Annex and did notice the chroma bug on incorrectly flagged material, but that should only show up on poorly authored DVDs.
We also took a look at the intro to Seabiscuit, which can often give even accomplished players problems. To our surprise, the Panasonic DMR-EZ47VK aced the test; we couldn't see any jaggies in the scenes that usually trip up players. We watched a little bit further into the disc and continued to be impressed as we hardly noticed any artifacts at all. While it might not live up to the very best upscaling DVD players, such as the Oppo DV-981HD, overall we thought it offered very strong performance for a DVD recorder and would be good enough for most people to not need a separate dedicated player.