Editors' note (February 17, 2010): Panasonic has indicated that it plans to continue selling this 2008 model through the 2010 model year.
Thanks to the rise of Blu-ray, DVD can no longer be considered cutting-edge technology. But with Blu-ray recorders still not a reality--not in North America, anyway--DVD still has the edge when it comes to archiving home video. And because many of those who compulsively record TV shows have a pack rat mentality that dates back to the days of VHS, many of the DVD recorders currently on the market are combo DVD/VCR models.
Panasonic has two such models: the DMR-EA38VK and the DMR-EZ48VK. Both are 2008 products the company is leaving in its lineup for '09. The products are basically identical, but the DMR-EZ48VK reviewed here adds a built-in analog and digital TV tuner. In other words, the tunerless EA38VK is aimed at those who are recording from an external source (such as a cable or satellite box), while the EZ48VK can handle those duties plus it can record over-the-air analog or digital (DTV) signals with the addition of a standard antenna. The DMR-EZ48VK also adds some step-up features, such as a USB port and SDHC card slot for playing MP3s, DivX video files, and JPEG picture files. More important is the DMR-EZ48VK's top-notch performance, which gives crisp recordings even in 4-hour LP mode. The unit also includes our favorite feature, flexible recording, which automatically optimizes the video quality of the content to fill a DVD. While the DVD/VHS combination recorder is surely a dying breed (for the most part, anyway) in today's increasingly digital-only media world, we're comfortable recommending the Panasonic DMR-EZ48VK to those who still need a VHS presence and DVD-recording solution in their home theater systems.
Note that the Panasonic also sells through some retailers a very similar model called the DMR-EZ485VK--it's identical except for the inclusion of an HDMI cable in the box. Meanwhile, those who don't need VHS capabilities should check out the Panasonic DMR-EZ28K, which is the DVD-only version of this model.
Considering the DVD and VHS functionality, Panasonic has crammed all of that hardware into an efficiently designed unit. Sporting an all-black design, the player has a bright LCD display that can be dimmed and a silver horizontal crescent that rests below both loading bays. Toward the bottom-right of the front of the player, you'll find a fold-down door that reveals an SDHC card slot, a FireWire port, and a USB flash input. Also located here are buttons to manually switch controlling either VHS or DVD media. Next to this panel are keys for stop, play, record, and fast-forward, which come in handy when the remote goes missing. Finally, on the lower-left side of the unit, you'll find composite inputs along with S-Video connectivity.
The well-designed remote is identical to that of previous models. Most of the buttons are large enough to differentiate, including the most important ones: Direct Navigator, Schedule, and Functions. There's a prominent directional pad in the center, and above that are large, blue playback buttons, such as Play and Pause. We're still baffled that the remote lacks an Open/Close button, which we like to use to open the tray before walking up to switch a disc.
The simplest way to make a recording on the DMR-EZ48VK is to pop in a disc, select an input, select DVD or VHS, press Record, and hit Stop when you're done. To schedule a recording or edit it, you'll need to plunge more deeply into the interface, which requires a bit of a learning curve, but offers more functionality. Scheduling works easily enough, but you'll need to remember to turn off the DVD recorder before your scheduled program comes on--a minor annoyance if you want to use your recorder in the meantime. The same rule applies to recording directly to VHS.
The Direct Navigator is the main interface that you'll use to access your recordings. The main screen displays six recordings at a time, represented by thumbnail images that start to play back when you hover the cursor over them. You can enter title information through this interface and, if you're using DVD-RAM discs, erase and rerecord titles and perform simple editing to remove commercials, for example. Of course, when using VHS functionality, these options are not available.
The Direct Navigator also acts as a media browser for your MP3 music, DivX videos, and JPEG images. You can also begin a slide show through this menu with your images--off a thumb drive, an SDHC card, or a CD--and play your MP3 music to accompany it. We found the overall experience to be intuitive enough, if you're familiar with using the interface of a satellite receiver or cable set-top box.
The Panasonic DMR-EZ48VK can make recordings on DVD or VHS from an external video source (such as a cable or satellite box connected to the unit's S-Video or composite video inputs) or from its built-in TV tuner, which accepts analog (NTSC) or digital (ATSC) signals. That means the EZ48VK can tune analog cable signals or DTV over-the-air signals from an antenna. In other words, it has the same sort of capability as a DTV converter box--perfect for any antenna TV viewers who want to watch and record digital TV broadcasts once the analog stations shut down later in 2009.
TheEZ48VK's auto-tuning setup works quick enough: after setting the device to scan for channels, the unit automatically adds those broadcast channels that come in. You can also manually set up this process, as you may find some specific stations can be skipped accidentally during the automated session.
This unit includes the standard four recording modes: highest-quality XP fits 1 hour of video on a DVD; SP fits 2 hours; LP fits 4 hours; and EP, the worst video quality, fits about 8 hours of video. The trade-offs in video quality versus capacity can be drastic: XP is nearly indistinguishable from the source, while EP is barely watchable. As we'll explain below, however, 4-hour LP mode looks very good. The DMR-EZ48VK also supports dual-layer DVD-R and DVD+R discs, doubling the video capacity to 2 hours for XP mode and 16 hours for EP. You can also record to VHS at three various speeds: SP, EP, and VP, SP being the best quality. We really liked Auto mode, which will use the best picture quality setting for the amount of tape you have left.
There's a similar setting for DVD recording. Sometimes what you want to record doesn't fit well with the available recording modes. For instance, say you want to record a movie that's 2 hours and 5 minutes long, but don't want to drop down to LP mode. Panasonic has a solution for this, and it's one of our favorite features: flexible recording, which allows you to completely fill a DVD with content and optimize the video quality. Unfortunately, you'll need to schedule a recording at a specific start and end time, which may not be a workable option if, for example, you're recording a Yankees game that slips into extra innings.
We liked that Panasonic included chasing playback again on DVD-RAM discs, which means you can watch a program from the beginning, even while it's in the process of recording. Additionally, you can watch a different program recorded on the disc, while it's in the process of recording. Think of chasing playback as a limited, DVD-RAM based DVR, which may be adequate if you don't plan on recording much. On the other hand, it's not as DVR-like as you might expect; you can't pause or rewind live TV, and the capacity of a single disc is pretty limited. We did appreciate the inclusion of the "CM Skip" button, which allows you to blast by commercials a minute at a time.
The DMR-EZ48VK can also dub videos from VHS to DVD or vice versa. The caveat, of course, is that they can't be copy-protected Hollywood releases. But anyone with home movies or old TV recordings on VHS will appreciate the ability to finally make a quick and easy DVD copy.
As for connectivity, the DMR-EZ48VK comes with an HDMI output, which is capable of upconverting DVDs and incoming signals to 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. There's also a component video output, which is capable of upscaling incoming signals and homemade DVDs to 1080i, but is limited to 480p for commercial DVDs. For older TVs, there is also a standard AV output with S-Video. There are two AV inputs with S-Video and composite video (one front and one back) used to connect to standard home theater components, as well as a FireWire input for connecting a camcorder. Rounding out the connectivity is an optical digital-audio output, which can be used to playback surround sound such as 5.1 Dolby Digital on commercial DVDs.
In addition to AV connections, the DMR-EZ48VK also sports a front-panel SDHC card slot and a USB port. The SDHC card slot can display JPEG images, and you can display JPEGs and listen to MP3s off a USB memory stick. You can also access media burned onto both DVDs and CDs. Even better, the DMR-EZ48VK can play DivX video files located on DVDs, CDs, an SD card, or stored on a USB thumb drive.
To test DVD-recording image quality, we connected the DMR-EZ48VK to our DirecTV HR20 via S-Video. The video quality in both XP and SP was excellent and virtually identical, making it easy for us recommended choosing SP mode and gaining the extra hour of recording time. By comparison, the video processor of the rival Toshiba D-R410 DVD recorder couldn't handle the full resolution of DVDs--as exemplified by recording HQV's tests--and it showed on a relatively soft recording of the "Late Show with David Letterman". The Panasonic also finalized its recordings sometimes as much as 30 seconds faster than the Toshiba.
As usual, we were impressed by the Panasonic's video quality in LP mode. While most recorders experience a big drop-off in image quality from SP to LP mode, the DMR-EZ48VK's drop-off is slight. Comparing clips of Arrested Development in XP and LP mode, we could see a slight difference: XP mode occasionally had more detail in the backgrounds, and we saw slightly more compression artifacts and jaggies at various times in LP mode--but it's very slight and the vast majority of users will treat it as equivalent. That means you can get 4 hours of near-XP quality on a single DVD. No other DVD recorder we've tested can do that.
Stepping down from LP to EP mode drastically reduced the video quality. Plenty of detail was lost in the resolution test pattern from Silicon Optix's HQV test suite, with lines bleeding into each other. In one scene from Seinfeld, a newspaper is thrown across Jerry's apartment and we noticed that the paper "doubled up" with plenty of compression artifacts. The Toshiba faired poorly on all three of its high-capacity settings: we noticed little difference between LP, EP, and SLP, all of which were comparable to Panasonic's EP mode.
We didn't have any trouble getting the Panasonic to record on all disc types, including DVD-RAM, DVD+R/-R, and DVD+RW/-RW, and having it display in the correct aspect ratio on wide-screen TVs.
VHS recording performance proved to be much more defined in quality levels. Obviously, SP yielded the best results, while VP rendered material that was barely watchable. We'd recommend taking advantage of the Auto setting and allowing the device to calculate the best setting for the amount of tape you have.
We do have one complaint about the speed of the VHS functionality: seems a bit slower than VCRs we have used in the past. But the picture quality and performance of the DMR-EZ48VK surely outweighs its lethargic operation.
DVD player performance
Testing pure upconversion performance, we once again started off with HQV. The Panasonic did fine on the first test, demonstrating its ability to handle the full resolution of DVDs. The Toshiba, however, fell apart right away. It could not render the 1080p section, washing out the vertical lines into a flicking box. The Panasonic had middling performance on the next jaggy tests: it had trouble handling the third of the three shifting lines, and the rotating white line had more jaggies than we'd like to see. The Toshiba failed this altogether. On the flag test, the Panasonic also produced quite a few jaggies. Despite handling the resolution test well, the DMR-EZ48VK had some trouble with the detail test, as we saw curved lines known as moire in the white marble steps. On the other hand, it did an excellent job on the 2:3 pull-down test, successfully kicking into film mode in a fraction of a second.
We also took a look at some actual program material. We started off with Star Trek: Insurrection, and the DMR-EZ48VK handled it well, as it smoothly rendered the curved railings of the bridge and hulls of the boats. Next up was the introduction to Seabiscuit, and we were impressed with the DMR-EZ48VK's performance. Sure, we saw a minor jaggy here and there, but overall the picture looked excellent on this notoriously difficult sequence. It won't compare to high-priced DVD upscalers, like the Oppo DV-983H, but it's definitely good enough to be your DVD playback machine if you're not a picky videophile.
Editors' Note: The DVD-recording capabilities of this product are identical to that of the Panasonic DMR-EA18K. As a result, the reviews are very similar.