One the biggest complaints that people had about Panasonic's second-generation DVD recorder, the DMR-E20, was that it didn't offer progressive-scan output. Well, Panasonic has fixed that little problem in the DMR-E30S, added a couple of other improvements, and dropped the price by $200. Those advances may not make the E30S the perfect standalone DVD recorder, but all things considered, this is an enticing choice. One the biggest complaints that people had about Panasonic's second-generation DVD recorder, the DMR-E20, was that it didn't offer progressive-scan output. Well, Panasonic has fixed that little problem in the DMR-E30S, added a couple of other improvements, and dropped the price by $200. Those advances may not make the E30S the perfect standalone DVD recorder, but all things considered, this is an enticing choice.
Leaner and meaner
If you're familiar with the , the first thing that you'll notice is the E30S's slimmer profile. Like the E20, the E30S is a fairly attractive unit with a silver face that's punctuated with all the requisite buttons--including menu control--plus a set of A/V and S-Video inputs that are hidden behind a flip-out panel. (Panasonic also sells an identical all-black model called the DMR-E30K.) That's all good, but when Panasonic trimmed down the design, it decided to leave the fan assembly protruding from the back of the deck; this may create a problem for those who have shallow entertainment centers, as the unit measures 12 inches deep.
The remote is functional but less than stellar. Though its keys are arranged fairly well, we weren't thrilled to find that none of them are backlit or glow in the dark. We also found the slide-down door that hides the oft-used Open/Close and Input Select buttons slightly annoying. Luckily, the simple menu system makes up for some of the remote's shortcomings; dealing with the E30's many functions is a pretty straightforward affair, though even experienced techies will probably have to consult the manual.
As far as connectivity goes, the E30S's analog inputs include the same RF cable/antenna connections found on a VCR, two sets each of rear A/V and S-Video inputs and outputs, a digital optical output (no coaxial), and a component-video output. But unlike some competing, albeit , there's no FireWire port for digitally connecting a digital video camcorder or a computer. Also absent is anything in the way of meaningful editing functionality. Though the E30S offers some limited, playlist-based editing features, it can't separately record sound and video tracks and really isn't designed to be an editing deck.
However, it is designed to be a VCR killer. For starters, there's VCR Plus for easy timer recording, a built-in clock, and pretty much everything else that you'd expect in a good VCR except for cable/satellite tuner control. Another plus: you can watch one program while recording another on the same DVD-RAM, or you can begin watching, say, the first few innings of a baseball game while the unit records the seventh-inning stretch.
The feature that we liked the best, though, is called Flexible Recording. With the older E20, you can only record in one-hour (best), two-hour, four-hour, and six-hour modes. The drawback to that is if a movie is just more than two hours long, you have to record in four-hour mode instead or two-hour mode, which makes a big difference in terms of quality. But with the E30S's Flexible Recoding feature, you simply enter any time between one hour and six hours--01:34, for example--and the unit will fill a disc to that capacity using the best possible recording quality.
The DMR-E30S accepts DVD-RAMs and DVD-Rs. DVD-RAMs--which currently run $10 and more for 4.7GB--can be recorded and erased over and over and work with the playlist-editing and time-shifting features. DVD-R ($8 and more) functionality is more limited, but the disc can be finalized to play in standard DVD players; DVD-RAMs can be played back only in drives that support DVD-RAM. We tried playing our test DVD-Rs, including TDK- and Pioneer-branded discs, on numerous units and got mostly positive results. Only a couple of older decks circa 1999--an Apex AD-600A and an Onkyo DV-S525--couldn't read our tests discs.
One gripe we had--and we hope that Panasonic is reading this--is that like the E20, the E30S forces you to put a boring, thumbnail-free menu on your homemade DVDs. We encourage the company to provide the user with a snazzier menu-creation system that has a selection of customizable icons or buttons.
Videophiles will happily note that the DMR-E30S can deliver progressive-scan pictures for their HDTVs. It performed well in our video tests, reproducing DVDs with minimal movement artifacts, sharp detail, and fewer dancing pixels, thanks to a noise-reduction circuit.
The E30S's video-recording quality is much better than that of S-VHS or VHS, with less noise, no jitter, and more accurate color in every recording mode. In XP (one hour per disc) and SP (two hours) modes, this DVR measured the maximum 480 lines of resolution; in LP (four hours) and EP (six hours) modes, resolution fell by half, resulting in a much softer picture.
Panasonic also improved MPEG noise reduction over last year's model. When we recorded a section of Run Lola Run during which Lola speeds past brick pillars that pass in front of the camera, the E30S didn't introduce the blocky artifacts that we saw in the same recording made with the E20. On the downside, we did notice some fine dancing-pixel noise in shadows and moving camera shots.
With a street price of around $600, the DMR-E30S is currently the least expensive DVD recorder on the market. In early fall, Panasonic will release the $1,000 DMR-HS2, which features a built-in 40GB hard drive, a PC Card adapter slot, and a FireWire connection. Some will want to wait for that model, but others who are looking for a more basic DVD recorder should be pretty pleased with the DMR-E30S.