Pros: Price, build quality, responsive, picture and sound quality, easy to use, DV/FireWire
Cons: No DVD+RW recording
DVD recorders are getting almost insanely cheap. After I sold my Panasonic DMR-ES10, which I originally purchased for $189, I got the new model: Panasonic DMR-ES20 for only $169. Not only it is less than I paid for my previous DVD recorder, it is less than what I paid for my first Panasonic DVD player several years ago and much less than what my first VCR cost me! And for this price, the ES20 has a feature that its predecessor did not have - a FireWire (i.Link) digital input for digital camcorders!
The recorder is available in either silver or black color.
In the Box
The ES20 arrived with its remote control, batteries, AC power cord, one Panasonic DVD-RAM disc, RF cable, A/V cable, manuals and the leaflet describing benefits of DVD-RAM - the standard that Panasonic invented and is trying to increase the market share of, set-up guide and the manual.
Just as its predecessor, the DMR-ES20 can record on DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD+R and DVD-RW. It cannot record to DVD+RW, but it plays all formats. You get the most flexibility if you use DVD-RAM discs, which work faster and let you use more of the recorder's features.
In addition to all recordable DVD formats, the recorder can play store-bought movies on DVD-Video as well as Video CD, Audio CD, Audio CD-R, Audio CD-RW, MP3 CD-R and MP3 CD-RW as well as CDs with JPEG pictures. You cannot play DVDs with MP3 files.
The ES20 has progressive (if you have and HDTV or EDTV television) and "standard" (interlaced) playback (progressive scan available through its component video out). Just as most VCRs, this recorder has a built-in TV tuner, VCR Plus+, timer recording and manual recording. It has more speeds/modes than the VCR however, and much better picture quality in top quality modes. The available modes are: XP, SP, LP, EP-6H, EP-8H and flexible recording mode.
The digital FireWire (DV Video) input is available on the front panel. As a DVD/CD player, the ES20 does what other DVD payers do and has things like parental control, angle select, soundtrack select, subtitle select, still, slow and fast motion, resume, virtual surround sound, zoom, etc. It also has dialogue enhancer and dynamic range compression for night viewing, black level control, slide show for JPEG images, zoom and rotation of images.
The supplied remote control that can also control different brands of TVs.
The recorder has one set of A/V outs (optical digital audio out, composite video out, component video out, S-Video out and an analog stereo out). The component video out can be switched between interlaced and progressive scan mode. There is also an RF input and an RF out for antenna or analog cable.
There are two sets of A/V inputs, one of which is on the front panel (composite video, analog stereo audio and S-Video). The front inputs are located in the lower center of the front panel and are covered by a lid that also covers the channel up/down buttons. The DV input (FireWire) is also located under this lid.
The recorder uses a power cord is of the kind that can be disconnected and replaced if necessary, which I like. The recorder has an optical digital audio out, which I use for DVD playback.
The ES20 has several recording modes/speeds. The XP mode lets you fit about 1 hour on one single-sided disc at standard DVD resolution of about 540x480. The SP fits 2 hours with very similar image quality (more on this later). The LP fits 4 hours and, unlike most other DVD recorders, it preserves the horizontal resolution of over 500 lines (about 540x480). The tradeoff is encoding artifacts, especially in scenes with a lot of motion.
The recorders EP modes fit 6 and 8 hours respectively and feature reduced resolution of 260x240 (as they do in other DVD recorders). The sound quality is about the same in all modes. The audio is recorded in 2-channel (stereo) Dolby Digital AC-3. The flexible recording more adjusts the recording parameters (bit rate) so that the program fits on the disc at the best possible quality. Obviously, the longer the program that fits on the disc, the worse the quality gets. The quality is pretty good up to about 3 hours per disc.
Just as the previous generation of DVD recorders, the ES20 is relatively large and heavy. At least comparing to the recent DVD players, which are light and compact. The ES20 looks and feels solid and substantial, which gives you an impression of good durability and build quality.
The remote control looks stylish and nice. Both the remote and the recorder look well assembled. The remote controls battery compartment door is hinged making it less prone to being lost or broken and the buttons have excellent tactile feel, much better than on the remote of my Panasonic S35 DVD player.
The recorder has a disc tray in the left part of the front panel, which accepts caddy-encased or caddy-less (regular) DVDs. It came with a Panasonic DVD-RAM.
Overall, the recorder and its remote seem to have better build quality and ergonomics than you average DVD player.
I was impressed by the recorders responsive operation (both recording and playback). It responds to commands much faster than a VCR, even disregarding the fact that you do not need to rewind the tape or search for the segment you need.
Having used the previous model, I did not have to open the manual at all. If you are coming from the VCR world, you have to remember that you use the [Input Select] button located just below the power button on the remote to switch between inputs (unlike most VCRs, where you use channel up/down buttons).
Be advised that the DVD recorder is a little more difficult to use that a VCR, mostly because of its added functionality, but I find it not excessively difficult to use. And I find Panasonic DVD recorders much easier to use than some other brands.
An example of the added functionality, previously unavailable in a VCR: you can start recording a program onto a DVD-RAM disc by pressing the [Rec] button and then later start watching the same program from the beginning while still recording the rest of it by pressing [Play]. In order to stop the playback of the program you press [Stop] and if you want to stop recording this program, you can press [Stop] again, 2 or more seconds after you pressed the [Stop] button the first time to stop the playback.
Keep in mind that DVD-R/RW/+R discs have to be finalized before you can play them in other/standard DVD players. DVD-RAM discs do not have to be finalized but can only be played in DVD players that support them: mostly relatively recent Panasonic DVD players. But the power DVD-RAM format is its flexibility when used for re-recording. They work faster and Panasonic claims high durability in re-recording.
This is a claim I have no time or desire to evaluate as I am not going to try to re-record the same disc a thousand times, but DVD-RAM discs seem to work well and provide features that other formats cannot provide (e.g. chasing playback). To date, I have used both the Panasonic DVD-RAM and 2.4x Philips DVD+R made by CMC Magnetics - a company not known for making the best DVD media. Even the CMC disc worked well. I also used Verbatim DVD+R.
The manual recording is easy. You select the recording mode (XP, SP, LP or EP) and hit [Rec]. You can pause and restart recording at any time by hitting [Pause]. You stop the recording by hitting [Stop]. With DVD-RAM, there is no waiting after the recording is stopped. With other discs, you might have to wait while the recorder finishes the recording of the current segment, which lasts several seconds - not too bad.
The ES20 is very responsive reacting to commands (record, pause, stop, etc.). When you record several programs on one disc, it creates titles for each one (T1, T2, etc.) automatically, so there is no need to look for empty space. You can specify different recording modes/speeds for different titles by pressing the [Rec Mode] button. If you change the recording mode while in Rec/Pause state, a new title will be created automatically.
The [Rec Mode] button cycles through XP, SP, LP and EP mode. EP mode can be selected between 6-hour and 8-hour mode in the setup menu ([Function] button). At any time you can see the remaining free space in hours and minutes for the currently selected recording mode by pressing the [Status] button twice. I routinely combine several programs recorded in LP and SP mode on once disc with no problems.
At any time (while not recording) you can hit [Direct Navigator] button to get to the screen which lists thumbnails (video) and descriptions of the titles recorded. From there, you can select a title and play it or select it and edit title or other information by hitting the [Submenu] button.
The title editing is slightly cumbersome as you have to select letters, digits and numbers from the onscreen selection. But it can be expected as the recorder has no keyboard or keypad to enter letters.
Non-erasable formats can have commercials removed if you watch the program while recording and use the [Pause] button to stop and restart the recording. The re-recordable formats let you erase commercials after the recording.
Non-DVD-RAM discs have to be finalized before you can play them in a standard DVD player. The process is accessed through the [Function] button an going to the Disc Management menu. You can specify if playback will start from the first title or from the menu/list of titles.
The disc finalization takes less than 3 minutes and discs play it in my Panasonic S35 DVD player. The menu with thumbnails and descriptions of the programs appears and I can select the program I want to see. Overall, the recorder is pretty easy to use.
Forget your VCR. The picture quality in the XP mode is outstanding and is virtually indistinguishable from the original. The edges of objects are sharp, there is no video noise and there are no problems with fast moving objects. Since only 1 hour fits on the disc in the XP mode, I mostly use SP mode for high-quality recordings. In the SP mode, the picture quality is almost as good as in the XP mode. In fact, I could notice no difference.
The more economical LP and EP modes are decent. The EP modes are mostly suitable for either video programs with mostly static content or programs where sound matters more than the video (concerts, etc.) The LP mode has the same resolution as the SP/XP, but its lower bit rate makes for encoding artifacts, especially in scenes with a lot of motion.
The EP modes have lower resolution and artifacts. If you look closely, the LP mode adds some artifacts/digital noise at the edges of objects whereas the EP makes the picture less detailed, softer overall and features some artifacts even on solid surfaces.
I do not use EP modes and use LP when necessary. I use SP most of the time and especially for digital camcorder footage.
The DMR-ES20 is a very impressive DVD recorder. Its low price, excellent performance, features, format versatility and connectivity make it a great choice. It even has a digital camcorder input (DV).
If you need a hard drive, look elsewhere. But otherwise, the ES20 is a great and inexpensive choice.
Other Panasonic DVD Recorders