|Panasonic DMR-E30 DVD Video Recorder|
|Home Theater Video Players DVD Players|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Tuesday, 01 October 2002|
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The arrival of affordable DVD recorders – and certainly their acceptance – has been delayed by that good old audio industry phenomenon, a format war. There are no less than four different recordable DVD formats, with apparently very little difference between them. It’s even quite difficult to tell them apart, as several have very similar names.
A big consideration for many people (it certainly would be for me, if I were considering buying one of these units) would be compatibility with other players. I want to be able to record my home movies on a DVD in the machine, finalize it (turning it into a DVD-Video disc), send them to friends and know that they will play back on their regular DVD player. The format most likely to succeed in this respect in the minds of many pundits is DVD-R, which is also used by the Pioneer SuperDrive CD/DVD burners provided in Apple Macintosh computers and in some PCs. DVD-R appears to have the greatest ability of the various formats to offer multi-player compatibility, but even here, manufacturers warn that discs may not play back on other machines.
The Panasonic DMR-E30, announced in June 2002, is one of Panasonic’s third-generation DVD recorders, supporting the DVD-R format and also the rewriteable DVD-RAM format – the latter discs will only play back in the recorder. Discs are already quite affordable – about $5 each for a 120-minute (at standard play speed) blank DVD-R disc for example – with the DVD-R rather more easy to find, especially in computer stores.
The DMR-E30 presents itself as a rather elegant, low-profile DVD player, and it is capable of operating as a full-function DVD-Video player, so unless you want DVD-A capability (you do), it may be the only machine you need. The DVD-Video player functionality is as good as those of most players on the market, and includes such things as virtual surround, dialog (CF channel) enhancement and various program and repeat play modes (including some specific to recordable discs).
The Panasonic DMR-E30 is evidently intended to replace a video recorder – recording on disc instead of tape – as well, rather than adding any specific extra functions. The manufacturer’s expectation would appear to be that you will want to use the machine to replay DVD-Video discs (your own and commercial recordings); record your own video material and timeshift TV programming.
Provision is made for inputting composite and S-Video, but not for component video or digital audio (though both are output), making it fairly useless for copying commercial DVDs – which is not, of course, something that you would want to do. But as a VCR replacement, it’s really cool: it even includes VCR-Plus capability, commercial-skipping and other features.
Installation and Setup
The front panel of this sleek unit has a wealth of controls, many of which mirror the remote’s capability, and essentially combine the controls of a VCR and a DVD player, as you might expect. Twin RF coax sockets on the rear panel connect to your TV antenna or cable box – unless, like me, you prefer to run separate audio and baseband video into the unit – and out again. The recorder has a standard channel-finding and clock-setting process that will be familiar to the owners of any modern VCR: this pops up when you power up the unit for the first time. In fact, Panasonic has made a special and welcome effort to make this machine as VCR-like as possible. Combining the features of two very familiar home machines makes overall operation of the recorder pretty straightforward.
There is a component video output, plus a digital optical output, and two main output sets consisting of left/right audio plus composite and S-video. On the input side, there are three L/R/composite/S input sets, one of which is behind a flap on the front panel, ideal for connecting your analog camcorder. Note, however, that there is no provision for hooking up a DV device via FireWire – you need the next model up for that (which also includes a hard drive and retails at around $999). There is also no digital audio input capability so, for example, if you are recording a TV show from your satellite receiver with digital output, you have to hook up the analog side as well.
Panasonic is one of only two mass-market consumer video companies I know of (the other is Philips) that has taken the trouble to make their onscreen displays actually look good. Here we have a clear, readable and quite elegant onscreen font, not one of those ghastly pixilated displays you so often see. In fact the whole onscreen setup is very simple and elegant, making it quick and easy to set the clock and calendar manually (which I had to do, as I was not feeding RF into the box) and run through the rest of the standard configuration settings common to VCRs and DVD players, including setting up the VCR-Plus channel correspondences so that the VCR-Plus programming system can operate successfully.
The remote for the DMR-E30 is, as you might expect, a cross between standard VCR and DVD player remotes that does the job well. It has the ability to control a TV receiver from a fairly short list of common manufacturers.
In addition to playing DVDs, the machine will also play back discs it has recorded, along with Video CDs, audio CDs and (in most cases) CD-R discs.
There are several recording modes. The normal mode is SP (Standard Play), but there is also Long Play (twice as long) and Extra Long Play (three times as long). There is also an “XP” High Quality mode that eats up the disc at twice the normal rate. On the audio front, the usual mode is Dolby AC-3 two-channel, but in XP mode, you can alternatively use linear PCM, at the expense of the picture quality. There is no provision for multi-channel recording, which is probably no real loss, as few people are in a position to originate it and, in any event, it is very difficult to do surround-sound encoding in real time. Additionally, there is no way of inputting digital audio, so you can’t feed in an already-existing encoded audio stream. You can, however, select mono, stereo or SAP sources in a broadcast.
Normally, you’ll select the recording mode manually, the default being SP. However, you can also let the machine decide. If you put in a disc and you tell the machine how long you want to record (in Flexible Record mode), it will work out what recording mode should be used to make this recording time possible with the space available on the disc. Nice. You can simply go into record; you can tell the machine how long you want to record for; or you can set up to 16 timers up to a month in advance, either with VCR-Plus or manually.
If you record a number of items, the recorder will build a table of contents, which you can bring up onscreen over video in Direct Navigator mode and use to go directly to playing a specific program. You can build and perform basic editing on playlists composed of individual scenes. You can also embed up to 999 markers to use as replay points. You likewise can create markers when playing a DVD-Video disc, but these are stored in RAM and are discarded when you open the tray. Markers created on a recordable disc, however, are stored on the disc for future use. You can also delete pieces of video (or at least make them inaccessible – you don’t get the space back on a DVD-R as they are write-once). There are more possibilities for DVD-RAM operation than DVD-R: the former will be very familiar to owners of MiniDisc recorders, where the ability to divide programs, shorten segments and move them around are analogous to MD operations.
Once you’ve created a bunch of items on a disc, you can go in and label the disc at a number of levels: disc title, program titles and playlist titles can be entered by selecting characters one by one from an onscreen two-dimensional grid that is actually surprisingly easy to get around – it’s like a combination of grid selection by navigating and the same method as entering names on a cell phone, pressing number keys several times to select a letter from a row. DVD-RAM discs can be protected or erased as well (and formatted, if formatting is required).
You can also finalize a DVD-R disc, turning it into a DVD-Video-playable disc that can no longer be recorded on – much in the same way that you finalize an audio CD-R to make it Red Book compatible. All markers are lost, and titles that have been entered become menus. The machine will arbitrarily divide the recording up into the equivalent of chapters approximately five minutes long, which you unfortunately can’t determine for yourself, but it’s better than nothing.