Panasonic DMR-E30 DVD Video Recorder 
Home Theater Video Players DVD Players
Written by Richard Elen   
Tuesday, 01 October 2002

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.

Recording and Playback
The Panasonic DMR-E30 performs entirely satisfactorily as a DVD-Video player, with the best video quality from the component outputs that you would expect, with S-Video close behind. The playback quality of pre-recorded discs was as good as any non-progressive player I’ve seen. It also has some unusual capabilities, such as being able to replay a disc while recording something else.

Of course, what sets the unit apart is its recording capability. I tried recording a complete movie to DVD-R, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” starring Murray Head, recorded from one of the less-compressed satellite movie channels onto my DishPlayer’s hard drive and then via stereo analog audio and S-Video into the Panasonic.

It was a simple matter to select the correct input, check that everything was behaving, and press record. When recording in the default SP mode was completed, I pressed Stop, entered a disc title, and finalized the disc – with a DVD-R, this is just about all you can do. Of course, you can record multiple items up to the capacity of the disc and title them all.

The video quality on playback from the Panasonic in SP mode was indistinguishable from the original, which had been recorded from an MPEG-compressed satellite channel (although not one of the really heavily-compressed ones). The video quality was way better than that of any VCR I have seen, as you would expect. Recording in the Long Play and Extra long Play did cause a deterioration of quality and increased artifacts. XP Mode did not seem to offer visible improvement with my satellite sources, but there was an improvement with camcorder input, although this was slightly compromised by the fact that I had to provide an analog feed from my DV camcorder. My suggestion would be to use SP for normal applications.

As promised, the finalization process divided the movie into a series of chapters slightly over five minutes in length, which, as you might expect, were unnoticeable during playback. On insertion into a player, the disc brought up a root menu, which had the disc title I’d entered but nothing else (there is only one title on the disc). You do not have any true “authoring” capability on this machine: for that, you need Final Cut Pro on your Mac.

I took the disc to my other two players. My Kenwood DV-5700 played the disc flawlessly, and so did my Sampo multi-region DVD player. I was, incidentally, unable to discover what regional coding the Panasonic applied to the disc, if any, as all my players accept Region 1 (U.S.) discs. The Panasonic manual tells you what regions it will play back (1 only as supplied), but not what it records. I assume the answer is “all,” which should play on any player.

While I was at it, I copied “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and “Casablanca” to DVD-R from my hard drive, which of course are both monochrome, but again, the picture quality appeared identical to that of the source material.

Recording multiple selections on a DVD-RAM disc showed off the MD-like editing functions, which worked as advertised, producing a disc that would only play on the Panasonic, as expected.

The Downside
What you think of as the downside of this machine really depends on what you are expecting from it. If you’re expecting a box to copy commercial DVDs via your de-Macrovisioned player, you will be disappointed if you want to transfer anything with more than two audio channels, and even in stereo, you can’t transfer audio digitally into the unit – and there is no component video input.

For camcorder enthusiasts, it doesn’t include an IEEE1394 FireWire port, which limits its use with digital video equipment. While the editing capability on DVD-RAM is extensive, there is little you can do with a DVD-R, especially if you finalize it. This is probably a shortcoming of the format, though one would have thought it would be possible to build a proper TOC with manually-defined chapter breaks rather than have to rely on automatic arbitrary ones.

If you want to transfer your camcorder material to DVD, this is a very cool way of doing it, but you will need to do it analogically, as this machine does not possess a FireWire port to accept a digital (DV) camcorder. The next model up, however, does (at considerably more money).

If you want something to replace your VCR, this is probably it. It records video with essentially the same level of quality as the source material put into it, bearing in mind that virtually anything you can input to the device will have already been compressed with a lossy technique. It’s a million miles better than rusty plastic (tape), however, and despite the manufacturer’s (and the pundits’) caveats on machine compatibility, the multi-machine playability of a finalized DVD-R disc seemed pretty reliable to me.

Should you buy a DVD recorder yet? Assuming you have the need for one, the machines that are coming out now and over the coming months will probably offer an acceptable combination of features and price. But start from a position of knowing what you want to do with the machine before you start looking. A DVD recorder is like an audio CD recorder. It does what it does very well, but does it do what you want it to do? If you want too much, you should be looking for a computer system.

So… do you want a VCR replacement? If so, here it is. Want to put your camcorder efforts onto disc, with about as much editing as you ever did to your tapes, i.e., not very much? If so, the DMR-E30 will do well for you, too. If you want to transfer stuff from DV, then you probably want to look elsewhere, higher up in the line.

If, however, you are really serious about putting video onto DVD in something like fully-edited form, you really need a Macintosh and Final Cut Pro, iDVD and the other applications that are making conventional non-linear video editor manufacturers pretty sick right now.
Manufacturer Panasonic
Model DMR-E30 DVD Video Recorder
Reviewer Richard Elen

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