Panasonic recorders are the Volvos of the DVD world. Solid and reliable, they don't usually innovate, nor are they cheap, but they can always be depended on for quality. The company has been producing DVD and hard drive combos for a long time, and it has also produced an excellent integrated Freeview hard drive recorder. The ES20D is the company's first DVD recorder and digital tuner combo unit, offering higher quality picture recordings and convenient scheduling from the electronic programme guide.
The ES20D ultimately struggles from lacking a hard drive, as DVD capacity isn't big enough to hold all the programmes that would be missed during a two-week holiday. However, if you can live without this, the integration of Freeview and DVD recording has never been this sophisticated. Panasonic has included support for the DVD-RAM format, which means you can edit recordings and timeslip, and it also records to DVD-R and DVD+R formats for when you want to use cheaper discs. It's a much more elegant approach than having two separate boxes, although the lack of features means it should be classed as a budget recorder.
Panasonic's DVD recorder is as uninspiring as they come, but it boasts clean lines and an appealing silver finish. The box is light as there's not much packed inside, and it's no taller than your average standalone DVD player. There are plenty of logos scattered across the front (with 'DVB' being the European name for 'Freeview') and a fold-down panel for front connectivity. All major inputs and outputs are located on the rear, and the chilling empty planes of the front panel are emphasised by the lack of card slots and DV inputs (but more on this later).
One set of composite and S-Video inputs are included on the front, meaning they can be easily accessed while remaining hidden away in everyday use. These will most likely be used for connecting a camcorder, but there's no reason why you can't connect something like a games console if your TV doesn't have front AV inputs. The lack of DV input for camcorders is a disappointment though -- using the S-Video input results in a loss of quality and is slightly more fiddly than DV. It's just one consequence of the budget price tag -- another is the lack of an SD card slot.
Things are much better around the back of the recorder. Component video outputs send a high-quality, progressive-scan signal to a flat-screen display or projector, which makes this worth the upgrade for those with DVD players that only have RGB Scart outputs. The ES20D still has an RGB Scart output, so if you have a CRT TV then you can use this instead of component video, plus the recorder has an RGB Scart input for high-quality recording from another device.
There's not much else that you'd want to record from, as the Freeview tuner is inside the box, aside from perhaps backing up your video tapes to DVD. Bear in mind that commercial recordings are copy protected though, and will not be recorded by the Panasonic. Finally, there's an optical audio output for sending Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks to a surround-sound amplifier.
One of the reasons why Panasonic DVD recorders are recommended is the company's remote control design, which makes recording and editing a breeze. Cutting recordings with an IR remote can be a painful exercise, but Panasonic's simple menu system means you can remove the and breaks with ease, as well as set up chapter breaks.
As Freeview has been integrated into the box, recording and scheduling is much easier than it would be with a separate recorder and digital receiver. Hit the Guide button and the Panasonic produces a seven-day listing across all the channels, and you can select any of the programmes to record by pressing a single button. As if this wasn't easy enough, you can also enter VideoPlus+ codes from a listings magazine if you're more used to VHS recording. The recorder can hold 16 separate recording schedules up to a month in advance.
DVD recording capacity ranges from 1 hour to 8 hours depending on your preference for quality over capacity. You can select from a number of different levels, with the XP giving 1 hour, SP 2 hours, LP 4 hours and EP between 6-8 hours. While XP and SP are more or less indistinguishable from the original broadcast, LP and below introduces a VHS-like degradation to the image with less detail and blur during fast motion.
Support for the various disc formats is excellent, with only DVD+RW missing out on recording compatibility (although the machine will play these discs back). Of the various formats, DVD-R/RW is the cheapest, DVD+R is slightly more compatible when playing in standalone DVD players, while DVD-RAM is the most versatile. DVD-R/+R should be used for everyday recording, but DVD-RAM offers extra functionality such as timeslipping (or chasing playback), where you can watch a programme that is still being recorded. As usual, Panasonic presents this feature in the easiest way possible for the user, allowing you to see a Picture-in-Picture preview of the programme from the beginning and as it is being broadcast live.
The lack of support for DivX playback and the absence of an SD card slot are the most disappointing consequences of the budget price tag. The missing DV input for camcorders is also a problem, as the S-Video method is more fiddly and of a lower quality. You would need to spend another £100 to get a hard drive into this package, but its omission has the most detrimental effect on the recorder's practicality. The hard drive would have allowed more recordings to be made, plus you could hold and edit everything on the hard drive and backup the things you want to keep in high quality to a DVD-R/+R. Anyone seriously into the idea of an integrated digital TV recorder should seriously consider this option before buying.
At the XP and SP recording levels, the Panasonic DMRES20D produces video and audio that is indistinguishable from the original broadcast. The two-hour capacity of SP is just about enough for most films, but it's a shame to lose so much quality in order to fit a two-and-a-half-hour movie on one disc. The recorder captures everything in Dolby Digital 2.0, and while it's a step down from commercial 5.1 soundtracks, the box records a rich soundstage across all quality levels. You can also choose to use Dolby Virtual Surround if you want to fill the room out.
As a player, the ES20D cannot be faulted, providing high-quality DVD playback across component video and RGB Scart. The former is the best option for flat-screen owners, and while many standalone DVD players will upscale to high definition resolutions these days, the Panasonic does an excellent job of providing a rock-solid picture at 480p and 576p. The optical audio output gives high-quality 5.1 digital sound, but if you're just playing back recordings, the analogue outputs are just as good for rigging up to a surround system.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide