As the three-way battle for dominance in DVD recording escalates, we test the latest weapons – smarter, featurepacked recorders costing less than ever before.

DVD recorder prices are tumbling so fast that we can’t quite believe it. The new generation of Philips and Panasonic recorders DVD Recorders represent fabulous value at just over $2000, and we can’t help thinking that any ‘early adopter’ must be livid to learn that most features found on older more expensive recorders can now be obtained for much lower prices.

But there’s still something to be said for the pricer recorder, provided it offers noticeable benefits over the budget decks…and that’s precisely what Philips’ new DVDR890 and Panasonic’s DMR-HS2 claim to do.But do you get what you pay for?

And, now that cheaper decks are widely available, should you take the DVD recording plunge?

Panasonic DMR-E30 | $2199 |

For: Excellent editing and time-shift recording flexibility; easy to use

Against: Unfortunately, DVD-RAM discs have very limited compatibility

Verdict: An impressively adaptable recorder that’s also affordable; compatibility is the only worry.

DVD-RAM is Panasonic’s variation on the DVD recordable theme, and when it emerged we were sure it wouldn’t play on other DVD players for one very simple reason: it came wrapped in a hefty plastic caddy, a larger version of the sort of shroud that protects MiniDiscs. So imagine our surprise when Panasonic said that you could now purchase DVD-RAM discs in ‘naked’ form, with no outer case. Huzzah, we thought, a step forward for compatibility. No such luck: the ‘naked’ discs will play in some new-generation Panasonic DVD players, but that’s all.

Still, the new DMR-E30 scores highly on the price front. When it comes to key features the Panasonic has twin Scarts with RGB capability, only one digital output (optical – while the Philips only has coaxial), and a fairly respectable standard of fit and finish. Similarly, in the top-quality XP recording mode, you get one hour of running time: exactly that offered by Philips.

Surely there’s something that separates the two? Of course: DVD-RAM can be purchased as a double-sided 9.4GB form that allows a total of 12 hours of recording, far more than you get from Philips. These machines can also write DVD-RAM discs far faster than any rival format, so you can play from a disc while recording is still taking place, in a slightly brain-frying concept called Time Slip.

Here’s a hypothetical example: you’ve set the recorder to copy the big match, popped down to the pub, but got home earlier than you thought. The recorder is still recording, and there’s 10 minutes of the game still to go. No problem: simply press play, and the DMR-E30 will record to the final whistle while you’re watching the kick-off.

Is the DMR-E30 better than the Philips DVDR890? A tough question. If you’re a committed ‘timeshifter’, the answer is probably yes, because the Time Slip benefit is considerable, but if you want to make easy recordings that you can also play in other machines, then probably not. Ultimately, it’s down to your needs.

Philips DVDR-890 | $1999 |

For: It is easy to use and versatile

Against: It should come with a smarter housing; needs to lose the plastic feel

Verdict: This is one hot machine which at the price delivers value for money

The new Philips’ DVDR-890 is one of the first DVD format video recorder available for less than $2000 and capable of recording up to six hours of content.

The first thing to take note of is that because it is a Philips machine, the DVDR-890 uses DVD+RW media, which will play back across most other machines. The DVDR-890 looks smart with impressive new housing that will go down well with females in the family.

In addition to the expected composite/Svideo and stereo audio, you get an I. Link connection, so that you can make DVDs from digital camcorder footage. It also has real time MPEG2 variable bit rate video encoder and Dolby Digital audio encoder along

with I-LINK Digital Video Input. The tuner is Pal and BG. It will record for DVD-Video/Audio CD/VCD/S-VCD/CD-R/CD-RW Playback.

The index picture screen allows for instant overview of disc content. It also has a digital time base corrector. With this feature, the playback picture appears perfectly stable without any visible jitter. Vertical edges appear straight, as if drawn with a ruler. Combined with an S-VHS recording, it delivers a real cinema feel.

The new system comes with a 37-key remote control; you can also create an Index Picture Screen on every DVD+RW and DVD+R disc for an instant overview and easy access.

The Record Mode button on the front panel lets you direct select any of the four record modes, ranging from the onehour top quality mode to the extra long six-hour record mode.

You can also record from RGB sources, such as satellite receivers via SCART input, using the best possible video signal. The system also has a Safe Record function, which lets you start a recording without the risk of accidentally overwriting another recording.

The user interface is competent, and much closer to that of a DVD player than a VCR. You have to press the ‘tuner’ button if you want to monitor TV broadcasts or an AV source.

This is one awesome machine.

Samsung DVD-H40A | $1175 |

For: The system is feature packed and like most Samsung products is of a high quality.

Against: This systems screams for Dolby sound and other sound enhancements

Verdict: A solid performer. Note the DVD-H40GB was a late entrant and could not be tested against the other recorders.

It looks like Samsung may be onto something with the DVD-H40A. For the $1175 price tag, this box packs in a lot of features, which should make it a powerful centre piece for any home theatre. While the jury is still out on which technology will be the winner in the DVD record market the new Samsung system is a sure contender.

The 40GB hard drive has the ability to record and “pause” live TV. Better still, you can opt to use the storage space on the hard drive to stash images and digital music, which can then by copied over from CD-Rs or Memory Sticks.

The front panel is cleanly laid out with basic transport controls and selectors that enable you to toggle between DVD playback and hard disk recording. Most of the menu-driven stuff is only accessible via the remote. This may be a problem for some users who prefer access controls on the unit itself.

A look at the DVD H40A’s backside reveals Scarts, S-Video/AV inputs/output and optical/ coaxial digital outputs. Shame we can’t have the options offered on the US version, though; that’s got component video outputs.

When it comes to DVD replay, you get the sort of performance that you’d expect from any one of Samsung’s more expensive players. That means crisp, colourful noise-free images and decent sound.

While you can certainly record AV signals from an external source such as a Foxtel, the DVD-H40 is primarily aimed at those who wish to time-shift analogue terrestrial TV. To that end, you’ll find a Nicam stereo-equipped TV tuner inside, along with conveniences such as a VideoPlus timer system and basic programme-editing options.

You can choose one of several differentquality recording modes: here your options are SQ (2Mbps – 40 hours’ recording), HQ (4Mbps – 20 hours’ recording) and SHQ (6Mbps – eight hours’ recording). HQ is the best compromise between quality and recording time, by far.

Panasonic DMR-HS2 | $2588 |

For: Fine flexibility and features; easy to use; good recording quality

Against: Only the limited adaptability of DVD-RAM discs

Verdict: Extremely impressive: a logical long-term path for all DVD recorders

This Panasonic is the fi rst of what we’re confi dent will be a slew of PVRs (Personal Video Recorders) that combine the convenience and editing fl exibility of a hard-disk recorder with the archiving potential of DVD.

Effectively, these are recorders that don’t actually need software to work: you could own and use a DMR-HS2 without ever needing to buy a single piece of blank software. Instead, you can simply record programs directly from the TV (or other source) onto a 40GB hard disk that potentially allows a handy 52 hours of recording.

After you’ve watched a recording, you can either continue to store it on the hard disk, erase it much as you would do with any computer file, or produce a high-quality ‘hard’ copy, either on a DVD-RAM disc (which will allow for later editing, perhaps on a PC) or on a cheaper and more widely compatible DVD-R.

Sound like fun? It is: the Panasonic is a treat to use. It installs itself rapidly, although as with most DVD players, you’ll need to select functions like TV aspect ratio manually.

And it’s truly an effortless business to make recordings off-air, using the hard drive: see something you like, hit the record button, and away you go. The Panasonic cleverly detects when you’re coming to the end of the disk capacity and automatically adjusts the recording mode appropriately. Although if you’re going to record enough TV to fill a 52-hour disk. Well, you really ought to get out more.

The Panasonic is capable of good DVD-R recordings, but the limitations on recording time are something of a nuisance once you’ve got used to the total flexibility of hard-disk recording. At best quality, the DVD-R onceonly archiving element of the Panasonic works very well and has a wide range of compatibility, but it only gives you one hour of recording time.

And then there’s DVD-RAM, a format that’s pretty much a law unto itself. True, it’s a very flexible editing format, but it doesn’t play in many other players, the latest Panasonic models apart. Even then, you’ll need to pop the DVD-RAM out of its protective outer plastic ‘shroud’ so that it’ll slot into a regular DVD player drive.

Nevertheless, we reckon that Panasonic’s DMR-HS2 will do well. The DVD-Video playback performance is solid, the harddisk recording is brilliant, and it makes disc copies easily.

Despite the comparatively high price – and those format-war issues – the DMR-HS2 makes an attractive buy.

And the winner is…


Panasonic DMR-HS2 |

Now let’s be clear about this: we’ve got some excellent DVD recorders here, each of which offers a lot of fl exibility and performance for your money. But the Panasonic edges our test. While we can appreciate the value offered by the two cheaper decks, and while we’re impressed by the pictureenhancing abilities of the Philips DVDR890 there’s only one recorder that really marks a giant leap forward here, and that’s the DMRHS2. The Panasonic gives you an immense amount of built-in storage capacity, and the chance to ‘dub’ down to DVD as and when you feel like it. Add decent standards of DVD playback and you’re getting a total homeentertainment solution.

However, we’re compelled to mention that until the raging DVD recording format war comes to an end, even this superb unit is a potential technical turkey.

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