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With DVD recorders set to consign VHS to history, we test a range of solutions on offer from the big manufacturers, including rewritable and write-once machines, plus DVD/hard-disc combinationsDigital video recorders are a real growth area. All the big manufacturers are getting involved, but – as on too many occasions in home entertainment – the industry can’t agree on a way forward. There’s a choice of three recording formats – DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW and DVD-RAM – each with plus points but, on the whole, if you just want to make time-shift recordings, any will do. The real issue is one of compatibility: if you make a recording on your machine and want to give it to someone else there’s no guarantee that the disc will work in his or her player.

Go the write-once DVD-R or DVD+R route and that’s less of an issue, with more than 80 per cent of standard DVD players able to replay the disc. Try re-recordable and the story is different, with the least compatible being the DVD-RAM format. Don’t write-off the format though, as there are several excellent machines that use it.

The next step on from a basic DVD recorder is the inclusion of a hard-disk drive. These are pretty much what you’d find in a standard computer and can store well over 100 hours of programs, which is likely to be more than enough for most people. The combination of DVD recorder and hard drive is ideal: archiving is easy and it’s possible to keep a large store of programs ready to watch. Such a machine is complex, but the manufacturers generally do a great job of keeping their products easy to set-up and use.

The growth in this market means that prices and specification move at a terrific rate: so something that scores well today will probably be superseded by a rival within six months or so. Just make sure that whatever you buy does exactly what you need, so when a more sophisticated alternative arrives you won’t feel short-changed.

Here, we put together seven of the latest DVD recorders and DVD/hard-disc drive combinations to find the best solutions. Read on, the results are surprising.

The different DVD recording formats explained

DVD-RW/DVD-R

Approved by the DVD Forum, the write-once DVD-R and rewritable DVD-RW formats offer excellent compatibility and are supported by a wide range of manufacturers. Thanks to the VR mode on DVD-RW discs, 32 different levels of recording quality are available, as well as MiniDisc-style editing facilities: you can delete and edit any segment of recorded content and move recordings around on the disc. Once finalised, a DVD-R disc offers around 90 per cent compatibility with existing DVD players, and a DVD-RW disc in Video mode will play on about 65 per cent of decks.

DVD+RW/DVD+R

These are rival formats backed by the DVD+RW Alliance, a Philips-led consortium of manufacturers. Finalised discs are compatible with most existing DVD players and the finalisation process is much faster than that of DVD-R. Yet these formats don’t offer VR mode, so there’s no alternative to storing data in sequential order. Should you wish to delete one of your recordings, a gap’s left on the disc: overfill the gap and you overwrite the next recording. We also noticed that recorders spinning DVD+RW discs tended to be a little sluggish in their operation. However, some recorders can store up to eight hours on a single 4.7Gb disc.

DVD-RAM

DVD-RAM is also approved by the DVD Forum. Like a hard-disc drive, data is not stored upon the disc surface sequentially, but randomly distributed and indexed wherever there is space. This makes it a great format for editing – data need not be physically moved with any edit: rather, the index changes. The main disadvantage is that DVD-RAM discs are not compatible with most DVD players, though new Panasonic models support the format.

Other benefits include ‘TimeSlip’ functionality, allowing you to watch a recording before it has completed. Also, One-Touch recording lets you pause any TV program you’re watching and pick it up where you left off later on. In tests we noticed that DVD-RAM discs were quick to react to recording and stop commands, and quick to find any recording on the disc. A single-sided disc can store six hours of data.

 

Panasonic DMR-E50 | $1099 |

For: Fine recordings; good DVD replay; easy to use and set-up

Against: Limited compatibility of DVD-RAM

Verdict: This Panasonic recorder is a star – an easy to use and affordable product.

The DMR-E50 is Panasonic’s entry level DVD recorder and from the start, it offers fuss-free, functional operation.

Set-up is easy, and once the machine’s up and running we can’t imagine anyone having problems with playback or recording. Video channels are instantly tuned and stored and actions are assisted by well presented, simple to follow onscreen menus.

There are four modes, allowing a standard 4.7GB DVD-RAM disc to give maximum recording duration of six hours, but in most situations we’d sacrifice duration for picture quality and would use one of the two high-quality modes. These only allow you to store two hours of video on a single 4.7GB disc but the picture quality is virtually indistinguishable from the source material. And then there’s Time Slip recording, which allows you to play from a disc that’s still recording and even watch the start of a recording while it finishes. Recordings look virtually the same as original programs and audio has minimum hiss.

This machine is good enough to be used as a player too: images from RGB output are sharp and detailed and surround sound from the digital  output is effective. Picture quality on Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle is crisply defined with a rich rendition of colour, while movie sound trumps that of most rivals with a mix of authority and vivid dynamics. Voices are articulate and easy to hear even when the soundtrack gets complicated.

With music a dedicated CD player will – as is the case with all the machines here – perform considerably better, but for what it is, this Panasonic does a decent job. Timing is crisper than most of the competition can offer and detail levels are pleasing. It also avoids the tonal thinness many of the breed exhibit, so it is an easier long-term listen. If you want a straightforward machine and aren’t worried about compatibility with other non-DVD-RAM players, then the DMR-E50 remains a great buy.

Panasonic DMR-E60 | $1399 |

For: Fine recordings and replay performance with films and music; connectivity

Against: Only worth the extra over the DMR-E50 if the additional features apply to you; DVD-Audio replay stereo only

Verdict: Extra connectivity means the DMR-E60 earns its way. However, if you just want a basic DVD recorder go for the cheaper DMR-E50.

Looks just the same as the DMR-E50, doesn’t it? That’s no surprise. This machine is effectively the DMR-E50 with a greater range of features and a $300 price hike. When you compare the two it’s difficult to tell them apart on DVD recording quality or movie replay. In both cases the results are fine, with recordings made in one of the higher-quality modes being pretty much as good as the original source material. Play a shop-bought disc and the DMR-E60 continues to set a high standard for visual detail resolution. Skin tones are always difficult to get right, but this Panasonic goes further down the correct road than most rivals. Movie sound is dynamic, yet enjoys a good degree of subtlety when the scene demands. CD replay is as good as the cheaper model. So how does it justify its price premium? Well, it has both SD and PC-card slots, which means it can display and save still pictures and moving images stored on such media. The PC-card slot will accept a whole range of cards such as Multimedia, Compact Flash, and even Memory Stick, provided an adaptor is used. These usually are readily available from computer shops. There’s also a DV input, which means digital camcorder users can archive their home movies easily.

The DMR-E60 also plays DVD-Audio discs. Oddly, the company has decided that people who are likely to buy a DVD recorder don’t want surround DVD-Audio sound, so this machine will only output this high-quality signal in two channels. Sure, there’s always the Dolby Digital down-mix to give surround sound, but it seems a shame Panasonic didn’t go the whole way to make full use of DVD-A’s abilities. That disappointment aside, this is a fine machine. If you don’t need the extra functions, then go for little brother and save some money.

 
Sony RDR-GX3 | $1399 |

For: Excellent build and performance; logical controls make it a joy to use

Against: There’s strong competition at lower prices.

Verdict: Not cheap, but this Sony has the ability to justify its price. It’s one of the best options in this group.

With prices tumbling, more expensive DVD recorders need to justify their premium. This one does: it combines elegance with functionality in a way that only Sony products tend to, and is beautifully built too. This carries over to the remote handset, which is by some margin the nicest unit to operate in this group, thanks to its shape and logical layout.

The RDR-GX3 can record on DVD-R/RW and DVD+RW, so avoiding a direct part in any format war. Oddly, recording on DVD+R isn’t on the menu, and neither is DVD-RAM, as this requires a different loading mechanism to work due to its protection caddy. Still, even though this Sony isn’t a universal recording solution it manages to go some of the way to that ideal.

Simple set-up, superb menus and intuitive controls make this the easiest recorder to use in this test. And performance is excellent: recordings are crystal clear and packed with plenty of fine detail; colours are vivid without being overblown and difficult tests such as skin tones are passed with ease. True, movement isn’t handled with the fluidity of Panasonic’s DMR-E50, but the Sony has better outright resolution, so it can hold its own against such competition. This recorder remains positive on replay too.Image quality from commercial discs is top-class and a clear step ahead of all but the very best DVD players.

Movie sound is crisp, taut and powerful: yes, the tonal balance is a touch on the cool side – something we’ve noticed on many Sony products – but this doesn’t stop it from being involving and exciting when a soundtrack demands. CD performance is similarly pleasing; the timing and dynamics won’t worry dedicated players from Arcam and NAD, but the RDR-GX3 is still capable enough to lead this group.

The Sony has the performance to match its price tag. The RDR-GX3 is definitely highly recommended.

Thomson DTH 8000A | $999 |

For: Good image replay performance, with fine colours and strong definition

Against: Shame the sonic performance with music and movies isn’t up to the same standard

Verdict: A mixed performer that doesn’t do enough to earn a recommendation.

This is a slick-looking machine. The classy mirrored front panel and neat button arrangement put the DTH 8000 ahead of most rivals on shop-floor appeal and the attraction continues when you switch on. The user interface is intuitive and the remote handset logically laid out and good to hold.

The features list is pretty standard, with only a front-mounted USB socket standing out. This can be used to archive and display digital camera images.

The recording quality is good without outpointing class leaders such as Panasonic’s DMR-E50. Colours are natural and contrast levels are perfectly acceptable, though there is a hint of higher-than-average amounts of grain.

Take advantage of the extended record duration of eight hours and the machine fails to impress when it comes to clarity. Admittedly, resolution of fine detail is never top priority in such record modes, but if you’re likely to make extensive use of such features, put your cash elsewhere.

Having said that, replay performance with Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle is good: detail is sharply drawn and movement handled with grace. However, with movies it sounds thin and uninvolving, voices lacking natural warmth and tainted with an unpleasant edge.

It’s the same with music replay: spin REM’s Man On The Moon and the Thomson sounds thin and aggressive. Add slack timing and limited dynamics and the DTH 8000 wouldn’t be our first choice as a one-stop movie/music solution.

In some ways, Thomson’s DTH 8000 is up there with the class leaders. Its DVD playback is spot-on and can be compared to the best that we’ve tested here. However, recordings don’t set new standards and the sonics are disappointing.

 
Panasonic DMR-HS2 | $2199 |

For: Ease of use; great playback and recording performance; price drop

Against: Rapidly advancing competition

Verdict: The DMR-HS2 is still a good machine but the competition from outside and in-house is getting tougher.

Time warp back 10 months. It’s our May 2003 issue and we’ve just reviewed all the latest DVD recorders and Panasonic’s DMR-HS2 wins the test quite easily. Fast-forward to today and things aren’t so clear-cut, even though the retail price has fallen by a massive $400.

No, this DVD recorder/HDD hasn’t become a bad machine over the last year. It’s just that the speed of technological advance is such that a year may as well be a lifetime. 40GB is no longer the massive storage tank it once seemed and disc-playing abilities aren’t any better than newer siblings such as the DMR-E50. Fresh in-house competition from the likes of the DMR-E100 exists too – and all that explains the drop from five to four stars.

However, Panasonic has worked out how to make setting-up easy and this machine is something of an object lesson in this respect. In day-to-day use its well-thought-out menus make operation a breeze.

Picture quality on recording and playback is as good as that of the DMR-E50, which by the standards of the group is impressive. Colours are vivid and low-level detail easy to see, while contrast levels are strong, making definition in low-light scenes such as those of Alien3 considerably better than class average. Use the hard-disc and the results continue to impress.

The lack of grain or digital blocking is pleasing, though quality invariably suffers as recording duration rises.

Replay performance could have been even better had Panasonic not omitted a component output; as things stand S-Video and RGB Scart are as good as things get.

This is a strong performer, but is it better than the DMR-E100 below? Our vote would go to the newer – and admittedly costlier – machine due to its superior picture performance. But the DMR-HS2’s price advantage still makes it a tempting buy.

Panasonic DMR-E100H | $2799 |

For: Excellent picture and recording capability; slick in use; SD/PC card inputs

Against: Sonic performance falls behind the best in this group test

Verdict: The DMR-E100H is a tempting proposition. It deserves to go on your shortlist.

In absolute terms picture quality on the Panasonic DMR-E100H is on a par with the class leaders. It’s sharp, packed with detail and displays a rare skill in digging up plenty of subtleties in dark scenes from films such as Alien3.

The Panasonic is relatively easy to set up for basic operation, but using all of its capability will take a bit more manual study and menu juggling. Recordings can be made onto the hard disc, then copied out to DVD-RAM or DVD-R discs. The machine also functions as a DVD player with RGB Scart output as well as composite and S-Video connections. However, the digital output is optical only.

Recording quality with both DVD-recording formats and hard-disc is equally pleasing, producing results all but identical to the original program source when on the highest-resolution setting. The DMR-E100H also has Panasonic’s Time Slip function – which allows you to begin playback while still recording. However, increase storage capability – this unit can store up to 106 hours of video on its 80GB hard-disc and six hours on a 4.7GB DVD-R – and quality takes a noticeable drop. Things get grainy when there’s a lot of movement and overall detail levels suffer. Off-air recording depends on the quality of the input signal: if that’s good then the recording will be. Having said that, there isn’t much to split the standard of internal tuners in this group: none stood out as being particularly special. Movie sound quality falls below the high standards set by Panasonic’s other machines and lacks some dynamics and low-end weight in comparison. Switch to music and there’s little change: REM’s Man On The Moon on CD is clear and relatively detailed, but there’s not the drive or dynamics we’d want. Move to the DVD-A version of the song and the increase in finesse and openness is obvious, even if we can’t understand why Panasonic designed the DMR-E100H without DVD-Audio surround capability.

 
Pioneer DVR-5100H | $1999 |

For: Simple to use; good DVD replay; transport is slick

Against: Music performance doesn’t really inspire

Verdict: The DVR-5100H is good, but not great. It does most things well though, so it is a decent proposition.

Pioneer’s recent track record is astonishing, with the company hitting a rich vein of AV design excellence. However, the DVR-5100H promises much, but ultimately fails to deliver.

Don’t get us wrong: this DVD recorder/HDD unit isn’t significantly flawed, yet it doesn’t set massively high standards either.

Set-up is simple. The menus are easy to navigate and the control software is intuitive. Reaction to commands is instant – something that can’t be said of most of the other units tested – and is a quality only Panasonic’s DMR-HS2 and DMR-E100H share.

Recordings for both disc and hard drive are good, though this was the only machine in this test to display a difference between the two. DVD-R/RW discs get our vote by a small margin due to a sharper picture and more vivid colours. Change to the maximum duration settings – discs six hours and hard drive 106 hours – and the difference vanishes.

Replay of commerical DVDs is pleasing, with plenty of fine detail and good contrast levels. Skin tones look natural, which means the colour balance is spot-on and so is the sonic performance.

Dynamics, resolution and speed are excellent, which results in voices being delivered naturally and explosions with a big chunk of oomph: just how things should be.

However, CDs aren’t so well served – a product of this type can’t be expected to give a performance that rivals a dedicated music spinner, but it would still be nice to have a more expressive presentation and stronger dynamics.

This is a solid performer. Recordings are good and Pioneer has done a great job in the ease-of-use department. The DVR-5100H works well as a straight DVD player too, and while it may not be the superstar we expected it to be, this recorder remains a good, safe purchase.

And the winner is…

Panasonic DMR-E50 | $1099 |

The recurring theme of this test is that no product or manufacturer can afford to stand still. Prices are falling at a staggering speed while sophistication levels are on the up.

Sony’s RDR-GX3 impressed us, with a combination of excellent replay/recording and slick build. It would have stormed the test if it were a little cheaper, so Panasonic’s DMR-E50 is the winner. At its price, the Panasonic DMR-E50 is a must-buy solution, plus its all-round talent is formidable. DVD-RAM isn’t as compatible as rival formats, but when the recorder is this good, that’s less of an issue. It is a pleasure to use, produces fine results and is sensibly priced. Panasonic’s DVD/hard disc offering, the DMR-E100H, runs it close, however.

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