If you are going to replace a video cassette recorder with a DVD recorder there is a confusing array of options. If you want one that makes Freeview recording easy, however, the field narrows to a handful,including Panasonic's DMRES20D.

Basically it's a stripped down version of the DMR-EH60D harddrive combi.Without a built-in hard drive there's less that it can do,but for light users on a moderate budget you still get decent features and good picture quality.

Like its Freeview-equipped EH60D counterpart,the ES20D saves you shelf space by having its digital tuner inside a slim frame no bigger than other DVD recorders.There is an analogue tuner too,because some Freeview channels can vanish in fringe reception areas.

Freeview's entertainment channel line-up is increasing with new arrivals such as ITV4,More4 and Sky 3.There is only one digital tuner,though,so this recorder cannot deal with overlapping programmes.Therefore it makes sense to partner it with an integrated digital TV so you can watch one digital channel while recording another.

As a multiformat recorder,one advantage is that you can choose between DVD-R or DVD R for recordings you want to keep,or DVD-RW and DVD-RAM for reusable discs.DVD-RAM lets you watch another part of any current recording or something else on the same disc, giving you a sense of the features that hard drive recorders provide.

You can significantly re-edit DVD-RAM recordings - including erasing sections or dividing programmes - but these discs are not normally viewable in other decks.The other recording formats can be more compatible but they have no editing options on the Panasonic and,without a hard drive, you are stuck with how the recording was at the time,with no possibility to edit out adverts.As a single-drive machine you also can't make any recordings while watching a movie on DVD or playing a CD.

The big benefit of having Freeview built-in is the accompanying electronic programme guide (EPG) that gives you free seven-day TV listings and simple timer setting. Your recordings are also labelled helpfully with the correct programme name.

Like its DMREH60D sibling,however, the machine does not let you access editing features or the EPG while recording and there are no clever Sky or TiVo-style features that automatically record subsequent episodes of a series, though you can manually specify recurring recordings for a given timeslot. It's much easier than normal timer setting or VideoPlus - although those are provided in case the Freeview route is not suitable.

As this is not a hard-drive equipped model,there is no rolling buffer to pause or 'rewind' live TV but the recorder is quick to react when you press Record if a DVDRAM is loaded in the disc tray.The other advantage of using RAM discs is that if you delete parts of a disc, all free space is made available for continuous new recordings.For example, if you delete two nonconsecutive half hour programmes you can make one new 60min recording of the same quality (or lower).

Recording from external sources such as a Sky or cable box is also possible.One Scart input is switchable between S-video or higher quality RGB,but there is no i.Link connection for DV camcorders.Playback is well supported for the price,with a choice of S-video,RGB Scart or component video - with or without progressive scan for plasma,LCD or projector owners.

The combination of Freeview tuner and DVD recorder are a perfect match.Colours gleam with purity and brightness and details are rich and deep with little of the digital break-up or noise that sometimes afflicts digital TV recordings.Even though there may be natural grain as part of the picture, especially if a programme is shot on celluloid,it's more of a part of the image than messy interference. Live studio material arrives looking pristine as there's no analogue conversion between the camera lens and the Panasonic's receiver - until you output to TV - but sadly there's no HDMI digital video output to further improve this final stage.

XP is the top-calibre mode for putting an hour of recordings on a standard DVD.This does not introduce any of its own noticeable digital compression side-effects - for instance blocking in smooth contours or break-up with fast motion such as fire or running water.An hour's capacity is not too handy,however the SP mode is perfectly suitable for general use, forming a decent balance between giving 2hr of running time with not much reduction in quality. The LP option jumps to 4hr, stepping down the recording quality as it does so but the overall performance is surprisingly good, particularly when recording directly from Freeview.

The lowest mode,EP, is switchable between 6hr or 8hr running times. Neither option is great for sharp pictures but they are acceptable for non-essential recordings.A flexible (FR) mode means you can specify more precise durations to fit programmes on disc at the best available quality.

The progressive scan output for flat-screen TVs and projectors gives a slightly clearer image than RGB Scart, particularly with films, so your DVD collection should look respectable. High-resolution digital movies such as Sin City look especially impressive. Standard TV fares less well due to the machine's rather lacklustre progressive scan conversion but the noise reduction mode helps somewhat. Digital audio playback is adequate but compared to more expensive models it has a rather dull edge that occasionally lapses into harshness with vocals.

The DMR-ES20D is best suited for those that make occasional recordings and want access to Freeview and DVD playback without a pile of hardware under the TV.This model is a different proposition to sophisticated, largecapacity hard-drive combis for well-heeled TV addicts but given what it can do, it's a fine recorder.

Of course, there is always room for improvement. In the next generation we would like to see Panasonic add VR-mode support for DVD-RW, the ability to record on new dual-layered blanks and perhaps a subscription card slot for Top-Up TV, although as the free channels increase, this becomes less of an issue.

Freeview-ready digital recorders are still in their infancy but already this is becoming one of the best of the more affordable choices. Ian Calcutt