Panasonic's latest DVD recorder is a budget model that has a wealth of features that belie the price point. It does,however,have one glaring weakness,the lack of an RGB Scart input,which has brought down many a deck before.
The design and construction of this model are both first class. It looks a treat and certainly doesn't give its price away with its fascia.
Connectivity is excellent,aside from the aforementioned slip-up with the RGB input.
At the front there is a DV socket (great news for camcorder enthusiasts),alongside S-video and regular backups.
At the rear the highlight is the component video output,capable of delivering progressive scan signals to a compatible TV.Short of an HDMI connection (possibly offering video upscaling) this is the best you can get and certainly all you have a right to expect on a deck at this price.
A pair of Scart sockets offer RGB output,but the input Scart can only take composite or S-video signals.There are digiboxes out there that don't offer S-video outputs,in which case you will only be able to record at crummy old composite video standard.
Digital audio duties are taken on by an optical output, with regular stereo sockets as a fallback option.
We've banged on a bit about the lack of an RGB input,so let's redress the balance by talking about some of the ES15's excellent features.
First of all,disc compatibility is superb.You can record on to DVDRAM and DVD RW/-RW discs plus their write-once variants,giving a maximum eight hours recording.
More impressive still,you can burn on to dual-layered variants of both DVD R and DVD-R discs.This boosts capacity at the lowest quality setting to over 14 hours.
The snag is that you cannot simply make a 14-hour recording - you have to 'close' the top layer and 'open' the second layer to access the extra capacity.
Editing functions are useful on RAM discs but almost entirely absent on all others.With RAM platters you have the now-familiar options of partially deleting files (freeing up space for more recordings) and creating playlists. You can also add chapters wherever you want them on RAM discs.
With other discs you are limited to fairly mundane editing features like erasing entire titles or changing the thumbnail for a recording.You cannot set chapters (although when you finalise a disc,chapters are automatically created at fiveminute intervals).
The onboard tuner is analogue only (the provision of a digital tuner would have been nice but,again, the omission is understandable for a budget model).
Recordings can be set using VideoPlus codes for maximum convenience,and there are manual and one-touch options as well.
Playback trickery includes frame advance and slow-motion,while playback of JPEG and MP3 files is possible - with JPEG files you get a slideshow and the ability to rotate and zoom in on images as well.
DVD-Audio discs are surprisingly invited to play as well,although you only get two-channel playback. SACD discs are left out in the cold, and DiVX files,which we would have expected to see on the playlist, are ignored as well
A dynamic range compression function does the usual job of limiting the impact of sudden loud passages while retaining clarity of dialogue.
Manual Skip scoots forward 30 seconds,hopefully letting you skip through ad breaks on recordings. Better still is to monitor the recording and manually pause during commercials so you don't record them in the first place!
The smart remote control is easy to get to grips with,while the onscreen displays are very familiar to those who've seen Panasonic decks before.
The only fiddly bit of setup is assigning your video outputs and inputs - read the manual carefully at this point, if at no other! There's no point investing in a DVD recorder and then hooking it up incorrectly.
Time to mention the lack of an RGB Scart again. If you have an S-video digibox you won't mind too much.Images will still be clean and highly detailed. If you have to make do with composite signals that means you will have to make do with straying reds as well.
The one- and two-hour modes each capture pictures virtually indistinguishable from the original broadcast.Every bit of detail on the signal is faithfully transferred to disc,with only slight degradation in the form of minor artefacting in two-hour mode.
The four-hour setting is very good.You won't want to use it for sports,where the fast camera motion will create blocking and mosquito haze,but on films the results are fine,and way above VHS quality.
Six- and eight-hour settings introduce more picture break-up, but there is no strobe effect and the quality remains better than VHS in terms of detail.
Pausing a recording leaves you with very smooth edit points, making this an effective tool in the battle to cram a long recording on to a disc at a high-quality setting.
Pre-recorded disc playback benefits from the RGB Scart output, looking impressive and clean,with excellent colours (bright reds stay in their place rather than roaming about at will as they do on composite signals).And just look at all those 'Excellent' readings in our DVD playback lab tests.
Progressive scan pictures see the stability of the image improved still further,but RGB pictures are plenty good enough if you don't have a prog-scan TV.
Audio performance is strong as well.The two-channel DVD-Audio playback is a bit of a strange offering, as the format really shines in a multi-channel environment,but regular movie soundtracks are delivered to a home cinema amp with some poise.
This is therefore a very impressive budget recorder. It exudes quality and class and will do great service for many,no doubt.We can't help but think,however,that it would have been so much better if it had been given an RGB Scart input - but as we're about to run out of space, that's the last time we'll mention it. Jason Glenn