Until very recently, DVD recorders were scuppered by having analogue tuners - in other words, you were forced to either make do with dodgy 14:9 pics or rely on an external set-top box (connected via analogue Scart, naturally).
Then came Sony, which acted as matchmaker between the complementary technologies of digital terrestrial TV (DTT) and DVD recording with its innovative RDR-GX500. One could always wonder why such a logical marriage took so long, but the truth is that DTT is far from widespread in the global terms that major manufacturers have to consider.
Other hardware, thankfully, is beginning to trickle through. Sony has just launched a model with HDD while a much-anticipated DTTready Philips is on the way.
Panasonic has also taken the plunge, and to this end we now have the DMRES20 - which is effectively a DTT-enabled version of the entry-level ES10, complete with DVB logo on the front panel. As with the ES10, the ES20 lacks a hard disk for the ultimate in timeshifting, editing and dubbing although a version with HDD (the EH60, which can be seen as a DTT'ed EH50, will be available in the autumn).
But, unlike the Sony and Philips machines, both analogue and digital tuners are incorporated. This can be useful if, for example, poor coverage means some of the digital channels are too weak to be received without break-up.
The commercial broadcasters, which use the QAM64 modulation scheme to pack in more channels at the expense of reception reliability, are notorious in this respect. During the review period, the ES20's dual-tuner concept came in handy - and for this very reason, as we shall discover!
Smartest wheel in town
Fashionably slimline it may be, but those front-panel controls are minimal. The remote is thus essential for all but the most basic of operations. This handset, with its plastic-capped keys, is a new design. It has a 'smart-wheel' for skipping through the various slow-motion/search speeds and selecting precise frames during editing.
The lower section of the front panel harbours a flap behind which you'll find composite/S-video and stereo audio inputs for camcorder dubbing (note that there's no i-link input for digital camcorders). On the rear panel is a decent spread of connectors. RGB Scart inputs and outputs compete for space with, amongst other things, a prog-scan capable component feed and an optical digital connector that will pump stereo and multi-channel (ie commercial movie) DVD soundtracks to your audio system.
The machine packs some interesting tricks other than DTT. It will record onto DVD-RW and (alas, single-layer) DVD R media, as well as the DVD-Rs and DVD-RAMs of previous-generation Panasonics. There's also Panasonic's new long-play mode - which offers four hours of recording per removable disc, at DVD's full resolution (in this case, 704 x 576 pixels).
Old favourites like two-channel DVD-A playback, simultaneous play/record with DVD-RAMs and owner-ID are all present and correct. Panasonic's auto set-up system is largely flawless, tuning in both digital and analogue channels and placing them in the right order. And this is where we came across our only real problem with the ES20. Despite multiple attempts, it failed to find and store QAM64 channels like ITV, Channel 4 and Five.
Thinking something was wrong with our aerial, we plugged an old Thomson DTT box into our TV and forced it into a channel search. It found everything - including the channels missed by the Panny - and so we can safely conclude that the ES20's DTT tuner is perhaps not the most sensitive around.
We had to rely on the analogue tuner to timeshift these channels - which, admittedly, is something you can't do with the DTT-only Sony competition. The DTT tuner makes use of dedicated buttons on the remote for the (7-day) EPG and digital teletext. But they're in the same channel list as the analogue channels, giving rise to a uniform user experience as far as viewing and recording are concerned.
Menu of the day
Panasonic's excellent menu system means that it's easy to access parameters like the AV settings (note, however, that component and RGB Scart outputs cannot be active simultaneously). Recordings can be manually-invoked (with OTR, if need be), or preset with a 16-event-1-month timer that can be programmed manually, via VideoPlus or - with DTT channels - via the EPG.
There are four recording modes; in addition to LP there are three other modes offering 1hr (XP), 2hr (SP) and 6 or 8 hr. per removable disc (EP). Recordings appear within a slowish thumbnail-based 'direct navigator'. Editing is a treat. It's easy to partial-delete segments from recordings or create new sequences via playlists (but only if you're using DVDRAMs). You can assign thumbnails to each recording - if the disc is 'finalisable' (DVDRW, DVD-/ R) then they'll appear on the disc menu, alongside any titles you add with the virtual keyboard (thankfully, DTT recordings are automatically-named from EPG data).
As a recorder, the EH50 doesn't compromise Panasonic's hard-earned reputation. Recordings from DTT and RGB sources are impeccable - in the XP and SP modes, you won't see your telly degraded in any way. Relative to Panasonic's 'old' 352 x 576 LP mode, the 4-hour mode delivers a dramatic increase in picture detail that does justice to DTT.
But you don't get something for nothing; relative to SP, artifacts becomes noticeable - especially during visually-complex or motion-heavy moments. Like older Panasonic recorders, the ES20's EP mode (whether six or eight hours) gives VHSlike results. Commercial DVDs yield an experience comparable to a budget 'big-name' player.
For sound quality, the ES20 is crisp and dynamic - despite the lack of manual control over the recording level. Playback also impresses, although a dedicated Pioneer universal player demonstrated more 'finesse' from DVD-As (as well as full 5.1 sonics). In all, a fine and friendly machine that is let down by an insensitive DTT tuner.