Panasonic DMR-E95H DVR/DVD Recorder
I have a confession to make: I never took umbrage with having to set the clock on a VCR. I set my own. I set my mother's. I was even known to sneak into my friends' homes and set theirs while they slept, taking joy in the knowledge that their VCR could finally live up to its true functionality potential once I had put the blinking 12:00 out of its misery.
A lot of people aren't like me (in more ways than I can count, actually). They don't enjoy exploring their electronic devices; they'd prefer the gear jump out of the box, connect itself to their TV, and be as invisible as possible. Thanks to certain giants in the DVR industry, these people now expect their electronics to figure out what they should watch, too—which is a tad too Orwellian for my tastes.
The DMR-E95H isn't designed for these people. It doesn't value simplicity over all else. It caters instead to the more-advanced user who knows his or her way around a DVD device and will gladly exchange a bit of simplicity for greater functionality.
Without a Guide
Don't get me wrong, though. The DMR-E95H isn't terribly difficult to use. My review sample showed up without a manual, and I was able to set it up and figure out most of the basic operations just by exploring the onscreen menus. Exploring is the key, though, as the menu structure isn't as cleanly organized or novice-friendly as the TiVo interface, the de facto standard in the DVR business. When the manual finally showed up on my doorstep, I was less than impressed: This 64-page wonder is thorough, to say the least, but it's not the most organized or straightforward document I've seen.
I ran cables from the unit's highest quality outputs—component video and optical digital audio—to my receiver. The unit has both RF and A/V inputs to connect your antenna, cable, or satellite feed. I ran S-video and stereo analog cables from my Motorola HD cable box into one of the Panasonic's input sets, which provided a better-looking picture than the RF input. The audio quality was fine but a couple of decibels lower than my cable box's direct output.
Upon powering up the unit, you're taken to the TV Guide On Screen setup page. Earlier Panasonic DMR models lacked this user interface, which downloads up to eight days' worth of program material without requiring a phone or Internet connection (the TV Guide interface will not work with a satellite receiver). Once this setup is complete, you can immediately watch TV or a DVD and manually record content. However, you need to turn off the unit overnight so that it can download the programming info. Panasonic says that the initial download process can take up to 24 hours, and they aren't exaggerating.
In my case, the DMR-E95H repeatedly failed to download the TV Guide info from my Motorola DCT5100 cable box. Some online searching revealed that other Panasonic DMR-series owners had the same problem with certain Motorola cable boxes. When I tried it with the non-HD Motorola digital cable box in my bedroom, it downloaded the info without incident, but I never successfully downloaded it through my primary box.
If you find yourself in a similar predicament (there are an awful lot of Motorola cable boxes out there), you have two options. You can go ahead and connect the DMR-E95H to your cable box and live without the TV Guide On Screen programming info; however, you'll have to manually set the timer to record future shows, as opposed to simply highlighting the desired programs in the grid. You also can't enjoy the user interface's other conveniences, like the ability to set daily or weekly recordings of the same show (no first-run-only option, though) or utilize the various search parameters (search by title, genre, scheduled recordings, etc.).
The other option is to split the cable signal from the wall, running one into the cable box for daily viewing and one directly into the Panasonic for recording. The obvious drawback to this approach is that, when viewing the signal through the DMR-E95H, you won't get all of your cable channels. I only got the non-encrypted cable channels—the main networks and a few other local stations. The plus is that you now have a two-tuner setup: You can watch one thing through the cable box while you record something else on the DMR-E95H.
Neither is an ideal solution, as you're forced to decide what matters the most to you: the TV Guide On Screen interface or access to your entire channel lineup. Where's the CableCARD when we need it?
The DMR-E95H has four drives: DVD, HDD (hard disk drive), and SD and PC card slots. You can switch between drives via buttons on the front panel or remote. Regardless of which drive you select, the DMR-E95H plays the TV signal when you're not utilizing the drive's specific function—i.e., watching a DVD or viewing photos from a memory card.
Using the SD/PC slots is a straightforward affair. Simply select the drive you want to use, insert the card or PCMCIA adapter in the slot, and hit the remote's Direct Navigator button to pull up the images. (I originally hit the play button, and an onscreen note kindly told me to try the Direct Navigator button instead—how's that for user-friendly?) Transferring photos to the hard drive, a DVD, or even another memory card takes just a few steps.
When you put a DVD-RAM disc in the disc tray, the functionality of the HDD and DVD drives is basically identical. You can record live TV (the hard drive doesn't automatically back up the TV signal; you must hit the record button), watch one recorded show while the DMR-E95H records another, or watch an in-progress recording from the beginning. You can access all recorded content through the Direct Navigator. Hit the Time-Slip button while you're watching a recording, and a window appears in the bottom right corner that shows you what's currently playing on live TV. The only difference between the two drives is the amount of storage at your disposal: 160 gigabytes on the hard drive; 4.7 or 9.4 GB on a single- or double-sided DVD-RAM disc.
Where the DMR-E95H stands out is in its editing features. Want to remove commercials or insert chapter breaks before you watch a recording? Want to transfer multiple family videos from your digital camcorder via the FireWire connection, edit them, and then combine them into one playlist? These processes are a little time-consuming but not difficult, although I did have to refer to the manual at this point.
Last but not least comes archiving. DVD-RAM isn't the most compatible format on the block. If you wish to burn content to the more-universal DVD-R format for permanent storage, the DMR-E95H provides several options. High-speed recording lets you burn the disc quickly (4x to 32x, depending on the DVD-R you use); I transferred a 45-minute recording in less than 10 minutes. You can continue to watch TV and record to/view content from the hard drive during this process, but you can't switch drives, and it only burns content in a 4:3 screen shape. You must remember to turn this function on via the setup button before you record any programming.
If you want to preserve a letterbox aspect ratio (which the manual claims is lost during high-speed dubbing), choose the normal-speed process: It burns in real time at XP, SP, LP, EP, or FR (flexible recording, which automatically determines which mode to use to fit the program on the disc). When you choose a lower-quality setting, you can store a lot of content on one disc. During a normal-speed burn, the DMR-E95H inserts manual chapter breaks (overriding any that you inserted), and you can't perform any other operations during the process.
To play the DVD-R on another machine, you'll need to finalize it. Unlike other DVR/DVD recorders on the market, you can burn multiple items to the DVD-R during different sessions, as long as you wait to finalize the disc until it's full.
In Need of Resolution
Underneath all of those recording, editing, and archiving functions lies a DVD player begging not to be forgotten. The DMR-E95H navigates through DVD menus quickly, and it didn't have trouble reading any discs I fed it, be they DVD-Videos, DVD-RWs (even though the manual says it won't read them), or MP3-encoded CD-Rs. The player also reads the DVD-Audio format; however, in an antiquated move, it only allows for two-channel audio playback, downconverting multichannel tracks. It doesn't read Kodak Picture or other photo CDs. The player passes PLUGE in both the 480i and 480p modes.
Using Video Essentials' resolution chart, in 480i mode, the player exhibited very little rolloff until the highest frequencies; however, in 480p mode, rolloff was more of a concern. Using the Avia Pro resolution tests from 1.5 to 6.5 megahertz, the DMR-E95H starts an almost-immediate, albeit gradual, rolloff at 1.5 MHz. Although it doesn't reach the –3decibel point until just over 5.5 MHz, it drops quickly afterwards (–6dB at just over 6 MHz). The 6.75-MHz circle showed noticeable banding, further evidence that the player can't resolve the finest details in progressive mode.
To test its processing, I called up VE's Snell & Wilcox Zone Plate test. With film-based material, the DMR-E95H instantly picked up the 3:2 sequence, but it never locked onto the video-based signals. Actual demo material supported these findings: The rooftops and Colosseum shots in chapter 12 of Gladiator weren't completely free of stair-stepping, but the player was above average in its handling of this scene. Likewise with the diagonal lines of the building in Armageddon's opening sequence and the ornate European buildings in Bourne Identity. Video-based material, on the other hand, exhibited numerous jaggies. Even though the player's processing is solid with film-based material, if your display has a good processor, you might want to keep this player in 480i mode to enjoy the improved resolution.
Stay in Control
In case you were wondering, the DMR-E95H does have an automatic clock setting for those of you who believe in an automated world. But you know what? It also has a manual setting for all of us tweaks and geeks.
I'm not knocking automation. It's just that, when things are completely automated, there's no room to experiment and play around with your gear. The DMR-E95H strikes a good balance between logical, easy use and flexible, enhanced functionality, not sacrificing too much of one for the sake of the other. If you want more control over the content you're recording and archiving, you'll appreciate everything that this device can do.
• Advanced editing functions for the more-advanced user
• Record to the 160-GB hard drive or a DVD-R/-RAM disc