Doing The DVD Combo Page 5

While you're watching TV, you can display thumbnail images of the six most recently tuned channels and switch directly to one of them by highlighting its thumbnail and pressing the enter button. You can also watch TV in a window while surfing the Web. The remote has an EPG button (for electronic program guide), but there is no program guide - the label is apparently a vestige of an unimplemented plan. The supplied karaoke DVD (Top Hits English Songs 5) coaxed several Sound & Vision staffers into belting out Beatles tunes. Once I adjusted the microphone level, the karaoke system sounded pretty good.

At $649, the NTV-2500 costs more than three times as much as a WebTV Plus receiver. But it is a DVD player, picture phone, and karaoke player, too. So while you probably won't consider an NTV-2500 as your primary CD/DVD player, it could be useful in an office, dorm room, or den.

Panasonic PV-DF2000 The great thing about Panasonic's PV-DF2000 all-in-one TV/DVD/VCR/FM combo ($900) is that you can pop in a DVD and start watching it right out of the box without having to connect cables or work through a setup menu. You can also use the same remote to control volume on both the DVD player and the TV without having to program in a code. And the single-cabinet design makes the combo a natural as an entertainment center for a bedroom or den. The 20-inch (diagonal) screen invites relatively close viewing, though. (Panasonic also offers the similar $1,300 PV-DF2700 combo with a 27-inch screen and picture-in-picture capabilities.)

One of the DF2000's most striking traits is its Tau PureFlat screen, which reduces ambient-light reflections and edge distortion. Despite its flatness, though, it's still a direct-view television, so you'll need a tabletop or stand that can accommodate its 20 inches of depth and 66 pounds of weight. The TV touts a three-line digital comb filter, but the maximum of 400 lines of resolution measured in our lab is significantly less than the DVD format is capable of. Also, no matter what the source, the image was surrounded by a black strip about a half-inch wide, which appears to be a mask that was applied to the picture tube itself.

Why Panasonic chose to dub this model Triple Play when it can play not only DVDs, CDs, and videotapes but also TV and FM broadcasts is a bit of a mystery. There's a headphone jack and a set of composite-video and stereo audio inputs conveniently located on the front panel; the back panel has an S-video input plus a second set of composite-video and stereo inputs, a stereo output, an optical digital audio output, and an RF input. An onscreen menu lets you reduce the TV's Normal brightness setting (which is pretty bright) to Movie level or further to Night level. Auto-scan functions lock in TV channels and FM stations.

The DVD player had decent performance limited by the TV. It features five search and reverse speeds, five slow-motion speeds, two zoom levels, and the ability to read Video CDs.

The hi-fi VCR has three recording speeds (including the now rarely seen Long Play, which records 4 hours of material on a standard 120-minute videocassette). It also supports VCR Plus, which lets you record a program by entering a numerical code from the TV listings instead of having to enter start/stop times and the channel.

The remote has a time-saving feature called CM Skip. Pressing the button while you're watching a tape causes the VCR to fast forward by 1 minute. Two presses advances the tape 2 minutes, and three presses, 3 minutes. A 3-minute block of commercials in a program recorded at SLP speed dissolved in 10 seconds, or 30 seconds at SP speed.

The DF2000 can simulate surround sound from the small stereo speakers flanking its screen. Since people are less likely to use an external sound system with a combo player, building in virtual surround sound makes sense. Its effectiveness, however, depends heavily on the movie or program you're watching. I noticed the surround effect most in The Price Is Right, where the screaming and clapping from the audience seemed to come from a large studio space.

I was disappointed the VCR wouldn't record the same non-copy-protected DVD that the Go-Video VCR dubbed without complaint and annoyed that it couldn't time-shift FM programs. Having National Public Radio's All Things Considered waiting for me when I got home would have been a nice touch.

On the other hand, the DF2000 can function as an alarm clock. The TV turned itself on at the appointed time, but a loud beep sounded for a full minute before it finally switched over to the TV audio. This feature is clearly aimed at buyers who put the DF2000 in a bedroom and have trouble waking up. And if you like to watch TV in the dark, the Panasonic's remote has a switch that lights up seven of its 54 keys, including channel up/down.

The DF2000 obviously isn't meant to be a reference-quality video system. But it is a versatile TV/radio and multiformat player that's perfect for casual viewing and listening in a bedroom, a summer cottage, a basement gym, or any number of other places.

Clearly, each of these combos is loaded with features - in the case of the Neon Technology box and the Panasonic TV, lots and lots of features. But it's just as clear that they really aren't meant to be used as primary players in home theater systems. They don't have the flexibility of a dedicated player and weren't engineered with that single purpose in mind. Still, each of these devices can fill an entertainment niche in just about any home. All you have to figure out is which one fills your particular bill.