Dubbing Diva

Getting your videocassettes with the times.

I admit it: I'm a recording junkie. For years, I recorded my favorite TV shows on VHS videotape, only to watch them gather dust in the garage. Now that I have a DVR and a DVD recorder, what use have I for those clanky, cranky cassettes? Actually, more than you might think; some of those cassettes have irreplaceable moments from my TV-watching past, moments I'd rather not lose as the tape disintegrates with age.

What I need is a dubbing deck that will let me copy my VHS tapes to DVD. Fortunately, there are several to choose from, including the Panasonic DMR-ES30V and the JVC DR-MX1S. Both include a VHS VCR and a DVD recorder, and you can dub recorded programs from one to the other. The JVC also has an 80-gigabyte hard-disk drive (HDD), and you can copy programs among any of the three mediums.

Both units have all the right connections: component (interlaced or progressive), S-video, and composite video outputs; digital and L/R analog audio outputs; and two A/V inputs (S-video, composite, L/R analog audio), one on the back and one on the front, so you can record material from other devices. The JVC also has a digital DV camcorder input on the front, which is great if you make a lot of home movies.

The Panasonic's straightforward front panel has few buttons and a large display with large blue and orange characters, making it very easy to read from across the room. The JVC has a flip-down door that covers the entire front panel (except the display), which lends it a super-streamlined look. The display is smaller than the Panasonic's, and much dimmer, even on its bright setting. That setting also activates a bright blue line of light above the display with a white spot indicating the selected medium (VCR, HDD, or DVD). These lights are very bright, which is pretty distracting.

Making the right connections is fairly straightforward, although the jacks are grouped and labeled for one medium or another, which can be a bit confusing. Adding to the connection confusion is the (happy) fact that you can send the VCR's signal to the DVD output; the DMR-ES30V can even deinterlace it to progressive, which is very cool. However, it took me a bit of menu diving to make this work.

Of course, both products have RF inputs for an antenna or analog cable signal. The Panasonic also has an RF output, but it's restricted to the selected tuner channel. On the other hand, the JVC has a more sophisticated RF connection suite: two inputs, one for the HDD/DVD and one for the VCR; a loop output, which transmits all incoming channels, not just the selected channel; and a single-channel output for an RF-only TV. I connected my cable feed to the HDD/DVD input and a short RF cable from the loop output to the RF input on the VCR side so a single input cable could feed both tuners.

Speaking of tuners, the Panasonic has only one, which means you can't record something while you watch something else in real time, although you can watch a signal from an external device connected to one of the aux inputs. This is a real drawback; the JVC's two tuners make TV multitasking much easier.

The rest of my connections went as follows: component video and digital audio went from both units to my A/V receiver. To test each unit's recording ability from an external unit, I connected the DVD S-video output from each one to the other's DVD S-video input. I plugged both units into AC outlets and found that the JVC starts its auto-setup routine immediately, which is a bit disconcerting. In fact, you're not supposed to power it up during the initial routine. The Panasonic waits for you to power it on, at which point it asks you for the desired language then begins the automatic setup. Both units quickly proceeded to scan for available channels and set the clock.

It was interesting to discover that, in both units, the onscreen programming interface is quite different between the DVD and VCR. The DVD interface looks quite modern, while the VCR interface looks completely antiquated, with large, jagged block letters I remember from VCRs 20 years ago. I wonder why they didn't update these VCRs' user interfaces? Aside from recording onto VHS tape, both units record on DVD-RAM, DVD-R, and DVD-RW; the Panasonic will also record on DVD+R. This is plenty of flexibility. DVD-RAM behaves almost like a hard disk, and DVD-R and DVD+R are the formats most compatible with other DVD players. The JVC's HDD is a very nice addition, although it would be much better with an electronic program guide (EPG).

Like all DVD recorders, DVRs, and VCRs, these two products have several DVD recording modes that trade image quality for recording time. Both offer XP (one hour on a single-layer DVD), SP (two hours), LP (four hours), and EP (six hours). They also include an FR mode, which uses the highest quality to fit the recording in the available space. As with most such devices in my experience, the two best-quality modes looked about the same, as did the two lower-quality modes with each other. I tended to use SP for programs and tapes that looked quite good to begin with and EP for those that did not.

The JVC's HDD has a number of convenience features, including the ability to name recordings and assign them a category from among 13 choices, plus "others" and "undecided." After you have some recordings, you can search for them by name or category, which is great if you have lots of them. When you program a scheduled recording, you pick the date from an onscreen calendar, and, during programming, a PIP inset of the current channel appears in the upper-left corner, which is another nice touch.

The remotes are somewhat similar, especially the cursor-navigation cluster and associated buttons. Overall, the JVC remote is simpler and less confusing.

DVD performance was quite good with both units. The deinterlacing seemed excellent, with just a hint of artifacting in the panned-bleachers shot on Video Essentials and few, if any, jaggies on the waving flag. The Snell & Wilcox Zone Plate bouncing ball had some weird horizontal lines, which disappeared from the 3:2 frame-rate version on the JVC but not on the Panasonic. These lines remained throughout the two video-rate versions on both units. The frequency response was good on both, with the Panasonic seeming to roll off a bit more than the JVC in the high end. Horizontal resolution was about 450 lines per picture height for both.

I saw no problems in normal program material, which generally looked excellent. The diagonal ramp in the opening scene of The Fifth Element exhibited no artifacts, nor did the village rooftops in the opening scene of Star Trek: Insurrection. Overall, I prefer the JVC for its HDD, more sophisticated RF connections, dual tuners, and convenience features. The Panasonic bests it when it comes to front-panel display (I really hate the bright blue light on the JVC) and the ability to record on DVD+R. On the other hand, the JVC is a lot more expensive, with a list price of $1,000, compared with $300 for the Panasonic. I've seen the JVC go for as little as $530 online, but, still, you're paying a lot for that HDD (especially since it has no EPG). If money is no object, the JVC DR-MX1S is the better choice. But, if you're watching your budget, the Panasonic DMR-ES30V will do just fine for transferring all of those VHS tapes to DVD.