Pansonic DMR-HS2 DVD-RAM Recorder

Photos by Tony Cordoza

At a glance, you'd probably think that Panasonic's $1,000 DMR-HS2 looks pretty much like every other DVD recorder out there-including the Panasonic DMR-E30 that I reviewed just last month. But the DMR-HS2's chassis carries clues that something more is going on here. Consider the slot to the left of the disc drawer, which will take a PC-card adapter for flash-memory cards, or the FireWire/i.Link input port behind a flip-down door on the front panel-which marks the first appearance of this essential connector on a Panasonic DVD recorder. But the feature that qualifies the DMR-HS2 as "cutting edge" is signified by the small button at the lower left of the display panel labeled HDD, for hard-disk drive.

That button gives you access to a 40-gigabyte hard drive that offers some of the same facilities as TiVo and ReplayTV personal video recorders, like timer recording of broadcasts through the DMR-HS2's 125-channel TV tuner and the ability to play back a program while you're recording a different one. (There's no online program guide, however. You get only timer and VCR Plus recording.) Better yet, you can use the hard drive as a huge-capacity video scratch pad for the simple editing of off-air or camcorder recordings, tidying them up for permanent storage on DVD by deleting the commercials and the "boring bits." The hard drive holds up to 52 hours of recordings made in the maximum-capacity EP mode or more than 8 hours using the highest-quality XP mode.

Besides the hard drive, the DMR-HS2 also records on either erasable/editable DVD-RAM or write-once DVD-R discs. RAM discs, while considerably more versatile than Rs, will play only in this recorder, other machines specifically designed for that format, or personal computers equipped with DVD-RAM drives. On the other hand, DVD-R discs will play in most regular DVD players and computer DVD drives, making them nearly universal-although no DVD recorder manufacturer will guarantee that any disc recorded on its machines will play in all players. Blank DVD-Rs are around half the price and far easier to find than DVD-RAM discs, so going with DVD-R will save you some money. And you don't give up any functionality because whatever you can do on a DVD-RAM disc-like playing back one program while recording another or pausing "live" TV-you can also do on the hard drive.

The functions specific to DVD-RAM include disc protection (to prevent accidental erasure) and formatting (as with a computer floppy disk), which is necessary for blank DVDs that aren't preformatted and is also a way of erasing an entire disc. The biggest thing that distinguishes DVD-R from DVD-RAM is that you can finalize a DVD-R. This lets you create "your very own DVD-Video" for playback on other machines and computers while disabling any further recording on the disc. But DVD-Rs can't take advantage of any editing functions except for naming the programs on a disc. ("Programs" are straight, unedited video segments.) After finalization on DVD-R, these names are treated as DVD-Video "titles" instead of chapters.

Check it out: Tech Notes
The most important of the editing functions you can perform on the hard drive and on DVD-RAM discs involve making playlists of selected or sequenced scenes from recorded programs. This is "nondestructive" editing since a playlist is merely a list of cues sent to the hard drive or DVD-RAM drive to be executed in playback. For example, you can swap the order of two scenes by creating a playlist that plays the second scene first. The actual video data, however, remains where it was on the disc. You can store 99 playlists on a DVD-RAM disc, each with up to 999 scenes. No specs are given for the hard drive's playlist capacity, but even 99 playlists would be more than enough.

The DMR-HS2's most significant feature-and virtually the only one to take advantage of your having a hard drive and a DVD recorder in the same chassis-is its ability to copy a playlist from the hard drive to a disc. On a DVD-RAM, the sequence will turn into a new program (that is, the dubbed sequence won't need to rely on the playlist instructions for playback), while on a DVD-R it will become a separate DVD-Video-style title, as opposed to a chapter, and will appear as such when you insert the disc into a regular DVD player. (You'll be able to use that Title button on your DVD player's remote for probably the first time.)

While the playlist editing functions can get pretty remote-control intensive, the dubbing procedure is pretty simple: select the program(s) or playlist(s) you want to dub, choose the recording mode (XP, SP, LP or EP), and press start. You can even dub from a DVD-RAM program (but not a playlist) to the hard drive. But this is far less useful than going from hard drive to disc since the resulting copy can be made in only the two lowest-quality recording modes (LP and EP) and, like almost all dubbing operations, has to be done in real time-a dub of a 1-hour show takes 1 hour. But even when going from hard drive to DVD-RAM, high-speed copying works only with programs, not playlists. So if you edit a recorded TV show to eliminate commercial breaks, you'll have to be patient when archiving it to a DVD.

There are limits to the types of editing you can perform with playlists. Editing a moderately complex project, say, for a filmmaking class, would be impractical due to the number of remote-control button pushes required to do anything but assemble relatively long segments. And very short shots-essential to modern filmmaking-are pretty much ruled out since, as the manual warns, "you may not be able to specify [start and end] points [of a shot] within 3 seconds of each other."

These limitations make the editing facilities here, as on other DVD recorders, best suited for manipulating large chunks of video-like getting rid of commercials or moving whole scenes around. While this is probably all most people will ever need in terms of video editing, a PC costing, say, $700 more can be a lot more versatile in this respect, especially with new Windows Media Center PCs on the horizon, plus you'd get a full-scale computer that can do many other jobs as well.

It's ironic that Panasonic's is the first hard-disk/DVD recorder combination we have had a chance to review. Of the three "combatants" in the recordable-DVD format wars, DVD-RAM is the one that least needs "assistance" from a hard drive. As we've seen with previous Panasonic recorders, a DVD-RAM system alone can perform many of the trick features also performed here by the hard drive, like pausing a "live" TV show being recorded. In any case, the TiVo-like features of the DMR-HS2 worked smoothly with both the hard drive and DVD-RAM discs.

To paraphrase Irving Berlin, anything DVD-RAM can do, hard drives can do-possibly better. For instance, playlist playback off the hard drive was often smoother at scene transitions. When DVD-RW and DVD+RW recorders with hard drives arrive, many of the trick-feature advantages of DVD-RAM will diminish in importance. Indeed, if you have elaborate hard-drive facilities, you'll need DVD-Rs only for permanent storage of programs, since all of the necessary recording and editing can be accomplished on the hard drive. So much for that format war!

Hopefully, future machines will take better advantage of convergence features like a hard drive or a front-panel slot for a PC-card adapter. Here, the slot lets you take digital JPEG-format photos stored on flash-memory cards (SD, Compact Flash, Memory Stick, and so forth, depending on the adapter you use) and display them as a slide show on your TV. You can also store the stills on the hard drive or on a DVD-RAM disc. But you can't crop images, rotate ones that are sideways, or-and this is perplexing-incorporate them in a playlist, which would be enormously useful for title and credit screens.

The DMR-HS2's editing powers are definitely limited, and in ways I thought would be unnecessary with a hard drive on board. For example, when dubbing from the hard drive to DVD-R, you can't designate chapter subdivisions of the resulting title. This could be a serious drawback if you plan to use DVD-Rs mainly for permanent storage or plan to make copies of long home movies for friends and family. In fact, Panasonic seems to have recognized this since the finalization process automatically inserts a chapter marking every 5 minutes regardless of its relevance to the program. With a hard drive, it should have been possible to have at least some of the chapter-creating functions that you get on a computer-based DVD authoring system.

I'd also have expected that with a hard drive as part of the package you'd be able to combine a separately recorded soundtrack with your home movies. But you can't replace the audio originally accompanying a program segment nor even add a track of background music or narration to soundless video. Having such facilities, even in a crude form, would have been a welcome advance.

But let's not forget that the DMR-HS2 is a first-generation product, and-unlike Athena from the head of Zeus-few of these ever spring into the world fully armed. The DMR-HS2 is sort of like having a stripped-down TiVo or ReplayTV recorder that includes a built-in DVD-RAM recorder. Clearly, there's room for substantial innovation here, but it needs to happen fast, before Bill Gates and the computer guys run roughshod over this area of consumer electronics, too.