TiVo and ReplayTV were the first alternatives to VHS VCRs for time-shifting video broadcasts. Now that DVD Recorders/Burners are firmly established in the marketplace, both with computers and as stand-alone models in home theater systems, the hoary VHS recorder can be junked or put in the rumpus room for your old homemade and commercial videotape playback on a small screen - where the low res wont look quite as awful. Yes, the compatibility of a standard VHS format (as with audiocassettes) is no longer with us, but at least all the different DVD systems have: One type of blank disc that you record to once and for all and which plays on most DVD players; plus another type that allows recording in bits and pieces and can be erased but may not play on most other players.
So has the process been simplified to ensure that when you press all the right buttons in succession that Seinfeld rerun you wanted to tape at seven tonight while youre out will actually tape? Well, no. Has at least the clock setting been automated so that the ever-popular flashing 12:00 no longer is seen in living rooms across the nation? Yes, they all use a clocking signal transmitted by TV stations to set the timer clock. Functions and features have been expanded greatly over the simple VCR, and both video and audio quality is far superior. Not many people had video cameras in the VHS era but now they do and all the DVD recorders are designed for downloading digital video, editing it, and burning a DVD of it to send to friends and relatives. The process can get very complicated however.
The latest DVD recorders incorporate a computer hard drive to simplify editing and offer some of the features of the TiVo, such as watching a program from the beginning while you are still recording it off the air or cable. Others use a special format with recordable/erasable discs which allows for editing and serves a similar function at lower cost. Some brands use the VR format for this, but Panasonic introduced and has popularized DVD-RAM, which is so versatile that it is now being used in some professional video editing systems. More on DVD-RAM below.
The E60 hookup went as expected except for one thing. Seeing the DVD-Audio logo on the front I was expecting to hook up one of my 6-channel cables for playback, but I was surprised to find no six-channel analog audio out jacks! The reason is the unit plays only the stereo option on DVD-A discs, not the multichannel. Though Im familiar with that situation in SACD players (in fact I have one), I wasnt aware there were any such two-channel-only DVD-A players. There are RCA jacks for analog stereo in and out, and a choice of composite, S-Video and component video Ins and Outs. The usual RF antenna In and Out connections for coax cable are the only other jacks besides the AC cord.
Recording and Playback
Playback of both standard CDs and the stereo from DVD-As was very similar to my Toshiba 5700 DVD-A player. Progressive video playback from DVDs was good, but since the progressive circuitry in my Pioneer RPTV is better than most players, I usually turn off progressive on the players and let the monitor handle it. While the E60 doesnt have the built-in hard drive, it does feature slots on the front to accept SD and PC memory cards from digital still and video cameras. This interested me because I was just about ready to download a bunch of shots for this issue from my Olympus digital camera to my Macintosh and thought I would make a comparison. Unfortunately the variety of non-compatible memory card formats among the camera makers is similar to the recordable DVD situation, and my cameras memory card failed to fit either of the slots on the Panasonic. The manual states that the unit is compliant with jpeg and tiff computer files taken with a digital camera, so I got out one of the CD-Rs on which I had burned some of my images to save space on my Mac hard drive. All the images were jpeg files but the unit failed to display them. So much for stills.
The units display window is well-designed, with an informative rotating segmented disc icon on the left end of it. It rotates when playing or recording and stops when the disc is paused. The words Rec and Play also appear and flash to indicate modes, and for simultaneous record and play or fast-speed chasing, only half of the circle appears on the display. There are quite a few steps to go thru to record and numerous unfamiliar buttons on the units remote. Lets take recording to CD-R first. You select the proper input for your source, be it the coax video for off the air, a video camera, or a videotape player. You select DVD-R and the speed/sampling rate, which ranges from XP (high quality), thru SP (normal) and LP (long play) to EP (Extra long play). On a single-sided disc they give you from 1 hour to 6 hours recording time. I was surprise how little degradation of the image there was at the LP mode, and even the EP mode would be OK for talking heads types of broadcast video or old B&W movies. Certainly light years ahead of even the top speed on VHS tape. There is also a flexible recording option if you have a certain space left on a disc and want to fit what you are copying onto the space remaining at the highest quality mode the space would allow. You enter the times involved and during recording the E60 adjusts in between the modes to retain the best quality using the space available. Setting the timer clock is very similar to setting up a VCR timer. For starting instant recording to a certain length you simply press the Rec button multiple times, each one adding 30 minutes to the recording before it stops. The unit also has the VCR Plus feature which you access with its button on the remote, enter the code from TV Guide or your newspaper with the number buttons on the remote and then press Enter to set it up.
You can start and pause/stop the recording process at any time. An automatic invisible/inaudible marker is placed at such starts and stops, as well as intervals or five or ten minutes during recording. To find the starts of different sections or chapters you have to access the index list (where you also title the sections). The chapter index button on the remote will not take you there - that only works with commercial DVD and CDs. There is no adjustment or meter for audio - that is automatically adjusted. The display shows how much time you have left at the recording mode you have selected. If you select SP and run past the two hour point it will display Disk Full and stop. Once completed you now have to finalize the DVD-R before it can be used in most DVD players. That is done by going to the Direct Navigator screen and selecting Finalize, which takes several minutes depending on what is on the CD-R.
Use of the markers button on the remote is somewhat confusing. On one page of the manual it states the markers with both DVD-R and DVD-RAM remain intact after the disc is finalized and removed. Yet at the bottom of the same page it states that markers are cleared when you finalize the DVD-R. Ive been told that copy protection concerns have prevented a simple chapter heading marker that corresponds to those on commercial DVDs, but that may be coming down the pike in the future. The most frequent use of the present markers will be to eliminate commercials in broadcast & cable television. After recording a program but prior to finalizing, you fast forward thru the program to the commercials. You press Marker at both the beginning and end of the commercial break, then erase the portion between the two markers. You do this for each commercial break and after finalizing the disc will automatically skip from the end of one TV program segment to the next, ignoring the commercials which are still on the disc.
The DVD-RAM feature requires a special DVD-RAM blank but greatly expands the editing and other features possible. For example, Time Slip allows you to review recorded images on the disc while simultaneously recording to it. You can copy various scenes from videotapes or from your video camera to the DVD-RAM and they dont need to be in consecutive order. Playlists are created automatically when you start and stop or pause recording, and are accessed via a Playlist button on the remote. You can erase scenes you dont want at all, then specify the order in which the scenes which remain will be played. This will work each time you play this particular DVD-RAM on this particular player, but you could also output the signal to another DVD recorder or VHS VCR to make a more universal copy. While not as versatile as a recorder combined with a hard drive, this is the closest thing to it. There are some simpler editing systems than DVD-RAM, but they cant do all the tricks possible with this format.
A couple other special features of the E60: It plays MP3 files from either CD-Rs or CD-RWs. The Quick View feature speeds up playback of both picture and sound to check contents as an alternative to using the fast forward. Finally, altho for all other recording modes the audio is Dolby Digital Stereo, if you record in the XP mode you can use uncompressed two-channel PCM audio for highest sound quality. This would be ideal for music videos, as long as selections can be divided into one-hour segments.
The E60 has 100% more features than any VCR but due to the complexities it does take some study to learn how to make use of them. The DVD-RAM option seems to be an excellent substitute for a hard drive and picture quality output is very close to the input at SP mode and identical at XP - either with DVD-RAM or DVD-R. However, be careful to not access the various onscreen displays during recording with DVD-RAM, because they are recorded on the disc and cover up the screen images on playback. It is also very easy to accidentally bump the recording mode button on the remote while using other buttons and changing the mode on the fly - say from SP to EP. Since the unit is priced very close to the new models with hard drives built in, the big attraction here would probably be the units ability to play back or record to optical disc still images from SD or PC memory cards - providing thats what your digital camera uses.