Equipment Review
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Panasonic Showstopper PV-HS3000 Hard Disk Recorder

HDD Capacity: 61.4 GB  
Video compression: MPEG2
Audio compression: MPEG1 layer2
Modem Speed: 56k
Recording time options: Extended = 61 hrs.; Medium = 30.5 hrs.; High = 20.5 hrs.
Tuner: MTS, NTSC
Inputs: Tuner = Type F; Composite = 2 RCA jacks; Audio = 2 RCA jacks; S-Video = 4-pin DIN
Outputs: Composite = 2 RCAs; Audio = 2 RCAs; S-Video = 4-pin DIN; Telephone = RJ-11 (standard phone cord); Serial control = DB-9 cable; IR Blaster
Dim.: 76Mm H x 430mm W x 290mm D
Weight: 5.9kg
SRP: $799

The Personal Video Recorder revolution is in full swing now as more people learn the many - some almost unbelievable - conveniences of the video hard drive replacements for VCRs. Though VHS recorders are down to as low as $99 anyone with a decent video monitor display, however small, can instantly see the major image improvement of the PVRs over the lousy VHS format. And when all the other attractions are toted up, the extra cost of a PVR is not so painful. It gives you complete control over your TV viewing in a way no VCR possibly can.

What makes this latest in the Panasonic line special is the 61-gig capacity of its hard drive, which allows for up to that many hours of video to be automatically recorded before it starts recording over old programs that you haven't gotten around to viewing. There are two competing systems for providing the programming guides and other information on which the PVRs depend, using a standard telephone line connection. One is TiVo and the other ReplayTV. Each one has slightly different attributes. For example, TiVo claims now to offer software that can tell which episodes in series that you want to record are repeats; it will ignore them and only record new episodes if you select that option! Replay doesn't have this. But the bottom line for many users will be that there is a monthly charge for the TiVo connection - without which their PVRs (from Sony and others) won't operate. With Replay - used in Panasonic and several other units - there is no charge.

The Showstopper comes with both a fairly fat manual and a very large Quick Start poster diagramming various hookup methods for the PVR and the rest of your home theater gear. It seems at first daunting, but an easy introduction is provided already recorded on the drive when you first turn it on. However, before you can see anything on the drive you have to do all the connections and then allow it to dial in to the RePlay dataphone number and download current programming and other information it requires for operation. This normally takes about 20 minutes. I connected mine on Christmas day and that was a mistake - evidently lots of people got Replay PVRs for Christmas and they must have all been hooking up that day - the connection was quickly aborted. The next day it worked fine.

The PVR works with cable-provided TV, any of the satellite dish systems, or an off-air indoor or outdoor antenna. The best quality program source is going to be one of the dish systems, and the unit provides one S-video input and one output to retain improved quality from the S-video out on your satellite receiver. Most receivers have a serial output and a serial 15-pin cable is provided, along with some adapters for other situations, to allow the Showstopper and the satellite receiver to talk to one another. If your cable or satellite box lacks the serial connector you will have to use the more primitive IR Blaster which sticks to the front of your box where the remote sensor is located. (When I got my DirecTV box I tried to use blasters on both of my VCRs since I couldn't find a code to make them operate - however they never worked.)

A vital point here is that your satellite receiver must either be set up to automatically turn itself on during the times that the PVR is set up to record, or (better yet) just left on permanently. If the Showstopper attempts to record and there is no source signal available it will stop immediately and display a note in the Replay Guide saying it didn't waste space trying to record without a signal. (Find a VCR that will do that!) With a simple splitter it will even allow you to watch one program while recording another - something I haven't been able to do since getting my single DirecTV dish.

The unit's Program Guide is quite amazing. There are many Replay Zones, which allow the user to select various program topics. For example, the unit can record all the sci-fi movies available on channels that you receive until the drive is completely full. Or you can set it to record any show on which a favorite celebrity appears. You can instruct it to record every episode of a favorite series for the entire season. The on-screen program guide is easier to read and use than the one supplied by DirecTV. Either the database at their headquarters is amazingly accurate or the unit uses code that is included in between video frames, because shows that start late - such as after a ball game - still are recorded from the beginning and not cut off early at their end. There's a standard F-type connector at the back and I simply plugged in my Terk indoor TV antenna which works very well on the local public TV station for recording their programs that are not available on the PBS Channel 902 of DirecTV. Such programming (as well as local stations offered on the dish if you have that service) is all included in the on-screen program guide, so you don't have to consult two different lists.

When you select a particular program for recording in the future a single red dot appears next to it. If you select the PVR to record that program daily or weekly two red dots appear. You can chose to have the particular show guaranteed or not. If guaranteed, disk space is set aside in advance for recording the upcoming show, and if some programs already recorded on the disk are not guaranteed and the rest of the space is used up, it will record over the non-guaranteed programs. The red dots become red circles for the non-guaranteed option. When the drive starts getting full (and you are feeling guilty for not having watched all 61 hours of programs!) you can dub off anything on it to your VCR with a simple connection.

The remote control is a semi-universal remote. Some of its useful features are QuickSkip, which jumps forward 30 seconds instantly - great for skipping thru all the you-know-whats. Jump is similar to the Last Channel button on other remotes, and Instant Replay skips back seven seconds on whatever you are watching. Another almost incredible ability of the PVR is this: You set it up to record a program just in case you didn't get home soon enough to see it live. But you do get home ten minutes after the start of the program. No matter, just turn on the rest of your home theater system and start watching the program right from the beginning while it continues to record thru to the end. Time travel brought to your home! On commercial channels if you get home up to 15 minutes late you may end up - after skipping by all the commercials - arriving at the program's recorded end about the same time it is ending on the air!

So how much loss is there with the slower, increased capacity recording speeds? Well, it's nothing like the tape speed options with VHS; even the slowest extended speed on the hard drive produces images light years better than the best Super-VHS videotape. I saw little difference between the High and Medium speeds. I would imagine only sports fans would find value in an improvement in the High speed for fast-moving sports closeups. The losses at the Extended speed don't seem to result in pixelation - just a very slight loss of resolution in smaller details. Hardly noticeable on most material - though if one were taping a really superior source such as some of the widescreen movies on AMC or TMC, I can imagine the Medium speed would result in a playback less distinguishable from the original telecast than the Extended speed. As with VCRs, black and white programming looks better at the slower speeds than color. (I plan to tape - sorry, Record - the upcoming Ken Burns PBS series on Jazz at Extended speed because the most important footage is nearly all black and white). I also found little degradation in the audio signal at any of the three speeds. Programs providing Dolby Surround soundtracks, such as Star Trek Next Generation, came thru with no noticeable loss in the surround information - such as the subtle but enveloping hum when aboard the Enterprise.

I'm sold on this Replay PVR. How did I live without it? But I may purchase one with a somewhat smaller hard drive so I won't feel as guilty piling up programs that caught my eye in the program guide but which I'll probably never have the time to view! If this one is bit much for your time and pocketbook, there are several more modest ones, including even one from Radio Shack - though it is limited to 20 hours at the Extended speed.

- John Sunier

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