As the cost of DVD recorders continues to fall, big-name brands have had to lower their prices to fend off competition from so-called 'supermarket specials' imported from the Far East.
The ES15 is Panasonic's most affordable disc recorder to date, which like similar models from Philips and Pioneer can be bought for less than £150. At this price there's always going to be a few compromises -- no hard drive recording options, an analogue only tuner and compromised connectivity. But, as an entry-level upgrade to your imminently obsolete VCR, it's ideal.
Multi-format compatibility means you can record and playback using practically any disc format, while the informative menu system and intuitive remote make operation simple. High-quality recordings are impressively faithful to the original and the ES15 also performs admirably as a standalone DVD player, especially if your display can accept progressive scan video.
For a budget recorder, the ES15 appears more substantially constructed than you might expect. It's still a little lightweight, and the ordinary design is uninspiring, but at least build quality is a cut above similarly priced models.
The bevelled front panel is simple with only a few basic controls, which have been arranged at an angle for easier access from above the unit. A stiff panel at the centre opens to reveal a set of equally accessible, basic AV connections, including a previously ignored DV input that provides a direct digital link for higher quality images from camcorders.
The remaining connections have been spaciously set across the rear panel where cut-price compromises are more apparent. There are two Scart terminals but only the AV1 output is RGB-enabled for high quality performance. You can use the accompanying standard Scart (AV2) to input external devices like a digital TV receiver, but picture quality is slighted and recordings suffer as a result.
There are also component video inputs, which support progressive scan signals to produce smoother, flicker-free DVD images, provided you have a display with corresponding connections. Audio ability is supplemented by a pair of typical stereo analogue outputs and a digital optical output. The digital audio output can be used to carry multi-channel sound formats, like Dolby Digital and DTS, to a home cinema receiver for surround sound set ups.
Panasonic's remotes always place functionality above flair, so while the outsized controls appear ungainly they're well arranged, responsive and intelligently designed to navigate through various recording, playback and editing functions. There are also useful short-cut controls for vital functions like VideoPlus and Time Slip.
Panasonic's DMR-ES15 is a truly universal recorder that will accept software discs in practically every format. You can record and playback a variety of formats including DVD-RAM, DVD-/+R, DVD-/+RW and even the latest dual-layer discs that double your recording time.
Not only does this make shopping for software easier, but it also gives you extra versatility with recordings. You can use Panasonic's preferred DVD-RAM to make edited and time slip recordings, -/+RW for temporary or portable recordings and -/+R discs for permanent copies. The list of playback formats is equally inclusive, stretching from standard DVD and CDs to encoded discs and even DVD-Audio, although playback is restricted to two channels only.
Less impressive is the inclusion of only an analogue TV tuner. This limits your choice of channels, affects overall image quality and makes recordings less easy to programme. You can still connect a separate digital receiver but, as mentioned, picture quality is compromised using the standard Scart input.
Without an EPG to assist you, there are several ways to make recordings, ranging from simple one-touch functions to timer recordings and VideoPlus. Panasonic's Quick Start function means recordings are instantly initiated without the usual delay that means you often miss the start of programmes.
As usual, there are several recording modes each of which trade overall picture quality with recording capacity. Using the highest quality (XP) mode gives you an hour's recording on a standard 4.7GB disc; with SP you get 2hrs; LP gives you 4hrs and EP provides 8hrs. There's also the useful Flexible Recording (FP) mode, which automatically selects the best quality mode that enables recordings to fit on the remaining disc space. It's ideal if you're not sure how much disc space you have left, or if you want fit films onto a single disc using the best possible quality.
The Disc Navigator menu system is expertly organised using thumbnail images to easily recognise recordings. There's also a host of post-editing features, especially using the hard-disk nature of DVD-RAM discs, that let you delete, name, protect and organise recordings.
The performance of recordings is always dictated by the quality of the integrated TV tuner, which acts as a master copy for recordings to recreate. Although in this instance it's only an analogue tuner, image quality is more than acceptable.
Broadcast images appear stable and poised with relatively little interference from picture noise. Decent black levels expose sharply defined edges and contrast even in dimly lit scenes. Beautifully balanced colours are equally adept at realising the natural tones in daytime chat shows as they are depicting superficial effects in action films.
Recordings, especially using the two highest quality modes, are faithfully accurate to the original. Edges begin to fray and movement occasionally stumbles using the LP mode, but there's still less deterioration than you would expect. Only the blurred, grainy images produced by the lowest quality EP mode should be ignored if possible.
Thankfully, DVD playback hasn't been ignored as merely an afterthought. Progressive scan pictures in particular are impressively clean and cohesive with a tight grip on movement and digital disturbances in all but the most complex scenes, and colours appear more vibrant without losing any natural realism.