Leaner and meaner
If you're familiar with the , the first thing that you'll notice is the E30S's slimmer profile. Like the E20, the E30S is a fairly attractive unit with a silver face that's punctuated with all the requisite buttons--including menu control--plus a set of A/V and S-Video inputs that are hidden behind a flip-out panel. (Panasonic also sells an identical all-black model called the DMR-E30K.) That's all good, but when Panasonic trimmed down the design, it decided to leave the fan assembly protruding from the back of the deck; this may create a problem for those who have shallow entertainment centers, as the unit measures 12 inches deep.
The remote is functional but less than stellar. Though its keys are arranged fairly well, we weren't thrilled to find that none of them are backlit or glow in the dark. We also found the slide-down door that hides the oft-used Open/Close and Input Select buttons slightly annoying. Luckily, the simple menu system makes up for some of the remote's shortcomings; dealing with the E30's many functions is a pretty straightforward affair, though even experienced techies will probably have to consult the manual.
As far as connectivity goes, the E30S's analog inputs include the same RF cable/antenna connections found on a VCR, two sets each of rear A/V and S-Video inputs and outputs, a digital optical output (no coaxial), and a component-video output. But unlike some competing, albeit , there's no FireWire port for digitally connecting a digital video camcorder or a computer. Also absent is anything in the way of meaningful editing functionality. Though the E30S offers some limited, playlist-based editing features, it can't separately record sound and video tracks and really isn't designed to be an editing deck.
However, it is designed to be a VCR killer. For starters, there's VCR Plus for easy timer recording, a built-in clock, and pretty much everything else that you'd expect in a good VCR except for cable/satellite tuner control. Another plus: you can watch one program while recording another on the same DVD-RAM, or you can begin watching, say, the first few innings of a baseball game while the unit records the seventh-inning stretch.
The feature that we liked the best, though, is called Flexible Recording. With the older E20, you can only record in one-hour (best), two-hour, four-hour, and six-hour modes. The drawback to that is if a movie is just more than two hours long, you have to record in four-hour mode instead or two-hour mode, which makes a big difference in terms of quality. But with the E30S's Flexible Recoding feature, you simply enter any time between one hour and six hours--01:34, for example--and the unit will fill a disc to that capacity using the best possible recording quality.
The DMR-E30S accepts DVD-RAMs and DVD-Rs. DVD-RAMs--which currently run $10 and more for 4.7GB--can be recorded and erased over and over and work with the playlist-editing and time-shifting features. DVD-R ($8 and more) functionality is more limited, but the disc can be finalized to play in standard DVD players; DVD-RAMs can be played back only in drives that support DVD-RAM. We tried playing our test DVD-Rs, including TDK- and Pioneer-branded discs, on numerous units and got mostly positive results. Only a couple of older decks circa 1999--an Apex AD-600A and an Onkyo DV-S525--couldn't read our tests discs.