Panasonic's remote doesn't match the stylishness of the deck itself, but it's easy to use and can be programmed to operate your TV. An array of menu and setting controls surround the large five-way navigational keypad, while the play/pause/stop, chapter-skip, fast-forward, and reverse controls sit just above. All we missed were buttons to cycle through the DVD player's angle and repeat options.
The Panasonic DMR-ES20's menus, while extensive, get the job done with a minimum of fuss or flash. They don't have slick animations, as Sony's DVD decks do, but we appreciated the abundance of onscreen help and the diagrams of the remote, which showed which buttons to push. Within a few minutes, we were breezing through the various menus and functions. Recording on the Panasonic DMR-ES20 is a simple matter of hitting the record button or scheduling a recording manually or with VCR Plus+. Since there's no EPG or IR blaster for changing the channel on your cable or satellite set-top box, you'll have to properly set the channel on the box for your recordings to work.
In addition to its five fixed-recording-time modes (one, two, four, six, and eight hours per disc), the deck provides a handy Flexible Recording mode that lets you fit anywhere from one to eight hours of video onto a DVD while maintaining optimal video quality--perfect for recording, say, a 130-minute movie without resorting to the four-hour recording mode. The recorder also has a Quick Start function that lets it begin recording a DVD-RAM within a second of powering up; other DVD formats take 10 seconds or more before they're ready to record.
The Panasonic DMR-ES20 records to all DVD formats except DVD+RW. When recording with a DVD-RAM disc, you get a few hard drive-style features, such as chasing playback (which lets you watch a program while it's being recorded) and the ability to watch one title while another is recording. You also get plenty of editing options, such as splitting and combining titles, adding chapter stops, and creating playlists that reference your recordings without altering the original files.
Unfortunately, those editing options are available only for DVD-RAM discs, not +R, -R, or even -RW discs, which usually support a variety of editing features. In fact, the only editing you can do with non-RAM discs is to change the title and the menu thumbnail. Particularly irksome is that you can't even add chapter stops to +R/-R/-RW discs, and the deck doesn't add them automatically, as decks such as the Lite-On LVW-5005 do. That means you're stuck with fast-forward and reverse navigation, which will grow tiresome if you're looking for a particular scene in a lengthy DVD recording.
In addition to its recording abilities, the Panasonic DMR-ES20 provides a few handy playback features, including a 60-second commercial skip (although 30 seconds would have been better) and a 1.3X playback mode, which speeds up playback ever so slightly without making speech sound chipmunky.
The deck comes with a solid set of connections, especially for an entry-level deck. In back, you get the following outputs: component and composite video and S-Video; an analog audio output; an optical digital audio output; and an RF out for antenna or cable connections. Rear inputs include one RF and two A/V inputs with S-Video. Behind the front-panel hatch, you'll find a third set of A/V inputs with S-Video and FireWire for easy hookup to DV camcorders. Panasonic hasn't been shy about touting the recording quality of its DIGA decks, and our recordings lived up to the hype. As we expected, in our tests the DMR-ES20 captured more than 450 lines of horizontal resolution in the high-quality XP and SP modes. Surprisingly, though, it scored almost the same marks in the four-hour LP mode--remarkable, considering that most DVD recorders are lucky to deliver 325 lines in LP mode. The deck's resolution dipped to a much softer 250 lines in the six- to eight-hour EP mode, complete with blocky artifacts in the background.
In our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, the peasants running from the murderous probes looked rock-solid in the one- and two-hour XP and SP modes. When we switched to the four-hour LP mode, we were impressed with the amount of detail but noticed some slight blocky MPEG artifacts around the edges of objects. We also noticed some smearing of objects in motion, especially as the peasants dashed across the frame. In EP mode, the picture became much softer and unstable and was marred by severe blockiness--typical for the six- to eight-hour recording modes we've tested. When we skipped to scenes of the smoky, damaged Enterprise bridge, the XP and SP modes again looked excellent, but the LP mode had a slightly tougher time rendering the smoke-filled background cleanly.
The Panasonic DMR-ES20 breezed past our 2:3 pull-down test, easily rendering the jaggy-prone haystacks and bridges at the beginning of Insurrection. It had little trouble with the CDs and DVDs in our test suite, although it couldn't play MP3 DVDs.