The Panasonic DMR-ES40V's remote may not be pretty, but it gets the job done with a minimum of confusion. Its 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. We like the one-touch DVD/VHS dubbing buttons, which we don't typically see on a remote, and the prominent VHS and DVD buttons, which select the deck you're controlling. All we missed were buttons to cycle through the DVD player's angle and repeat options.
The recorder's relatively straightforward menus offer plenty of onscreen help and handy diagrams showing the available controls on the remote. After a little trial and error, we were surfing through the various DVD menus and functions with ease. On the other hand, we were disappointed with the VHS deck's primitive menu, which has the big, blocky letters and the blue background of a VCR from 15 years ago. The Panasonic DMR-ES40V handles VHS-to-DVD (and vice versa) dubbing with ease--just press one of the dubbing buttons on the remote or the face of the deck, and you're in business. (Naturally, the device won't let you record copy-protected VHS and DVD media.) The recorder's Setup menu lets you determine the recording speed for the DVD or VHS deck, and you can also set a timer that stops the recording after a set period. We had no trouble dubbing our shows in either direction, but we wish the deck would prompt us for the recording speed just before dubbing begins, rather than making us dig through the Settings menu. We'd also like it to create disc menus and thumbnailed chapters automatically, à la the YesDVD feature on the GoVideo VR2940 combo DVD/VHS recorder.
Like the other DVD/VHS decks we've tested, the Panasonic DMR-ES40V doesn't have an onscreen programming guide for setting up recordings. While you can program recordings manually or with VCR Plus+, the deck lacks an IR blaster for changing the channel on a cable or satellite box; you'll have to set the channel properly beforehand.
The DMR-ES40V records to all DVD formats except DVD+RW. When you record with a DVD-RAM disc, you get a handful of hard drive-style features, such as chasing playback--that is, watching a program that's still being recorded--and the ability to watch one title while another is recording. You can also edit, split, and combine chapters and create playlists that reference your recordings without altering the original titles--but only with DVD-RAM discs, not DVD+R, DVD-R, or even VR-mode DVD-RW, which usually supports a variety of editing features. As it stands, all you can do with non-RAM discs is change the title or the thumbnail. Even worse, you can't add chapter stops in any of the DVD+R/-R/-RW formats, although you can with DVD-RAM discs. Even then, the deck won't add them automatically--a crucial oversight that makes for tedious, tapelike navigation when you're ready to watch your DVD recordings.
In its favor, the Panasonic DMR-ES40V starts quickly when you press the power button. We tried it with a DVD-RAM disc, and indeed we were recording in about a second, although DVD-R/+R/-RW discs take several more seconds to get started. We also liked the Commercial Skip button on the remote, which advances your DVD playback 60 seconds ahead (although we'd prefer 30 seconds). The deck's Flexible Recording mode is yet another welcome feature. It lets you fit a precise amount of video--anywhere from one to eight hours--onto a DVD while maintaining optimum video quality. It's great for recording movies that last a little more than two hours, since you don't have to resort to the four-hour recording mode.
On the connectivity front, the Panasonic DMR-ES40V has nearly all the bases covered. In back, you get the following: composite, S-Video, and progressive-scan-capable component-video outputs; an A/V input with S-Video, often missing in DVD/VHS combo decks; an optical digital audio output; and the standard RF and composite ports. Behind the front panel sits an S-Video-equipped set of A/V inputs. A separate flip-down front-panel door hosts the FireWire port for connecting a DV camcorder. Happily, DVD and VHS output will play via the same S-Video and component ports, with VHS upconverted to 480p progressive-scan. (The FireWire port and the unified video outputs are the ES40V's worthwhile improvements over its otherwise identical predecessor, the Panasonic DMR-ES30V.) The only notable omission is a coaxial digital output. Lately, Panasonic has been touting the improved recording quality of its DIGA decks, which it partly attributes to new 12-bit analog-to-digital converters. The folks there aren't lying. In our tests, the Panasonic DMR-ES40V's performance went above and beyond that of other recorders in its class, including the former champ, Sony's RDR-VX500. We were especially impressed with the quality of its four-hour LP mode.
Our VHS-to-DVD dub using a dusty, 12-year-old tape looked superb--in fact, it was the best we'd seen from a DVD/VHS combo recorder. The image was solid and almost totally free of the muddy, distracting video noise we usually encounter in our tape-to-DVD dubs. While other decks sacrificed color or cranked up the brightness to cover up VHS imperfections, the Panasonic DMR-ES40V delivered rich colors with impressive contrast. Our only complaint was that the deck had a little trouble with the tracking on our VHS tape, resulting in some slight distortion at the bottom of the picture (which the frame on most TVs would cover) and light, almost imperceptible static over the soundtrack.
The Panasonic DMR-ES40V scored exceptional marks in our resolution tests. No surprise, it delivered more than 450 lines of horizontal resolution--the video output of a typical DVD player--in its high-quality one- and two-hour recording modes. However, the deck hit almost the same score in its four-hour LP mode, which is quite a feat, considering that the other recorders we've tested struggled to reach 325 lines in LP mode. In the six- to eight-hour EP mode (depending on the setting), the deck's recording quality fell sharply to about 250 lines--again, not unusual. In our test recordings of Star Trek: Insurrection, the peasants fleeing from the deadly flying probes looked nearly perfect in XP and SP recording modes. In the four-hour LP mode, the picture still looked detailed but became murky during scenes with fast motion, such as when the peasants ran quickly across the frame. We also saw a bit of blockiness in static backgrounds. In EP mode, the recordings looked quite soft, and blockiness and MPEG artifacts became distracting.
The deck had no trouble with our 2:3 pull-down test, smoothly rendering the difficult haystacks and jaggy-prone bridges in Star Trek. It also had little trouble playing the dozens of DVDs and CDs in our test suite, stumbling only with DVD MP3s and with CDs and DVDs containing DivX-encoded movies.