Big Picture Big Sound

Panasonic DMR-EZ27 DVD Recorder with Built-in ATSC Tuner Review

By Chris Boylan

One Small Step For Pan(asonic)

Normally I wouldn't give a DVD recorder without a built-in hard-drive a second look. Once you've experienced the simplicity of hard drive video recording and editing, it's hard to go back to recording on capacity-challenged removable media. But then I heard Panasonic was releasing a DVD recorder with a built-in digital (ATSC) tuner, as well as 1080p upconversion via HDMI and I decided it was time to give non-hard-drive based DVD recorders another chance.

The DMR-EZ27 DVD player/recorder is in the middle of Panasonic's new line-up, ringing in at $249.99 MSRP. It features HDMI upconversion of DVDs and internal broadcasts up to 720p, 1080i or even 1080p resolution. If you're wondering why they'd include a digital (ATSC) tuner on a standard definition recorder, well it can be summed up in two words: future proof. In 2009, when the FCC has mandated that analog TV broadcasts go offline, all of the standard NTSC tuners built into today's DVD recorders, TVs and VCRs will be obsolete. Oh, you'll still be able to record from a cable box or external set-top box, but you will no longer be able to tune in your shows and record them directly onto a hard drive, DVD or tape without the help of an external tuner. And yes, there are going to be a WHOLE LOT of "flashing 12:00s" on that dark day when the time codes built into over-the-air analog broadcasts suddenly disappear - POOF!

Panasonic's DMR-EZ27 DVD Recorder is their first to feature a digital (ATSC) tuner.

Not so with this new Panasonic. Its built-in ATSC tuner will access any of your locally broadcast digital channels (standard def or high def), over the air or on cable, now and into the foreseeable future. And it will allow you to record programs onto any kind of blank DVD (DVD-RAM, +/-R, +/-RW) including higher capacity dual layer blank DVDs. After recording (and finalizing), discs recorded on this player can then be played back on the unit itself or on virtually any other DVD player. As to how it manages to do that, read on...

Features and Ergonomics

As with just about any product that includes a tuner, the first step is to plug in your antenna (or cable TV cable) and allow the recorder to find local channels. The tuner will search both analog (VHF/UHF) and digital bands to find channels. When the search is finished, you can manually delete any channels you don't watch or which aren't coming in well.

This process on the Panasonic was remarkably quick. The unit found the clock signal embedded on the local PBS channel less than 5 minutes after being plugged in (and before I had even powered it on). And the auto-channel search found about 15 analog and 18 digital channels coming in via our roof UHF/VHF antenna, also in less than 5 minutes. I set the HDMI output to 1080i to match the input resolution of our Panasonic plasma, set the screen shape to 16:9 and that was about it for the set-up.

The EZ-27's remote lacks backlighting, but its button layout is intuitive and easy to get used to.

Although the recorder does support HDMI output resolutions up to 1080p, the internal digital tuner is actually limited to 480p so it's not technically an HDTV tuner. It is a standard definition ATSC digital tuner, which means it can tune in channels digitally and even supports widescreen 16:9 broadcasts, just not in HD resolutions. The 480p signal of the tuner is then upconverted to 720p, 1080i or 1080p for output to an HDTV-enabled display device. If you're using this on a standard definition analog television, then you can use the component video, composite or S-video outputs to send a 480i 4:3 signal to your TV.

In addition to standard DVDs, the EZ27 supports viewing JPEGs, from CDs, DVDs or SD cards, and playback of MP3 audio files from CD-R or CD-RW. It also supports playback of Divx-encoded AVI video files, but only from CD-R/RW or DVD-R/RW (not from SD card). This seems an odd limitation, as MPEG4 playback of video files was supported in some earlier DVD recorders from Panasonic.

The unit does not include any online guide such as TV Guide On-Screen, so recordings will have to be scheduled the old-fashioned way - by entering the time/date and channel. Of course, like a VCR, you also have to make sure you have a blank DVD in the drive with adequate space to handle your scheduled recordings, otherwise timer recordings will fail. For those of us spoiled by living with Tivos and other hard-drive-based DVRs (digital video recorders), this is probably the hardest hurdle to jump. But those used to DVD-only recorders or VCRs will not be bothered by this limitation.

When you schedule a recording, you can name the timer program something yourself (like, for example, "Timer Program 1"). But if you do not specify a name, then the program will be named according to the digital "meta data" embedded in the broadcast stream. This is just a fancy way of saying that the recorded program will be named the same name as the recorded show, without you having to specify a name manually. I tested this by recording "The Wonderful World of Disney" and "Access Hollywood." In both cases the program names were captured along with the recordings.

I was somewhat surprised to find that the recorder must be powered off in order for programmed (scheduled) recordings to take place. This is not like our DMR-E100HS DVD/HDD recorder (also made by Panasonic) which will enter program/record mode even if the unit is powered on. but it seems to be par for the course on stand-alone DVD-only recorders.

In terms of inputs and outputs, the EZ27's jack-pack is pretty comprehensive. For inputs you have S-video and composite video and audio inputs, plus a DV input for direct digital transfer from a digital camcorder. For outputs, a 1080p-capable HDMI audio/video output is offered, along with component video, composite and S-Video. Digital and analog audio outputs are included as well. for my purposes, I used the HDMI output only, fed into an HDMI switch and then into an Onkyo receiver. The video output was then sent to a 1080i-compatible Panasonic plasma TV via HDMI. So the signal remained in the digital domain all the way from reception to display on the plasma flat panel.

Although the unit does not feature a recordable hard drive, it does support recording and playback on DVD-RAM, DVD-RW and DVD+RW. So if you're interested in reusing the discs after recording, select one of these media types. But these discs can present compatibility issues as they're not as likely to play on other DVD players (particularly DVD-RAM discs). If you know you're going to be keeping your recordings, and you're not concerned about editing, then you might want to use a DVD-R or DVD+R and be sure to finalize the disc when you're done if you want to play it back on other DVD players.

And speaking of that "finalize" step, most of the DVD recorders we have tested in the past (including Panasonic models) allow you to select from a menu of different DVD menu templates, which are written to the disc as the DVD menu when you finalize the disc. The EZ27 lives up to its "EZ" name by offering no choice. You can have any menu you want as log as it's blue with 8 items per page. This menu style is perfectly fine for most purposes, including both a thumbnail image (selectable) and up to 44 characters of text for each recorded program, but it would be nice to have the option of changing it. After the DVD media is full, you can still add a "Disc Title" and select whether you want the disc menu to come up when the disc loads, or for playback of the first title to begin automatically.

All DVDs burned and finalized on the EZ27 will have this same navigation menu.

Once when recording in FR mode onto a Staples brand DVD-R, I did not get the disc title or menu playback choices at all, only the "finalize" option. The finalized disc then played back fine on the Panasonic and other players, but with a blank disc title (as seen above). This seems to have been an isolated incident as it only occured once during our testing.

Personally, I prefer recording on DVD-RAM discs for a few reasons. First of all, it is only on DVD-RAM that we were able to correctly capture widescreen programs in their 16:9 aspect ratio - anamorphically squeezed to fit the 720x480 native resolution of DVD, and expanded back out to 16:9 automatically upon playback. This is the same way that widescreen DVDs work. This feature is not supported by the Panasonic on DVD-R or DVD+R (more details below). Also, with DVD-RAM, you can "chase playback" beginning playback of a program while it is still being recorded onto DVD. Plus recording on a DVD-RAM makes it very easy to transfer the program in high speed onto an earlier generation Panasonic recorder that includes a hard drive. This is useful if you want to edit out commercials or clean up beginnings and endings of programs before finalizing onto a DVD-R or DVD+R disc.

The only drawback with DVD-RAM is that it's the least compatible with other players. Only a small sample of players on the market today support direct playback of DVD-RAM discs. If you're making recordings to play back on other DVD players, then DVD-R and DVD+R make better choices.

Viewing Impressions

Panasonic's recent DVD recorder models have had some major picture quality improvements made to the LP (Long Play) recording mode. This mode records up to 4 hours of content on a single layer 4.7 GB DVD. In earlier models, video resolution was limited to about 250 lines due to the lower bandwidth. But the new "2X Virtual Multi-Encode" allows you to record in LP mode with nearly 500 lines of resolution. The improvement is quite noticeable and makes the 4-hour LP speed a viable option for archiving shows on a minimal number of DVDs.

Of course, if you're really aiming for high video quality. you'll want to keep the recorder in XP mode (1 hour per single-sided DVD) or SP (2 hours per DVD). As with earlier Panasonic models, the "FR" mode (Flexible Recording) allows you to optimize recording rate for the specific time of the program being recorded. So, for example, if you want to record a 2 hour 10 minute long movie, you can use FR mode to optimize the recording rate to use every last bit of the DVD storage available. This will give you audio and video quality that are quite close to SP mode, rather than having to step down into lower quality LP/4-Hour mode, which would waste nearly half of the available disc space..

Overall video quality was at least as good if not better than earlier generation Panasonic DVD recorders we have tested, with the considerable improvement in picture quality in LP mode. That is to say, XP mode is significantly superior in resolution and detail to any S-VHS recorder we have used or tested. SP mode is also quite acceptable, nearly indistinguishable from the original analog or digital broadcasts. LP mode is now eminently watchable, even on a large screen 50-inch HDTV set, though the digital artifacts are more noticeable than in SP and XP modes. In EP mode (in the 8-hour default setting), the picture suffers pretty noticeable digital artifacts, such as macro-blocking, muted colors and false contouring. It's really not much better than EP mode on a VHS recorder. It will do in a pinch if you have to leave the unit recording for up to 8 hours while unattended, but it is not really something most people would enjoy on anything larger than a 20-inch screen.

One way the new Panasonic is superior to earlier DVD recorders is that it can record widescreen (16:9) programs in anamorphic mode. This means it captures the full vertical detail of the image, instead of recording the program with hard-coded letterbox bars as most standard definition recorders do (which wastes a significant chunk of the vertical resolution). I recorded an episode of "Soundstage" on PBS-HD on a DVD-RAM in XP mode and played the recording back in all its widescreen glory. The resulting recording was not high definition - colors were slightly less vivid and details were slightly obscured when compared to a high definition version of the same recording. But it was certainly a huge improvement over analog standard definition material. Unfortunately the recorder does not support recording a Dolby Digital 5.1-channel digital audio signal - it converted the original 5.1-channel signal down to 2-channel (stereo) Dolby Digital sound.

On anything other than DVD-RAM, the recorder does not seem to properly set the anamorphic widescreen flag in its recorded material. Widescreen recordings made from the Panasonic's digital tuner and finalized onto DVD-R discs play back in 4:3 mode on the Panasonic recorder or on other DVD players, with the content "horizontally squeezed" into the center of the screen. This makes people and objects look taller and skinnier than they should. It's important to note that this image squeeze does not occur when you record from the analog channels or when recording 4:3 material from a digital channel, only when recording widescreen programs via the digital tuner.

If you have a 4:3 set (or if you're making recordings to play back on a 4:3 set), then you will not be able to correct for this image distortion. If you have a 16:9 set, then it's likely that you can select a "full" or "stretch" mode in your television's aspect ratio controls that will stretch the content out to it proper aspect ratio, filling the 16:9 screen, and maintaining the resolution and detail of the original recording. You can also select the "Full" mode in the EZ-27's HDMI playback options to expand the image back to its original shape (but this will also stretch live 4:3 material to 16:9 so it's not an ideal solution). Strictly speaking, this should really not occur. The anamorphic flag should be set properly on the disc (DVD-R or DVD-RAM) so that any player will play the recording back properly.

Play On, Playa

In overall picture quality evaluation, recording quality is only half the battle. Once recorded, you have to actually play the disc back as well. The DMR-EZ27 will upconvert standard content (live broadcasts, store-bought DVDs or home-made DVD recordings) to 480p, 720p, 1080i or 1080p output. But not all up-converters are created equal.

In terms of testing the playback quality of the EZ-27, we hit it with the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD - a test disc that separates the men from the boys in the video-processing department, and the player did remarkably well, considering its rice and feature set.

To test the player's de-interlacing (turning an interlaced video signal into progressive), we hooked the player up in 720p and 1080p output to several different HD-capable display devices. On the "jaggies" tests on the HQV disc, the player passed with flying colors with only mild "stair-stepping" distortion on the lowest of the three moving diagonal lines. In the tricky "film detail" sequence, which tests the unit's 3:2 pull-down processing and de-interlacing, the player locked on almost immediately to the underlying film cadence, presenting the racetrack's grandstand in the test sequence cleanly without the telltale curved bands across the grandstands that appear with inferior processors.

The player was also good at enhancing SD content into HD resolutions. The grass and stone detail in the test sequence were noticeably more detailed than on a non-upconverting DVD player. The player also had no trouble reproducing mixed film/video content (scrolling video titles superimposed onto film-sourced background material). All in all, the Panasonic's video processor is certainly above average, particularly considering that it does all this and records too.

Final Thoughts

I won't lie. I miss the lack of a hard drive on this video recorder. But apparently including both a hard drive and a digital tuner in a digital video recorder would inflate the price astronomically due to content protection issues. Panasonic isn't the only manufacturer dropping hard drives from their DVD recorders as they add digital tuners, so it would be unfair to single Panasonic out in this regard. Although the widescreen aspect ratio problems when recording onto a DVD-R are perplexing, these can be corrected on almost all 16:9 format TVs.

The unit's many improvements over its predecessors - enhanced LP recording quality, support for anamorphic widescreen recording on DVD-RAM, Divx playback and high quality upconversion over HDMI - not to mention its future compatibility due to built-in digital tuner, make the DMR-EZ27 a worthy successor to Panasonic's previous generations of DVD recorders. It ain't high def, but it's about as close as you can come today in a recorder with removable, archivable media. If you're in the market for a DVD recorder which doubles as a fine upconverting DVD player, the DMR-EZ27 is definitely worth a look.

Where to Buy:Features and Specifications from the Manufacturer:
  • Recordable Disc Type: DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-R DL, DVD+R DL
  • Multi-Format Playback (Playable Disc Type): DVD (DVD-Video), DVD-RAM (DVD-VR, JPEG), DVD-R/-RW (DVD-Video, DVD-VR: DVD-RW only, DivX: DVD-R only), DVD-R (DL) [DVD-Video, DivX], +R/+R (DL)/+RW (Video), CD, CD-R/RW (CD-DA, MP3, JPEG, DivX)
  • EZ Sync™ HDAVI Control (HDAVI Control II)
  • Time Slip Function: Chasing Playback
  • One-Touch Record and Play
  • 1-Second Quick Start (DVD-RAM discs only)
  • Recording Modes: XP/SP/LP/EP/FR
  • Hi-Speed Smooth Scan
  • Bilingual Recording
  • Commercial Skip
  • 2x LP Horizontal Resolution Recording Yes
  • Progressive Scan
  • Horizontal Resolution: 500 lines
  • Image Viewer/Storage (for memory cards) JPEG files
  • Dolby DigitalĀ® (Dolby AC-3) 2ch Audio Recording
  • HDMI Interface (Ver. 1.3): 1
  • DV Input Terminal: 1
  • Built-in SD Card Slot: 1
  • Component Video Out (Y, PB, PR): 1
  • S-Video Outputs: 1
  • Composite Video Outputs: 2
  • Digital Audio Out: Optical (Dolby Digital, DTS, and PCM)
  • Composite Video In: 2
  • S-Video In: 2
  • Stereo Audio In: 2
  • Power Consumption (Normal Use): Approx. 24W
  • Color Black
  • Recording Time on 4.7GB disc (Approximate) XP Mode: 1 hour, SP Mode: 2 hours, LP Mode: 4 hours, EP Mode: 6/8 hours
  • Recording Time 8.5GB DVD-R DL/+R DL Disc (Approximate) XP Mode 1 hour & 45 minutes, SP Mode 3 hours & 35 minutes, LP Mode 7 hours & 10 minutes, EP Mode 10 hours & 45 minutes/14 hours & 20 minutes
  • Tuners: NTSC, ATSC, CATV (analog/digital)
  • Recording System MPEG2 (Hybrid VBR)
  • Automatic Program Information Acquisition
  • 1080p Up-Conversion with HDMI
  • Real-Time Variable Bit Rate Control
  • Auto DVD Disc Finalizing
  • JPEG & Video Recording on the same disc (DVD-RAM only)
  • CPRM Recording Capability (DVD-RAM only) Yes
  • Dimensions (H x W x D) 2 3/8" x 16 15/16" x 9 15/16"
  • Weight 6.16 lbs
  • MSRP: $249.99
Manufacturer's Contact Information:

Panasonic Corporation of North America
One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094

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