When I purchased a Panasonic DMR-E80H DVD recorder earlier this year, one of the major reasons for getting it was to archive twenty years worth of family home videos. Doing so would finally create a good reason for my parents to get a DVD player, so my mother and I elected to get dad a simple player for his birthday in October. Since the driving force behind this purchase was the DVD recorder, it made sense to look for a player that could play back DVD-RAM discs, and that effectively narrowed it down to a couple of Panasonic's older high-end players (the RP91 and RP82) or something from Panasonic's current model year line-up. The RP91 and RP82 are great players, but they are hard to find, have features that dad has no need of, and are more expensive than even my main DVD player (a Panasonic DVD-RA60), so instead I turned to Panasonic's newest entry level players. The DVD-S35 is the bottom rung in Panasonic's new line-up, retailing for around $100 before the mail-in rebate that has been available for the past couple months. When a 10% coupon for Best Buy popped up in the mail, I headed out and picked one up along with an RF modulator.
This review will be a bit more brief than some of my more recent reviews, since I have used the S35 only briefly and have it set up in a manner that doesn't allow it to demonstrate many of its features. As in other reviews, I've included an equipment list at the end of this review as a reference. Readers who are just starting to consider buying a DVD player for the first time may also want to read through the DVD player section of my Guide to Home Theater and DVD.
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I selected the S35 for price, greatest potential compatibility with discs created by the DMR-E80, and DVD-RAM playback support. The player includes a few extra features that are becoming standard on most players but are often unused on less expensive models such as this one. There is the progressive scan output, which my parents may not have a television capable of using for many, many years to come. There is two-channel DVD-Audio support, which will see little use while connected to a mono television set. Also, there is MP3 and WMA CD-R playback support included, with an interface similar to that used on the DMR-E80H, which will go largely unused by my parents but might be very useful for some people (it could make a good media center for a dorm room, for example). I needed a basic, straightforward DVD player that would be reliable, compatible with any discs my parents might come across, and inexpensive. My requirements, and along with them my expectations, were not very high. The S35 fit the bill nicely; while more expensive than the numerous "off brand" players that can be found for as little as $50 these days, it was still one fifth the cost of my first DVD player and about half the cost of my current primary player. Would it meet my expectations? Would it perhaps even exceed them?
The first thing that anyone who has owned a few DVD players before is likely to say about the S35 is that it is small. While retaining the standard 17" width of most home electronics, it is about 10 1/2" deep and (remarkably) less than 2 1/2" thick. As a comparison, three of them stacked together would still be shorter than my main amplifier. It is available in a silver finish or a black finish, but the black finish is typically only available online from places like J&R World. While I still tend to prefer the black, many people in recent years have been choosing the silver finish instead. The cabinet is very light at barely over 4.5 pounds, but it seems fairly rigid. Surprisingly, the front panel sports a jog/shuttle dial, something that rarely appears on entry level players. Aside from that knob, the front panel is largely unremarkable, with a thin disc tray over the display, a small assortment of transport buttons between the tray and the knob, and a power button set all the way to the left. The rear I/O options are typical for the price range: optical digital output, one set of stereo analog outputs, one composite and one s-video output, and a component video output that supports both 480i (interlaced) and 480p (progressive scan) video. No coaxial digital audio output, no multi-channel output (the DVD-Audio support is limited to two channel only, and there are no Dolby Digital or DTS decoders onboard), no extra audio or video outputs, no DVI or other emerging output formats, and (as with almost all DVD players ever produced), no RF coaxial output. The power cord is the same removeable cord used by all of Panasonic's DVD players. It's not an IEC cord, so put away the fancy custom replacement power cords. The remote is fairly unremarkable, although it -- like the DMR-E80's remote -- felt to me as if it had been scaled down about 15% from what it should be; I'll touch on it a bit more later in the review. Overall, the S35 is clearly an entry-level DVD player, but it does appear to be a very respectable and upstanding member of that club.
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Most of my DVD player experience has been with Panasonic and Toshiba DVD players (Panasonic DVD-A310, DVD-RA60, DMR-E80H, and Toshiba SD-1600 and SD-1800). The S35's setup menus are largely a duplicate of those menus used on previous Panasonic players, so it was a straightforward process for me to get the player set up. Without a home theater receiver to worry about, the player is essentially ready to use out of the box -- no worries about speaker setup for the (non-existent) multi-channel analog output and no need to enable to DTS digital output. The manual may be considered a weak spot for Panasonic (and many other DVD player manufacturers, to be honest), but it is not nearly as bad as some manuals (Sony RM-AV2100, my reference manual for bad documentation) and it is simple enough to use that the manual isn't really an obstacle, even to beginning users. All of the features appear to have been spelled out fairly clearly. For a copy of the manual in PDF format, click here.
As can be seen in the picture above, this player is not installed in my equipment rack, although I did briefly hook it up to the front input jacks of my television to make sure that it worked. Instead, it is connected to a basic (and still very common) system: a television and VCR. The VCR is a Panasonic S-VHS model from 1996 and the television is a Panasonic 19" set from 1994 or 1995 (I bought it as a floor model in the summer of 1995). The TV has only a single RF coaxial input, a common obstacle for DVD player buyers with older television sets. The S-VHS VCR was purchased to minimize wear and tear on dad's S-VHS camcorder, and the s-video output has never been used. Originally, there was a second VHS VCR connected to the S-VHS VCR's line output for transferring S-VHS tapes to standard VHS, but that VCR has since moved to another part of the house. Because the TV has no line inputs, we were forced to rely on an RF modulator (a Jensen modulator purchased for about $20 at Best Buy when I bought the player). The system is wired as shown in this wiring diagram (see the lower diagram that includes a VCR and cable TV from the wall) -- a much less intimidating wiring scheme than that used with my DVD recorder. When the DVD player is on and the TV switched to channel 3, the TV receives the audio and video signal from the S35. When the DVD player is off, the TV receives the signal from the VCR (either the raw cable TV feed passed through the VCR or the VCR's output, depending on whether the TV/VCR mode is off or on). This configuration is ideal for the many people who are interested in connecting a new DVD player to their older TV sets that lack line inputs, and it is easy to set up. Of course, if your TV includes line inputs (composite video and analog audio or better), definitely use them: not only will it eliminate an extra device, but it will preserve more of DVD's superior video quality. For details of what the different types of audio and video connections look like, try the connectors and plugs table on my Cables page.
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When connected via an RF modulator, video performance for any properly designed DVD player is going to be effectively irrelevent -- the modulation is a bottleneck that will obscure any differences in video playback short of major dropouts, scrambling, or severe distortion. The S35 is a reliable player, and it performed fine for us. When it was briefly connected via composite video to my Mitsubishi 27" television's front inputs, the S35 demonstrated no video flaws. I can't speak to the progressive scan performance, but anyone looking to invest in a good progressive scan player should probably skip the S35 and look for something more substantial, like the (discontinued) Panasonic DVD-RP82. Denon's new generation of DVD players (including several "universal" players such as the DVD-2200, DVD-2900, and DVD-5900 that support DVD-Audio and SACD in addition to DVD Video and progressive scan outut) all look extremely interesting, albeit much more expensive than the S35.
The S35 will support most 5" disc formats: Video DVD, DVD-Audio (stereo only), DVD-R, DVD-RAM, Video CD, SVCD, Audio CD, CD-R Audio CD's, and CD-R/RW with WMA, MP3, or JPG files. Unlike Panasonic's DVD recorders, the S35 cannot accept DVD-RAM discs in cartridges. Any cartridged DVD-RAM discs would need to be taken out of the cartridge to be played in the S35. DVD-RAM's produced on a Panasonic recorder can be fully accessed by the S35, including any play lists. DVD-R's behave exactly the same as standard Video DVD's (although the disc menus exhibit some odd crawl when fed through an RF modulator to a 19" television: a condition caused by the E80's menus and massively exacerbated by the signal path and display being used). Likewise, Video CD's and SVCD's act much like DVD's, although they may not have menus. JPG files are accessed using a folder hierarchy similar to that for WMA and MP3 files; the image files must have a .jpg, .jpeg, .JPG, or .JPEG extension. I'll touch on Audio CD's and WMA/MP3 playback in the audio section below.
The player's transport, while lightweight, was quiet and reasonably responsive. There was no distracting noise from the player when a disc was spinning, the tray ejected and closed quickly and smoothly, and overall it struck me as being better than I would expect from such a thin, light, and unexpensive unit. The few disc menus I tried on it loaded without any undue delay, and it jumped to selected programs well. The transition between titles on a finalized DVD-R created more of a pronounced pause than I'm used to seeing from the DMR-E80 and my DVD-RA60, but it's a subtle thing and something that would not be important when watching commercial DVD's -- commercial discs rarely skip between titles without passing through a menu first, and they are likely to be mastered to provide a smoother transition between titles in such cases. I didn't have a chance to test a layer change, but would not expect any more of a delay on the S35 than on any other player under $200.
The latest generation of Panasonic DVD players demonstrates a different approach to the DVD player market. Rather than a wide range of products from entry level players to high end "flagship" players like the RP91 and RP82, Panasonic has narrowed their line to focus on the largest market: the entry level. The S35 and it's DVD-Audio equipped sibling the S55 are the core of their line, and they retail for $100 to $130. The new models all rely on a new video chipset that combines the essential MPG decoding (required for all DVD video playback) and the deinterlacing (the heart of progressive scan playback) into a single piece. In the process, they abandoned the MEI decoder that has been the heart of Panasonic's DVD players since 1997 and the Genesis FLI2200 deinterlacer that made the RP82 and XP30 some of the best-scoring players in the 2002/2003 Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity DVD player shootout. This new unified chipset must have helped reduce manufacturing costs, but it may have introduced one undesirable trait to the Panasonic players, based on Secrets testing of the DMR-HS2 (which uses this unified chipset): the "chroma bug." I was unable to conclusively identify the chroma bug (also known as the chroma upsampling error, or CUE) with either the DMR-E80 or the DVD-S35 on my 27" television, which makes me suspect that any CUE present will not be visible to most viewers on a standard definition television with less than a 32" or 36" screen. Users with displays large enough and powerful enough to reveal any CUE using this player may want to arrange to test it out at home (make sure you can return it if you aren't satisfied or if you are particularly sensitive to CUE), but users interested in getting into DVD for the first time who have more modest displays should not be concerned about CUE with the S35.
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The S35 does include high resolution audio digital-to-analog converters (DACs). They are capable of handling a stereo DVD-Audio signal, which also allows them to offer very respectable audio performance on audio CD's and the soundtracks of Video DVD's. The full experience of DVD-Audio is not available since multichannel playback is not included, but the stereo sound quality should be excellent -- far greater than a television's built-in speakers can reproduce. Most users could easily use the S35 as both DVD player and CD player; features like program play and random play are included, as would be expected from a standalone CD player. I have not tested the S35's digital audio output, but would expect no problems with the unit's optical output. Keep in mind that anyone using a DTS-equipped receiver will need to enable bitstream playback of DTS through the digital output before they can listen to a DTS track; the digital output of a DTS signal is still downconverted to PCM by default on Panasonic's DVD players. When DTS decoders were rare and DTS DVD's even rarer, it made some sense to do this, but every year sees more and more DTS capable receivers in the market and hopefully Panasonic (and other manufacturers) will change this practice one day. Also, anyone using their DVD player as my parents are should not select DTS on any DVD, as the player cannot decode DTS internally and it will instead not produce any audio at all for the analog outputs.
The MP3 and WMA playback in the S35 uses the same interface as the E80, with a menu listing folder and track names. The S35 is not capable of using ID3 tags, so it uses the file names to determine track titles. The tracks are broken down into groups, with each folder on the disc designated as a separate group. Similarly, group titles use the associated folder names. The S35 includes a tree mode for displaying the disc folders, which can help find what you are looking for pretty quickly. For CD-R's prepared specifically with this interface in mind (they recommend adding three-digit numbers to the front of each file and folder name to determine sorting, such as "001 first folder" and "001track1" or "003 Song Three"), it would be possible to develop a fairly convenient library of music, but for anyone with an existing collection of MP3 archive CD-R's, the manual hints that there may be some odd quirks in how the S35 sorts folders and tracks. In reality, folders and files are sorted alphabetically with long file names displayed, so the recommended method of including a three-digit number in front for sorting is not entirely necessary. Sound quality is fair, offering all that can be gained from the MP3 format. There are a few features missing from the S35 that are standard on computer MP3 players like WinAmp (random play, custom playlists, visualizations, etc.), but it is sufficient for convenient background music.
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Obviously, the S35's remote came from the same design team as the E80's remote: same simple slab styling, same general key layout (albeit with fewer buttons on the S35), and same soft and undersized buttons that give the impression the remote should have been scaled up about 10% or 15%. Like the E80, the S35's remote feels durable and is respectably responsive. Unlike the E80, this remote is dark plastic on top and bottom -- no shiny metal face. The picture to the right is of the DVD-S55's remote; the S35 uses the same remote with one different button assignment (the "AUDIO ONLY" button serves as the "CINEMA" button on the S35's remote), but it has has a darker housing and light colored navigation keys. The squared off design is small enough to fit easily in the hand, but the small buttons are packed closely together in a few places. Unlike some DVD and VCR remotes, the S35's remote does not try to carry the "universal remote" moniker by including TV power/channel/volume controls -- the only controls on it are associated with the S35 itself. The "TOP MENU" and "MENU" buttons also have the "DIRECT NAVIGATOR" and "PLAY LIST" labels (respectively). These labels are included for use with DVD-RAM discs, which the S35 can play back. I can understand why the labels are there, but I suspect there will be a lot of people who spend the entire time they own the player wondering why those labels are there and what they mean -- my dad asked about "DIRECT NAVIGATOR" minutes after picking the remote up and was happy to learn that his initial guess was correct: it's something that he may never need and therefore didn't need to worry about. Frame advance forward and back buttons are not included. This was true of many of Panasonic's DVD recorders, and it was a source of a great deal of grumbling from some users. As with those DVD recorders, however, the S35 does allow frame advance control using the "<" and ">" navigation buttons while playback is paused. Overall, it's not the best remote ever, but it is functional and for a sub-$100 DVD player you could certainly do a lot worse.
The remote is the main way that people will operate a DVD player. After all, the S35 is very typical in having only a handful of controls on the front panel. My parents had never used a DVD player prior to getting the S35, so they was a bit anxious when they reached for the remote the first time. Fortunately, the S35's tiny remote is fairly straightforward. Any newcomer to DVD will run into some trouble learning to work with the format, simply because it is so different from video tape. My parents were no exception. Navigating through a menu, particularly moving side to side or up and down, takes a little getting used to if you are used to just pressing "play" on the VCR, but fortunately the S35's arrow pad is easier to get used to than the D-pad or tiny joystick used on some remotes (including Panasonic's older high end players such as the RP91 and third-party universal remotes like the MX-500). The addition of chapter skip buttons will not be too much of a stretch for people familiar with CD's, although when skipping titles on a finalized DVD-R the S35 took long enough to respond that dad's first attempt to back up a minute took him back about five titles. The S35's ability to fast forward or rewind at a variety of speeds is very handy, but it may get newcomers to the format in trouble at first: the lowest speed (2x) is actually comparable to fast-forwarding through a video tape on some VCR's. Hit the "SLOW/SEARCH" button another time or two, and you're cruising along at a time-eating pace of as much as 10x or 70x. If you do that without being ready to hit "PLAY" to get back to normal speed, you can fly past stuff so fast that you barely realize you've missed it. The S35 also defaults to playing audio at 2x searches, which may make that speed seem slower than it really is and make people more likely to speed up. Aside from the few minor quirks, I was quite pleased with how readily my parents were able to get up to speed with the S35. It may have been partly because of the stack of nine DVD-R's of home movies, but they were both quite pleased with the addition to their family room.
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I didn't initially plan to review the S35 when I bought it for my dad. It is the least expensive player currently available from Panasonic, after all, and therefore not likely to draw the attention or interest of a player like the $600+ Denon DVD-2200 progressive scan universal DVD/DVD-Audio/SACD player. But the more I thought about it and the more I talked with some of my co-workers about the equipment they were using, the more sense it made to offer some end user feedback about this player. The DVD player consumer has changed. Five or six years ago, it was the early adopter -- very informed, interested in features, performance, and build quality, and often with strong opinions. As the number of DVD players sold rose past a few million to tens of millions, the typical consumer for DVD players ceased to be the early adopter (who by then had very possibly gone through more than one player as the upgrade bug gnawed at him) and became the average person -- "joe sixpack," as he is sometimes called. Chroma upsampling error, bass management, and other features are less important than cost and ease of use to this consumer, who will often take it home and connect it to a ten-year-old TV with an RF modulator -- something that would make many of those early adopters cringe. After all, the early adopter got into the format in order to gain the maximum video performance; most are likely using some sort of high performance display. What must be understood, however, is that this new typical DVD buyer has no need for or interest in that performance. Instead, he wants to know how to hook up a DVD player so he can watch his neighbor's copy of The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition or a season of Star Trek: The Next Generation or The X-Files. He wants to be able to rent from the much expanded DVD section at his corner video store. Many of those consumers look at players like the DVD-RP91 with a $400 price tag on it and a Daewoo player that costs $48, shrug, and carry the Daewoo to the register.
The Panasonic DVD-S35 is not targeted at the early adopter, except perhaps as a player in a spare room or for a family member. It is targeted at the much larger and steadily growing market of average consumers, the market that has up to now gravitated to the very low-cost players such as those made by Apex or Daewoo. The S35 (and players like the Toshiba SD-2900, Sony DVP-NS325, and Pioneer DV-363) are priced somewhat higher than those budget players, typically retailing for $100 before sales and mail-in rebates. The S35 may include some design compromises and shortcuts compared to an early adopter's dream player (lightweight power supply, integrated decoder/deinterlacer), but it did remind me of one thing: manufacturers have now had over six and a half years of market experience with making DVD players, and the major manufacturers have the basics covered very well. Despite costing 80% less than the player I bought in 1998, the S35 can provide better video and audio performance than that player did. A newcomer to DVD should be able to rely on the S35 (or its big brother the S55, which adds full DVD-Audio support for about $20 or $30 more and seems more readily available than the S35) to provide excellent DVD performance, far fewer defects than the most inexpensive players, and compatibility with most any disc you can throw at it, including commercial DVD's with features like seamless branching that might give older or less expensive players fits.
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If you have any questions about this review, click here and I'll get back to you as quickly as I can.