Panasonic's 2005 HDD/DVD recorder boasts excellent recording quality and a comprehensive set of features, but its free electronic programming guide (EPG) still suffered a few glitches in our tests. The sleek DMR-EH50 ($449 list) delivers crystal-clear recordings, particularly in the four-hour LP mode, and hassle-free dubbing and editing from the 100GB hard drive to DVD. That's all well and good, but most people are also used to their cable or satellite company's EPG or the one inside TiVo-based decks such as those from Humax, all of which perform more reliably than TV Guide. TVG is free, however, and with the EH50's competitive price and range of other capabilities, its faults are excusable. The silver-and-black Panasonic DMR-EH50 looked pretty sleek next to our other components. With a dark plastic panel running the length of the deck, the recorder strongly resembles Panasonic's 2005 DVD-only model, the DMR-ES10. The front controls are relatively spare, with play, stop, record, and power buttons, as well as a control that toggles the deck operations between the hard drive and the DVD tray. Embedded in the front is a slot for Secure Digital flash memory cards--no other card types are supported--and below that is a plastic door. Flip it open and you'll find a set of A/V inputs, including S-Video but, unfortunately, no FireWire.
In addition to the prominent, green TV Guide key, the DMR-EH50's remote includes a unique central scrollwheel. You can use the scrollwheel in either of two ways: you can click the top, bottom, left, or right edge as with a typical navigational keypad, or you can rotate the wheel to select a title or a menu option. It's a clever idea on paper, but in practice, we found the wheel more difficult to use than standard buttons. It had a little too much play, resulting in sluggish menu response that made it tough for us to zero in on the desired option. The wheel can also control fast-forward or reverse scanning while watching a recording, but the video kept shooting forward, then zipping back because the wheel doesn't snap back to a central, neutral position. It was extremely convenient, however, when it came time to title our discs using the virtual keyboard.
The DMR-EH50's menus are simple enough, given its numerous capabilities. We appreciated the onscreen help and diagrams of the remote, showing you which buttons you can press. Within minutes, we were zipping through the deck's various functions and screens with little trouble. First and foremost is the Panasonic DMR-EH50's 100GB hard drive, which gives you about 22 hours of recording in the highest-quality XP mode and 45 hours at the next-best SP setting. While the deck can't record two shows at once as many cable or satellite DVRs do (no standalone deck can), you can record one show while watching another recorded show. You can also chase playback--that is, begin watching a title while it's still recording.
Unlike standard DVRs, TiVo-driven decks such as the Humax DRT800, and other recorders such as , the Panasonic doesn't automatically record everything going in, so you can't pause live TV, for example, unless you actively tell the deck to start recording. On the other hand, the Panasonic's hard drive provides more editing options than TiVo-driven decks. For instance, you can add chapter stops, combine chapters, shorten them, delete them, change the title thumbnail, and so on.
We originally reported that the DMR-EH50 was incapable of dubbing to anything but DVD-RAM at high speed, but we were mistaken. It turns out that the deck can dub to DVD-R, DVD+R, and DVD-RW at high speed but only if you go into the menu and enable the functionality--for some reason, the factory defaults don't allow high-speed dubbling to anything but DVD-RAM. Once you flip the switch, you'll find that dubbing times vary by media type. For example, an hour of material recorded in SP mode would require 6 minutes to dub to DVD-RAM, 7.5 minutes to dub to DVD-RW, and just 3.8 minutes to dub to DVD-R or +R.
The DMR-EH50 includes TV Guide's electronic programming guide, which lets you set recordings using an interactive programming grid (an IR blaster will change the channel on your set-top box). The Panasonic's EPG interface is pretty clunky--it provides only two half-hour columns of programming, and the grid proved to be pretty sluggish and even unresponsive at times, making for tedious scrolling. You can sort programs alphabetically or by genre, and the guide will warn you if there's a scheduling conflict, such as two shows set to record at the same time. And there's one other problem: the EPG has a spotty track record with digital cable and won't work at all with satellite set-top boxes, although analog cable works fine. See the section for our experiences.
The DVD deck burns to every recordable DVD format except DVD+RW. When you're using DVD-RAM discs, you can chase playback or watch one title while recording another just as you can with the hard drive. You also get the same editing options (such as adding chapter stops, cutting and combining chapters, and so on) as you do with the hard drive. You get only a smattering of editing options with DVD+R/-R/-RW discs, but then again, you can always edit your recordings on the hard drive and then dub them back to DVD, so it's not a huge drawback. We really like the FR recording mode, which lets you fit any odd amount of video onto a DVD at highest possible quality. It's great if, for example, you have a 2.5-hour movie and don't want to go up to the 4-hour recording mode to fit it onto one disc.
In addition to its recording abilities, the DMR-EH50 plays MP3s and displays JPEGs burned to CD, and it reads images off Secure Digital flash memory cards via the SD slot in the front of the deck. The recorder also boasts a 60-second commercial skip (although a 30-second skip would be better), as well as a 1.3X playback mode, which speeds up the playback slightly while keeping the sound at a normal pitch. We also like the picture-in-picture effect, which lets you see "live" TV in a small window while you're watching a recorded title.
The deck comes with a solid set of connections. In back, you'll find a component-video output, two S-Video outs, two S-Video inputs, an optical digital audio out, and the usual A/V and RF inputs and outputs. Behind the front panel is another set of A/V inputs, including S-Video. While we like the dual S-Video inputs and outputs in back, we were disappointed by the lack of a FireWire input for digital camcorders.
Editor's note: This page has changed from our original version. Please see the corrections page. Panasonic has been making plenty of noise about the superior recording quality of its new Diga decks, and we can report that the DMR-EH50 delivers--especially when it comes to its four-hour LP mode.
In our resolution tests, the Panasonic DMR-EH50 scored high marks in its one- and two-hour XP and SP recording modes, which came as no surprise. However, the deck's LP recordings looked almost as good, capturing more than 450 lines of vertical resolution (or about the same as a typical DVD player)--an impressive feat, considering that most recorders struggle to reach 325 lines in LP mode. When we tried to the six- to eight-hour EP mode, the DMR-EH50's recordings dropped to a very soft 250 lines, with noticeable blockiness in the background.
The deck also delivered excellent recordings in our tests with Star Trek: Insurrection. Our recordings of the daylit peasants fleeing the malevolent probes looked crystal clear in XP mode, although we noticed a little background blockiness in the two-hour SP mode. The deck's LP recordings were well above par, although we detected some murkiness during action sequences, such as when the peasants were running rapidly across the frame. Our EP recordings looked much softer and juttery with severe blockiness in the background. Switching to scenes of the dark, damaged bridge of the Enterprise, we were again impressed with the rock-solid XP and SP recordings. While the LP recordings still looked good, we noticed it had a tough time reproducing the dark, smoky interiors with any degree of detail.
In our experience, the performance of the TV Guide system wasn't as satisfying. We followed the setup guide and left our deck off for 24 hours, only to be greeted with an empty programming grid. The system clock picked up the correct time and channel lineup from the digital cable signal, but none of the channels contained program-specific information. We gave it another few tries, using another cable box in another location--still no dice. Finally, we tried inputting another zip code (Manhattan instead of our Brooklyn home), and all of the program guide information appeared. Our experience proves that while TV Guide is performing better than we've ever seen it, the service is still highly dependent on local conditions and not as reliable as a cable company, satellite, or TiVo EPG.
The DMR-EH50 had no trouble with our 2:3 pull-down test, smoothly rendering the tricky haystacks and bridges during the Insurrection credits. It also managed to read most of the discs in our test suite, with the exception of MP3 DVDs and CDs with DivX-encoded video.