Combination VHS/DVD recorders come in two flavors: cheap and easy components that make copying VHS tapes to DVD a breeze, and expensive, tweakable units for demanding video editors and gadget lovers. The Panasonic DMR-EH75V ($500) falls squarely into the latter category, with its ability to play back and record to three kinds of media: VHS, DVD, and a built-in internal hard drive. While its street price is about the same as a new TiVo Series2 DT's with three-year subscription, for example, the DMR-EH75V is packed with other features to justify the cost. The most notable extras include dual-layer DVD recording, HDMI upscaling, Panasonic's flexible recording feature, and a free TV Guide EPG, which advertises most of the pleasures of TiVo without the monthly free. In our testing, we were disappointed by the quality of the HDMI upscaling and the unit's compatibility with various discs, but it does just about everything else right. The Panasonic DMR-EH75V is a solid choice for enthusiasts since it boasts a ton of functionality, excellent video quality, and the ability to edit recordings--something that the TiVo-powered DVD recorders lack.
The Panasonic DMR-EH75V's design is pretty basic, but we prefer it to the more cluttered exterior we've seen on similar units. You'll notice that it's little larger than the usual component, measuring 16.94 by 13.88 by 3.33 inches. Underneath the DVD and VHS decks is a large LED display, and to the far right is a convenient set of controls for one-touch recording between the VCR, the DVD recorder, and the hard drive. If you flip down the front panel, you'll notice additional controls, as well as an A/V input with S-Video, a FireWire input for DV camcorders, and an SD media-card slot.
The onscreen graphical user interface can be a bit confusing at first, but you should get the hang of it after a while. To access the recorded material, you press the Direct Navigator button, which brings up selectable thumbnails of your recorded programs. When you want to transfer a program from one format to another (such as hard disk to DVD, for example), you'll hit the Function button, where you can navigate to the Copy menu or the slightly more detailed Advanced Copy option. The process is not as straightforward as it should be; we felt there should be a simple Copy button on the remote, for example. After fumbling for a while, we figured out its logic and were able to do what we needed to do relatively quickly.
Panasonic's remote is easy enough to use, considering that it needs to control at least three devices. Most of the navigation is done using the directional pad, and plenty of other functions merit their own dedicated buttons. Unfortunately, the one-touch recording keys on the front panel are not duplicated on the remote. The remote can also control most brands of TVs.
We were also able to successfully load the TV Guide EPG, and while Panasonic didn't design the guide, we have some comments on its ease of use. Overall, its design definitely feels more cluttered and less intuitive than TiVo's. For example, to access the search function, you first hit the Schedule button to move to the top menus. Also, the TVG equivalent of TiVo's killer Season Pass feature isn't as good, with only the option to record weekly or regularly instead of being able to skip repeats. However, TVG is free, so if TiVo's ease of use isn't worth $13 a month to you, TV Guide may be a good compromise.
The Panasonic DMR-EH75V allows you to record to the 80GB hard drive, numerous types of recordable DVDs (including DVD-RAM), and VHS. Usually, you'll record to the hard drive, then archive anything you want on DVD. As with many DVD recorders, recording to the hard disk or DVD-RAM allows you to chase playback, which means you can watch programs from the beginning while in the process of recording. You can also record one program while playing back another on the hard drive or DVD-RAM discs (except during high-speed dubbing). Unlike TiVo, it doesn't constantly record live TV, so you cannot pause or rewind live TV unless you tell it to record.
The unit offers four recording modes that all have trade-offs in recording quality vs. capacity. Only 1 hour of highest-quality XP mode video fits onto one single-layer DVD; SP is 2 hours, LP 4; and EP either 6 or 8 (the 6-hour mode gives better audio quality). The hard drive can store 17 hours of XP-quality video or up to 142 hours of 8-hour EP quality, while dual-layer discs can hold up to 1.75 hours of XP video or 14.3 hours of 8-hour EP video. Although Panasonic claims compatibility with blank DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, DVD-RAM, and the dual-layer versions of -R and +R discs, +R media failed in our experience (see Performance). The unit is also Divx-certified, so it can play back Divx video files stored on DVD-R and CD, and it can also play back MP3 audio and JPEG still picture files stored on CD.
As we mentioned, the DMR-EH75V uses the free TV Guide EPG to schedule recordings and retrieve program info. TVG depends on program information delivered over your cable or DirecTV or DISH Network (satellite support is new for this year, only available in the U.S., and only DirecTV provides full functionality) TV connection. For that reason, it may not work with all digital cable systems, and although we've had problems in the past getting it to function with our local Time Warner Cable digital service, it worked as advertised this time. The system uses an IR blaster to control a digital cable box, or you can connect an analog cable line directly to the deck.
The Panasonic DMR-EH75V also has one of our favorite features: flexible recording length. Selecting this option allows you to completely fill a DVD with your program, maximizing the video quality. We also love the ability to edit video on the hard drive and DVD-RAM discs, although the method for doing so may not be immediately intuitive. For example, the easiest way to edit out ads is to set chapters (using the handy Chapter button) before and after commercials, then delete chapters using the Submenu button on Disc Navigator. It sounds harder than it is, but it's pretty easy to get the hang of, even if it gets tedious.