DVD recorders offer a simple and cost-effective way for viewers to record TV programmes, but their small capacity reminds us of the limitations of tape. There's no way that you can go on holiday and fit two weeks of your favourite programmes on one disc. Likewise, Freeview recorders are great because they can store masses of programmes for a rainy day, but you can't archive them away without buying a DVD recorder. The obvious solution is therefore to combine all three products -- DVD recorder, hard drive and Freeview tuner -- in one, but it has taken a surprising amount of time for such a device to be released.
The Panasonic DMR-EH60D wins points by being the first out of the gate, but it predictably needs an upgrade if it's going to be an essential purchase. Most dedicated Freeview recorders these days come with twin tuners -- the Panasonic has just one, meaning you can't watch and record different channels. The omission of an HDMI output and DivX video playback is also disappointing. The recorder is impressive nonetheless, thanks to Panasonic's easy recording options, a massive hard drive, and compatibility with every disc format except DVD+RW.
Panasonic recorders have always been the catwalk models of the DVD world, but the amount of tech housed in the EH60D's shell means this has a larger frame than most. The main feature is a reflective fascia which houses an SD card slot in the centre and a large disc-loading tray.
Along the back of the EH60D, the assortment of inputs and outputs will cater for the more serious user. You can output video in progressive scan via the component outputs -- perfect for flat-screen owners because of its high quality. If you've yet to make the upgrade to plasma or LCD, then you can use the RGB Scart output, which offers a well defined, colourful picture. It's a shame there's no HDMI output, but the improvement over component video doesn't tend to be huge.
Even though the digital tuner is included in the box, the EH60D still includes video inputs in case you want to record from an external source. You can output and input video via RGB Scart, so picture quality is preserved from the source to the display. There are also inputs and outputs in both S-video and composite format, although the quality level for these is poor. If you want to burn some home movies to DVD, it's far better to use the i.Link (aka FireWire) input on the front of the machine, which will let you archive and edit your camcorder footage and save it to DVD or the hard drive.
Special mention must go to Panasonic's remote control, which is small and neat, yet has buttons that are big enough to make recording a simple case of intuition. The remote control can also take command of your Panasonic TV, while the combination of thoughtful on-screen menu design and obvious command buttons makes setup a breeze.
The Panasonic DMR-EH60D has plenty going for it -- an integrated digital tuner, a DVD recorder with multi-format disc support and a large 200GB hard drive. The ideal way to use this system is to record all your programmes straight to the hard drive, transferring the ones you want to keep to DVD. Not that you'll be stuggling for space -- the EH60D has a large enough hard disk to accomodate 89 hours of SP-quality recordings.
With only one digital tuner, your options are limited when it comes to recording and watching at the same time. If you're recording to the hard drive from digital TV, you can watch another previously recorded programme or a DVD, but you can't watch another live channel. Many people will find this more limiting than they might think, especially if you've got a large family with diverse tastes. One solution is to buy a TV with an integrated digital tuner, then you can always watch a different channel, but a dual-tuner upgrade would make the EH60D an essential purchase.
The recording system on the EH60D takes the best parts of an already flawless system and integrates them with the Freeview electronic programme guide. The guide includes full listings for all channels up to seven days in the future, with a small review of each programme. Panasonic's system lets you cut out any channels that you don't want to watch (goodbye, shopping channels!) as well as search by genre, such as movies and drama. You can select the quality you want to record to, from XP (44 hours-worth of space on the hard drive) to EP (355 hours). The SP mode, with 89 hours, is the best quality-to-capacity tradeoff.
As well as Freeview PVR features, Panasonic has created a fully featured DVD recorder as well. The drive supports DVD+R, DVD-R/RW and DVD-RAM discs for recording, and all discs for playback. While Sony has made advancements in dual-layer disc recording, it would be too much to ask for here at this price point. What we do expect is DivX playback though, which the EH60D lacks. DVD-RAM support is a good bonus as it is more versatile than the other formats, but as DVD-R is much cheaper, you'll probably want to use these discs to archive your favourite recordings.
Recording quality on the Panasonic is superb, and if you ever have to resort to the poorer EP or LP modes they are surprisingly good. Panasonic has perfected its compression technology so that more lines of detail can be recorded at the lower quality levels, so there is less loss of detail than before. But with the SP level offering 89 hours on hard drive and 2 hours on a DVD, you should use this recording mode in most circumstances, and the loss of quality over the original broadcast is barely noticeable. In fact, you should consider using the highest quality XP mode when recording to the hard drive, and the EH60D can downsample to SP-level to a DVD if space is an issue.
With all that technology packed into the recorder, it's a wonder that the EH60D offers a decent AV performance as well. If you can use the component video outputs then you should, as the images are solid and colourful. If you're a CRT user and stick with RGB Scart, the picture is just as beautiful. Audio recording is always made in Dolby Digital 2.0, and sounds clear and crisp whichever recording quality you choose.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide