Panasonic's DVD recorders are renowned for ease-of-use, which bodes well for a machine that dares to combine DVD, hard drive and VHS recording in one unit. While recorders that combine the former two features are commonplace, the addition of VHS is relatively rare -- after all, plenty of people have ditched the format completely. But there are many who still have programmes or home movies that they just can't bear to lose, so for them the EH80V's ability to archive to newer formats will be of use.
Panasonic hasn't treated VHS owners with contempt, making a powerful combi recorder that just happens to support an antiquated tape format. This is particularly noteworthy with the hard drive, which at 200GB is larger than the 160GB that seems to be about average. On the other hand however, the unit doesn't have features like DivX playback and a digital TV tuner, meaning that it has been left behind in key areas. If you're still using VHS tapes, then you're probably used to making sacrifices, and if you place tape functionality over more modern features, you'll find the EH80V to be a solid recorder.
The EH80V is huge, with the two media slots and the internal hard drive bumping up its height over most other recorders. To technological snobs like us, the mere presence of a VHS deck destroys any style, but it does manage to retain some sense of cool thanks to a silver finish.
You may have a massive collection of VHS tapes but Panasonic has presumed you have a flatscreen when it comes to connectivity. On the back of the recorder, there are component video outputs so you can output video from all three devices in high quality progressive scan. This makes a big difference to DVD movies as they look detailed and colourful, but this high-quality connection really shows off the low resolution of VHS. If you're still using a CRT then it's more forgiving with VHS, but you'll want to use the RGB Scart output to retain a better picture from DVDs.
We really like the way Panasonic has placed the video inputs around the front so you can connect and disconnect equipment easily -- composite and S-video are hidden under a flap on the left, so you can record from your digibox or another external source. If you're making DVD copies of your camcorder recordings then you're better off using the DV input, which retains digital quality so you can transfer your favourite home movies and send DVDs out to your friends. On the same panel as the DV slot is an SD card input, meaning you can take photos on your camera and watch them back on your TV immediately. Digital audio output is handled by an optical connection, and there are analogue audio outputs if your setup is less hi-tech.
Panasonic's remote control complements the user interface perfectly, and it makes short work of the problems presented by so many recording options. The interface for dubbing between formats is particularly well designed, with selections for source, destination and quality levels all shown on one menu. The main Play, Pause and Stop buttons are large and centralised, switching between sources is simple as the HDD, DVD and VHS buttons are well labelled and the more advanced functions are logically located around the circular jog control pad.
The EH80V may contain antiquated technology, but integrating it with a hard drive and DVD recorder can't have been easy. The nicest touch is the circular dial on the front that lets you transfer recordings from one format to another at the touch of a button. DVD, HDD and VCR each have a button that points into the other two formats, making it easy to transfer recordings quickly. It certainly deems the arduous task of archiving a mountain of VHS easier. It also makes it easier for the novice user to transfer that recording of Desperate Housewives from the hard drive onto DVD to take to a friend's house.
Panasonic made advancements in 2005 that let the company's DVD recorders retain a high resolution when recording at lower quality levels. This means that the LP and EP modes contain more lines of detail, although they are still noticeably compressed. The effect is similar to the one you'll remember from VHS, with a lack of clarity and fine detail, but overall the same strength of colours and vocal detail as the higher recording levels. The LP recording level offers 177 hours on the HDD or four hours on a DVD, while the EP level is 355 hours on the HDD and between six and eight hours on a DVD.
On the DVD side, recordings can be made to DVD-R/RW, DVD+R and DVD-RAM discs, meaning that only DVD+RW has missed out. Each format has its advantages -- DVD-R is extremely cheap, DVD+R is supported by more players when you put written discs in non-recordable devices and DVD-RAM is the most versatile. The latter format allows you to timeslip on the EH80V, so you can watch a recording from the disc as it's still being made. As it's also encased in a plastic protector, it's much less susceptible to damage.
The 200GB hard drive is large enough to allow for a great deal of recordings -- either 44 hours or 89 hours at the XP and SP quality levels respectively. This equates to one hour and two hours on a DVD, but you can always downsample recordings from one format to another to save space. When recording to hard drive or DVD, the machine constantly buffers video so that it will record within one second of you pressing the red button.
The most obvious omissions on the features side are DivX playback -- more or less standard on DVD players -- and a digital TV tuner. The latter has made it onto a few DVD recorders, including Panasonic's own. We think it's time that it is featured on all recorders over the £400 mark, who wants to record analogue TV these days?
The EH80V's AV performance is up to Panasonic's usual high standards, with progressive scan video offering razor sharp DVD playback. If anything, this higher quality of video connection further serves to show the horrible quality of VHS. In the year that Dixons has ditched CRT TVs and everyone goes mad for high definition, we can't see the point of keeping a VHS player, unless it's for some treasured wedding video or your child's first words.
Recording quality at the SP level shows minor loss of detail and a tiny bit of motion artefacting, but it'll probably be the setting you use for most programmes. The XP level is flawless but it hogs disc space, so if you're a purist you might want to use the hard drive for XP and then backup to disc using the SP level.
The recorder has an optical digital audio output, so if you have a home cinema system you'll want to connect up to retain audio quality. The player supports Dolby Digital and DTS audio formats from purchased movies and records in Dolby Digital 2.0, which is all that's needed for analogue TV broadcasts. Sound quality is indistinguishable from the original programme, no matter which recording level you choose.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield