If you can't decide between buying a DVD or a hard drive recorder, why not consider a hybrid model that offers the best of both worlds? Panasonic's DMR-EX75 features a 160GB hard drive and recording compatibility with all disc formats in a single system.
This versatility means you can record TV programmes from the integrated Freeview tuner onto the hard drive for extra space and convenience or onto a disc if you want to save or transport your copies. Recording quality is as close to the poised and colourful original as you could ask. DVD playback is equally attractive -- especially using HDMI to an HD Ready TV.
The impressive specification is supported by complete connectivity and an exhaustive range of recording and playback features that are superbly presented and easy to use. With only a single digital tuner you won't be able to watch one live programme while you record another, but that is one of the few flaws.
We found the EX75 online for just under £400, but you may find special offers if you shop around. This is expensive for a recording device, but we feel the price is justified by the range of features, the usability and the excellent picture performance.
Despite carrying three separate components -- Freeview tuner, hard drive recorder and DVD player/recorder -- in a single system, the EX75 manages to retain surprisingly slimline dimensions. And it's only the unit's contrasting weight that implies there's more technology here than meets the eye.
The attractive face is minimally styled with only a few fundamental controls, which have been thoughtfully arranged at an angle for easier access from above. Also within close reach at the front is a set of standard AV connections including a DV input that lets you to transfer high-quality footage from a digital camcorder. And a neatly integrated SD card slot completes the front panel features -- I think allowing you to transfer, store and edit JPEG digital photos on the hard drive, which can then be upscaled for high-definition quality viewing.
At the rear, there's a full house of connections ranging from standard analogue inputs and outputs to the latest performance-enhancing digital options. The best is an HDMI digital output that allows the up-conversion of DVD images to high-definition 720p and 1080i resolutions that perform exceptionally well with the latest HD Ready flat panels. A separate HDMI input wouldn't go amiss, allowing you to record straight from high-definition sources like an HDTV receiver, but few recorders can claim this feature.
Analogue alternatives include a pair of Scart terminals, both of which are RGB-enabled for higher quality picture performance. You can use the Scart input to connect devices like your now redundant VCR to re-record your old videotapes, and with VHS Refresh Dubbing technology the quality of images actually improves on the original. There's also a set of component inputs that will support progressive-scan video and some high-definition sources using an adaptor cable, while surround-sound setups can be connected using an optical audio output.
Recording devices rely heavily on the functionality of remotes and Panasonic models are among the most intelligently arranged and easy to use. The oversized controls appear to overwhelm the unit itself, but there's no searching around for keys. Most functions use shortcut keys to save you always going through the menu system.
Panasonic has crammed the EX75 with practically every recording and playback feature imaginable. There's an integrated digital TV tuner, which gives you access to all Freeview channels and simplifies recording using an attractive seven-day electronic programme guide -- all you need to do is highlight the desired programme and leave the rest to technology. And if you're unlucky enough to fall outside of digital reception, there's also an integrated analogue tuner.
Having only one digital tuner does have its drawbacks, as you can't watch one live programme while you record another -- but it's the only feature absent from the otherwise ample specification. And if you have an integrated digital tuner in your TV, the problem is solved.
Most recordings will be made using the sizeable 160GB hard drive. As usual, there are several recording modes that trade picture quality for recording time with the highest quality XP mode offering 36 hours, SP mode 70 hours, LP mode 138 hours and the lowest quality EP mode up to 284 hours. Unlike conventional recorders, the EX75 doesn't reduce the horizontal resolution with the low quality LP and EP modes so it makes better quality long recordings.
The spacious hard drive allows you to make easy, instant recordings. But the unit is also compatible with all recordable disc formats if you want to archive or share your recordings. And the high-speed copying feature means you can transfer programmes from the hard drive to disc in a matter of minutes.
DVD-RAM is the preferred disc and is the most flexible format with various editing and time-slip functions such as chasing play and simultaneous recording and playback. Temporary disc recordings can be made using either +/- RW formats, while permanent recordings suit –R discs, especially if you want to play them in other devices. In short, this versatility gives you full freedom and control over recordings.
The simplest way to make copies is by using the attractive electronic programme guide, but you can also set up manual timer schedules, VideoPlus+ or one-touch recordings, which begin instantly to ensure nothing is missed. The excellent Disc Navigator system features moving thumbnails with sound that allow you to easily find recordings and access an extensive range of useful editing functions. All operation is aided by an uncomplicated, iconic menu system and abetted by the intuitive remote, which will hold no fears for even the most technophobic newcomers to digital recording.
The Panasonic DMR-EX75's recording performance is outstanding across virtually all quality modes, with very little image deterioration between the XP and LP options. Using the intermediary SP mode will satisfy most needs. Only the grainy images produced by the lowest quality EP mode should be avoided, unless you require the maximum storage space.
The integrated digital tuner provides a perfect input for recordings, using rich colours and deep blacks to create plenty of density, depth and detail. Apart from occasionally jagged movement, image stability is excellent, with distracting picture noise and digital artefacts kept to a minimum. Subsequent recordings carry the same hallmarks of the original, with only edge definition suffering as you regress through the quality modes.
Equally impressive is the performance of DVD playback, especially if you own a display with an HDMI input. Upscaled DVD images appear incredibly detailed, exposing the slightest nuances in tones and textures. Colours are more naturally balanced and movement glides effortlessly across the screen. If you don't yet own a compatible digital display, the performance from either analogue component inputs or the RGB Scart is on a par with most decent standalone players.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide