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With the VHS recorder consigned to the loft along with all your Only Fools and Horses tapes, you'll need something to record Top Gear while you're having that summer barbecue.
Panasonic's solution is the EX77, a hard-disk Freeview PVR with a DVD burner built in. This useful addition means you can archive old programmes and keep those classic shows you can't bear to delete. It's an upgrade to the excellent EX75 -- the main difference being that the EX77 upscales video to 1080p. You should be able to find it for around £300 online, which isn't much more than its 720p predecessor.
The EX77 is a pretty cool-looking machine. It's reasonably compact, and will fit under any TV with very little fuss.
There's a basic LCD screen which tells you what the recorder is up to and the time. It's actually nice to see such a simple display when there isn't much information to impart.
To the back of the player are the usual connections -- a pair of Scart sockets, composite video and S-Video outputs. To get the best out of this upscaling player, there are both HDMI and component video outputs. Audio outputs include optical digital out so you can get the best quality sound from DVDs via an external amplifier.
The remote control is traditional Panasonic fare: short and sturdy. The buttons are big and easy to press, so people with larger fingers and thumbs shouldn't struggle to operate it.
The most important feature of the EX77 is its built-in Freeview receiver and 160GB PVR. It's extremely simple to use. When you choose the programme you would like to record from the device's seven-day electronic programme guide you also pick where you would like it to be recorded to.
Using the other menus is something of a mixed bag. They're fairly ugly and incredibly basic. That said, most things live in their logical place.
The EX77 will write to all blank DVD discs. DVD-RAM support is handy, as the discs tend to support more write cycles than DVD-RW, so discs will last much longer. The downside is that the discs cost a little more than regular rewritable DVDs. The EX77 also supports dual-layer DVDs, although you can't directly record to them -- instead you must store the programme to hard disk and copy it over later. Even so, the dual-layer support will allow you to fit even more video on each disc.
Navigating through files you've recorded is pretty straightforward too -- the only confusion is that it won't show you things recorded on DVD and the hard disk at the same time. You have to use the button on the remote marked 'drive select' to choose which recordings you browse.
Using the SP quality setting, you can fit 70 hours of programming on the EX77's hard disk and the picture is pretty much indistinguishable from the original. Drop things down to the lowest-quality EP mode for 284 hours and recordings look pretty awful, lacking detail and gaining lots of MPEG noise, which looks like mosquitoes dancing around the edges of objects.
Freeview picture quality was pretty good on the Panasonic, although digital TV doesn't benefit much from being upscaled to high-definition resolutions.
DVDs, on the other hand, do look good when they're upscaled. We watched our old favourite The Big Lebowski on ourand it looked impressive, with plenty of colour, and images were sharp and surprisingly detailed. This player can upscale to 1080p, but you'd be hard-pressed to notice the difference between 720p and 1080p upscaled DVDs. We do think this player is on a similar level to some of the other upscaling DVD players we've looked at.
Using a decrepit VHS player and a composite cable, we copied an old VHS movie on to the hard disk and then once it was done we burnt it to DVD. This process was amazingly simple, and while the original film was poor quality, it was perfectly watchable. If you have a large VHS collection, you could transfer it to DVD, so old home movies and ancient TV shows can be preserved for a little bit longer.
The biggest problem with the EX77 is its lack of dual tuners. This restricts you to only watching or recording one channel at a time. We really think this is a missed opportunity -- adding a second tuner would greatly increase the usefulness of the recorder.
Despite its hefty price, the EX77 offers quite a bit more than a traditional PVR and it can replace a number of the boxes under your TV, including your DVD player, Freeview receiver and VHS recorder.
We are slightly disappointed by the single tuner and the lack of support for MPEG-4 files such as DivX and XviD, but these are relatively minor issues. All in all, it's an excellent all-rounder.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide