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Panasonic's DVD recorders are famed for their support for most disc formats, and now it has added DVD+R to the roster, only recording to DVD+RW remains. It's quite a contrast from the company's plasma division, which has been lambasted for non-HD compatible panels for some time.
Add in the world's most brilliant recording system and the EH50 is the first choice for anyone looking for a mid-range, branded DVD recorder. The only problem is that it arrives at a transitional time, and without digital video outputs or an integrated Freeview tuner, you should wait for an updated model for better value.
Panasonic's DVD recorders are workmanlike in their design -- they don't offer any flourishes, but they'll fit in with any standard AV setup that consists of different branded goods. The front panel breaks tradition slightly -- there's an SD card slot where the DVD tray usually is. A panel flips down so you can slot the card inside, and if you want to tuck the card away, you can flip the panel back into the up position. This allows you to read photos from the card, so if you use a camera that takes SD cards (such as one of Panasonic's own), then you'll be able to view a slideshow straight from the camera.
The DVD tray is relegated to the left side of the front panel, concealed under the same black plastic as the LCD screen is on the right. It's a nice touch, and one that helps alleviate the impact of the huge tray sitting underneath. As Panasonic is one of the main proprietors of the DVD-RAM format, its player will accommodate a DVD-RAM disc in a caddy, which has a rectangular form factor with a fancy groove-marked disc inside. It also take standard DVD discs, and in fact the player offers playback from all discs including DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW and DVD-RAM.
Connectivity on the rear is excellent. There are RGB Scart inputs and outputs, so if you have a normal CRT TV, you can enjoy good picture quality going in and coming out of the recorder. If your TV is more modern, you can upgrade to the component outputs, which are fully progressive-scan compatible for a solid, colourful picture. And then there's an optical digital audio output, so you can send a Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS soundtrack to your AV amp or receiver.
If you already have a DVD recorder, you might have spotted one rather obvious omission from this list: the FireWire input (or i.Link, as Panasonic calls it). Nearly every other recorder on the market offers this input so you can connect your camcorder digitally and make DVDs to show your friends. Panasonic's recorder, despite selling for a £100 premium over the glut of sub-£200 recorders currently on the market, doesn't offer this, instead opting for S-video and composite inputs under a panel on the front.
If every manufacturer copied Panasonic's remote control design, however, the world would be a much better place. The biggest new addition to the classic design is a jog dial that you can use to quickly zip through menus, which you'll need once you start filling up that hard drive.
Considering the price of the EH50, you might be disappointed with what's missing from the recorder. Where's the Freeview receiver? Where's the i.Link input? Isn't that 80GB hard drive rather small by today's standards?
While the lack of Freeview and i.Link can be worked around -- Freeview boxes are as cheap as £30 and most camcorders have standard composite/S-video outputs -- the 80GB hard drive translates into quite a restriction. At the highest recording quality level, it means you can store about 20-25 hours of programmes, with 40 hours at medium quality, and up to 142 hours at the lowest quality.
While we would strongly discourage you from using anything other than the top two quality settings (on the hard drive at least -- you can always downgrade when recording to DVD), Panasonic has implemented a new system for the LP mode, which now records at a 500-line resolution. This means the loss of quality is less noticeable, whereas previously DVD LP was just as big a step down as its VHS equivalent. There's also a Flexible Recording setting, which will work out the length of your recording and the available disc space and then choose a recording quality level to meet both demands.
The EH50 can't be faulted on recording compatibility, because it supports every single format except DVD+RW. Panasonic has made a success of its DVD-RAM format, which is much more robust than either DVD-R or +R. RAM discs come in a caddy that protects them from scratches, and if you look at the discs inside, they have lots of little grooves on the writeable side. The format is rewritable, and Panasonic's player can record to a disc while simultaneously reading, otherwise known as 'timeshifting'. If you get home early and that episode of EastEnders is still being recorded, you can go back to the beginning and start watching immediately. You can also use this to fast-forward through the adverts if you start watching 15 minutes into an hour-long programme. A nice extra, but we hope (or rather, expect) you'll be using the hard drive in the first place.
Panasonic's expertise has also afforded the EH50 some extra features. The machine fires up in super-quick time and can be recording in just over a second. Panasonic's internal memory is constantly buffering the current programme, so you don't miss a thing while the disc is spinning into action. The machine will also play DVD-Audio discs, although the more eagle-eyed of you out there will notice that the back panel doesn't have multi-channel audio outputs, so you'll have to stick to the stereo outputs if you want this high-resolution audio playback.
The EH50 is a solid DVD player in its own right if you choose component or RGB Scart output. The picture is vibrant, with vivid colours and no motion judder. As a DVD player, it offers a mid-range level of performance, but as more and more budget players offer HDMI or DVI outputs, it's more difficult to judge on these terms. Paired with a Panasonic TX26LXD50 LCD TV, the progressive-scan video outputs provided a faultless picture, and the stereo sound was solid too.
If you stick to the top two recording tiers, recording quality is also very good. At the XP level, recordings are completely indistinguishable from the original broadcast, but at this level you can only fit 1 hour per disc. Certainly, LP mode results in much less of an image quality loss than usual, and at 4 hours per disc, it's a very economical way of backing up television series to a few discs.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide