Freeview+ personal video recorders are pretty much essential for all homes. But, if you're about to buy a PVR now, it may well be worth holding off for a few months. That's because Freeview HD has started to arrive, and new hardware is required to record it. Machines like the £320 Panasonic DMR-EX83 are thoroughly decent, but this DVD recorder with a 250GB hard drive can't deal with high-definition signals. That said, it will still suit some people, so let's take a closer look.
Take recordings on the road
The DMR-EX83 is one of quite a small number of PVRs on the market that can archive recordings from its built-in hard drive to DVDs. This is quite handy if you want to take recordings around with you, perhaps to watch on a laptop or portable DVD player on your way to work. But, for home viewing, hard-drive recording is slicker and easier to manage. There's also far less chance that you'll run out of space.
Panasonic has, like Sony, been producing these recorders for ages. It appears that it's not going to stop any time soon. Indeed, the company now produces HD recorders that archive video to Blu-ray discs. These machines are even more expensive than the DMR-EX83, though.
Like all of Panasonic's equipment, the DMR-EX83 is visually pleasing. It's thoughtfully designed and simple to use. The remote is well proportioned and the menu systems are easy to navigate. Selecting a programme to record is just a matter of scrolling through the electronic programme guide, pressing the 'select' button and choosing where you want the show to be recorded to. If you prefer to keep programmes on DVDs, you can just record straight to a disc. If you do record to the built-in hard drive, transferring recordings to a DVD later is also very simple.
The DMR-EX83's EPG is functional, but the grid system is quite restricted in terms of space, so seeing full programme names can be a problem. We like the search function, though, which enables you to track down your chosen show with considerable ease.
Like all of Panasonic's DVD/HDD recorders, the DMR-EX83 only has a single recording tuner. That means you can't watch one channel and record another at the same time. Nor can you record two channels at the same time. On the other hand, you can watch a recording while making another one, and you can watch a DVD while recording your favourite telly shows.
The DMR-EX83's 250GB hard drive is enough to store 55 hours of TV at a high quality. Panasonic claims you can increase this to 331 hours if you compromise the picture quality and use the 'EP' mode. This isn't a good idea, though (we'll talk more about this in a minute).
If you really are a programme hoarder, then DVD archiving will appeal to you. All you have to do is put a blank disc in the machine and tell it what recordings to copy to the disc. Panasonic makes this process very simple, and you can move recordings to a disc at high speed too, so you don't have to wait an hour to copy an hour-long show to DVD.
One distinct advantage
With Freeview PVRs, you can generally only record Freeview material. The DMR-EX83 has an advantage over its rivals though -- it can accept video via its Scart input too. This means that, if you have a Virgin or Sky box, it's easy for you to hook these machines up to the DMR-EX83 too. This might be a niche feature, especially considering that Virgin and Sky both have their own excellent recording products, but it will no doubt appeal to some users.
Store your music, photos and movies
If you have loads of music and photos, then you might be pleased to learn that the DMR-EX83 can play back JPEG, MP3 and WMA files, as well as DivX movies, via the SD-card slot and USB socket. You can even rip music directly from a CD, and the DMR-EX83 will look up track information from Gracenote too. If you want to make sure the Gracenote database is up-to-date, you'll need to make sure you download the updates via the Panasonic Web site -- the recorder has no Internet connectivity.
We love the DMR-EX83's picture quality. Images have a sharpness and accuracy that really inspire confidence in the machine. Indeed, hooked up to our LG 50PK590 plasma TV, we found images were more natural in terms of colour and slightly sharper than those produced by the telly's built-in tuner.
You can change the quality at which broadcasts are recorded but, please, for the love of technology, don't record at anything but the maximum quality. Freeview already looks like a dog's dinner at times, and degrading the quality further by dropping the detail setting would be a massive mistake.
The DVD portion of this machine can happily upscale video to 1080p, and, while we aren't entirely sold on the benefits of upscaling in DVD players, the DMR-EX83 certainly does a good job. The chances are, though, that your TV will have better scaling hardware than the DMR-EX83. That said, if your TV is quite old, or you prefer the way the DMR-EX83 upscales video, there's no reason why you shouldn't use this feature.
The Panasonic DMR-EX83 is a thoroughly decent machine. We do, however, think there's a limited audience for DVD-writing hardware. With hard drives being so cheap these days, we'd prefer this PVR to pack a 2TB drive, rather than a DVD writer/reader.
The DMR-EX83 isn't earth-shatteringly expensive, but it's costly enough to make us wonder if this is the best option for most homes. If you think it suits you, then go ahead and buy one, because the machine is lovely to use and its picture quality is among the best we've seen from a PVR. It is, however, being superseded both by Panasonic's own Blu-ray recorders with Freeview HD tuners, and, to some extent, products like Sky+HD.
Edited by Charles Kloet