In terms of looks, the DMR-EX78 is relatively slim and dressed in a rather plain black finish, which is nowhere near as stylish as Philips or Pioneer's recorders but far from offensive. The info panel on the right hand side uses large illuminated digits, while a flap hides the FireWire, USB, S-video, composite and stereo audio inputs, as well as a few controls.
On the rear you'll find an HDMI, component, SCART, S-video and composite video outputs, plus optical digital and stereo audio outputs. A second SCART accepts RGB signals from external satellite or cable receivers, and if you want to make a timer recording from one of these, the EX78 features a ‘slave mode' which starts recording when it detects a signal on the SCART input. However, the Panasonic cannot control external equipment using an infrared transmitter as you can on some Philips recorders.
The HDMI port offers 1080p, 1080i and 720p upscaling for all video sources, and supports Deep Colour. This makes it perfectly equipped for the latest generation of hi-def TVs, but if you own a Panasonic Viera set then the newly tweaked Viera Link HDMI CEC technology additionally enables you to control the unit using the TV's remote and access a wide range of other convenient functions. The new version now includes Auto Preset Download, which does away with the need to make initial channel settings by copying the settings from a TV.
The inclusion of a hard-disk gives this unit more flexibility than a rubber gymnast. First up, there are familiar tricks like pause live TV, which comes in handy for loo breaks or when the phone rings. A particularly nice touch is the ‘Pause Live TV' onscreen logo that appears when watching time-delayed TV and looks like a snazzy channel indent. You can also start watching a programme before it's finished recording, while playlist editing lets you rearrange favourite chapters without affecting the original recordings (also available for DVD-RAM recordings). There's also a range of more basic edits like partial delete, which lets you cut out adverts and the like.
If this all sounds complicated, fear not - Panasonic's magnificent user interface makes it a complete doddle right from the word go. The entire operating system is a complete joy to use - the Direct Navigator screen lists all the recordings with a moving thumbnail and presents all of the available options clearly, while other displays like the digital TV programme banners, Guide Plus EPG and setup menu are so welcoming and logically laid out that a child could use them, dumbing down what is essentially a very complex machine. The first-rate remote also plays a big part in this, sporting large chunky buttons, crystal clear labelling and dedicated keys to instantly access vital menus. The EX78's top-notch software lets you navigate menus and surf TV channels with no frustrating pauses.