Review Price £579.98
Panasonic's fantastic DMR-BS850 redefined digital recorders as we know them with hi-def Blu-ray recording and twin Freesat tuners, but its extensive, groundbreaking feature list made it staggeringly expensive. Thankfully Panasonic has also catered for buyers on a lower budget with this stripped-down version, which does away with Blu-ray recording and offers a smaller hard-disk for around £400 less.
The DMR-XS350 can record high- and standard-definition programmes from its twin Freesat tuners onto the 250GB hard-disk using the 14Mbps Direct Recording (DR) mode. This captures the digital broadcast bitstream (including 5.1-channel sound, subtitles and Audio Description), which means there's no deterioration in picture quality when you record, unlike most DVD/HDD combis which have to decode the data first.
That 250GB capacity allows you to record 37.5 hours of hi-def (or 105 hours of SD), but that increases if you compress titles afterwards using the built-in H.264 encoder. There are four modes for doing this - HG (12 Mbps), HX (8 Mbps), HE (5 Mbps) and HL (4 Mbps) - which increase the maximum HD recording time to 40, 60, 90 and 120 hours respectively, but in each case it preserves the 1920 x 1080 resolution.
The lack of Blu-ray recording obviously slashes the amount you can archive on a single disc compared with the BS850, but like all Panasonic recorders the XS350 supports every DVD format under the sun, with RAM being the most useful in terms of editing flexibility. Also useful is dual-layer DVD-R and DVD+R recording, which lets you store up to 14 hours of SD material.
Freesat functionality is identical to that of the BS850. Twin tuners offer a level of flexibility missing from Panasonic's Freeview combis, allowing you to record one channel and watch another or record two while playing back something from the hard-disk. The deck's lack of Blu-ray recording and inability to copy hi-def programmes onto DVD in their native form eliminates any concerns over copy protection, so there are no flags that limit the amount of copies you can make.
You get a smart-looking 8-day EPG, which can be filtered by genre. The Landscape view shows seven channels at a time, laying them out in a user-friendly grid formation and helpfully listing all of the available options at the bottom. In Portrait mode the EPG focuses in on a single channel, listing the next seven programmes. The whole thing is much clearer and easier to follow than Panasonic's cluttered Freeview EPG, although it's a shame you can't keep up with live TV as you browse.