In action the XS350 is nigh-on flawless. Naturally, live hi-def broadcasts from BBC HD look sensational, packed with crisply-rendered detail, richly-saturated yet natural colours and precise edge definition. Its coverage of Wimbledon 2009 is a prime example of these virtues - the throngs of people in the crowd are reproduced with pin-sharp clarity to the point where you can make out faces from a distance, plus the lesser-trodden parts of the green courts and skin tones look utterly convincing.
After recording some HD tennis coverage onto the hard disk in DR mode, there isn't even the slightest reduction in picture quality. We also converted some hi-def tennis action from the original DR mode into HL, and the results are a revelation - the mega-efficient MPEG-4 encoding squashes up the file size without taking a huge toll on the resulting picture quality. Yes there's a bit of mosquito noise surrounding the players as they glide across the court but the images keep their hi-def look, which is the most important thing. We also copied some HD content onto a DVD-RAM disc in XP mode, and despite dropping down to SD resolution the picture quality remains superb thanks to the high quality of the original HD source. There's some shimmering on busy areas of detail but nothing to moan about.
The XS350 impresses in every other respect - recordings from an external Sky box in the XP and SP modes look consistently clean and bold, as do the resulting DVD copies. LP and EP recordings suffer greater noise levels and softness but remain enjoyable, and pre-recorded DVD playback is supremely detailed and cinematic, particularly when upscaled to 1080p. YouTube videos on Viera Cast played back during our test with no glitches, although picture quality is mostly dreadful and broadband limitations scupper hi-def playback.
On the audio front the XS350 makes a solid CD player, outputting music from the analogue ports with a lively, open tone, while the LPCM encoding gives ripped tracks a crisper, more detailed sound than MP3 files played via USB.
If you can, rig the deck up to an AV receiver either using HDMI or one of the digital audio connections - that way you'll be treated to superb Dolby Digital 5.1 sound from DVDs and BBC HD, which adds an extra dimension to its Wimbledon coverage - crowd noises envelop you, the umpire's voice resonates and the sound of a single voice shouting ‘come on Andy!' from the back of your living room still provides a transient thrill.
Overall the DMR-XS350 is a very impressive DVD/HDD recorder, sharing the same user friendliness and top-notch performance as its pricier stable mate. Owners of Sky+ HD need not apply, but if you're looking for a slick and flexible HD-capable recorder and have no use for a Blu-ray drive then the XS350 has the talent to make £600 feel like money well spent.
It's also worth noting that the inclusion of twin Freesat tuners and hi-def channels make this a much better option than Panasonic's DMR-EX89 single-tuner Freeview combi, although you do have to pay a good £200 more for the privilege, not including any satellite installation costs.