- Review Price: £256.98
Digital recorders with video upscaling are nothing new, but this hard-disk/DVD combi recorder from Panasonic is one of the first to offer 1080p upscaling, which is a real bonus if you’re fortunate enough to own a 1080p display. The beauty of upscaling recorders is that you can not only boost pre-recorded DVDs to full hi-def resolution, but also your TV recordings.
And just like previous generations of Panasonic’s HDD/DVD combi, this new model is positively packed with features – so many in fact, that we could bore you to death with them, but we wouldn’t do that. First up, it’s fitted with a 160GB hard-disk, which offers up to 284 hours of recording time (in the lowest-quality EP setting) and remarkably, it records onto any disc format you throw at it, including DVD-RAM, +RW, -RW, -R and +R. You can also use DVD+R Dual Layer and DVD-R Double Layer discs but only for copying from the hard-disk. The unit also plays pretty much any disc type except for DVD-Audio, which is reserved for the step-up DMR-EX87.
Our test sample is styled in black, giving it a plain, understated look – a far cry from the jazzier design of previous generations. But if you prefer your kit a little more flashy, then it’s also available in silver.
We’re pleased to report that the DMR-EX77 is equipped with a digital tuner, making it a safe choice with the digital switchover looming. That means you can watch and record Freeview TV and radio channels without the need to hook up an external set-top box. On the down side, it only sports one digital tuner, which means you can’t watch one channel while recording another. And there’s no back-up analogue tuner, so be sure to check Freeview reception in your area before buying.
The DVB functionality is beautifully integrated. The all-important EPG is attractive, informative and well laid out, using a Sky-mimicking grid structure (though you can change it from landscape to portrait) that makes good use of the colour-coded keys on the remote. But even more remarkable is the speed of digital text, which displays new pages almost instantaneously.
On the down side, the product is not Freeview Playback branded, so there’s no Series Recording feature (the Freeview equivalent of Sky’s Series Link, which records all the programmes in a series automatically), which is supported by the Sony RDR-HXD860. You can set the DMR-EX77 to record at the same time every day or week, but it won’t adjust to reflect schedule changes.
The connection roster is exemplary and includes an HDMI port, which offers upscaled 720p, 1080i and 1080p output, plus progressive scan capable component video output. Also worthy of note is the optical digital audio output for piping Dolby Digital and DTS bitstreams to an amp. The only minor let down is the lack of a Conditional Access Module slot for adding pay TV channels.
Under a flap on the front is an i.Link/FireWire input for transferring footage from a DV camcorder and an SD card slot, which accepts 4GB SDHC Memory Cards and lets you copy SD video and JPEGs to the hard-disk or DVD-RAM. The unit will play MP3 and JPEG files from disc, but sadly not WMA or DivX files, which is the biggest blot in the unit’s copybook.
Another key feature is Viera Link, the new name for Panasonic’s HDAVI feature which was introduced last year. It allows you to link the recorder to a Viera TV and/or AV receiver via HDMI and activate all of the components with one remote. But despite being based on the industry-wide HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronic Control) standard, there’s no guarantee that kit from other manufacturers will be compatible due to the tweaks that Panasonic has made.
Recordings can be made in one of four quality presets – XP (best), SP, LP and EP, which affects how much recording time is available. There’s also a Flexible Recording mode that fits a timer recording or copied programme into the remaining space on a disc in the best possible quality. All of your recordings are stored in the impressive Direct Navigator menu, which lists every programme with a moving thumbnail and the programme name.
With HDD or DVD-RAM, you can add your own chapter points and delete parts of a recording, but for more complex editing head straight for the Playlist feature. Here, you can arrange chapters from any recording into a new sequence, which can be played back seamlessly.
Once you’ve created a playlist it can be copied to DVD, which makes this a great way of piecing together your own mini masterpieces. The step-by-step copying interface makes the process very easy, allowing you to choose the source drive, destination drive, copy speed and video quality setting. Using, the high-speed copy mode, the unit will transfer a one-hour EP mode HDD recording to 12x DVD-R in just 48 seconds – phenomenal!
The sheer number of features on board means that the DMR-EX77 isn’t the easiest recorder to master, as the horrendously complex 100-page manual demonstrates. But Panasonic has done everything it can to ease the learning process – the remote is superb, featuring sensibly laid-out and clearly-defined buttons, plus the deck is generally slick and responsive. In fact, the entire user interface is a complete joy to navigate, using a logical structure and a welcoming colour scheme.
Panasonic recorders always deliver exceptional recorded picture quality, but the DMR-EX77 takes it to a new level, helped in no small part by the HDMI output and highly competent upscaling technology.
Recordings made from the built-in digital tuner in XP mode look identical to the live broadcast and boast phenomenal clarity. Brightly-lit studio-based channels such as BBC News 24 or Sky News show off the deck’s pristine encoding quality to the full; colour saturation is consistently high, particularly the aggressive reds used in captions and graphics, and the lack of bleed means that edge definition is crisp. Detail levels are also very impressive – individual strands of hair and clothing textures are visible.
Displaying static or slow-moving news pictures is one thing, but faster material is more tricky. Thankfully, the EX77 still delivers the goods as an XP recording of the busy Sky Sports News channel demonstrates. Scrolling text is smoothly presented, while footage of rugby and football matches are displayed with minimal block noise around the running players.
Moving down to SP mode, the drop in quality is very slight. Switching between XP and SP recordings you can detect a touch of extra dotty noise fluttering around the edges of moving objects but essentially it’s the same, with the added benefit of a longer recording time than XP (70 hours on the hard-disk compared to 36 in XP).
In LP mode the drop in quality is a lot more pronounced due to the increased amount of compression noise, which compromises the razor-sharp clarity seen in XP and SP. But images remain watchable, even with quick-moving rugby coverage on Sky Sports News, looking as good if not better than LP modes on rival recorders – and that’s the bottom line.
EP pictures are undeniably soft and noisy, so it’s best reserved for undemanding material, but with a maximum hard-disk recording time 284 hours or 8 hours on a single-sided DVD it could come in useful.
Upscaled DVD pictures look fantastic, whether it’s 720p, 1080i or 1080p. The King Kong disc is presented with a sharpness and vibrancy that some dedicated DVD players struggle to muster. Detail-heavy shots are pin-sharp, colour reproduction is fiery and the lack of noise is testament to some excellent internal picture processing.
With a vast amount of features, extensive editing modes, excellent recording quality and top-notch upscaling, the DMR-EX77 sets a new benchmark for DVD/HDD recorders. It’s the kind of flexible, all-encompassing unit that by rights should cost a lot more, but its surprisingly reasonable price tag makes it all the more irresistible. Panasonic, we salute you.
Score in detail