- Review Price: £295.39
Panasonic has been making the best digital recorders in the business for several years, and looks set to continue its fine track record with a brand new range of DVD/HDD combis. Among these new recorders is the DMR-EX78, which is equipped with a 250GB hard-disk drive and the ability to record onto every recordable DVD format going. It’s joined in the DVD/HDD line-up by the 400GB DMR-EX88 (which costs around £100 more) and the 160GB DMR-EX768, plus there’s a VHS-equipped model (the DMR-EX98V).
The latest range offers more features than ever before, but most significantly the DMR-EX78 is one of the first Freeview Playback compatible DVD/HDD combis. Until now this has been only found on hard-disk only PVRs, so it’s pleasing to finally see it appearing on other types of digital recorder – and a few other companies are following suit. Basically, the badge guarantees that a product offers a complete range of Freeview recording features, including series and split recording plus onscreen alerts that suggest an alternative broadcast time if there’s a schedule clash.
But the DMR-EX78 is so much more than a digital TV recorder. Its ability to store music on the hard-disk turns it into a virtual jukebox, and you can even rip CDs internally in LPCM at 384kbps. The on-board Gracenote database retrieves information about the loaded CD from a list of around 350,000 albums and displays the artist, title and album information automatically. The database can be updated to include the very latest albums by downloading data from the Panasonic website and transferring it via the USB port, which can also be used to transfer MP3s and JPEG photo files onto the hard-disk and vice versa. You can also play DivX files from a USB device or disc (including VOD), but you can’t transfer them to the hard-disk.
The hard-disk can hold up to 441 hours of TV programmes from the built-in digital tuner, but the amount of available time reduces in the higher quality recording modes. There are four recording presets – XP gets you the best picture quality, offering a maximum of 55 hours on the hard-disk or nearly two-hours on a double-layer DVD-R or DVD+R disc. The other modes are SP (110 hours HDD, 3 hours 35 mins on DVD), LP (221 hours HDD, 7 hours on DVD) and EP (441 hours HDD, over 14 hours on DVD). Additionally, there’s a Flexible Recording mode that fits a recording exactly into the remaining space on a disc. The unit can record directly onto DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-R and DVD+R discs, plus you can copy hard-disk recordings onto dual-layer DVD+R and DVD-R discs.
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.
The DMR-EX78’s picture quality is similarly impressive. The unit features DVB-T Adaptive Noise Reduction, which aims to reduce the block noise that plagues Freeview broadcasts, and during live TV viewing it does a marvellous job. It’s backed up by a mode that detects and corrects jagged diagonal lines, and when combined with the unit’s slick 1080p upscaling, it results in some of the cleanest and most dazzling digital TV pictures we’ve seen.
This translates into flawless recording quality. XP mode captures powerful colours and intense detail without breaking a sweat, making it impossible to tell the difference between live and recorded TV. SP mode only reveals a slight drop in quality, with a touch of extra dot noise. LP mode looks softer, demonstrated by the hazy text of news captions and gently shimmering moving images, but it remains more detailed than LP mode recordings on some rival machines. The jitter and softness intensify in EP mode but again, the quality is still above what we’d normally expect from a low-quality mode.
The deck’s pre-recorded DVD picture quality is solid, turning in a very assured performance with the beautiful ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” disc. The gorgeous scenery, with its intricate detail and earthy colour palette looks superb on a large screen TV and uncovers no flaws in the deck’s 1080p upscaling.
And on the audio side, movie and CD playback are fine but it’s the quality of internally ripped LPCM tracks that really takes the cake. The extensive Gracenote database found the info for most of the CDs we loaded, with only a couple of Japanese imports tripping it up, while MP3, JPEG and DivX playback posed no problems at all.
As you might have guessed, we quite like the DMR-EX78. It offers a comprehensive feature list, top-class pictures and a user interface that gives its rivals a masterclass in how to make a technically complex machine feel like something you’d find in the Early Learning Centre – and we mean that in a good way. It’s quite simply the most accomplished DVD/HDD combi we’ve seen, which means the competition will have to come up with something pretty special to beat it.
Score in detail
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