- Review Price: £279.99
Panasonic’s DVD/HDD recorders get better every year, and we’re hoping the company can continue this trend with its latest model, the DMR-EX79. It replaces last year’s brilliant DMR-EX78, adding a few new tweaks and features that make it easier than ever to record and watch your favourite programmes – and as is the norm these days it also acts as a central hub for your digital media library.
The DMR-EX79 forms part of a three-strong range, which also includes the top-end 400GB DMR-EX89 and 160GB DMR-EX769. Just like the DMR-EX78, this model is equipped with a 250GB hard-disk drive (up to 441 hours of recordings) and can record onto and play back any type of DVD, including DVD-RAM. Dual-layer DVD-R and DVD+R are supported but you can only copy recordings from the hard disk, while DVD+RW/+R recordings can only be made in 4:3 aspect ratio.
But frustratingly none of this year’s models feature twin Freeview tuners, which is the only thing preventing DVD/HDD combis from emulating the runaway success of PVRs like Sky+. It means that you can’t watch one channel and record another, which for most people is pretty high on the list of things you’d want to do with a digital recorder. Sigh.
Still, it partially makes up for it with the inclusion of Freeview+, which lets you record an entire series automatically and record programmes that are split into two parts. The DMR-EX78 also combines these features with some other nifty tools that make it easy to find programmes within the Guide Plus EPG – Free Word Search and Navi Link Search let you punch in the programme you’re looking for using a virtual keyboard, then it lists all of the relevant broadcasts over the coming week.
Another of the EX79’s smart new features is Auto Scene Chapter, which adds chapter points at the start of a scene as it records by ‘listening’ to the sound of the programme and detecting significant changes or gaps. Using the chapter skip key you can jump right to the next part when the adverts appear. We tried it out with a recording of ”Brothers and Sisters” on Channel 4 and the function is astonishingly accurate, placing markers at the end of each ad break. Panasonic isn’t the first to introduce such a feature but anyone who hates adverts will be pleased to find it included on these new models.
Aesthetically the EX79 doesn’t mark a radical departure from last year’s models, and although its black finish looks perfectly pleasant, it’ll hardly set your living room alight. That said, it is remarkably slim by normal DVD/HDD standards, a result of Panasonic reducing the number of internal components. Also new is an advanced control system that activates the fan only when the unit gets too hot, leading to quieter operation during playback.
The bottom part of the fascia drops down to reveal a few playback controls, DV, S-video and AV inputs and a USB port that lets you play back DivX, MP3, WMA and JPEG files (the DMR-EX89 additionally sports an SD card slot). The USB port also provides a way of transferring MP3, WMA, JPEG and MPEG-2 files onto the hard disk, although it’s disappointing to discover that you can’t transfer DivX, and the port doesn’t support PCs or external hard-drives.
If you can’t be bothered to rip tracks on your PC and transfer them via USB, then the deck will also rip them directly from CD into LPCM and tag them using info from the built-in Gracenote database. When you load a CD it asks if you want to play or copy it, which makes the process easy enough, but the lengthy ripping time makes it a tedious job.
On the rear panel is a typically comprehensive array of sockets, including an HDMI v1.3 output (which supports Deep Colour and Viera Link CEC), component, S-video, composite video and analogue stereo outputs. These are joined by two RGB-capable SCART sockets that can be used to record from an external digital TV box and loop the signal through to your TV.
It’s also worth remembering that the EX79 is also a fully-fledged DVD player, and can upscale movies to 1080p, as well as pipe Dolby Digital/DTS 5.1-channel soundtracks to an AV receiver using the optical digital audio output.
Elsewhere there’s a plethora of other convenient features, including Pause Live TV, Chasing Playback and simultaneous record and playback. When making recordings there are four presets – XP, SP, LP and EP – and when changing modes a useful menu pops up to show you how much time is left in each one. The Flexible Recording mode can be used to fit a recording into a given space.
Editing is similarly comprehensive, with the deck letting you rename, trim or divide recordings and fiddle about with chapter points, plus you can assemble chapter playlists on DVD-RAM, DVD-RW and the hard disk. Recordings can also be backed-up on disc at high-speed. The manual makes the wealth of editing features seem complex, but after some hands-on time it’s actually quite self-explanatory.
Much of this is down to the superb user interface, which improves on the previous generation and operates with pleasing responsiveness. It uses bright, welcoming colours and the layout of the ‘Functions’ setup menu is intuitive. All of the onscreen banners are clear and legible, particularly the Freeview ‘now and next’ info box that provides a programme synopsis and other key info, but it’s a shame you can’t browse other channels on the fly – for that you have to enter the full EPG.
The EPG layout seems cluttered at first but is actually as logical as they come, making great use of the colour-coded keys. You can choose from an overview of several channels or hone in on just one.
We’re also impressed yet again by the simplicity of the remote, which uses big, clearly-labelled buttons. Especially helpful is the placement of the Direct Navigator, EPG and Functions buttons in an arc around the menu controls – a simple touch but very effective, particularly for newcomers to HDD recording.
The DMR-EX79 is also a terrific performer with Freeview recordings. In XP mode it captures the digital TV stream immaculately without adding any artefacts, and it preserves the integrity of strong colours and fine detail. For example, a recording of ”This Morning” looks immaculate, with the EX79 convincingly replicating the garish studio colours and tricky skin tones, as well as delivering smooth edges and tightly focused, bleed-free scrolling text.
SP mode delivers similar results, looking just a fraction softer but solid overall. In LP the deck retains a great deal of detail, and when viewed on a mid-sized screen, it’s quite hard to tell the difference – great news, considering you can squeeze four hours onto a single-layer DVD in this mode. EP mode displays increased amounts of mosquito noise giving it a generally gauzy appearance but it’s still watchable – we’ve seen LP pictures on other recorders that look worse.
The DMR-EX79 features a new Adaptive HD Enhancer to sharpen images, and you can see the benefits when playing back movie DVDs at 1080p – the stylish visuals of the ”X-Men” disc are presented with crisp detail, rich colours and no upscaling artefacts, a fact backed up by its slick handling of the HQV disc test patterns. Sonically the player also does a decent job, firing out movie tracks with aplomb and delivering a clean presentation of CDs and ripped LPCM tracks.
The DMR-EX79 continues the great work of previous Panasonic recorders but throws a few new tricks into the mix to keep you interested. In terms of recording, editing and media playback it leaves no stone unturned, plus its picture quality is solid and it’s extremely easy to use – making it one of the best hard-disk combis we’ve encountered, particularly at under £300. The only caveat is the lack of a second Freeview tuner, which would have made it an even more essential purchase.
Score in detail
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