- Review Price: £379.00
The beauty of Sky+ is that it’s so simple to use even your Nan can record an entire series of Midsomer Murders without getting flustered. Features like pause live TV and Series Link have really caught our imagination, making it easier than ever to record and watch TV. And thanks to Freeview Playback, terrestrial digital PVRs now offer the same level of simplicity and flexibility as Sky’s satellite trendsetter.
But for some reason DVD/HDD combis have always lived in the shadow of hard-disk PVRs, which isn’t really fair when you consider that they offer loads more features and let you burn discs of your favourite shows. Perhaps people think they’re simply not sexy enough or too complicated to use, but if that’s the case then the introduction Freeview Playback into the DVD/HDD combi world will make them seem a lot more attractive.
The DMR-EX88 is one of the first DVD/HDD recorders to sport a Playback badge and completes Panasonic’s ‘holy trinity’ of new combis, which also includes the DMR-EX78 and EX768 – both of which we enthused over elsewhere on this site. The EX88 is the top-end DVD/HDD model (not counting the VHS-equipped DMR-EX98V).
At 400GB, it boasts the largest hard-disk capacity in the range, which not only allows you to record up to 712 hours of TV but also store MP3 and JPEG files, turning it into a virtual jukebox and photo album. You can also make TV recordings directly onto DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD-R or DVD+R discs, or copy stuff from the hard-disk to any of these formats. If you need more that the eight hours of recording time offered by these formats, then you can also copy HDD recordings to dual-layer DVD-R and DVD+R discs, increasing the recording time to over 14 hours.
It’s not the most inspirational piece of AV kit we’ve ever clapped eyes on, though, putting functionality over frills with a rather dull black finish. But open the flap on the front and things get a little more exciting, with the discovery of a USB port for plugging in memory devices and playing back media files, and an SD card slot, which you won’t find on the EX78 or 768. The slot accepts SDHC (High Capacity) cards of 4GB and over, and allows you to play back MPEG-2 SD video as well as JPEG photos. It’s joined by a DV input to transfer camcorder footage in the highest possible quality, plus a set of AV inputs.
A comprehensive range of connections awaits on the rear, including an HDMI 1.3 port, component, S-video, composite and optical digital audio outputs. Two SCART sockets are supplied, one of which pipes RGB, S-video and composite signals to your TV while the other allows you to input the same video types from external sources. Unlike the latest Philips combis, the EX88 doesn’t offer set-top box control using an infrared transmitter, but it does feature a slave mode that starts recording when it detects an incoming signal – you need to programme the timer on your set-top box, if it has one.
There are many other features to talk about, but one of the highlights is internal audio ripping, which allows you to slip a CD into the tray and transfer tracks to the hard-disk in LPCM at 384kbps. The best part is that you don’t have to laboriously key in the artist, title and album names – it’s all done automatically by the built-in Gracenote database (which can be updated via USB to include the very latest song information).
The onboard digital tuner isn’t accompanied by an analogue one, so this is no good for those living in patchy reception areas. The unit’s digital functionality is excellent, throwing in the full range of Freeview Playback features, including series/split recording and Guide Link, which keeps track of schedule changes to make sure you don’t miss anything. There’s also a 7-day Guide Plus EPG, digital text and subtitles, plus some extremely useful on-screen displays giving details about the current programme and what’s up next.
Other features include HDMI upscaling to 1080p, 1080i and 720p, Viera Link (which lets you control certain aspects of the recorder using a compatible Panasonic TV remote), Deep Colour support and a range of editing tricks that let you chop and trim your recordings to perfection, as well as rearrange scenes into a new sequence. Once you’ve finished editing, you can copy recordings or playlists to DVD at high speed (75x copying is possible, but it all depends on the disc speed and the original recording mode).
The EX88 is exceptionally easy to use, thanks largely to the remote’s spot-on button layout. Friendly menus with large text and a tasteful colour palette make every function simple to find, likewise the Direct Navigator (where your recordings are stored) uses moving thumbnails to great effect. Even the EPG is a work of genius, using a clear programme ‘grid’ that allows for hassle-free schedule surfing. Superb.
In action the EX88 really delivers the goods. Live TV pictures are bursting with colour and possess plenty of detail, both of which contribute to a very enjoyable viewing experience. The on-board noise reducing technology goes a good job of keeping that pesky blocking effect out of the image, and when upscaled to 1080p the quality is as good as terrestrial digital TV gets.
For recording, there are four modes that allow you to reduce picture quality in order to increase the recording time, and in the top-quality XP mode the recorded picture looks exactly the same as the live broadcast. There’s a virtually imperceptible drop in quality from XP to SP, but the available recording time on DVD increases from one hour to two, which is great news for archiving.
LP mode recordings are still watchable, with its 500-line resolution retaining a healthy dose of detail, but there’s a clear increase in noise and edges look soft. EP mode recordings look even more hazy, making it unsuitable for tricky material like sport or action movies, but stick to sedate programmes like chat shows and you won’t be too disappointed with the results.
Overall, recorded sound quality is impressive. Despite the level of compression used, the stereo Dolby Digital encoder makes the audio output sound clear and energetic though TV speakers, and even better when hooked up to a Pro Logic II amplifier.
The EX88 also makes a fine DVD player, delivering clean and detailed picture quality and keeping artefacts to a minimum. Colour reproduction is powerful but not garish, plus skin tones look natural and movement is remarkably smooth. All of the supported media formats play with no problems and CD tracks ripped to the hard disk sound remarkably crisp.
If you’re looking for a recorder that combines the versatility of an HDD/DVD combi with the simplicity of Sky+ then you won’t go far wrong with the DMR-EX88. It’s packed with features, delivers superb picture quality and although it’s more expensive than some of its rivals you can rest assured that you’re getting a lot for your money.
Score in detail
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