- Review Price: £448.90
With the ability to record onto hard-disk, DVD and VHS, the DMR-EX98V stakes a claim for the title of Ultimate Recording Solution™. Panasonic sticks one of these multi-talented machines in its range every year to cater for those who want the flexibility and convenience of DVD and HDD recording, but also have lots of VHS tapes still lurking in their cupboards. And because everything is combined into one tidy unit, you can transfer material internally between hard-disk, DVD and VHS tape (in any direction) and make back-up copies of your precious recordings.
The unit also features video upscaling to 720p, 1080i and 1080p, which makes it possible not only to watch DVDs, live TV and recordings in hi-def resolution, but also VHS tapes – a clever fusion of old and new technology that helps combat the problem of watching a low-quality source on a cutting-edge HD TV.
The inclusion of a VHS deck understandably makes the unit podgier than your average DVD/HDD combi but Panasonic has done a good job of masking this fact with a dashing black finish and a mirrored panel on the fascia. Within this panel is an illuminated display that uses large, easy-to-read digits and an indicator that tells you which drive is currently selected. Also on the front are buttons that activate one-touch copying between any of the drives.
The mirrored panel opens to reveal a few more buttons and a selection of auxiliary sockets, including S-video, composite and stereo audio inputs, plus a DV input to transfer camcorder footage. Even more generously, the DMR-EX98V provides a USB port and an SD card slot, the latter allowing you to view still pictures and SD Video files captured on Panasonic camcorders, or transfer them to the hard-disk. It also supports SDHC (High Capacity) cards of between 4GB and 16GB.
The rear panel is satisfyingly busy, boasting an HDMI v1.3 output that supports Deep Colour, Viera Link HDMI CEC and the aforementioned video upscaling, as well as a set of component sockets and an RGB-capable SCART output. For lower-quality needs, there are also S-video and composite outputs and if you want to record from external devices (such as a Sky box or Freeview receiver) then the RGB-capable SCART input lets you do so in superb quality. Digital audio duties are handled by the single optical output, which outputs Dolby Digital, DTS, MPEG and PCM.
Elsewhere, the feature list is similar to that of the DMR-EX88, apart from the hard-disk capacity (250GB as opposed to the EX88’s 400GB) and this deck’s VHS functionality, of course. As a result we won’t go into too much detail but it’s worth pointing out some of the highlights, which include internal CD ripping with automatic track naming courtesy of the built-in Gracenote database, Freeview Playback support (including Series Recording, Guide Link and Split Programme) and that perennial hard-disk favourite Pause Live TV, which is given its own jazzy onscreen logo.
Like many hard-disk recorders on the market, the EX98V offers jukebox functionality that lets you transfer MP3 and JPEG files from discs, USB or SD card to the hard disk. It’s a nice feature, which cleverly moves your media library from your PC to the living room, but unlike recorders from Pioneer and Philips you can’t transfer DivX files to the hard-disk, which is likely to disappoint keen Internet downloaders. You can, however, play them (as well as MP3 and JPEG) from discs and USB devices, and the unit supports VOD content. It all works extremely well, and the quality of MP3 and ripped CD playback is excellent.
On the VHS side, there are several handy features. S-VHS Quasi Playback (SQPB) allows you to play S-VHS tapes on this unit at a lower resolution, while the VHS Index Search System (VISS) places markers on the tape every time you hit record, allowing you to find recordings easily. Other modes like Jet Rewind, Jet Search and slow motion make tape playback feel fairly hassle free, while the SP, LP and EP recording modes allow you to extend the amount you can squeeze on a tape.
Like its non-VHS stablemates, the EX98V’s recording, editing and copying features are comprehensive, giving you a great deal of control before and after making a recording. There are four recording modes (XP, SP, LP and EP) which pales in comparison to the Pioneer DVR-560HX’s 32-step manual mode but should suffice for most users. Hard-disk recording times range from 55 hours in XP to 441 hours in EP, plus you can fit over 14 hours on a DVD-R (DL) disc in EP mode.
Regularly-used functions like deleting part of a recording, creating playlists or copying at high speed from HDD to DVD are all made extremely simple by the clear and intuitive onscreen displays that guide you through every part of the process. In fact, the entire user interface and remote control are wonderfully user-friendly, much more so than rival recorders from the likes of Pioneer and Philips, and the straightforward Guide Plus EPG makes it easy to record an entire series (though not as easily as Sky+). You could quite easily work out how to use this machine without even consulting the manual, which is a good job given that it’s a hefty tome.
Picture quality is every bit as good as the rest of Panasonic’s latest recorders. Pre-recorded DVD playback is sharp and clean through the HDMI output with the upscaling set to 1080p – it effortlessly handles the intricate detail and moody colour palette of ”Pan’s Labyrinth”, keeping block noise and upscaling artefacts at bay. Non-upscaled pictures through the component and RGB SCART output are also highly impressive, although they lack the digital clarity of the HDMI signal.
We’ve already seen Panasonic’s DVB-T Adaptive Noise Reduction doing a great job on the EX88 and EX78, and once again it makes pictures from the built-in Freeview tuner look sublime. The sheer, unsullied vibrancy of the image is really pleasing on the eyes, particularly with the sort of bright, breezy colour schemes that permeate daytime TV, and these pictures are replicated identically when recorded onto the hard-disk in XP mode. Similarly, SP mode looks great, as demonstrated by a very clean recording of the BBC’s Wimbledon tennis coverage.
The latest range of Panasonics also delivers some of the best LP mode pictures we’ve seen, which means that that EX98V is able to retain minute details like the small print during adverts and tricky patterns. Pixel noise is present but it’s not excessive, but in EP mode the fast-paced tennis footage does show up the limitations of the lower bitrate used, resulting in soft and noisy pictures. But as long as you know what to expect then there can be few complaints, and in any case the resulting pictures are far from unwatchable.
Back in the day, Panasonic consistently turned out excellent standalone VHS VCRs and this talent lives on in its combis. Although you probably won’t use it much, the quality of VHS SP recording is decent enough, with tennis coverage benefitting from strong colour saturation – although there’s not a great deal of detail and text is hazy. A pre-recorded copy of ”Army of Darkness” proved to be surprisingly watchable, and we also transferred an old VHS recording of ”I’m Alan Partridge” to the hard-disk and then to DVD, and apart from some rather intrusive buzzing towards the beginning, the finished product is very impressive. The sound clarity is also fine and there’s very little hiss, but it’s worth pointing out that the unit itself is quite noisy when playing a VHS tape.
The DMR-EX98V is a really impressive piece of kit – flexible, convenient and surprisingly easy to use considering the vast amount of features on board. And in terms of picture quality the Panasonic is near flawless, whether it’s live, recorded or on DVD, and it does a great job at combining VHS with these more modern newer digital formats. There are certain areas where rival recorders have the edge, such as Pioneer’s 32-stage recording modes and the ability to store DivX on the hard-disk, plus at around £500 the EX98V is not cheap. However if none of this is an issue then the DMR-E98V will make the perfect recording hub.
Score in detail
Unlike other sites, we thoroughly test every product we review. We use industry standard tests in order to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever accept money to review a product. Tell us what you think - send your emails to the Editor.