We love personal video recorders. Indeed, we recently noted that going from having a PVR to not having a PVR is on a par, as an undesirable turn of events, with having your arm bitten off by a shark. When Panasonic sent us its DMR-EX79, therefore, we got quite excited. Where Panasonic's PVRs score over many rivals is in the added flexibility that comes from having a built-in DVD recorder. Panasonic isn't the only company to offer this capability, but it's one of the few that only make PVRs with DVD recorders.
The DMR-EX79 costs around £280, which puts it at the top end of the PVR pile. For that, though, you get a single-tuner Freeview PVR with HDMI out, a 250GB hard drive and 1080p upscaling. Is it worth the money? Let's find out.
Stylish and functional
We've said before that Panasonic isn't a company that spends much time coming up with exciting new designs for the exteriors of its hardware. This PVR looks the same as the ones that came out last year, and those that came out the year before that. Of course, minor changes have been made to the layout here and there, but, for the most part, Panasonic leaves things alone. That means most of the company's attention goes on making sturdy, reliable hardware, and we're thankful for that.
You get plenty of connection options, too. There's an HDMI output for sending upscaled video to your TV, but there are also Scart sockets and component outputs for people with older equipment or without a spare HDMI socket on their TV.
DVD playback and capacity
Another of the things we like about Panasonic is its unfaltering support for DVD-RAM. Although far from essential, DVD-RAM is a good format. It's like DVD-RW, but it's more reliable and can rewrite data to a disc many, many more times than the other rewritable formats. DVD-RAM is slightly less convenient in some regards, because the discs are generally contained in cartridges (although they don't have to be), but Panasonic hardware does a really good job of handling these discs. Although the discs are more expensive, their long life and sturdy housing mean they're likely to last you ages, and be much more child-proof. You can also read from a DVD-RAM disc at the same time as you're writing to it, which makes chase play a possibility, unlike with DVD-RW.
It stands to reason that someone buying this machine is likely to be interested in watching normal, pre-recorded DVDs. Happily, the DMR-EX79 does a terrific job of playing back such DVDs. Because of its upscaling and HDMI output, you can theoretically get 1080p images from a standard-definition disc. Upscaling is usually something of a mixed bag, but the DMR-EX79 seems to do a fairly decent job.
The 250GB hard drive offers a reasonable amount of storage space. You'll get around 50 hours of video onto it if you use the highest quality setting. If you're prepared to compromise on the recorded video quality, you can extend that to 300 hours using the EP mode. We'd avoid doing this, though. The ability to record to DVDs means you've got virtually unlimited storage space at your disposal, so what's the point of compromising on quality? It's not like Freeview overdoes it with the bit rates in the first place -- compressing them more is just asking for trouble.
Electronic programme guide
We've berated Panasonic for this before, but the company insists on using the Guide Plus+ system, which shows adverts for various products as a way of generating revenue. It's not a bad electronic programme guide, but we resent being advertised to when we've paid nearly £300 for a piece of equipment.
Recording from the EPG is a very simple matter, however. Scroll around to find the show you want to record, press 'OK' and you'll be asked to confirm some details. At this point, you can choose to record to either the hard disk or a DVD, and you have the option of series link and manually adjusting the start and finish times. It's all very simple and easy to understand, even for the technophobes amongst us.
You also get some welcome features like EPG search, which enables you to track down a programme you want to record. This is very useful, especially for shows that you always miss because you forget when they're on. The usual Freeview+ niceties of series link and accurate recordings help ensure you get the programme you wanted, even if the schedules get tweaked at the last minute.
Single tuner doesn't cut the mustard
What the DMR-EX79 gains in flexibility from having a built-in DVD burner, however, it loses by only having one Freeview tuner. This means that you can only record one channel at a time, and you won't be able to watch something on BBC One while recording something on ITV1. Of course, most modern TVs have a Freeview tuner anyway, so you would normally use that for live viewing and use the PVR to record, but what can it cost to include a second tuner? We'll wager it's a matter of a few pence, and this is hardly a bargain-basement machine.
Our gut reaction to the Panasonic DMR-EX79 it that it's slightly too expensive. We love the fact that it's a DVD player, Freeview recorder and DVD writer all in one box, though. If you don't have a DVD player already, and want a good upscaling model, the DMR-EX79 is likely to hold much more appeal than otherwise.
In terms of functionality, we miss having a second Freeview tuner. With all new TVs in the last four years or so having built-in Freeview, having two tuners becomes less of an issue. It's still a problem, though, when it comes to recording two channels at once. Overall, there's plenty to like about the Panasonic DMR-EX79. We just wish it were £100 cheaper.
Edited by Charles Kloet