This is Panasonic's most comprehensively equipped digital recorder. The feature-filled specification is almost identical to the previously reviewed EX75, except this model features a larger 250GB hard drive. That equates to over 440 hours of recording using the lowest quality mode, and up to 55 hours using the highest quality mode.
Hard drive recording is supported by universal disc compatibility including all DVD recording formats, which offers convenient flexibility. There's integrated analogue and digital TV tuners and an SD card slot that allows you to store and edit JPEG images from a digital camera, while a dedicated DV input means you can directly copy camcorder footage.
Recording quality using the highest quality modes produces copies that are indistinguishable from the impressive original, and there is a full range of post-editing functions. DVD playback performance is also enhanced using integrated video scaling, which converts standard-definition DVDs to close to high-definition quality using an HDMI digital connection with a compatible display.
The unit carries a considerable weight but the surprisingly slimline design is unobtrusive and attractively styled using silver finishing and a mirrored front panel. The front section has been stepped to allow easier access to a few primary controls and some basic connections if you're standing over the unit.
A fold-down panel at the front conceals several easy-access AV connections and a dedicated DV input that can be used to directly copy high-quality footage from a digital camcorder. Above this is an SD memory card slot, which lets you store JPEG photos from a digital camera on to the hard drive. You can edit and organise the pictures on screen and even view them in high-definition quality.
The rear panel is fully connected with a full range of video output options. The inclusion of an HDMI digital output supports integrated video scaling using high-definition 720p and 1080i formats for the highest quality performance, especially from digital flat-screen displays.
Alternatively, you can use analogue component outputs that support progressive scan video and there are two Scart terminals for standard users. Both Scarts have been considerately RGB-enabled for better performance, which means you can record from a separate device like a set-top box or your old VCR without compromising quality. In fact, the VHS Refresh Dubbing technology actually improves the quality of recordings from original videotapes -- ideal if you want to transfer your old collection to disc.
On the sound front, there is a set of standard stereo outputs and an optical digital output that can be used to carry Dolby Digital and DTS multi-channel signals to a surround-sound amplifier used in home cinema setups.
Panasonic's remote units may not look svelte and stylish but they are incredibly easy to use, which is essential for a recording device with so many functions. All controls are intelligently labelled and arranged using oversized keys to ease operation, and three separate menu systems can be easily accessed and navigated using the intuitive central cursor.
The system's all-inclusive specification integrates practically every recording feature you could ask from a digital recorder. You can record either analogue or digital TV programmes and store them on the massive 250GB hard drive or use any software disc type including DVD-RAM and dual layer (DL) formats. As the hard drive is so large it makes sense to use it for all recordings and then transfer to disc if you want to archive copies or transport them around. High-speed dubbing means you can transfer copies in a matter of minutes.
Setting up recordings is simplest using the well-presented Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) that accompanies digital broadcasts -- all you have to do is highlight the programme from the listings and recordings are automatically programmed. There are also manual timer and VideoPlus+ options as well as one-touch recording, which begins instantly without the usual delay to make sure you don't miss anything.
There are five recording quality modes that trade image quality for time length, but as the hard drive is so large you have more freedom to ignore the lowest quality modes. The highest quality (XP) mode offers up to 55 hours of recordings rising to an incredible 443 hours using the lowest quality (LP) mode. There's also a flexible mode (FP) that will automatically select the highest quality according to how much space you have available.
The excellent Disc Navigator function lets you easily find recorded titles using moving thumbnails and then organise them at your will. There's an extensive range of post-editing functions including labelling, deleting, chapter division and creating playlists. The intuitive design of the menu systems and remote means that even relative newcomers to digital recording will be able to find their way around without any fuss.
DVD playback features haven't been ignored and integrated video scaling means you can upconvert standard-definition images to close to high-definition quality 720p and 1080i formats. You'll need a compatible digital display to do this, but conventional users can also enhance performance using progressive scan video via component outputs.
Recording performance is dictated by the quality of the internal TV tuners, which act as a master copy. Analogue broadcasts are troubled by typical constraints but the quality of digital Freeview programmes is extremely impressive. Images are stable and sharply defined with well-balanced contrast and colours. Movement could be more cohesive at times, but overall there's no cause for complaint.
Recordings using the two highest quality modes, (XP) and (SP), are inseparable from the original and the massive storage space means you rarely have to use the lower quality modes. Nonetheless, even the (LP) mode still performs reasonably well and it's only the lowest quality (EP) mode, which suffers from colour smears and grainy resolution and should be avoided.
DVD playback performance is just as impressive -- especially if you're using HDMI. Although upscaled images can't claim true high-definition quality, you'll get noticeably more detail, depth and motion control from your existing DVD collection without having to upgrade to a next-generation player like Blu-ray or HD DVD.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield