The DMR-EX88 is one of the first DVD/HDD combis to boast a Freeview Playback badge, which means it not only boasts an integrated Freeview tuner and 7-day EPG, but it can also record an entire series at the touch of a button.
It'll even detect schedule changes, clashes or split programmes automatically, which makes it a very versatile recording solution. A few other combis offer some of these features, but the Playback badge is your guarantee that it does the lot.
700hrs of recordings
The deck sits just below the top-end DMR-EX98V (which throws VHS recording into the mix) in the company's latest range.
With a massive 400GB hard disk, offering up to 712 hours of recording time, even the biggest couch potato won't run out of space. Plus, the unit can record onto any type of DVD disc format making it possible to fit over 14hr onto one disc (but you can't record directly onto DL discs).
Owners of large digital media libraries stored on PC can transfer your files to the unit's hard disk via the SD card slot or the USB terminal, both located under a flap on the front panel. The unit can also rip CDs onto the drive at 384kbps and name them automatically using the built-in Gracenote database.
When hooked up to a hi-def TV via the HDMI v1.3 socket, the EX88 will upscale DVDs and Freeview pictures to 720p, 1080i and 1080p. The HDMI port also supports Deep Colour and Viera Link, which allows the recorder to work in tandem with a Viera TV, offering a range of convenient functions.
With a timer-equipped set-top box connected to the Scart input, the EX88 can be put into a slave mode and will start recording when it detects a signal, but there's no infrared set-top box control.
As per Panasonic's previous recorders, the EX88 offers loads of flexible recording, editing and copying features.
There are four recording presets, ranging from the top-quality XP mode, offering 89 hours' recording time on the HDD, down to the 712hr EP mode, while Flexible Recording squeezes a programme exactly into the remaining space on a disc.
After recordings have finished, you can cut out specific sections, create chapters or even rearrange chapters into a new sequence (or 'playlist') and it's surprisingly easy to do.
And once you've tweaked your HDD recordings or playlists to perfection, you can copy them onto DVD at up to 75x speed (depending disc speed and recording mode used) and then customise how the disc menu looks on other players.
We've barely scratched the surface, which should give you an indication of how talented this recorder really is.
The first time you hook it up, the EX88 automatically tunes in the digital channels, which gets you up and running in no time.
The onboard EPG comes courtesy of Guide Plus, but it's not the old laborious version - it's a quicker, guide with a logical layout and all the programme data listed from the word go.
Elsewhere, the user interface is immaculate. The setup menu, onscreen displays and Direct Navigator are clear and easy to read at all times, while the onscreen mini-menus are a useful touch, providing quick, easy access to frequently-used functions.
The excellent remote makes a complex machine feel a toy, with large, perfectly arranged buttons, clear labelling and dedicated keys to change the recording mode and change between drives.
Panasonic has equipped the EX88 with new DVB-T Adaptive Noise Reduction technology, which reduces the block noise common to Freeview broadcasts, and you can really see the benefits in the clean picture quality, both with live TV and recordings. XP mode replicates the live broadcast exactly, with no block noise over fast movement or banding on background shading.
SP mode delivers practically the same results, with a little more noise on movement, but it's hardly noticeable. Most impressive however is the quality of LP recordings, which uses a lower bitrate than SP but the same resolution, and as a result retains more detail than some rival recorders' LP modes.
There's a lot more pixel noise flickering around the edges of objects, but not to the point where it becomes a distraction - and the 4hr recording time on DVD is worth the sacrifice.
EP mode looks soft and noisy and doesn't cope with tricky stuff like crowds or smoke particularly well. Brian Blessed jumping around on the Paul O'Grady Show was a positive carnival of noise, but our low expectations meant that we weren't particularly surprised or disappointed by this.
Watching The Departed on DVD reveals the DMR-EX88 to be a very competent movie source, particularly with the 1080p upscaling engaged. Scorsese's gorgeous shots of the Boston skyline are delivered with deep, punchy blacks, strong yet natural colours and pin-sharp detail.
Sound is recorded using a stereo Dolby Digital encoder and does a great job with both speech-based material and action fare, making everything sound sharp and dynamic.
Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks are equally exciting through a decent sound system, while CD and MP3 playback is perfectly enjoyable (though the lack of WMA support is a shame).
Pricey Panasonic deck
There's no denying that £500 is a lot to pay for a digital recorder, but shop around online and you can shave over £100 off that price.
Not to mention it's also worth considering that for the money you get a phenomenal amount of features, excellent performance and the most user-friendly operating system on the market.
All of these factors still makes it feel like good value for money despite the high price tag.