The latest in a best-selling line, Panasonic's DMR-EX78 is its first UK DVD/HDD recorder with DivX playback. Also new is Freeview Playback, which delivers PVR-style functionality.
Other key attractions include 1080p upscaling via HDMI, a 250GB hard-disk (for up to 441 hours of recording), a USB port for playing photos and MP3 files stored on memory devices, FireWire for digital camcorder dubs, multi-format DVD recording and the neat ability to act as a music jukebox. It's enough to make any AV fan salivate.
Appearance-wise, the EX78 is so businesslike it should wear a suit. Few controls are presented to the outside world; of these, the most obvious are the eject and standby buttons angled into the top of the front panel.
It's easy to activate these accidentally by brushing against them, so be careful - if you knock standby, prepare yourself to wait 30 seconds for the EX78 to shut down, and another 30 to restart.
Under a front flap sit the USB and Firewire ports, plus convenient analogue AV inputs. The remote handset is sensibly laid-out, and solidly-engineered for a long life. Just as well, because there's little that you can do without it.
Unlike earlier models in the DMR range, this newest Panny recorder doesn't feature an analogue TV tuner. If Freeview - there's no pay-TV upgrade path - isn't available in your location, you'll probably want to avoid it.
Installation is simplicity itself - the EX78 automatically finds and stores digital channels when it's first plugged in. I can't fault the layout of the menus, which include setup functions like HDMI and analogue video-output modes, recording and DVD playback preferences.
They're largely identical to those of previous-generation Panasonic recorders, but, if it ain't broke, then why try to fix it?
You can explore all Panasonic's EX78 has to offer within 10 minutes. But what a lot there is!
Thanks to Freeview Playback certification, you can enjoy benefits like 'Guide Link' (which compensates for late-running schedules), Series Link recording, schedule-clash protection and 'split programme' (which automatically deals with, for example, the tendency of certain broadcasters to insert news programmes into movies).
Unlike most high-quality PVRs, the EX78 only has a single digital tuner - two programmes cannot be recorded simultaneously - but you can still pause (and subsequently manipulate) live TV, using the HDD as a 'buffer'. Regrettably, a pointless graphic is displayed at all times.
Furthermore, you can't save the contents of the buffer should you decide the programme's worth keeping.
The 32-event/one-month timer can be scheduled directly from the friendly GuidePlus EPG - manual timer-setting and modification is also allowed.
Recording can also be triggered by the timer of an external AV source, like a Sky box - a welcome feature.
Four recording modes accommodate between one and eight hours per blank single-layer DVD, and all formats - DVD+RW/-RW/RAM and +R/-R - fall within the EX78's recording remit.
Dual-layer recording is also supported, but not directly - you have to record first to the HDD, and then dub. All but the lowest-quality modes record at DVD's full 720 x 576 resolution, for optimal capture of detail.
If you choose to record to the HDD (as you will probably end up doing more often than to DVD) a sensible range of editing and dubbing facilities are at your disposal.
Recordings can be 'trimmed' or split (which, by default, puts the divided sections into a new subfolder). They can then be copied losslessly to DVD at high-speed, or to a lower-quality mode in real-time.
For the latter, a 'flexible-recording' mode can automatically determine the bitrates needed to accommodate your chosen selection within the available DVD space. Playlist editing/copying is also possible.
Turn your DVD player into a jukebox
But there's more to the HDD than mere video recording. You can copy audio CDs losslessly to it, effectively turning the EX78 into a jukebox.
Thanks to an onboard Gracenote database, many CDs are recognised and their tracks automatically-named. This database can be updated via USB.
Talking of which, the EX78 will also play photos (with slideshow), MP3 tracks and DivX video stored on such devices (or disc media, come to think of it). Photos and MP3s, but not DivX, can be copied to the HDD.
It's a pity that recordings can't be converted into DivX; that way, they would occupy less space.
Dodgy Freeview images
The EX78's digital tuner has adaptive noise reduction to 'clean up' the frequently-lacklustre pictures from Freeview channels. Such a feature is likely to come into its own if broadcasters pare down low bitrates still further.
I can confirm that video noise is indeed reduced, but at a price. Using RGB Scart as an interconnection, I noted a slight degree of picture 'softening' when comparing the EX78 with a good-quality Freeview box tuned to the same channel - note that you can't turn off the machine's noise reduction.
But don't get me wrong. Those pictures are still demonstrably superior to those of most cheap Freeview equipment. Contrast range is good, while colours are solid and well-defined.
The HDMI port will upscale to 1080p but, as usual, you can hardly call upscaled Freeview high-definition. Perhaps of more benefit is its provision for 480i/576i output - good news if you're using a external scaler, or your TV happens to include a high-quality internal one.
Impressive recording quality
As a recorder, the EX78 puts in a spectacularly good performance from an external Sky box and the internal Freeview tuner alike.
Theoretically, artifacts are less likely because opportunities for tuner noise to 'throw' the machine's encoder are fewer. My own experiences seem to bear this out. The top SP/XP modes show very little deterioration relative to the original source; things only take a downturn when LP is selected.
While the source's detail is preserved - especially during more static scenes - movement is spoilt by obvious blocking.
The most economic mode looks rather ropey, especially on a big screen, and should be reserved for non-critical (or desperate) use only, or ignored altogether.
Another plus point is the machine's DVD playback, which I consider to be generally good. The EX78 offers a well-balanced picture that is bettered only by dedicated midrange players.
Which brings me to an interesting observation that confounded expectations. With a 32in Sony HD Ready LCD TV, I registered slightly more picture detail when the EX78 was upscaling DVDs, Freeview or external Scart-fed sources - a Hitachi 720p projector yielded similar results.
In other words, experiment with the HDMI settings - you might be pleasantly surprised. Playback of well-encoded DivX material was also judged to be of a high standard, although multi-megapixel JPEGs are disappointingly replayed in standard-definition resolution even if hi-def HDMI is used.
Audio is strong, and with high-quality audio equipment there was no discernable difference between playback of a CD and its HDD 'clone'.
In addition to the lack of an analogue tuner, there are a few further minor 'niggles'.
Auto-chaptering is available when recording directly to DVDs, but not the hard disk.
More annoyingly, you can't use your own images when creating DVD menus - instead, it's the same boring choice of 'presets' that have graced Panasonic recorders for five years.
Plenty to like from Panasonic
Even taking these negative points into consideration, the EX78 has to be one of the better mid-range DVD/HDD recorders of the current crop.
The step up model, the EX88, ups the HDD ante to 400GB and chucks in a Memory Card slot, too, but will cost you around £80 more.
Serious couch potatoes should opt for that machine, but the rest of us will find a lot to like here.