The Panasonic DMR-EX83 the ideal way of switching over to digital, because not only does it come equipped with a Freeview tuner, but it also packs a sizeable 250GB hard disk and a burner for dumping recordings onto a DVD.
It replaces last year's superb DMR-EX79 and we're hoping the newcomer can provide a similarly impressive performance.
That hard disk gives you 441hrs of recording time in the lowest quality EP mode, although in XP that reduces to 55hrs. SP and LP offer 110 and 221hrs respectively, while Flexible Recording optimally fits a recording into a given space.
With a hard disk on board, DVD-RAM's versatile array of editing tricks is rendered redundant but write-once recording is always useful for making archive copies. The hard disk doesn't only store Freeview recordings, it also acts as a library for music (MP3, WMA) and JPEG photos, with a clear onscreen menu system that makes it easy to organise your content. Files can be transferred from USB stick or disc, and additionally you can play DivX from USB, DVD or CD.
The EX83 also features the CD ripping feature, which enables you to upload music without a PC. This recorder is strictly standard definition and will never be able to receive DVB-T2 broadcasts. So if you've got your eye on free terrestrial HD then you're advised to wait until later in the year when Freeview HD recorders become more widely available.
A more considerable problem is the inclusion of only a single Freeview tuner built-in, which prevents you from changing channel during a recording. That said, you won't find twin tuners on any other Freeview DVD/HDD combi either, so the DMR-EX83 isn't exceptional in this regard.
Connections are plentiful and include a pair of Scarts, one of which enables you to record material from external sources in crisp RGB quality.
Ease of use
As ever, there's a stupendous amount of recording and editing features on board, and they're easy to use, largely due to Panasonic's simple, cartoon-like onscreen layout and the intuitive remote. Even potentially tricky tasks such as editing out ads using Partial Delete are child's play. Select start and stop points using the moving thumbnail, hit delete and the job's done.
Auto Chapter Creation makes it even easier to avoid the adverts. The deck places a marker whenever it detects a long gap in the audio, which means you simply press the Chapter Skip key to move onto the next section. It efficiently detected all of our recorded ad breaks.
The straightforward layout extends to the Direct Navigator menu, which displays recordings with a moving thumbnail and the full programme name. Hitting the Options key brings up all of the possible editing and playback functions. You can add whole titles or individual chapters to a playlist and watch them in your own preferred order.
The Setup screen is also well laid out, but it's tucked away in an superfluous submenu. But Panasonic's biggest onscreen mistake is the cluttered 8-day Guide Plus+ EPG, which is hindered by the presence of a grey box that takes up about a third of the screen and squeezes up the programme grid.
It's also a shame that the onscreen digital TV banner is limited to Now and Next info and won't let you browse the schedules. And setting series link is quite long-winded, too, as the deck takes you through two confirmation screens before it's finished.
The DMR-EX83 upscales Freeview pictures to 1080p and the results are magnificent. There's none of the jagged edges or hazy pixel noise we've encountered on some Freeview receivers, while excellent colour and detail reproduction make good quality broadcasts, such as BBC One's Holby City, look terrific.
The deck also delivers faultless recording quality in XP mode. Thanks to its high bitrate, this mode can exactly replicate the live Freeview broadcast quality, which means deep, vibrant colours, crisp detail and no additional block or mosquito noise.
SP delivers virtually identical results, but eats up less space, making it perfect for copying a two-hour recording onto DVD. LP drops the quality considerably, but keeps the picture watchable, while EP's low-bitrate pictures are only suitable for slow-moving material.
You're also getting a top notch DVD player into the bargain. Pre-recorded discs are cleanly reproduced in 1080p, with the deck offering a similar level of quality to a decent budget player.
This deck is no replacement for your CD player, but music sounds enjoyable through the analogue outputs. The Dolby Digital encoder also does a great job of capturing stereo TV sound, making speech clear and audible. And, although it doesn't make much difference, you can choose to record in XP mode using space-hungry linear PCM.
Another year, another impressive HDD combi from Panasonic. The DMR-EX83 once again offers a generous range of features and a faultless picture performance.
But it's not all hunky dory: the EPG is poor, some aspects of the operating system are clunky and there's little difference between this and last year's models. At this price, we'd have expected some new additions, such as a second digital tuner or Freeview HD support.
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