Panasonic adds DVD-RW support to its latest digital recorders, so you can record on discs for all occasions. Add HDD and you've got a mighty video recorder.

As the industry races ahead with next generation blue-laser formats for highdefinition discs, the standard DVD recording market isn't standing still either. Panasonic commands a sizeable chunk of this arena with its slimline recorders based on fast and editfriendly DVD-RAM.

The disadvantages are that RAM discs are extremely sensitive and should ideally be used in protective cartridges, which makes them more expensive. Even out of a cart, they're not compatible in most DVD players.

There's no sign of a clear 'winner' between DVD recording formats. With this in mind, Panasonic now joins JVC and Toshiba in adding DVD-RW to recorders, including this combination with an 80GB hard disk. It gives you a whole new option: cheaper blank discs that can be played in other players and then reused.

Despite this new feature, the DMR-RH50 recorder remains as ultra-slim as other recent Panasonics. Its angular black and silver front is functional yet stylish. The handset is a slight variation on previous versions, notably due to the Smart Wheel that scrolls and presses down for cursor control.

General usability is fine, especially the powerful on-screen menus that are simply designed, taking you through each step logically. You can start recording, editing and dubbing straight away without resorting to the user guide every five minutes.

As with all combis, it's best to record to hard disk first and make any necessary edits, like dividing titles, topping and tailing for overruns or cutting adverts from TV shows, then dubbing to your choice of three DVD formats.

Points to remember

The main thing to remember before recording is that if you want to make high-speed DVD copies later, then the total number of programmes must be able to fit on one disc without being adjusted in quality. It's also worth using the Flexible mode. It records for a set time that's optimised for fitting on DVD, but despite the name, it's less versatile than the manual recording modes in Pioneer equivalents.

You can get the recorder to 'refit' your dubbing list, reducing picture quality if needed, but it will then only copy in realtime. A bonus with this is that you get automatic chapter marks throughout (highspeed dubs miss these). Oddly, though, if you choose thumbnail images for the HDD menu, you'll have to select them again on the DVD, while high-speed copies retain them.

The Panasonic is less fussy about high-speed transfers than Pioneer's combis, which sometimes prevent quick copies if you've edited the originals. It's also accommodating if you want to transfer a DVD to HDD to make edits or a duplicate. The Panasonic enables playlist creation, too. You can perform 'virtual' edits for playback or dubbing without actually chopping up your original recording.

We always have a big wishlist of specifications for digital recorders, so it's tempting to focus on what this recorder doesn't have, while ignoring how good the DMR-EH50 really is. We wouldn't do that, but some things are conspicuous by their absence, such as HDMI and i.Link digital video connections, or MPEG-4 compatibility from the SD card slot.

The SD slot is for digital photos only, despite Panasonic's classic DMR-E100H and current D-Snap pocket AV devices supporting the compressed video format. For TV reception and timeshifting, it lacks a Freeview tuner or electronic programme guide. These are being addressed in later models and, in its favour, the DMR-EH50's sockets take all common input and output combinations.

The picture quality for playback and recording is excellent. The machine reacts quickly to the 'Record' button, and the LP (4hr on DVD) mode is vastly improved. Progressive scan via component video is perfectly acceptable for standard definition DVD on flat panel TVs or projectors, boasting clear detail, rich colour reproduction and smooth motion across a range of movies.

The problem with most DVD recorders is that you can't connect external equipment adequately, and that editing is either too limited or so extensive that it's baffling. The DMR-EH50 avoids these pitfalls and provides ample features at a third of the cost of several similarly-specified DVD recorders. It's only worth holding out if you want built-in Freeview, an EPG, highercapacity dual-layer DVD recording or an output for HDMI displays. If you're not bothered about what this affordable Panasonic omits, then you can't do better at this price.