Panasonic is, arguably, the king of DVD/HDD recording. Many of its machines have passed through HCC's Tech Labs and they've all impressed without exception.
Essentially, the brand's success is down to getting the basics right; great picture quality, RGB Scart inputs, a wealth of editing functions and extremely fast and accurate dubbing from hard drive to discs. Recently, the company has added one-second recording (the time it takes from pressing 'record' to the machine grabbing footage), multi-disc compatibility and, most signifi cantly, a digital tuner. However, there's always been a few things still missing; with digital video connectivity and video upscaling being most contentious. But not any more.
The DMR-EX85 ticks virtually every feature checkbox, and has the audacity to add even more that are completely unexpected. To top it all, it's gorgeous. The fascia has an inset LED panel with the buttons sloped underneath, exuding the appearance of a sleek sports car, with the disc tray ranged far left. Best of all, though, is that front connections are hidden behind a central fl ap, with a further slider revealing an SD card slot.
Like all of Panny's current range, the EX85 allows you to play content stored on an SD card, MMC (Multi Media Card) or mini SD (through an optional adaptor). Admittedly, this is mainly for JPEG viewing, which isn't exactly exclusive to Panasonic. However, in this instance you can also record video footage to the card. Video stored on the card does need to be transferred to the hard drive (or DVD-RAM) before it can be played, but it's a marked step to the 'digital lifestyle' that the company is working towards.
The other front-mounted connections include an i.Link input for digital camcorders that can be set up to automatically transfer video to the hard drive or a DVD as soon as you plug one in. Unfortunately, this function doesn't work with DVD R DL or DVD-R DL media, but in all other instances it works very well and simplifi es a ground-level task admirably.
Connectivity is outstanding. Both Scarts (in and out) are RGB-enabled, In addition, as previously mentioned, there's an HDMI socket alongside component video, composite video, S-video, stereo audio and optical digital audio outputs. Inputs on the front and rear of the deck include two sets of S-video, composite video and stereo audio jacks. It's worth noting that while the component outputs are capable of progressive scan (480p and 720p), upscaled footage (720p and 1080i) can only be streamed through the HDMI port due to copyright protection.
Recordable DVD formats are also plentiful. As well its meaty 250GB hard drive, the EX85 is capable of recording onto DVD-R, DVD-RW (in Video mode only), DVD R, DVD RW, DVD-RAM plus dual and double layer versions where applicable. There are, however, some issues regarding playback of discs. It won't play unfi nalised media from rivals' machines, nor will it play DVD-RW VR discs, but most bemusingly is its non-compatibility with DivX, XviD or other MPEG4 fi les, especially considering that the same machine in every other territory around the world has this as a standard feature.
Although the tuner supplied is a dual format version that includes DVB and analogue, the latter is only accessible if you have no reception for digital TV (Freeview). You can't watch one channel while recording another unless you match it with a set-top box. However, these are only slight caveats on a breathtaking machine. The recorder comes with Panasonic's excellent 7-day EPG with categorised fi ltering. The guide makes the laborious task of removing Top-Up-TV stations after set-up as easy as pie by offering a onebutton fi lter for 'free channels only' - it would, perhaps, have been better if a TUTV card-slot was offered, but this refi nement is welcome.
Although there's only one of them, the digital tuner does a great job. The initial scan for channels is speedy and very effective, fi nding all TV and radio channels in under two minutes, and it gives a solid reception in areas where some dedicated Freeview boxes suffer from the occasional drop out. It also picked up BBC HD1, the BBC's highdefi nition test channel, during a channel scan in London. Unfortunately, though, it doesn't have the correct codecs to display HD video.
Six recording modes are offered, including FR (Free Rate) which adapts the bit rate depending on the time of the recording, the storage capacity of the media selected and the activity of the on-screen images, while the rest are fairly standard; XP (1hr on DVD, 1hr 45mins on DVD-R DL/ R DL, 55hrs on HDD), SP (2hrs, 3hr 35mins, 111hrs), LP (4hrs, 7hrs 10mins, 222hrs) and EP (6 or 8hrs depending on audio rate chosen, 10hrs 45mins/14hrs 20mins, 333hrs/443hrs).
The last is, to be honest, atrocious, turning even fairly static images into a mess of artefacts and blurry edges. In its 8hr mode, EP even has appallingly hissy sound to match its bog awful video. But the rest of the bit rates are highly commendable, including LP, thanks to Panasonic's proprietary 500-line processing. In fact, unless you require absolutely perfect renditions from a DV camera, LP mode is the one you'll use all the time, it really is that good.
Editing, as with all the brand's recorders, offers extensive functionality for HDD and DVD-RAM, with less options on rewritable discs, but then surely all edits will be done on the hard drive before transfer anyway. Splitting, renaming, deleting and protecting titles is fairly standard stuff but the machine really comes into its own when partially deleting footage (ie removing the adverts). Unlike with some competing recorders, the footage is genuinely chopped, rather than hidden, as thus regains space on the drive.
But the most impressive of all the EX85's features is its aforementioned ability to upscale video to 720p and 1080i. Although images from upscaled DVDs look as they should, smoother, sharper and free of noise, it's only when looking at upscaled Freeview pictures that you can appreciate the processing involved - standard-def, low-bitrate digital TV has never looked so good. My only slight reservation on the machine's pictures, with DVD and recorded playback or TV viewing is that the colours seem a little too vibrant. They're possibly too hot and I suspect that you'll need to calibrate your display to get the best balance. Other than that, images are faultless. Sound too, especially through a suitable amplifier, is impeccable apart from, of course, the lowest quality record setting.
It's testament to the DMR-EX85's many wonderments that I haven't even been able to write about all of them here. It could take many more pages to delve into each of the machine's many talents, needless to say that, single tuner and the absence of DivX aside, this is the best DVD/HDD recorder I've ever used. It's got the depth to go with its drop-dead gorgeous looks. Outstanding. Rik Henderson