It's incredible how quickly DVD recorders have adapted since their debut a couple of years ago. It's also surprising how few recorders have an RGB Scart input for a clean feed from cable, Sky or Freeview boxes. And secondly, they nearly all still insist on a ropey, old analogue tuner - sometimes two.
There's no such worries with Panasonic's new DMR-EH60D - both features are well catered for. But there's still a couple of omissions that rob it of the title of 'best recorder in the world'.
That's not saying that this recorder isn't great, far from it. But when compared to its closest peers, Sony's RDR-HXD910 (reviewed in HCC 121) and Pioneer's DVR- 630, the lack of an HDMI or DVI output and no double- or dual-layer recording compatibility are chinks in the armour.
That said, the EH60 offers possibly the best digital reception and picture I've seen on any deck, even a dedicated set-topbox - especially when using the prog scan-enabled component outputs. And it's a doddle to set up. When the box is turned on for the first time it scans for all digital channels (including radio) and, even, analogue ones - although an analogue tuner seems to be included simply for those with no Freeview reception. There's no facility for watching one channel while recording another. Three minutes on and it's ready to go!
If your TV has no component inputs, you can use the RGB Scart, S-video or composite video outputs, with the former giving a crisp and colourful picture. Supplied audio outs exist in analogue stereo and optical digital flavours. Inputs are fully ranged too, with frontmounted composite video, S-video, and stereo audio jacks, with the equivalent on the rear, and a central SD card slot for JPEG viewing.
The hard drive, which is typically used to record before archiving, is a whopping 200GB which, on the lowest bitrate, can fit up to 355 hours of TV. And, like most of Panny's recent decks, disc compatibility is largely multi-format. Footage can be burned onto DVD-RAM, DVD-R (in video mode), DVD-RW and DVD R, but not DVD RW or, as mentioned, either dual- or double-layer discs.
Six recording modes are present; XP (1 hour on a single-layer DVD, 44 hours on the hard drive), SP (2hrs, 89hrs), LP (4hrs, 177hrs), two forms of EP (6/8hrs, 266/355hrs), and a Free Rate mode for timed and EPG recordings to fit footage into the space required. But the big story here is the LP mode. Unlike many rival recorders, this Panasonic features 2x LP horizontal resolution (500 lines), which essentially means that this economic mode makes recordings that are sharper than many equivalents. Considering the storage capacity, you'll probably end up archiving in this mode more than any other.
Of course, that's only one of a huge plethora of features on offer. With the Freeview tuner comes a seven-day EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) that can be used to time recordings, although, sadly, it doesn't support extra programme information. And, it registers Top Up TV channels even though the machine has no card slot, but a filtering system can take them off the list. Editing options, too, are excellent, with the partial erase function (great for eliminating adverts) being the stand-out. There are also two forms of dubbing (from DVD to HDD and vice versa), high-speed and normal, allowing you to choose your final bitrate. You can choose to downconvert the bitrate for archiving purposes - a facility not supported by many machines.
However, the icing on the cake comes with the DMR-EH60D's general picture quality. Recorded footage in XP, SP and, as highlighted, LP is exceptional. Commonly, they feature little or no detail loss, with only minor artefacting on edges as you progress down the rates. EP (in either 6hr or 8hr modes) is a different story entirely. A recording from either the digital tuner or external source at the lowest rate is, to be frank, appalling; blocky, noisy and blurred. It's worse than VHS, and should only ever be used in an emergency.
On commercial DVDs, playback quality is fine, especially through prog scan component, with vivid colours and fine detail. Similarly, audio is superb, with Freeview recordings captured in Dolby Digital 2.0. Speaking of which, footage recorded from the digital tuner and then dubbed onto DVD retains both the audio signature and the anamorphic 16:9 aspect ratio for relevant images - something the rival Sony RDR-HXD910 falls down on (it letterboxes widescreen broadcasts).
In short, the DMR-EH60D is an excellent machine. It almost provides the complete solution to all your recording needs, and considering the class it oozes from every pore, most caveats are entirely forgivable. If only the machine had HDMI or DVI connectivity, then it would've been absolutely perfect. As it is, there's still room for improvement. Rik Henderson