Only a few short years ago, the DVD/HDD recorder was third in the AV desirability stakes, behind a plasma screen and a decent surround-sound audio system. Not only would this digital dream-ticket play DVDs, but TV shows plucked out of the ether by an integral tuner or external set-top box could be recorded onto the HDD.
Any material deemed worthy of preservation could be subsequently dubbed onto blank DVD-Rs, compatible with practically every regular DVD player.
Extra points could be awarded if the recorder had a digital tuner. Today, it's nearly impossible to find a recorder that doesn't have a digital tuner.
Something else that can also be taken for granted is an HDMI output, which usually combines with an upscaling feature to give standard-def DVDs and TV programmes some extra sparkle.
All of these desirable features are built into Panasonic's new DMR-EX773, which sits at the more affordable end of the brand's range.
It's quite obvious where savings have been made to meet the aggressive price-point: build quality is somewhat on the lightweight side; there's only a single digital-only tuner; and the component output and front-panel S-video input of previous generations are absent.
Owners of DV camcorders might also be put off by the absence of a FireWire connector for digital dubbing. To be fair to Panasonic, though, DV camcorders are somewhat passé nowadays.
That's probably why the company has instead provided a USB port, which can be used to dub footage from HDD and SD card camcorders, and play DivX, JPEG and MP3 music files. There's no SD card slot, but you can plug in a USB interfaced SD card reader.
The DMR-EX773 doesn't record a TV channel's digital datastream as broadcast – it's re-encoded – but this means recording times are more flexible. And, if you stick to the lower-quality modes, you can cram a lot more on the HDD or DVD.
Unfortunately, subtitles – if specified – are permanently burnt into the recording, and the recording of radio programmes is inefficient because video is preserved, too.
In all other respects, though, the machine performs splendidly. I love the no-nonsense user interface. It may not have changed very much in the ten or so years that Panasonic has been making DVD recorders, but what it lacks in chic is more than compensated for in terms of friendliness.
Less staid in appearance is the colourful GuidePlus EPG, which can schedule the 32-event/1-month timer directly. It also offers a programme-search facility, categorisation of programmes and auto-renewal recording. In other words, it helps you make the most of the expanded viewing opportunities that Freeview gives you.
Panasonic provides a choice of four recording modes, ranging from 1 to 8 hours per single-layer disc (up to 279 hours, if you're using the 160GB HDD). Editing tools for HDD allow unwanted material to be discarded with the minimum of hassle.
The EX773's DVD recorder is multi-format, with support for dual-layer media. You can copy from the HDD to DVD at high speed if you're using the same recording mode. Alternatives include 'real-time' copying in a different mode, and a 'make-it-fit' option that automatically determines the recording bitrate needed to fit your selection neatly on a single disc.
During testing, I encountered a problem with the deck. The USB port meant I could dub footage from my Everio camcorder to the HDD, and thence to DVD. Well, that's the theory; unfortunately, while the dubbing operation proceeded (at high speed) without a hitch – and the newly-HDD'ed content being playable initially – I returned to it later to find that it could no longer be accessed.
There was no alternative but to carry out the dubbing operation again with fingers crossed. I've alerted Panasonic – frankly, such incompatibilities should not arise. I'm sure that everything's hunky dory if you're using a Panasonic cam, but what if you're not?
In regular use, this machine is difficult to fault. Pictures are impressive – in the top ('XP'/1hr.) mode, it's difficult to discriminate between a recording and the original source, and the SP mode is tidy, too.
Digital TV itself is also nicely rendered. In all modes, sound quality is superb – as is DVD playback.
So overall, the DMR-EX773 is a tasty box of tricks, but one that isn't without its niggles.
I also think it's about time that Panasonic included a 'data stream' recording option on its Freeview models. Come on Panny, you've already built it into your Freesat/Blu-ray recorders – don't forget the little guys!
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