For the benefit of younger HCC readers baffled by the picture below of Panasonic's new DMR-EX99V, take note: that large slot on the left of the front panel takes analogue VHS tapes.
Yes, while it may cater for Freeview terrestrial digital and DVD, this Panasonic deck also connects with the old-tech past, by featuring a VCR.
The very mention of VHS makes many of us go all misty-eyed and nostalgic for the early 1980s, when VCRs were prized family possessions. The good news is that, with the EX99V, those vintage tapes lurking at the back of the cupboard can easily be transferred to DVD.
First, though, you can dub them to the 250GB HDD. This'll let you eliminate unwanted material, thanks to Panasonic's friendly editing functions, before copying what's left to blank DVDs. Discs/tracks can be named, and thumbnails and basic menus chosen, before the disc is finalised. Bingo.
What's also cool – especially if someone in the family is either not au fait with modern tech or merely charmed by the retro fuzzy chic of clunky VHS – is that HDD and (non-copyright) DVDs can be dubbed to tape.
The VCR supports index search, hi-fi sound, NTSC playback/dubbing and SP/LP/EP recording modes, but lacks full S-VHS compatibility. Sure, it will play/dub such tapes, but with mere VHS quality. S -VHS users can, however, connect up their old VCRs to the front-panel AV inputs.
Naturally, there's far more to the EX99V than its VCR talents. It's also a Freeview+ HDD recorder, upscaling DVD player and music jukebox. It doesn't record Freeview's digital datastreams as broadcast directly, though. Instead they're decoded and then re-encoded by the machine's recording electronics. On the plus side, you can cram a lot more on the hard drive or DVD – but with a drop-off in AV quality.
Another niggle is the EX99V's timeshifting feature. For a start, the annoying onscreen graphic that appears cannot be turned off. What's more, you can't permanently preserve a recording that's in the buffer, should you decide it's a 'keeper'.
But beyond that, I'm pleased with the EX99V's TV-related features: the GuidePlus EPG, which can schedule the 32-event/1-month timer directly, offers a programme search facility as well as basic categories; and 'auto renewal recording' means you need never miss another soap again...
The EX99V lacks a Firewire input for DV camcorders, but the USB port will accept footage from modern cams. The SD card slot allows playback and copying of JPEGs and MPEG-2 video, too.
File support extends to MP3 music, and you can rip CDs to the hard drive, where an onboard Gracenote database will even attempt to identify your disc.
Owing to HDMI incompatibilities with my Onkyo AV receiver, I had to connect the EX99V directly to my TV, sound being carried to the AVR via optical digital (the only non-HDMI option that Panasonic gives you).
I immediately discovered the machine pesters you with a 'new channels found...' message whenever it's started. Rescan and reboot, and the message persists! Thankfully, it can be turned off in the menus.
Freeview pictures were impressive, even after upscaling (which is available for all sources including VHS). Naturally, recording quality depends on which of the modes you've set. In the top (XP) mode, it's difficult to tell the recording apart from the original.
As far as digital TV is concerned, though, the next rung down (SP) is probably an adequate bet. The third choice (LP) retains all of the source's detail, but is spoilt by blocking. EP is best described as wobblymatter swimming in a sea of artifacts. Even VHS is better!
On which subject, the VHS-to-digital dubbing facilities exceeded my expectations in terms of the picture quality. I expect Panasonic is using some very clever processing. In all modes, sound quality is superb, and the jukebox facility uses linear PCM (no MP3 compression here) so there's no perceptible loss of quality relative to the original CD.
Okay, Panasonic's EX99V is a bit dowdy in terms of looks, and feels about as cutting-edge as rubber scissors, but it's still a very versatile, solidly-built machine that covers all bases (excepting S-VHS, maybe).
However, Freeview datastream recording would give you the best possible AV quality. It's also annoying that the EX99V doesn't automatically play the next HDD recording – something Panasonics used to do. oh, and finally, the machine can be very slow to boot up. A bit like an old VCR, in fact.
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