It's been a while since we last tested a DVD/hard-disk recorder, but with a string of new models on the way from the likes of Panasonic and Sony, we decided it was time to get up to speed with the latest contenders.

One of the first to arrive in our listening rooms was the £300 DMR-EX78 from Panasonic, so we've been itching to give it a whirl and find out how it performs.

Want to know how good it is? Well find out all in this special Bank Holiday review, brought to you exclusively by whathifi.com.

Panasonic DMR-EX78

DVD recorder £300

5 stars

For

Brilliant blend of performance, flexibility and usability; terrific value

Against

Nothing at all

Verdict

You can get slightly cheaper DVD recorders, and you can get some with even larger hard disks, but this Panasonic offers a near-perfect blend of flexibility and value

What with all the fuss surrounding hard-disk PVRs and Blu-ray disc players, a new DVD recorder might not seem the most exciting newcomer of 2008 - but in many ways, Panasonic's DMR-EX78 is actually one of the best buys we've come across so far this year.

That's partially because it's so finely tuned, so obviously a product honed by years of DVD recorder development. Panasonic has worked incredibly hard not only on its features and performance, but also on its usability, so despite its astonishing breadth of capability, the 'EX78 is actually relatively easy to use.

The Panasonic is a combination of hard-disk and DVD recorder, with 250GB built-in storage space and the ability to burn content on to every blank DVD format except DVD+R.

That massive hard-disk can store up to 441 hours of TV using the longest-duration EP recording mode, dropping to 55 hours in the highest-performance XP setting (which is what we'd use – 55 hours is surely enough for anyone!).

Freeview Playback support

As you'd expect, the Panasonic includes a Freeview digital TV tuner, but it omits an analogue alternative. By way of compensation, it also gives you Freeview Playback support, allowing for simple series recording functionality, plus other niceties.

Intriguingly, the DMR-EX78 can also be used as a music server. It allows you to rip CDs to its hard-disk, and comes pre-loaded with the Gracenote compact disc database to allow for automatic display of artist, title and album information. Panasonic's website should soon offer free updates to the database, too.

Additionally, a front-mounted USB port allows for easy connection to an MP3 player or digital storage vault for digital transfer of MP3 music and JPEG photo files, and there's even a Firewire input for digital camcorder users.

1080p video upscaling

Once installed – the work of moments – the DMR-EX78's image quality quickly astounds. It's equipped with an HDMI video output, as you'd hope, coupled to 1080p video upscaling if needed, and that, plus its excellent TV tuner, means broadcast pictures are simply terrific.

Digital block noise is kept well in check, images have snap and vitality, and jagged edges are only notable by their absence.

It's scarcely a surprise, then, that recordings to either hard-disk or blank DVD are equally impressive when using XP mode, while dropping to SP (the next option down, good for 110 hours) reveals only a little more screen noise.

Throw exceptional DVD-Video replay and punchy sound – even with ripped CDs – into the mix, and you've quite clearly got an accomplished performer. That, coupled to the Panasonic's sheer value, makes it an unbeatable bargain.

What makes it special?

Large hard-disk

The Panasonic gives you 250GB of inbuilt storage space, enough to offer 55 hours of recording in best-quality XP mode, 110 hours in SP mode, 221 hours in LP mode and 441 hours in EP mode.

Music matters

This isn't just a video recorder: it's also a music server. Use it to store your CDs in 384kbps form, and it'll automatically load up the correct artist, title and album information from its inbuilt CD database.

Socket to me

This recorder has loads of connection options: it can accept MP3 and JPEG files from USB, digital video via Firewire, and it also includes conventional Scart, S-Video and composite video ins.

Easy to use

The Panasonic's on-screen menus and user interface are exceptional, and its support for Freeview Playback means it's simplicity itself to set this deck up to record your favourite TV series

As with most modern DVD recorders, the Panasonic makes use of the HDMI CEC system (consumer electronic control) to simplify its operation. If you use it with a Panasonic TV, you can operate both components - even making recordings - with one handset

The Guide Plus electronic programme guide is beautifully rendered, so setting recordings is ultra-easy. Checking through the content you've recorded is fun too, the Panasonic presenting each individual recording as a moving 'thumbnail' graphic

Want to build a complete system? Now Add These:

Panasonic TH-42PZ80

Plasma TV £875

Take full advantage of the DMR-EX78's convenience features, and also enjoy its 1080p video upscaling with this exceptional Full HD plasma TV.

Onkyo TX-SR606

AV receiver £400

The latest Onkyo is a minor classic, able to decode all forms of surround audio (including high-definition modes) and deliver every audio option with thunderous drive and authority.

B&W 685 Theatre

Speaker package £1206

Scintillating sonics with both music and movies: this is a conventionally styled speaker package, to be sure, but it's ideal to take full advantage of the Panasonic's music server abilities

Tech specs

Analogue tuner 0

Freeview digital tuner 1

Plays

DVD-A N

SACD No

MP3 Yes

DivX Yes

DVD-R/-RW Yes

DVD+R/+RW Yes

DVD-RAM Yes

Records

DVD-R/-RW Yes

DVD+R/+RW No

DVD-RAM Yes

Hard Disk (Gb) 250

Inputs/outputs

HDMI out 1

DVI out 0

Component out 1

RGB Scart out 1

S-Video out 1

Composite out 1

Optical digital out 1

Coaxial digital out 0

FireWire out 0

Phono audio out 2

Six-channel analogue out 0

RGB Scart in 1

S-Video in 1

Composite in 1

Phono audio in 2

FireWire in 1

Video scaling 1080p

Dimensions (hwd, cm) 6 x 43 x 33

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