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Although quite old now, when first released, the Panasonic DMR-EX75 was a top of the range DVD recorder. Obviously, the market has moved on now, but, despite one or two minor annoyances, this machine still stands up pretty well offering a well featured machine that will be suitable for most people's viewing and recording needs.
For an old machine (in technological terms), it packs a lot into its slender frame. The unit comes with a digital tuner and a analogue tuner (although the latter will become increasingly redundant as switch-off day looms). This does mean that if you are recording one channel, you can't watch another, but if you own a digital TV with its own built-in tuner, then this problem is solved. There's a 160GB hard disk which is pretty large. I've no idea what this equates to in terms of hours of recording space, but I do know that I have been using it for three years and have come nowhere near filling it. A DVD unit is supplied which can both play discs and record onto them. This supports pretty much any DVD format you care to name (DVD + or -) etc, giving you flexibility in your recording format. You can also play audio CDs in the drive, whilst the front also contains an SD card slot so that you can view pictures from your digital camera on your TV screen. It's a shame the package couldn't have been rounded off with an integrated video to complete all your playback needs, but I guess that would just have pushed the price too high to be competitive, and is considered dead technology these days.
Despite packing an awful lot in, this is not a huge machine. In terms of dimensions, it's no bigger than early model DVD players or later model videos. As such, it will comfortably slot into any existing TV/Video cabinet you currently have, and probably take less room than some of your existing equipment.
The unit certainly looks very nice with a light grey metallic finish and a black, minimalist front panel which just displays the time digitally in standby mode. There are just a few buttons (principally power on/off and the DVD eject button) and this adds to the sleek looks. Round the back of the unit are various connections, including a TV aerial and two scart sockets, so you should easily be able to fit this recorder into your existing set-up. It is also HDMI compatible and supports various other connections, but I've never used any of these, so can't comment on them.
The downside to having a minimal number of buttons on the unit itself comes in the form of a massive handset with almost 50 buttons! True, it's well-laid out and groups similar functions together (such as rewind/fast forward etc.) together, but it is slightly daunting when you first see it. Admittedly, you quickly get to know the buttons you use most, but the first few times you use it, you can spend a good five minutes trying to find the button to press! With such a large number of buttons, the remote is also rather cramped with small writing, so older people, or people with pudgy fingers might experience problems using it.
Depending on how complex your current A/V set up is, the EX75 is either a dream or a nightmare to get up and running. In my case, it was the latter. I didn't have a particularly complex system (An old CRT TV, a VCR and this DVD recorder), but trying to get them all to work together took several goes and a good chunk of time. If I got the DVD recorder working well, I couldn't get playback on my VCR; if I got playback on my VCR, the DVD recorder wouldn't record and so on. Needless to say, the instruction manual was useless! Eventually, I tracked down advice from an internet forum and got it all working. I have to say, though, when I recently bought my new LCD TV, getting everything working together with that was a lot more straightforward.
The set-up process for the box itself is quick and straightforward. On first run, the time is set automatically and all available Freeview channels in your area detected and stored. This process probably takes around 5 minutes to complete and after that, you are up and running. At regular intervals, the box will re-scan for any channels which have been added recently and display a pop up box asking you for permission to re-tune. The trouble with this is that you can guarantee it will pop up right when you're in the middle of watching something, leaving you with the choice of saying "no" (in which case it will mither you again at a later day) or saying "yes" which will cause you to lose the picture and sound whilst it rescans). I've actually found the best thing to do is turn this option off and occasionally do a manual re-scan myself.
Although it supports a lot of functions, the user interface is fairly easy to get to grips with, thanks to an intuitive menu system. Each of the unit's major functions (Record, Playback, System settings etc.) are given their own menus, and selecting one of these leads either to further options or sub-menus until you find the setting you want to alter. This makes it very easy to manage the stuff that's on your hard drive, for example, to delete it or rename it.
When it comes to some of the more advanced options, though, it's not always quite so obvious which menu you need to select and sometimes you can find yourself becoming a little lost in a sea of menus and sub-menus. In fairness, it's very easy to pick up and master the basics of using this machine and that's all most people will ever need to know although I often think I'm not using the unit to its full potential, but am hampered from getting any further thanks to the confusing menu system and useless manual.
Playback and recording is superb, with excellent picture quality and sound (although, of course, to some extent, this is also dependent on the quality of your TV). An Electronic Programme Guide is available at the touch of a button allowing you to view and select your available channels and use this to view programmes on in the next 48 hours, or just ask it to display specific types of programming (for example only sports channels or only radio channels). Getting access to anything recorded onto the hard disk is simply a case of pressing the Direct Navigator button on your remote control, whilst switching between the different drives (hard drive/DVD/SD reader) is just a case of pressing the Drive select button - although often, it will auto-detect what you are trying to do anyway and switch itself to the right drive.
Recording can be done in a number of different ways. There's a good old-fashioned timer where you can input the information yourself or the unit also supports Video Plus codes. The easiest method, however, is to go into the Electronic Programme Guide and simply select a programme that has not yet started. This will automatically plug all the details into the machine's memory and all you have to do is decide whether you want to record to the hard disk (the default option) or a recordable DVD. The unit also supports chase play, so if you fancy watching something that is still in the process of recording, you can do so without messing things up.
The one issue with this method I have found is that despite the fact that the clock is supposedly set automatically, it doesn't always tie in with programme start or finish times. There have been numerous occasions when I have spent an hour watching a programme only to find that, for some reason, my recorder clicked off towards the end and I have missed the last two minutes.
Other forms of recording are not quite as easy. It took me a while, for example, to work out how I could take one of my existing videos and record it onto the machine's hard drive or a DVD. Again, the instruction manual was of no help whatsoever, and there was a lot of trial and error before I found the right way. Even now, if I'm recording from video to the hard disk, I have to leave the TV on all the time, which can't be right - but if I don't, I just record a blank screen.
A further annoyance is the time it takes to start-up when you switch it on for the first time each day. According to the manual, you can go from off to recording in under 30 seconds. Whilst this is sometimes true, most of the time, in my experience it takes at least a minute before it's powered up properly. This is particularly annoying for those last minute panics when you realise you have forgotten to record something and need quick access to the Record function.
Overall, I've never regretted my choice in buying the Panasonic DMR-EX75. It's been a good, solid reliable machine that (initial set-up problems aside) has caused me no real issues and has never broken down. Sure, it would have been nice to have a dual digital tuner to allow for the watching of one programme and the recording of another, or an integrated video player to complement all the other media types supported but the specification that you do get is very good value.
As I alluded to at the start, this machine is pretty old now and you might struggle to find it in the shops. However, they do pop up new on eBay for around £150-170 (its original RRP was around £400). At that price, you're getting an excellent little machine that will cater for all your playback and recording needs.
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