on January 12, 2006
Original review dated January 12, 2006. Update(s) at bottom.
Summary: Technically-oriented, patient people are likely to be very happy with the DMR-EH50's marvelous capabilities; but people who have trouble following many pages of detailed instructions probably will not be able to obtain satisfactory results.
If you intend to use this DVD recorder to record premium digital cable content, you have to follow the Setup instructions *exactly*, not almost-exactly. (I kept trying the "almost" approach, and have the dented head to prove it.)
It's excellent capabilities hinge on its ability to control a cable box through the supplied IR Blaster; if you don't need that feature, you probably can find simpler, less expensive ways of recording DVD's. (For example, the Panasonic DMR-ES30V is a VHS-DVD recorder that is incredibly easy to use, rock-solid reliable, and able to make very high-quality recordings; but it lacks a hard drive, so you have to be around to switch blank disks when the previous one fills.)
You can tell the EH50 to record to DVD or to the built-in Hard Drive (HDD). If you tell it to use the DVD but forget to put one in, or if there isn't enough room on the DVD, the EH50 will record to the HDD instead. You can transfer the recording to a DVD later on, or preview it from the HDD to decide whether it's worth keeping.
You can watch, pause, and rewind an existing recording while making a new one; and watch, pause, and rewind what you are currently recording; but unlike a TIVO, the EH50 isn't constantly recording "just in case", so if you come in late to something you hadn't previously told it to record, you can't see what you missed.
The EH50 will start scheduled recordings whether turned on or off. This is much better than many other recorders (VHS or DVD) that must be turned off to start scheduled recordings. For example, the problem-plagued Panasonic ES40V will not start a scheduled recording if it's turned on; but its vastly superior predecessor, the ES30V, will start regardless of whether it's on or off.
If you want to record analog cable content in the range of channels 2-125 (e.g., network TV, the History Channel, etc.,) automatically, you can use the EH50 without using the TV Guide feature... just follow the instructions *exactly*: there are two questions about a Cable Box connection, and you must answer "yes" to the first, but "no" to the second.
For my purposes, the greatest strength and weakness of the EH50 is its ability to record premium digital cable content (e.g., HBO) automatically, including changing the cable box channel through the IR Blaster. But, the EH50 will not let you select a channel above 125 unless you use the built-in TV Guide feature. This limitation is in the manual, although it's not presented as a restriction ;-) and is buried in a table on page 57.
When the TV Guide feature works, it's quite effective: you can highlight your shows with the (clumsy) Guide, then press a "record" button on the remote (not the one labelled "record"), and the machine does the rest. You can enter VCR+ codes instead, or schedule recordings manually, even for the digital channels above 125. At the specified time, the EH50 will use its IR Blaster to change the cable box's channel, then make a high-quality recording for you.
The problems are getting the TV Guide feature to work, and being willing to live with how it works.
If you select the TV Guide feature but the EH50 can't find a channel lineup, you still can manually schedule a recording for any channel on your cable box (including the ones above 125), and the EH50 will use its IR Blaster to select that channel at the correct time. But (strangely), you can't select channels above 125 for immediate viewing unless the EH50 has found a channel lineup.
Some of the other reviewers here have said they couldn't get the TV Guide feature to work with their cable companies. I use one of those "blocked" cable companies, am in the same area as one of the "blocked" reviewers, and everything works fine... now.
The key (again) is following the instructions *exactly*. I'm not defending Panasonic's misguided approach, just stating that the alternative is to try a different brand that probably will have its own quirks.
When everything is working (and that seems to be the case now, a week after getting the EH50), it can change the way you watch and record TV (much as TIVO does). Once you've selected what you want to record over the next week or so, you can just leave it alone, and the EH50 will do the rest. If you remember to change blank DVD's, it'll keep filling them with what you've selected. If you don't put in fresh disks, it'll use the HDD until it fills up (over 20 movies at standard 2-hour quality; and Panasonic's recording quality is really excellent, as other people have mentioned).
Example: while writing this, I've been half-watching a movie the EH50 recorded last night. A couple of minutes ago, it changed the cable box channel and started another scheduled recording, without my noticing or remembering about it. Very nice.
High-speed dubbing (transferring an HDD copy to fill an entire DVD) takes about 8 minutes, as the manual estimates. I applied the October, 2005 Firmware update, but it made no difference: my 16x DVD-R disks still need 8 minutes for dubbing, just as they did before, and I've had no coasters, before or after the update.
"Finalizing", which is necessary to convert any recordable DVD to a standard DVD-Video usable on any other machine, is very fast: just over 1-1/2 minutes, compared with about 4 minutes on the Panasonic ES30V.
Unfinalized disks are interchangeable between different Panasonic machines, even different models; but probably cannot be read on non-Panasonic equipment.
Some details about SETUP:
1. connect the cable box A/V (or component) output to the EH50's "IN3".
2. connect the EH50's A/V (or component) output to your TV.
3. plug in the IR Blaster and position it in close line-of-sight to the IR pickup of the cable box (mine is just below the pickup, about 2" away).
4. turn on the EH50 and the TV to make sure you see the EH50's Setup screen.
5. Follow the on-screen instructions, including entering your Zip Code, specifying that you're using a Cable Box that is connected to IN3 (not to channel 3 or 4), and then select the brand of cable box and let the EH50 try to change the channel. If it fails, select "No" to let it try a different code for the same brand, and try again.
(My mistakes in step 5 were to not specify "IN3" the first time, and to not realize that the EH50 will try different codes for the same manufacturer if you tell it "no", the channel didn't change.)
6. Once the EH50 says that Setup is complete and you've pressed "Enter" enough times to get out of Setup, turn the machine off and leave it off for at least 24 hours. Don't try to use the cable box during that time.
Setup will change the channel numbers on your cable box, starting with channel 2 and working its way up into the hundreds (probably to 125). This can take a few hours, and it may do it more than once. It's trying to identify what's available, and probably trying to find the PBS station that feeds TV Guide programming information.
Next, it will switch the cable box to the station that feeds TV Guide programming information, and will just stay there. Unfortunately, it doesn't indicate whether it's actually receiving the programming or not, so you'll never know whether this step is working, until you look at the on-screen guide later on.
(Confession: I didn't wait 24 hours the first time, and it's just as well I was impatient: one of my Setup steps was wrong.. I'd specified Input from channel 3 instead of IN3... so it listed the station numbers but said "no listing" because it found no programming on the not-connected channel 3. Once I fixed this, it started to collect programming, albeit very slowly.)
The EH50 only collects programming when in "Standby" (that is, turned off), and can take a few days to collect 8 days of advance programming. You can watch TV, even through the cable box, at any time the EH50 isn't actually recording a different channel, but to avoid confusing it, you probably should turn it on and use the EH50's own remote to change channels. Then, it'll change the cable box channel and know what's happening. When you're done watching, remember to turn the EH50 back off so it can resume collecting programming information.
The above precaution (change cable channels through the EH50) is inconvenient, but not the fault of the EH50: it's inherent in the situation, just as being able to record only one cable channel at a time is inherent. The only way to avoid those limitations is to rent a DVR from the cable company... but my cable company's DVR's don't have built-in DVD's for high-speed dubbing with no loss of image quality.
Some other things to be careful about: if you happen to use another remote control (say, to change TV volume) at the same moment the EH50 happens to be changing the cable box channel, the two IR signals may interfere with each other and the EH50 or the cable box may become very confused. Since you cannot tell when the EH50 may decide to change the cable box channel, there's no obvious way to avoid this problem.
One scheduled recording didn't take place, because after scheduling it, I went back into SETUP and did something that changed the channel lineup. Another reason to give it at least 24 hours.
Once, while it was recording to the HDD and I was adding to the Scheduled recording list, there appeared to be a momentary power failure that affected only the EH50 and the cable box. Since both are connected to a UPS and nothing else in the house behaved as though there had been a power failure, I wonder whether my use of the EH50 somehow caused an electrical problem between it and the cable box. It was necessary to turn both boxes off/on to clear the problems, and of course, the recording was incomplete. The manual specifically says you can do other things while the EH50 is recording, and in the few situations that something can't be done because of some other on-going activity, the EH50 displays a message saying so.
Hiding channels you don't care about will make the on-screen Guide shorter, and may let the EH50 store more days of future listings. Marking channels for hiding isn't too bad, but associated with it is the ability to change the sequence in which the channels will be listed. That feature is awkward, tedious, and very slow to use. You can make it barely tolerable by "locking" the display so that it doesn't keep changing cable channels as you move from one channel to another. But, "lock" is only available if you highlight a listing (any listing) and then press the LEFT ARROW (the left side of the rotating ring). After setting Lock (or unlock), press RIGHT ARROW to get back to the other features. A few more buttons on the remote would have made the navigation features a lot more obvious and easier to use.
It would be nice if the EH50 could use the IR Blaster to select any channel (2-999) without using the TV Guide feature, and if it had an alternate way of obtaining program listing information (such as a telephone or Internet broadband connection).
In summary (again): for the right people with the right requirements, this is a terrific solution. However, most people will be happier with cable company DVR's or simple DVD recorders.
Update (Jan 19, 2006):
Several days ago, my EH50 stopped downloading new TV Guide schedules. Instead of switching to PBS, as it had done since the beginning, it kept trying to use NBC, which doesn't carry the schedules. It never recovered from this error and doesn't let you specify the correct channel yourself. Yesterday, I reset the recorder to it's initial configuration and started over. "Reset" loses the channel lineup as well as all schedules. It quickly found PBS, but it needed over 12 hours to find the channel lineup, and 24 hours to fill in three days of program schedules. As noted earlier in this review, the EH50 won't let you select channels above 125 unless it has a channel lineup, and the only way it can get that lineup is by downloading it. Hopefully, it won't get confused like this too often.