GADGETGUY EXCLUSIVE – FIRST AUSTRALIAN REVIEW!
Once every year or two a new product comes along that lifts my job beyond mere routine, and provides genuine excitement. The first Blu-ray player I reviewed comes to mind. And the first full high definition projector.
And now, here, the first Blu-ray recorder. Those words – ‘Blu-ray recorder’ – would alone be pretty exciting. But this unit is from Panasonic, so it is not just a Blu-ray recorder. It is a useful Blu-ray recorder -no, more than that; it’s a useful home entertainment device in all respects.
Now I feel confident that if I were to mention this unit to friends and family (I can’t, because I’m on a non-disclosure agreement as I write, a week before its official launch) the first question to be asked would be: “How much does it cost?” I can imagine, when I answered ($2,299), the winces.
But let us get this into perspective. The Panasonic DMR-BW500 is a high quality ‘Bonus View’ Blu-ray player, that is for all practical purposes identical to the Panasonic DMP-BD30, our current favourite. That player costs $899.
It is also a high quality DVD recorder. Panasonic’s DMR-EX87 250GB (half of the DMR-BW500’s 500GB hard disk) model costs $759.
It is also a high quality twin tuner high definition 250GB PVR (the other half). These vary in price, but a good one will cost you at least $800. We shall soon see that this unit puts the competition to shame on this front.
What does all that add up to? $2,458.
Now consider this: in addition to all that, this unit lets you record high definition Blu-ray discs. So at $2,299, it’s a dead-set bargain!
And we haven’t even gotten to the tricky stuff.
Although this section is labelled ‘Performance’, I am going to continue to talk about features for a while, simply because it’s convenient. Unless I write otherwise, any feature I mention here works properly, as stated by Panasonic.
Recording TV, as we all know from VCRs, leaves chunks of advertisements interrupting our playback pleasure. So decent DVD recorders allow you to record TV to a hard disk drive, upon which you may edit the video before finally dubbing to a DVD. This unit allows the same, except that in the case of high definition video you can dub to Blu-ray (actually, you can copy enormous amounts of SD material to Blu-ray as well). And before that, you can do seamless editing on the hard disk, down to a precise frame, removing the bits of the program that you don’t want. This editing is far, far better in quality than any offered on any existing HDTV PVR.
With the unit you get three 25GB BD-RE discs (that’s what rewriteable ones are called). The video and sound quality provided on these is identical as the original recording. When recording from broadcast to the hard disk, all the unit does is make the necessary adjustments to the stream packaging so that it records properly on the hard disk. It does the same when you’re dubbing to BD-R/RE. If the sound of the program is Dolby Digital 5.1, that’s what your final recording will also have.
Incidentally, if it has subtitles, so will your recording!
Now, at $30 each, you probably won’t be rushing out to buy a stack of BD-RE discs. Eventually prices will fall (as they did with recordable DVDs), but until then you use regular DVDs for basic archiving. In this case you don’t get HD, multiple audio streams, or subtitles. In fact, the unit downconverts the video to standard definition and uses one or more of the regular Panasonic recording modes (XP, SP etc, switching between them as required) to fit the program onto the blank disc.
Still, that does mean that you have access to the HD-only programs that some stations are broadcasting.
Oh golly, I’ve checked the word count and realised that I’m starting to run out of space. So let us hit the highlights.
More bells and whistles
First, as a high definition personal video recorder, this unit is the best one I have ever used – and I’ve used all the reputable ones. Why? For one reason alone: picture quality. I used the unit with a full high definition front projector and the picture quality was consistently brilliant, within the limits of the source. High definition was magnificent (I had the unit set to convert from 1080i to 1080p). But what really benefited was SDTV. Most HDTV receivers do a very poor job with SDTV. This unit does a great job.
And don’t forget, this is also a Blu-ray player. In this regard, it is very similar to the Panasonic DMP-BD30 that we have previously reviewed. On the video side of things, it can deliver the very best of quality in the form of 1080p24. That means 24 frames per second video – the same as shown in a cinema – for the smoothest possible action.
The unit does not have decoders built-in for the new Blu-ray audio standards, but it can deliver the sound in ‘bitstream’ format over HDMI to any of the several new home theatre receivers that can decode these.
The unit is also ‘Bonus View’ enabled, which means that it supports the picture-in-picture features just coming out on some new Blu-ray discs. It also has so-called ‘persistent storage’ in the form of an SD card slot (this also supports the high capacity SDHC format).
SDHC cards are used in some new high definition video cameras as media to store recordings. This unit can play those back or dub them to hard disk or Blu-ray. Those recordings stay in the high quality H.264 format even after dubbing, so there is no loss of quality.
This unit has a whopper of a 500GB hard disk drive built-in, but you wouldn’t know it. I am used to the various PVRs on my equipment shelf whirring and clicking as their hard disk drives start up or begin working hard. The drive in this unit was totally silent in my room. The only noise made by the unit at all was the standard racket from the optical disc drive when spun up to somewhere between 8x and 16x for a high speed dub onto DVD.
Panasonic is the official supplier of HD cameras for the Olympics and the broadcast partner to the Australian Games network, Channel 7, so the arrival of the DMR-BW500 two months out from the world’s biggest sporting event is a well-timed marketing move. And, fortunately, there’s real substance behind the strategy.
What is most extraordinary about the Panasonic DMR-BW500 is not that it is the first consumer Blu-ray recorder – although that is itself pretty extraordinary – but that it performs that (and its other functions) so well.
See if you can trade in your current Blu-ray player, HD PVR and DVD recorder, and buy one of these instead.