Around this time last year we reviewed here a startling new product: a twin tuner high definition Blu-ray recorder from Panasonic. Panasonic tells us that since then this unit has been a huge success for the company, to the point where it has been replaced with not one but two models. The higher end of the two, the DMR-BW850, is on the face of it very similar, but it does make a few improvements.
And still, Panasonic is the only participant in this product segment.
What it preserves are the huge 500GB hard disc drive for recording and time shifting digital (including HD) TV, the Blu-ray player and the Blu-ray recorder. It also continues to provide editing for your recordings on the hard disc drive, with subsequent burning to a Blu-ray recordable disc (both the write-once BD-R and the re-writable BD-RE).
Those blank discs remain exotic and expensive ($15 to $25 each for 25GB discs), so the ability to downscale HD material to SD for copying to standard recordable DVDs remains welcome.
What has been added is BD-Live is the support for the extra functionality on some Blu-ray movie discs to download additional material from the internet, or participate in online activities – and even greater high definition recording flexibility. This last provides four extended-time high definition recording formats. HG allows up to 4 hours on a single layer blank disc, while HX, HE and HL provide, respectively, six, nine or twelve hours.
Let me get something off my chest before continuing: this recorder is a horribly frustrating machine. Its remote control is a minefield of interrupted enjoyment. Its surface has several prominent keys, some of them quite innocuous (Function Menu for example) that without so much as a ‘by your leave,stop’ Blu-ray playback and return you to TV watching. Many Blu-ray discs cannot be resumed from where they were stopped, so you have to go through the entire startup process, and then search for where you were up to.
That, in short, is profoundly irritating, and makes me give this unit a mere 2.5 stars for ease of use (also contributing is the unit’s overall slowness: nearly 40 seconds to open the drawer from standby, for instance).
Still, this remains the only game in town for Blu-ray recording, which brings me to another point: the unit uses the BDAV format for recording to disc rather than BDMV. The difference? Hardly any. The actual video streams are the same. It is merely a matter of disc organisation and the lack of a disc menu for BDAV.
But BDMV is the format used by commercial Blu-ray movies, and it works on all Blu-ray players. BDAV is hit or miss. I could play Blu-ray discs recorded by this unit on only one non-Panasonic player, but not on the PS3. If you want to send your high definition home movies to your auntie, there’s no guarantee that she will be able to play them unless she also has a Panasonic unit.
That stuff aside, this is a great unit. The SDTV and HDTV picture quality was magnificent: clearly and obviously better than most HD set-top boxes. It was sharp, with well-formed and clean colouring and minimal noise. Simply lovely.
The recording was reliable and the dubbing to disc went smoothly. For Blu-ray, dubbing the original recording preserves the perfect original condition. The additionally compressed formats actually made very little difference to picture quality for material recorded from HDTV stations.
For Blu-ray playback, the picture quality was as good as it has ever been with the discs in my collection, including those troublesome 1080i50 ones. And the same for DVDs. All the special extras on Blu-ray, including PIP BonusView material and BD-Live Internet downloads worked brilliantly.
The unit also provides access to YouTube videos and the Picasa web photo site, and delivered adequate quality from them.
This is a great machine. If you can afford it, it is the highest quality way of getting high definition TV presently available, does superb recording, and delivers excellent quality from Blu-ray and DVD discs.
But Panasonic really ought to hire a usability engineer to go over its control interface, because it is often a highly frustrating unit to use.