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Panasonic DMR-BS850 review

Blu-ray recorders are big news in Japan, and now they're in the UK. So what do we make of the Freesat-enabled DMR-BS850?

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Our Verdict

The first Blu-ray recorder in the UK, it incorporates dual Freesat tuners, BD Live and 'net access, but test results are a mixed bag: We noted unimpressive audio and video jitter (like the BD60) but generally good hi-def video performance

For

  • Amazingly versatile
  • Superb BD record quality
  • Twin Freesat tuners
  • Viera Cast internet access

Against

  • Requires broadcasters to play ball
  • AVCHD dubs to DVD in SD

It's no exaggeration to say that the £1,000 DMR-BS850 is the most advanced digital recorder ever sold in the UK; due to go down in AV history as the UK's first Blu-ray recorder, it sports a 500GB hard drive and twin Freesat HD tuners.

That alone would be enough to grab headlines. But the deck does more. As I slowly, reverentially snooped my way around this review sample, I began to wonder not what it could do, but what it couldn't.

David Preece, Panasonic's marketing manager, told me weeks ago that it wasn't so much a recorder as a media hub. And I think he's right. The thing is the Cadillac of convergence.

Out of the box, the BS850 is not significantly taller than Panasonic's current BD player offerings, the DMP-BD60 and BD80. It looks meaningful if conservative. A fascia flap to the right pulls down to reveal analogue video inputs, SD card slot and a firewire port. The latter sent a ripple of excitement up my spine because I thought I'd be able to dub some of my old home movies up to Blu-ray – then I realised I didn't have a working DV camcorder. Oh well.

The disc tray is offset to the left (but in typically perverse Panasonic style, the eject button is ranged to the right). Backside connections include analogue AV inputs, two Scarts, HDMI out, component and (multi-purpose) Ethernet.

This BD deck is Profile 2.0 BonusView compliant. Yet more significantly it allows access to Panasonic's proprietary Viera Cast gateway to internet content. Currently that means you can view YouTube videos and browse Picassa photo albums (my online photo account is with Flickr – doh!). And as this is a Freesat HD unit, it also means that you'll be able to access the BBC iPlayer – once it goes live on Freesat.

The LAN connection on this deck will clearly get a lot more use than the average BD disc-spinner. Unfortunately, despite Ethernet connectivity the device isn't networkable. It wasn't discovered by other devices on my LAN, which seems kind of odd in this day and age.

Copy and burn

With two tuners (a much overdue first for Panasonic), it means you can record two channels simultaneously. Using the 7-day Freesat EPG, you'll be given the option to record a show in HD if ITV is broadcasting two versions.

All recordings are made to the unit's hard drive in DR (bitstream) format. That's to say, you record exactly the transport stream delivered, giving you access to bolt-ons like subtitles and audio descriptions. Naturally, this also means image and sound quality are as transmitted (which in the case of BBC HD is generally awesome). You can then dub these to BD in any one of four HD compression modes (HG, HX, HE, HL) which reduce the bit-rate incrementally.

The most economic, HL, allows 12 hours on a single-layer BD-R, effectively squishing recordings with a bitrate of 14Mbps to just 4Mbps. It's a remarkable example of advanced h.264 economy. I found artefacts to be low and for most viewers the results will still look undeniably hi-def.

The 500GB drive can store approximately 77 hours of HD, or 215 hours of SD. If your hard drive starts to clog up with DR sat recordings, you can compress them on the drive itself. This is a real-time process. So if you have six hours of Nature's Great Events archived, then it'll take just as long to compress them. Best leave the BS850 doing its thing overnight.

Compressed recordings can then be dubbed to disc – provided the broadcaster is agreeable. All of the BBC's HD content is currently flagged Copy Once. This means that after you've captured it on your hard drive, you can copy it only once to BD media. The status of the original recording is revealed in a graphical flag which counts down from one to zero. Broadcasters have the ability to further restrict usage with a Copy Never flag. Obviously you won't find out about that until you've recorded the programme in question.

However, while the BBC has moved its HD broadcasts to Copy Once (with a promise of Copy Free this Summer), ITV is less generous. It soon became clear after using the Panasonic recorder that ITV is currently flagging its limited HD transmissions as Copy Never – even dusty back-catalogue movies. So with these you can record on the HDD but not archive to disc. This situation needs to be resolved if consumers are to have any faith in the technology – Panasonic assures us that it will.

Naturally, the BS850 will also write to DVD media (RAM, -R/DL, -RW, +R, +R/DL, +RW). It can also play (and copy to disc) JPEGs and movies from SD card, as well as MP3s. Panasonic's deck also packs an in-built Gracenote database for 350,000 albums, which can be updated via the net connection. The recorder had no problem recognising Dragonforce's Ultra Beatdown and prompted for it to be copied to the HDD; likewise it could read or copy an Avenged Sevenfold MP3 track from USB.

Versatile unit

To help evaluate the BS850, Panasonic loaned me a DMC-TZ7 digital camera. Not only does this silver snapper grab incredible 10MP images, it can also record in AVCHD Lite. To be honest, I didn't expect much, but I was astounded by the video performance of what is ostensibly a compact camera.

The Lite iteration means that AVCHD recordings are in the less processor-intensive 720p mode, yet I'd still rate the images it captures as super – certainly worth dubbing to disc and archiving in a compressed form on Blu-ray. The card can be taken from the camera and played back immediately in the BS850.

While it's possible to dub AVCHD to DVD, it will only do it in SD format – an artificial restriction mandated by Panasonic. I find this shackle a bit irritating, but I can see commercially why it was done. The recorder will also read and play DivX files from disc and USB.

As a Blu-ray player, the BS850 is analogous to the BD60; images are pin-sharp while noise (still a problem to my mind with some BD discs) is acceptably low; video processing comes via the latest iteration of Panasonic's UniPhier chipset. The player can bitstream both DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD
out over HDMI, so its credentials as a home cinema source are solid.

The unit utilises Panasonic's trademark disc recorder GUI, which hasn't significantly changed for years. It's square and formulaic, and strikes me as somewhat dated. More importantly, it looks decidedly standard-definition. For a product like this, surely a jazzed-up hi-def display would be more appropriate?

BD loading times are better than the worst BD offenders out there, but not as fast as they could be. If you try and load a BD Live disc and don't have an internet connection, the player dithers, unable to work out why it can't connect to the internet, so best to hook it up while you can.

Hard to value

The BS850 comes to market at about the same price as Panasonic's first ever DVD recorder, but it offers a quantum leap in performance. It's difficult to peg in terms of value, but if you want the best hi-def recorder in town, you wouldn't expect it to come cheap. The question many buyers will ask is: how long before the price falls to something easier to digest? I suspect the answer is some time.

It's unlikely the price of Freesat Blu-ray recorders will mimic DVD recorders. The number of Freesat licensees remains limited and that means there's no downward pressure from competing Chinese vendors. What's more, Panasonic has a development lead of at least a year on its competitors. On the plus side, I'm told that when these recorders launch in June, a number of special fi nancing deals will be available.

Overall I'd rate the BS850 as an amazing bit of kit. Panasonic has launched a number of BD recorders globally (in Japan, France, and Australia, ), but none are an exact match of this model. It's unique and more than a little brilliant.

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