Panasonic has introduced a (very) high-end digital TV HD recorder in the New Zealand market and it sure does a lot - but at the end it missed only one or two things that would make it a perfect replacement for a custom built Media Center PC or a Freeview-certified DVR (Digital Video Recorder).
Let's start with the obvious: it's a high quality product. Looking at the finishing touches, the quality of the connections in the back, and comparing with some other devices you will notice it's certainly well made. But can it just the NZ$1,999 introductory price tag?
Now for the features - and there are lots of them on this device. First of all it's a Blu-Ray player, which means high definition movies when you plug it to a HDTV. It's also a Blu-Ray recorder, which we will explore a bit more later. Picture is really nice and crispy and it is really a great player, although moving between options is a bit slow.
The unit also comes with a SD card reader which works really well with cards straight out of a digital camera. Insert the SD card on your unit and you are ready to browse pictures and run a slideshow. And if you need more media, you can also plug an external USB drive - be it a USB memory adapter or a USB HDD. You will be able to browse digital media contents from your USB attached device - photos, mp3 files or DiVX movies.
Of course the Blu-Ray drive is also a CD drive and more importantly you can shift the music content from audio CDs to the unit's internal 500GB HDD, with automatic track information downloaded from the Gracenote database - if you plugged the DMR-BW850 to your LAN with Internet access.
Here comes the first small thing that didn't do for me: although a "connected" device it will only access a couple of Internet-based services, namely YouTube and Picasa. You can easily search YouTube videos and watch those, but you can't browse a local server.
I for example have thousands of music, gigabytes of photos and hundreds of family videos and would like to watch these on my large TV - but the DMR-BW850 won't access my home server. It would be good if Panasonic had invested a bit more on its firmware and enabled DLNA access to shared media.
Now for the Freeview stuff. Freeview is the way forward for New Zealand free-to-air TV broadcast. At some point in the future (but no later than 2012) analogue TV will be shutdown and consumers will only be able to receive those free-to-air channels on the digital service.
This means you will use either DVB-S (satellite) or DVB-T (terrestrial) to watch TV. The DVB-T service in New Zealand offers the added benefit of High Definition broadcast and this is what the DMR-BW850 supports.
The Panasonic DMR-BW850 comes with a twin DVB-T receiver and you can watch a program while recording another, or record two programs at the same time. Interesting though I found out you can watch one program while recording another, but if you are recording two programs then you can only watch one of the two - regardless of mux being used. Other DVRs I test would allow me to record two programs and still watch a third one.
You can create archives of Freeview programs by recording your own Blu-Ray discs so that you won't run out of space on its internal HDD. But you are not able to transfer your programs to a USB attached device.
Also Panasonic does not support the MHEG5 standard yet (at least not on this release), which means the DMR-BW850 will not show the full week Electronic Program Guide on screen. You can only see what's on Freeview now and the next one or two programs.
It also means you can schedule recordings but you don't have the options to record a season ("season pass") like other DVRs. This is because the unit won't know if a program changes date or time.
I found the picture to be much better than other DVRs, and way better than what I can get on my HTPC with DVB-T. You also get the usual DVR stuff, such as Live TV Pause and the program management is actually very good - the list of recorded programs is cool, with the program playing on a small window as a preview. The sound is stunning with great reproduction on surround systems.
Being a connected device it is capable of downloading updated firmware from the Internet, and I'd really like to see Panasonic implementing MHEG5 for it.
Below are some of the menus and screen options for this unit:
- Very easy to use
- Quality build
- Blu-Ray drive for playback and recording
- HDTV receiver and recording
- 500GB internal HDD for audio CDs, HD TV recording, photo storage
- USB and SD card reader
- No access to digital content other than the services provided
- No MHEG5 support
- HD programs can only be archived to Blu-Ray, not USB HDD