As mentioned, the DMR-BS850 can also be used as a central hub for music, photos and videos, all of which can be transferred onto the sizeable hard-disk from CD, DVD or USB. When you insert an audio CD, the pre-installed Gracenote database names tracks automatically and you can then rip them onto the hard-disk as LPCM. MP3, JPEG, AVCHD and SD (MPEG-2) video can be copied to the hard-disk, but DivX can only be played from DVDs, CDs and USB sticks and there's no DivX HD or WMA support. It's also worth remembering that the DMR-BS850 doesn't just support Blu-ray discs - it can also record and playback every DVD format, including dual-layer discs.
Being a Panasonic product, setting up and using the DMR-BS850 is unsurprisingly simple. Start up time is quick and it runs through the Freesat auto set-up when powered up for the first time, which asks for your postcode and tunes in the channels quickly. Later, you can automatically add other free channels on the Astra 2 satellite using the Tuning menu, but these aren't listed in the EPG.
The look and layout of the on-screen menus is mostly identical to Panasonic's DVD/HDD recorders such as the DMR-EX79, which is great news as it's already proven to be a slick and user-friendly system. The menus are sensibly sequenced and everything is dressed in welcoming pastel shades and chunky text, which will make you feel at home despite the complex nature of this multi-faceted product.
We're also impressed by the remote, which is a seamless fusion of the excellent BD60/BD80 and EX79 zappers. The core controls are intuitive and as per usual the labelling, button size and layout are spot-on, making it one of the most user-friendly recorder remotes around.
Searching for programmes to watch is made easy thanks to the clearly laid-out Freesat EPG, which can be viewed in landscape or portrait (the latter honing in on a single channel) and all of the remote control options are listed at the bottom. Recording programmes from the EPG is slightly long-winded, as there are several menu screens you have to go through - the first gives you the option of series recording and the second lets you check all the details. When you record a programme on BBC or ITV that's also available in hi-def, the unit asks which one you want to record, which is a very handy feature. It also alerts you about overlapping recordings and a series of prompts help you resolve the issue.
We recorded a bunch of hi-def Freesat programmes onto the hard disk and the resulting quality is flawless - you simply can't tell that you're watching a recording. Bleak House on BBC HD looks beautiful, with even the most minute costume details and wispiest facial hair looking crisp and focused. Likewise a broadcast of Van Helsing on ITV HD, which looks stunning live and recorded thanks to its pin-sharp detail and vibrant, natural-looking colours.
We then compressed the Bleak House DR file using the lowest-quality hi-def recording mode (HL) and the results were amazing. Despite the significant reduction in bitrate, the powerful colours and sharp detail mean that images still possess that unmistakeable hi-def quality, with only a few bits of mosquito noise here and there to remind you that it had been converted. Copied to Blu-ray, the same excellent picture quality is maintained.