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Panasonic DMR-BS850 Freesat Blu-ray & HDD Recorder Review

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £948.50

The DMR-BS850 is one of the most talked about and eagerly anticipated home cinema products of recent times, and we’re thrilled to have finally got our hands on a sample. For a bit of background to this groundbreaking product check Riyad’s news story, but in short it’s the UK’s very first Blu-ray recorder, which also comes equipped with a 500GB hard-disk drive, twin Freesat tuners and a vast array of other features which we’ll attempt to cover in this review.


But, if you’re looking at that mega-bucks price tag and wondering how on earth Panasonic can justify it, it’s worth remembering that the DMR-BS850 does so much more than record programmes onto Blu-ray and hard-disk. It’s also a fully-fledged multimedia hub and a high-spec Blu-ray player to boot, plus there are more recording, editing and TV viewing options than any other recorder – and if that isn’t worth a grand of your hard-earned, then we don’t know what is.


We’ve been moaning about the lack of twin TV tuners inside combi recorders like this for some time, so we’re pleased that the DMR-BS850 has broken that particular duck. It means that you can watch one Freesat channel and record another, or record two programmes simultaneously while watching something from the hard-disk or Blu-ray. But of course the biggest bonus of having Freesat tuners on-board is that you can watch and record subscription-free HD programmes and archive them onto Blu-ray discs, copy-protection permitting (more on that later). The choice is currently limited to BBC HD and ITV HD, but the hi-def roster will no doubt grow in the not-too-distant future.


The unit itself is not dissimilar to Panasonic’s standalone players, the DMP-BD60 and BD80, with its mirrored fascia and slim-line dimensions. It’s not the most glamorous or daring design ever to grace a living room, but it’s quietly stylish and the build quality lives up to its price tag. The disc tray is situated on the left hand side, while the other half of the fascia drops down to uncover an SD card slot and USB port, plus DV, S-video, composite and stereo audio inputs.


The easy-to-read display panel on the front uses large digits for the main section, with a variety of icons on either side, but sadly it doesn’t display the name of the current channel, just the number. To the right are two indicators, one for each tuner, which light up red when recording is in progress.


Rear connections are generous. You’ll find HDMI, component, S-video and composite video outputs; coaxial, optical and analogue stereo audio outputs; a second set of S-video/composite/analogue stereo inputs; two RGB-capable SCART sockets; and an Ethernet port.


Like the BD60 and BD80, this socket not only lets you take access BD Live content, but also brings online videos and photos from YouTube and Google Picasa into your living room through the Viera Cast internet portal. Even more excitingly, it means the unit is ready to receive the BBC iPlayer when it arrives on the Freesat platform. It’s only a shame that you can’t stream multimedia files over a network using this connection as you can with the latest Samsung players, but considering how much else it can do we can’t complain too vociferously.

Unlike Panasonic’s DVD/HDD recorders, which allow direct-to-disc recording, the DMR-BS850 records everything onto the hard-disk first then lets you copy them onto Blu-ray or DVD. All Freesat recordings are made in DR mode, which stores the bitstream – including extra data like subtitles and audio descriptions – directly on the hard disk in its original quality without any decoding taking place, which is another first for a combi recorder. This means recordings look exactly the same as the broadcast, which is particularly important when it comes to hi-def material.


Copy protection is obviously a key issue when dubbing hi-def content onto Blu-ray and your freedom to do so depends on the wishes of the broadcaster, who can insert flags that limit the number of times their programme can be copied. ‘Copy Once’ programmes let you to make one copy on Blu-ray, while ‘No Copy’ programmes don’t let you make any.


Most of BBC HD’s programmes are currently flagged as Copy Once (although they might become Copy Free later this year) but ITV HD’s sporadic HD broadcasts can’t be copied at the moment. The status of each programme is indicated by a small icon on the Direct Navigator screen, which shows the number of copies you have left. Not being able to freely burn everything into Blu-ray will no doubt be a turn off for some people, particularly with so little hi-def content on Freesat in the first place.


When copying onto Blu-ray, you can copy recordings in their original quality or compress them at a lower bitrate using the built-in MPEG-4 H.264 encoder, which means they take up less space. You can choose from several recording modes (HG, HX, HE and HL), which range from 12Mbps down to 4Mbps and offer between 4 and 12 hours of recording time on a 25GB Blu-ray disc.


This same procedure can also be applied to hard-disk recordings in order to free up space. Within the editing menu is a ‘DR Mode Conversion’ option, which compresses the file while the unit is in standby and then deletes the original DR file afterwards if it’s flagged as ‘Copy Once’.


Recordings are stored in the Direct Navigator screen, which looks slightly different to Panasonic’s DVD/HDD combis. It displays recordings in a list with a single moving thumbnail for the selected title, rather than showing thumbnails for all titles. Delving further into this menu, there are loads of other editing and copying options. You can delete part of a programme, divide and rename titles, change the thumbnail and muck about with chapter points, all of which are easy to use thanks to the excellent on-screen layout.

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.

When recording onto DVD, or recording from external sources on the AV inputs, you have to use the regular XP, SP, LP and EP modes. We checked these out and the resulting picture quality is every bit as good as that of the DMR-EX79 – crisp edges, a distinct lack of block/mosquito noise in XP and SP, smooth movement and sharp detail. And thanks to the Blu-ray burner on-board, you can fit hours and hours of SD stuff on a single disc, which will particularly delight DV camcorder owners whose high-quality home movies will no longer be restricted to one hour (you can fit over five hours on a 25GB Blu-ray disc in XP).


And as a Blu-ray player, the DMR-BS850 performs brilliantly, with picture and sound performance that lives up to the lofty standards set by the DMP-BD60 and BD80. ”Hellboy II’s” mesmerising mix of fantasy characters, intricately detailed scenery and breathtaking set pieces is reproduced with the sort of mind-blowing clarity and depth you hope for from the format, thanks largely to the presence of the UniPhier chip.


Once again the knockout combo of P4HD and PHL Reference Chroma Processor Plus technology deliver the goods, not only with Blu-ray but with DVD – the BS850 also does a fine job of upscaling standard-def discs to 1080p. Blu-ray disc loading times are reasonable – ”Hellboy II’s” Universal logo fired up 53 seconds after pressing close on the disc tray, but it also had to switch from Freesat to Blu-ray mode within that time, which is quite impressive.


The deck’s ability to output DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD as a bitstream or convert them into PCM means you can get sensationally sharp and involving multi-channel sound out of it, provided your amp has an HDMI input (there are no multi-channel analogue outs). The high-quality sound components (similar to the ones found in the BD80) also do a pleasing job with stereo CDs and MP3/LPCM audio from the hard-disk.

Verdict


Judged purely on its technological merits, the DMR-BS850 is a truly astonishing piece of kit. The wealth of features and recording functionality on-board beggars belief, but it’s testament to Panasonic’s knack for user-friendly design that it never feels overly complicated or uncooperative. The inclusion of twin Freesat tuners, a Blu-ray burner, a huge hard-disk, bitstream recording, MPEG-4 compression and extensive editing features mean that the DMR-BS850 has no equal as a recording tool.


But of course it’s not for everyone. If you already own a Sky+ HD box, rarely archive programmes on disc or aren’t satisfied by Freesat’s current HD offering, then this isn’t the product for you. And there’s no getting away from the fact that £1,000 is a lot of money, restricting the product’s appeal to affluent techno-heads.


But let’s throw that price into some sort of context. Groundbreaking technology like this is always expensive – just look at Panasonic’s first DVD/HDD recorder and Blu-ray player, both of which cost £1,000 at launch. And don’t forget that the BS850 is so much more than a recorder – it’s also a comprehensive multimedia hub and a top-notch Blu-ray player, which means that you certainly won’t feel short-changed if you do fork out for one.

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Viera Cast Interface

(/centre)Viera Cast offers online content streams for YouTube and Google Picasa albums.

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Direct Navigator

(/centre)Direct Navigator gives you control over the myriad multimedia functions, including backup to Blu-ray or DVD and music/photo/video browsing.

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EPG & OSD

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Misc. Interface Shots

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Trusted Score


Score in detail

  • Performance 10
  • Features 10
  • Value 8
  • Design 8

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