Panasonic DMR-BS850 £700
8th Jun 2009 | 09:00
The UK's first Blu-ray recorder is finally here
Three years after the format was introduced to the UK, the first Blu-ray recorder has finally arrived. The main reason for the hold up has been our lack of free hi-def content, but the introduction of Freesat and its HD channels has given Blu-ray recorders a reason to exist.
However, Blu-ray recording is just one of the DMR-BS850's many talents. It also comes equipped with a 500GB hard disk and, as per Panasonic's DVD/HDD combis, it can also be used to store your multimedia library, as well as play BD movies.
Twin Freesat tuners
The twin Freesat tuners enable you to watch one channel while recording another, or record two channels while watching something from the hard disk. This is novel in itself, as all HDD combis so far have stopped at a single tuner. However, you can't record directly onto Blu-ray.
All recordings from the Freesat tuners (SD and HD) are made onto the hard disk using the new DR mode, which captures the pure bitstream (plus extras such as subtitles) without decoding it first, and as a result, recordings always look identical to the source broadcast.
After programmes have been stored on the hard disk, you can then copy them onto Blu-ray. But for high-definition programmes, the broadcasters can insert flags that limit the number of times they can be copied. At present, all programmes on BBC HD are marked as Copy Once (indicated by a small icon in the Direct Navigator menu) and ITV HD's can't be copied at all, a situation that will need to change if this product is to be a success.
Hi-def programmes can be converted using a range of lower bitrate MPEG4 H.264 compression modes (HG, HX, HE and HL), which squeeze the files to take up less space, but retain HD picture quality. HL mode, which uses the lowest bitrate of 4Mbps, lets you fit 12 hours of fine quality content on a 25GB Blu-ray disc, which should come in very useful.
Hard-disk recordings can also be compressed to free up space. The rest of the recording capability is similar to Panasonic's Freeview DVD/HDD combis, with handy tools like Series Recording, frame accurate editing and the ability to record onto every DVD format under the sun.
And don't forget that the BS850 is also a fully fledged Profile 2.0 Blu-ray player, boasting Panasonic's excellent P4HD and PHL Reference Chroma Processor Plus. Also on board is Viera Cast, the internet portal that lets you watch YouTube videos or browse photos on Google Picasa. To access these web functions, there's an ethernet port on the rear, which will also deliver the BBC iPlayer when it appears on Freesat.
Last but not least, multimedia support is extensive. MP3, JPEG, AVCHD and SD video can be copied to the hard disk from the USB port or SD card slot on the front or from CD/DVD, plus you can play DiVX from USB or disc – all controlled using a series of smart, logical menu screens. The BS850 can also rip tracks from CD onto the hard disk as LPCM and name them automatically using the built-in Gracenote database.
MEDIA FRIENDLY:The BS850's USB port can copy files to the hard drive for burning to Blu-ray
Simple to use
User-friendliness permeates every inch of this recorder and, although many features will be alien to most users, it's to Panasonic's credit that none of them feel convoluted or clunky, and they're all controlled via a terrific remote with well labelled buttons and an intuitive layout.
The simple onscreen menus are welcoming and legible. The Direct Navigator has been streamlined to only show one thumbnail at a time, while the clear, responsive EPG makes channel browsing a painless process, although it doesn't let you keep up with live TV. When you set a programme to record on BBC or ITV, it alerts you if it's also being broadcast in HD.
High-definition recordings in DR mode look gorgeous – the ornate costumes and sumptuous settings of Bleak House on BBC HD are immaculately reproduced. There's no drop in quality when copied to Blu-ray without compression, and when converted to HL, artefacts are minimal and the 1080-line resolution retains a hi-def flavour.
The XP, SP, LP and EP modes also serve their purpose well, particularly the top-quality XP mode. Using it you can squeeze over five hours of SD footage on a Blu-ray disc, compared with one hour on DVD. As a Blu-ray player the BD850 excels, loading up Hellboy II in just under a minute and providing 1080/24p picture quality that's comparable to Panasonic's stunning standalone decks.
It's also an accomplished DVD upscaler that expertly keeps jaggies, mosquito noise and flickering at bay as it boosts pictures up to 1080p.
The lack of 7.1-channel analogue outputs means you'll need a receiver with HDMI v1.3 inputs to get the full benefit of DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby True HD soundtracks, which this deck can pipe as a bitstream or convert to PCM. The resulting sound quality is quite breathtaking.
A grand is lot of money, but when you consider the BS850's extensive feature list and unique talents it looks reasonable. Freesat's HD content is currently limited, but this recorder's worth will rise further as more channels get added.
If you've already got Sky HD, or don't archive to disc very often, though, there's little point in splashing out.
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