Panasonic DMR-BWT700 £499
31st May 2011 | 10:30
Sparkling HD pictures make this this Freeview HD, 3D-compatible Blu-ray playing Skype box a treat
Panasonic DMR-BWT700: Overview and features
After witnessing the 3D greatness of its latest Viera plasmas, we shouldn't be too surprised to see the Japanese brand go on to deliver the cleverest hi-def machine yet.
Do we mean Blu-ray? Well, yes, sort of … the DMR-BWT700 does indeed spin Blu-ray discs of both kinds – 2D and 3D.
It even converts the former into the latter, and not just on Blu-ray but DVD and Freeview HD, too. The latter comes from one of its two DVB-T2 tuners that fetch (and pauses/rewinds) Freeview HD channels, but it's this deck's status as a HD recorder that's got us most excited.
It can't record from the Sky 3D channel, but anything else can be stored on its 320GB hard disk drive (here's the maths: one hour of SD uses 1GB, and an hour of HD uses 4GB – that's 80 hours in total).
That could be a tad small in the long run, especially for those who stick to a strict hi-def diet, but there's also the option of archiving to Blu-ray.
We say 'option', but there are actually a plethora of compression modes designed to allow the user to squeeze as much as possible on to a blank BD-R or BD-RE disc (bear in mind the 'copy once' restrictions, though it deals freely in AVCHD footage from camcorders).
Other features on this rather staid-looking, typically Panasonic-style product include an SD Card slot for AVCHD and JPEG display, a USB slot that adds AVI, MKV and MPEG video, and the option of adding a Skype camera that makes full-screen video calls (via some quite brilliant software).
Unfortunately the DMR-BWT700 lacks WiFi because as well as Skype and DLNA streaming, this product packs an online hub. In another sad twist, it's not the latest BBC iPlayer-sporting Viera Connect, but an older version, Viera Cast, that's onboard.
Aside from a 500GB hard disk, this machine's sister deck, the DMR-BWT800, adds features like WiFi, a second HDMI output for routing audio to a non-3D Ready AV receiver, Digital Tube Sound (a warm sounding six-sided mode modelled on vacuum tube amplifiers) and Pure Sound, which reduces the interference of the machine's rotating fan and HDD.
As a bonus, Panasonic is offering four 3D Blu-ray movie titles [www.panasonic.co.uk/avatarspring2011] when you buy this machine – comprising Avatar, Gulliver's Travels, Ice Age 3 and Animals United.
The same applies to the DMR-BWT800, DMP-BDT110, DMP-BDT210 and DMP-BDT310, as well as its Blu-ray Home Theatre systems.
Panasonic DMR-BWT700: Picture quality
Panasonic decks almost always excel with picture quality, and the DMR-BWT700 is no different.
Freeview HD, in this case during a live broadcast from the Spanish Grand Prix on BBC HD, is crisp enough and remarkably clean. Even the SD version over on former favourite BBC1 is clean enough and not the turn-off it might be. Recordings, as single programmes or series links, are all made in the lossless DR (Direct Recording) mode, and are identical to the original broadcast.
However, there's a noticeable improvement in colour when viewing our 2D Blu-ray test disc Inception, which also features smooth transitions, edges and pin-sharp close-ups.
It bears all the hallmarks of Panasonic's familiar PHL Chroma Processor Plus (P4HD), which earns its salt by increasing the res of a DVD to a state where jagged edges are barely noticeable.
Avatar on 3D Blu-ray also impresses, with 3D glasses acting as a further filter to refine the contrast – the result being luscious blues for the skin of Na'vi and a more convincing depth to the moon's forests. There was no need to tweak any of the 3D depth settings.
However, 2D to 3D conversion left us unimpressed. It can work on scenes that deserve it – usually close-ups with backgrounds just behind – but it's hit-and-miss. It's pretty obvious, but if something hasn't been designed as a 3D movie, it's unlikely to work consistently well when converted.
Panasonic DMR-BWT700: Value and ease of use
For all its ambitions and novel features, the Panasonic DMR-BWT700 is one complicated beast. The user interface is good looking, but without a central 'home' screen to tie the disparate features together there's a fragmented feel.
Finding what you want to do – such as finding a library of recordings – is not easily done from the remote control, while our sample also appeared to have constant communication problems with the same-brand TV it was attached to. Content is divided by source, not type, and all hinges on the remote's rather unassuming 'Drive select' button.
Panasonic does have an iPhone app for controlling its Blu-ray players, but it couldn't communicate with the DMR-BWT700 in our tests. That's not surprising given this deck's many features and completely different architecture to Panasonic's more basic Blu-ray players.
The hard drive is at the core of the Panasonic DMR-BWT700 and isn't just for making Freeview recordings. Photos or AVCHD footage from an SD Card (and SDHC/SDXC) can be easily transferred to the HDD or a Blu-ray disc. You may not want to do that, or transfer Freeview HD recordings 'as is', since the DR File Conversion – using an H-264 encoder – attempts to squeeze as much as possible onto a disc.
We've seen the compression feature before, and we like it, we really do, but five different modes for shrinking HD recordings does seem overkill. High, medium and low bitrate compressions would have done (they suffice for SD recordings where the choice is between SP, LP and XP).
But instead, programmes on the HDD are recorded in DR mode, which can only be converted afterwards into HG (high quality), HX (normal quality), HE (long play), HL (longer play) or HM (extended play) files.
It's useful and produces thoroughly respectable, if less pristine, HD images, but engaging this conversion tech entails too many choices, the interface is a tad PC-like, and it takes almost an hour for each conversion.
We can understand it for archiving to Blu-ray and in theory it's a great idea for stretching the HDD, but it's a bit too manual a process to want to actually spend time doing. Life is way too short.
Rapid archivers should opt for the 500GB-endowed DMR-BWT800 and buy a stack of BD-RE discs. At least there are some editing options, including renaming, partial deletes and divisions.
Away from recording and archiving, the Panasonic DMR-BWT700's Freeview HD functions work well, though the system is spoiled by a less than perfect EPG. Showing two hours of schedules for seven channels at one time, it's saddled with empty placeholders for adverts on its left-hand side, something that is eminently hateable on a premium and expensive product like this.
Recording is a cinch, and on issuing the command it's possible to manually add a few minutes safety net either side. However, recording clashes are dealt with rather clumsily – some simple language and either/or choices wouldn't go amiss.
Streaming is handled well, with an excellent Skype function proving the icing on this comprehensive cake. Using Skype does mean buying an add-on TY-CC110 HD Communication camera from Panasonic for around £130, and it's likely to have niche appeal only, but it's the easiest thing to use on this machine by a long shot.
Once the Panasonic DMR-BWT700 is connected to a TV – a simple clip-on affair that's surprisingly stable – it's then a case of either hitting the dedicated Skype button on the remote, or activating Viera Cast and selecting the Skype icon there. Once logged in, it's almost identical to the PC software. Call quality proved excellent in our tests and the system is a joy to use.
Elsewhere Viera Cast just irritates, not because it's particularly flawed – it's still the only smart TV interface we actually enjoy operating. It's because we know its compilation of Twitter, YouTube, QTom, Picasa, Bloomberg and more esoteric Euro-centric services have been bettered by Viera Connect, principally by its addition of BBC iPlayer.
Bizarrely, we were unable to access Viera Cast while the machine was recording from a Freeview HD tuner.
Panasonic DMR-BWT700: Verdict
The Panasonic DMR-BWT700 is a strange beast. Massively ambitious and hugely capable, it makes a superb catchall HD and 3D Blu-ray product, but it does have a split personality.
Hard disk housekeeping could confuse (or simply bore rigid) a rocket scientist, while making a video call to the other side of the Earth is a cinch.
Picture quality is outstanding all-round; this is a top quality slice of AV heaven for anyone interested in reference-level performance from all sources, while the myriad recording, archiving and storage options will excite any HD obsessive or HD camcorder user.
Add 3D compatibility and Freeview HD, and the Panasonic DMR-BWT700 is a catch-all solution like no other.
A relatively small HDD might annoy, but the main issue is the user interface. We've seen worse, but it doesn't have the joined-up feel that Panasonic's other 2011 AV products benefit from. Nor does it have Viera Connect, which means no BBC iPlayer.
Hugely impressive in some ways, the Panasonic DMR-BWT700 is also your classic AV misfire. Designed to appeal to all, the basics – speed and simplicity – have been slightly overlooked in favour of geek features.
Overall we're not sure the cash saved from swerving the 500GB version is worth all the conversion/ compression hassle. Those after a 3D home cinema powerhouse should aim for the DMR-BWT800, while those just after Freeview+HD will probably find life easier with a dedicated PVR such as the Humax HDR-FOX T2, the Icecrypt T2400 or TVonics DTR-Z500HD.