Panasonic DMR-BWT800 £899
26th May 2011 | 10:02
As expensive as it is ambitious, Freeview HD, 3D, Blu-ray, Skype and streaming are appealing
Panasonic DMR-BWT800: Overview and features
What does the Panasonic DMR-BWT800 Blu-ray recorder / Freeview+ HDD box do?
What doesn't it do, more like.
At its core is an optical drive that can not only play, but also record to Blu-ray, as well as dealing with both 2D and 3D discs.
Record what, you say? The answer comes in the form of two built-in Freeview HD tuners that, together with a 500GB hard disk, make this a Freeview+HD PVR that's as well specified as any on the market.
Naturally it also indulges in perhaps the most useful Freeview+HD feature of all – the pausing and rewinding of live digital TV.
But before you ask, no, it can't record in 3D from the Sky 3D channel.
There are extras, too, in the form of Skype video calling, an SD Card slot (which plays AVCHD video and JPEG photos only), two USB slots (supporting AVI, MKV (DivXHD) and MPEG video files), DLNA streaming (for AVCHD video files) and a novel link to other gear in Panasonic's Diga range of recorders that allows the contents of their HDDs to be shared over a home network.
The same can be done from any PC or laptop packing Windows 7, while online excitement – supplied through Ethernet LAN unless you buy a USB dongle for £80 – culminates in access to Viera Cast, Panasonic's online hub of entertainment.
It's a weak finale, since Viera Cast is last year's tech. The 2011 version of Viera Connect, which features only on Panasonic's flat screen Viera TVs, includes access to the BBC iPlayer. It leaves us feeling a little jealous and a tad cheated – perhaps this isn't quite the all-in-one we'd yearned for.
Elsewhere, the DMR-BWT800 – which is also available as a smaller 320GB hard disk version, the DMR-BWT700 – is thoroughly comprehensive.
Able to archive almost anything shown on Freeview HD to a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, the DMR-BWT800 also deals in AVCHD files, so any HD footage you happen to have filmed on an HD camcorder can also be archived to either the HDD, or to a Blu-ray disc (BD-RE or BD-R types).
That HDD can store around 500 hours of standard definition programmes or 125-ish hours of hi-def, though ultimately you'll probably want a mix of both. Happily, the DMR-BWT800 also deals in surround sound, being capable of storing audio broadcasts in Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus and (the default for most digital programmes on Freeview HD), the compressed HE-AAC format.
To cap it all, this isn't just a 3D Blu-ray disc player, boasting a 2D-to-3D converter that works not only on 2D Blu-ray discs, but on Freeview broadcasts, too. Crucially, it doesn't try to convert live TV – Freeview programmes must first be stored on the HDD – but it's an interesting idea that will tempt those with a 3D TV.
Incidentally, Panasonic's latest crop of Viera TVs can convert anything – including Freeview – on the fly.
Exclusive to the DMR-BWT800 (when compared to the cheaper DMR-BWT700) is a second HDMI output for routing audio to a non-3D Ready AV receiver, as well as 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.
Overall, this is the deck to opt for if you plan to make it the beating heart of a 3D home cinema.
Panasonic DMR-BWT800: Picture quality
Panasonic decks almost always excel with picture quality, and the DMR-BWT800 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-BWT800: Value and ease of use
For all its ambitions and novel features, the Panasonic DMR-BWT800 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-BWT800 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-BWT800 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 that's perhaps not a huge issue given its 500GB capacity (though Sky and Virgin sell PVRs with 1TB for a very good reason).
Compressing to free-up the HDD is a bit too manual a process to want to actually spend time doing it – life is way too short. But at least there are some editing options, including renaming, partial deletes and divisions.
Away from recording and archiving, the Panasonic DMR-BWT800'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-BWT800 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-BWT800: Verdict
The Panasonic DMR-BWT800 is a strange beast. Massively ambitious and hugely capable, it makes a superb catchall HD and 3D Blu-ray product, but it has 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, that second HDMI output and Freeview HD, and the Panasonic DMR-BWT800 is a catch-all solution like no other.
Though hardly tiny, that 500GB doesn't compare well with the latest PVRs around. 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-BWT800 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.
This is a better option that the far cheaper DMR-BWT700, not only for the extra 180GB of HDD capacity, but also for its 3D home cinema features. However, those after Freeview+HD features will probably find life easier with a dedicated PVR such as the Humax HDR-FOX T2, the Icecrypt T2400 or TVonics DTR-Z500HD.