Panasonic is currently the only manufacturer to offer a portable Blu-ray player in the UK, and its latest model comes in the form of the DMP-B200, a logically named successor to the B100. Despite being a portable device, the DMP-200 felt fairly hefty the second that we got it out of the box and the weight was added to considerably once the battery was attached, making it a fair bit heavier than many portable DVD players. The battery also sticks out, spoiling any hopes of a streamlined product and the large screen hinge also protrudes. However, it is still relatively compact compared to non-portable decks.
The simple black plastic finish, with tiny glittery detail, makes a nice change from the high-gloss products that seem so popular at the moment, but end up covered in fingerprints the second that they emerge from the box. In contrast to the classy lid, the cheap-looking grey plastic used on the underside isn't particularly pretty, but then it will be hidden for most of the time anyway.
Down the left-hand side of the unit, you'll find the the covered SD card slot along with an HDMI port for hooking up to an HDTV. The right-hand edge reveals a headphone socket, along with volume controls and a menu button one the edge of the screen. There's no Ethernet port or Wi-Fi connection, making this a Profile 1.1 player, rather 2.0. Having said that, it will support some special features, but not the web-based BD-Live ones.
The large hinge means the the screen can be viewed in the normal way, like a laptop screen, and it can also be freed from its locked position and tilted at a different angle or laid flat (well, nearly flat) against the base for compact viewing. Opening up the lid reveals a small selection of rudimentary controls including play, stop and skip, a "back" button, a multi-directional control surrounding an ok button, and a switch to toggle between the disc and SD card playback modes.
The B200 offers full HD 1080/24p playback and will also upconvert 480i/p or 720p footage to 1080p. Along with Blu-ray and DVD, the B200 will support most of the usual suspects including BD-RE, BD-R, DVD-RAM, DVD-R/RW, DVD-R DL and CD-R/RW. As our review unit was a UK model, it was set up to play region 2 DVDs and region B Blu-ray discs. The memory card slot will accomodate SD, SDHC and SDXC cards, supporting JPEG, AVCHD, MPEG-2, MP3 and DivX HD files. It won't play SACD or DVD-Audio but that shouldn't bother most people, unless you happen to be one of the few who is clinging to the notion of SACD becoming a mainstream format.
Boot-up time is pretty good (just under 1 minute), especially considering that we tested it with some particularly Java-heavy discs that contain lots of special features. There is quick start mode, but this is only any good if the unit is being powered by the mains and not when you're running it off the battery as it uses more power during standby. The onscreen menu is very basic, but similar to that used on Panasonic's standalone decks, giving you easy access to everything you need without having to navigate through endless screens of options.
The 8.9-inch screen has the same 1024 x 600-pixel resolution as its predecessor, which although is decent enough to see the difference between DVD and Blu-ray discs, doesn't pack the pixel count for a true HD picture. For that, you'll need to hook up to an HDTV. Having said that, the screen still looks pretty impressive, colours are vibrant and full of punch, particularly on animations. Skin tones are slightly lacking in reaslism but we found that tinkering with the picture settings sorted this out. Edges are sharp and fine detail is reproduced with surprising precision. The screen does stuggle slightly on fast-moving images, such as the zippy rugby scenes from Invictus, where things tend to get a little blurry.
You can adjust the LCD brightness by selecting one of three modes - standard, dynamic (for high contrast) or night (for viewing in dark places). Black levels are fairly good on the small screen, with dark scenes managing to avoid the greying over that can sometimes occur. However, details are pretty much lost in the inky corner of the darkest scenes. Like most of the other visual foibles on the 8.9-inch screen, the black levels are exponentially better when the player is hooked up to a full-size HDTV, making this a pretty good standalone player, as well as a portable.
The compact remote control has a decent 7m range, but other than that it's not great. There are far too many buttons squeezed into a small space and all of them are exactly the same size (tiny) and the same distance apart so it's impossible to get a feel for where the most frequently used buttons are.
If you're using the player as a portable device, then you're unlikely to need a remote anyway, but you might need one if you intend to hook it up to an HDTV. However, the deck is also kitted out with Panasonic's Viera Link which means that you can control the B200, as well as several other pieces of compatible Panasonic kit, using the same remote.
The B200 supports DTS and Dolby HD audio formats, but the built-in speakers don't really do them justice. They sound rather weak and tinny and bass is almost totally absent. However, switching to a decent pair of headphones soon remedies the problem so that you get the full effect of Blu-ray's audio skills. As you're likely to be using the player either with headphones or hooked up to a TV, we think it would be unfair to dwell on the B200's lacklustre speakers too much.
The player has a quoted battery life of 4 hours, which we found to be about right, so you should be able to squeeze in two regular films or a historical epic before the juice runs out. The B200 is also supplied with a bracket for mounting the player onto the headrest of a car seat to keep backseat passengers entertained.
Although a little on the hefty side, the Panasonic DMP-B200 is still fairly compact with a reassuringly robust chassis. It also gets good marks for its picture quality and format support. Although some people won't be able to get over the screen's pixel count not technically allowing for HD playback, the fact that the player can be used as a decent standalone deck with an HDTV may help to sweeten the deal. As does the fact that playback from a Blu-ray disc still looks superior to DVD playback, even on the small screen.
Some may also baulk at paying over £300 for a player can isn't Profile 2.0, but if you're not that fussed about the BD-Live features than this shouldn't be a problem.