Who cares about Blu-ray? Firmly ensconced in the PlayStation 3, standalone hi-def disc spinners regularly go for under £90 – small enough bean to set the alarm bells ringing in any gadget buyer’s ears. The trick, thinks Samsung, is to up the price somewhat and add so many features as to render Blu-ray as just another logo on what the Korean brand is selling as a HD recorder extraordinaire.
The BD-D8900M is truly remarkable in its scope, so much so that it leaves the PlayStation 3 looking a little restrictive – and until the end of October Samsung is offering £50 cash back to sweeten the deal.
Generous storage capacity
Key to its success is a hard disk drive that can store a stunning 1TB of data. In conjunction with twin Freeview HD tuners the generous storage makes this as skilled as a Sky+HD box – though it’s not quite up there with the trio of tuners found in Virgin Media’s TiVo box. It's slightly frustrating that it’s only actually capable of recording one channel at a time, which immediately puts it a step or two behind both Sky and Virgin boxes.
To add a bit more value, it also includes Samsung’s Smart Hub, an online video platform found on Samsung’s ‘smart’ TVs. Elsewhere, it easily matches a PS3, principally with its inclusion of Wi-FI and DLNA streaming as well as 3D Blu-ray capabilities – though it goes one better, with 2D-3D upscaling, for what that’s worth.
It’s well connected, with two HDMI v1.4 outputs, one of which is an audio return channel for 3D fans with HDMI v1.3 inputs on their AV receiver. There are also component video, composite video, optical and analogue audio, and a wired Ethernet LAN option. To get our box online, we chose Wi-Fi, which was easy to set-up and cable-free.
No Blu-ray recording or multiple tuners
At this point, it only seems fair to warn you that the BD-D8900M isn't a Blu-ray recorder. It can only record hi-def from BBC HD, ITV HD or 4 HD channels to the HDD – there are no archiving or exporting features.
What the Samsing lacks in multiple tuners the BD-D8900M makes up for it intelligence. As well as pause/rewind live TV goodies, there’s the chance to set series links and get information on future broadcasts. The eight-day electronic programme guide is one of the best looking in the business, with a thumbnail of the live channel (including audio) up top beside a programme description. Below there’s information for six channels over two hours. Navigating isn’t always as quick as it should be, with some lag as we scrolled down through the schedules.
That aside, Samsung’s EPG takes second place behind Humax, which we’d still rate at the best, fastest and clearest user interface among Freeview HD boxes.
The BD-D8900M demands a decent EPG; its whopping 1TB HDD can store an impressive 240/480 hours of HD/SD programmes, though a music CD can be easily ripped to the HDD for added jukebox goodness. A CD’s tracklisting is found within seconds of inserting a disc, though actually importing it is too manual a process – the bitrate can't be changed from its default 192kbps either. Once ripped, the resulting MP3 files can be transferred to a docked USB thumb drive.
Smart hub is a bonus
The BD-8900M’s Smart Hub adds yet another dimension to this ‘Blu-ray’ player. Apps like Acetrax Movies, Lovefilm, BBC News, tied-up nicely by Samsung’s own Your Video interface, make it one of the most useful web TV platforms around.
It’s generally fast and easy to operate using the remote (we had problems syncing the free Samsung Remote app for iPhone), though we did experience a complete freeze-up of the BD-D8900M on one occasion when starting the Smart Hub.
From the product’s sole front-mounted USB slot we managed to play a selection of digital files, from a thumb drive, including AVI, MKV, WMV, MPEG, MOV and MP4, though not AVC HD, which is often produced by hi-def camcorders. The theoretically pretty thumbnail-driven interface doesn't work – images from the video files are only visible after a file has been watched – while some files take up to 10 seconds to load. The rules are different when streaming files across a network. The DLNA-powered AllShare feature sees key formats like AVI, MOV, MP4 and AVC HD files dealt with, but not MKV or WMV containers. More oddness is afoot; it’s not possible to stream files over a network while the BD-D8900M is recording a TV show.
Recorded shows are pin-sharp and identical to broadcast, while Blu-ray playback – in both 2D and 3D – is as impressive, as it should be on a flagship deck like this. You can convert a 2D Blu-ray disc to 3D, but don't bother; the algorithm used assumes a flat picture and attempts to introduce depth in a uniform manner. The result is a picture that has some 3D-ness in one horizontal portion of the picture; it’s largely unwatchable, and a box-ticking feature at best.
Whether this is a hi-def personal video recorder or a smart Blu-ray deck is irrelevant. Samsung’s BD-D8900M is an AV all-rounder that’s as advanced as it is good value. It lacks the option to record, or archive recordings, to a Blu-ray disc – but it's much more affordable because of that. It’s also one tuner short of being totally flexible, and we did find one or two niggles, but this is as good as it gets in the world of Freeview HD.