They’ve had Blu-ray recorders in Japan for donkey's years, but the lack of free HD content in the UK has delayed their introduction here. But the emergence of Freesat - now a year old - has finally made Blu-ray recording a reality for us Brits, and naturally Panasonic is the company to make it happen given its previous pioneering exploits in the Blu-ray and Freesat markets.
The company has launched two Blu-ray/hard-disk combis - the top-end 500GB DMR-BS850 on test here and the 250GB DMR-BS750 - as well as a Freesat-equipped DVD/HDD model. At £1000 the BS850 isn’t cheap, but when you take a look at the vast array of features - many of which you won’t find anywhere else - it’s easy to see where your money is going.
The DMR-BS850 is the first hard-disk combi recorder to feature twin tuners, making it possible to record one channel while watching another, or record two channels while watching a previous recording. If you watch as much TV as we do, this will be music to your ears, and the presence of features like series recording makes it even more convenient to watch and record the programmes you love.
Because it’s equipped with Freesat tuners, you can receive high-definition programmes from BBC HD and ITV HD for free and record them directly onto the hard-disk. To do this, the unit uses a "DR" recording mode, which captures the raw bitstream (as well as subtitles and audio descriptions) rather than decoding it first. That means recorded pictures look identical to the live broadcast and subsequently allow you to make a pristine digital copy on Blu-ray.
That said, you can’t just make HD copies willy nilly. Broadcasters have the ability to flag high-def broadcasts and limit the number of copies that can be made. At present the BBC is flagging its programmes as "Copy Once" while ITV HDs are "Copy Never" although it’s by no means set in stone - there’s talk of BBC HD allowing unlimited copies later this year and ITV HD could have a change of heart. Until then, these restrictions could be a real turn off for people who like to share their favourite shows with family and friends.
When making a Blu-ray copy, the unit’s MPEG4 H.264 encoder can compress the file at a lower bitrate but retain its high-def resolution, which takes up less space on the disc without massively compromising on picture quality.
Although high-def recording is the BS850’s raison d'être, there are many more strings to its bow. It’s also a high-spec Profile 2.0 Blu-ray player, equipped with Panasonic’s lauded P4HD and PHL Reference Chroma Processor Plus technology, and it supports a healthy range of multimedia formats, including DivX, MP3, JPEG, AVCHD and SD Video. All of these, except DivX, can be copied to the hard-disk from USB or SD card (but not vice-versa), turning the BS850 into a multimedia hub, and it can even rip CDs and tag them automatically using the pre-installed Gracenote database.
Rear panel connections include HDMI, Component, S-Video and Composite video outputs, Scart input and output, two digital audio outputs and analogue stereo output. The Ethernet connection on the back not only allows you to download BD-Live movie extras but also lets you browse videos on YouTube or photos on Google Picasa through the Viera Cast feature. The Ethernet port will also provide access to the BBC iPlayer when it becomes available on Freesat later this year.
The BS850 isn’t a bad-looking machine around the front, with slim dimensions, a dark mirrored fascia and legible display panel. On the front you’ll find a USB port and SD card slot, a DV input for camcorder dubbing, plus S-Video, Composite and stereo audio inputs, reflecting the designs seen in Panasonic's DVD recorders in the past.
In action the BS850 is wonderfully intuitive, despite its potentially confusing array of functions. Channel tuning is quick and painless, while the onscreen displays like the EPG, Direct Navigator menu (where you find your recordings) and editing screens are straightforward. To cap it all, the button arrangement on the remote is superb.
High-def recordings from BBC HD look impeccable, with the BS850 retaining every last scrap of detail in the original broadcast. Programmes like Bleak House and Reggie Perrin are reproduced with mesmerising depth and clarity, while vivid colours blaze from the screen. HD recordings compressed to HL (the lowest-bitrate high-def recording mode) look sharp and natural, with fewer artefacts than we expected.
And its performance with pre-recorded Blu-ray discs is every bit as impressive as the DMP-BD60 and BD80, offering sharp and clean 1080/24p pictures that clearly benefit from P4HD’s awesome processing power. Even upscaled DVDs look incredible, with natural colour reproduction, remarkable detail retrieval and no edge artefacts to speak of.
The lack of multichannel analogue outputs on the back means you’ll need an AV receiver with HDMI inputs to enjoy Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio tracks from Blu-ray. If you’ve got one, you’re in for a treat – the sound on offer is sharp, dynamic and fulsome. CD and MP3 playback are also hugely enjoyable.
The level of technological innovation offered by the DMR-BS850 made it the most eagerly anticipated product of the year, and thankfully it doesn’t disappoint. The combination of twin Freesat tuners, Blu-ray recording, a huge hard-disk, wide multimedia support and sensational Blu-ray playback make it an irresistible proposition. Yes it’s expensive but new technology always is - if you have the cash and don’t fancy lining Murdoch’s pockets then it’s definitely worth every penny.
Our only grievances are the paucity of HD content on Freesat and the off-putting copy restrictions placed on high-def content, but both are out of Panasonic’s control and will no doubt be rectified in the near future.