IN DEPTH REVIEW: Panasonic DMR-BW850 HDTV Blu-ray recorder – one with the lot

recently buying an off-the-shelf digital video recorder meant choosing
between watching high definition television or the ability to archive
recordings to disc. Panasonic came to the rescue with its range of
Blu-ray and DVD recorders with built-in twin HD tuners letting you
record high-def TV directly to disc or else record to the hard drive
with the option of archiving it to disc later.

second generation DMR-BW850 Blu-ray recorder offers a few new features
that make it a tempting all-in-one option for any lounge room. Firstly
it features an improved MPEG-4 compression system that lets you squeeze
up to 240 hours of high definition television recordings onto the hefty
500GB hard drive ($2199) – although it only holds 72 hours in “Full
HD”. There’s also a DMR-BW750 with a 250GB hard drive ($1979).

now offers a ridiculous choice of 10 different recording quality modes.
Along with DR mode which offers a perfect copy of the original
broadcast there are now four MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 options for recording
high-def content which capture surround sound and let you cram more on
the hard drive whilst minimising the loss in picture quality. These
MPEG4 modes can also be used to record standard-def but there are also
five other modes designed for standard-def which only record in stereo.

When it comes to DR mode the BW850 can fit three hours of HD recordings on a single layer 25GB
Blu-ray disc or around 30 minutes of high-def content on a
single layer DVD. Any more and it opts for a lower quality recording
mode. Dual layer Blu-ray and DVD discs are also supported although the
discs are prohibitively expensive. On a single layer DVD the extra compression is
barely noticeable on high-def recordings under 45 minutes but a two
hour high-def movie squashed onto a DVD looks little better than an standard-def

It’s probably a better idea to record everything to the hard drive
using DR mode which offers a perfect copy of the original broadcast
and then let the recorder downscale it as required if you’re archiving
a recording to Blu-ray or DVD. If you’ve got a big high-def TV such as
our 46 inch 1080p Sony Bravia you’ll be able to see a slight but
tolerable difference even if you go down even one step from DR mode.
For standard-def recordings you’d probably draw the line at HE mode
which roughly triples your recording capacity. As for high-def
recordings you’d probably draw the line at HG mode which only boosts
your recording capacity by 10 per cent. Any more compression than that
and it defeats the point of watching high-def. Of course if your
television is smaller than 46 inches you might get way with more

As a Blu-ray player the BW850 is now BD Live
(Profile 2.0) compatible which means unlike the first-gen Panasonic
Blu-ray recorders it lets you take advantage of interactive content
and internet downloads incorporated into some Blu-ray movies. Panasonic
has also added DivX playback (from attached media but not a network
drive) as well as VIERA CAST which lets you access YouTube and
Google’s Picasa Web Albums via the BW850’s onscreen menus.

remote control includes a dedicated VIERA CAST button which makes it
easy to access these features. Similar to the iPhone the YouTube menu
offers you a choice of Featured Most Viewed and Top Rated clips as
well as a Search option with an onscreen keyboard. You can choose which
YouTube site you want to access with the option of “Worldwide” or a
choice of 19 countries including Australia.

YouTube clips don’t
play full screen by default which is probably for the best. Clips play
on the right of the screen with details on the left and the picture
quality is very good for well-produced content. One frustrating quirk
is that widescreen YouTube clips are squashed to 4:3. When you switch
to the full-screen view they look right (although obviously more
pixelated) yet in full screen mode 4:3 content is stretched to
widescreen. LG’s BD370 You-Tube enabled Blu-ray player suffers from
the same problem.

Looking to the rear the BW850 offers pretty
much all the connectors you’d want with HDMI 1.3 10/100 Ethernet
component s-video and composite outputs along with coax and optical
digital. You can also record from external devices via composite
s-video and DV. Panasonic has ditched the SCART inputs found on the
earlier models which is a shame because they provided a handy way to
hook up a Foxtel box.

Movie buffs will enjoy the 1080p 24
frames per second video playback along with 1080p upscaling on DVDs.
There’s also 7.1-channel surround sound on Blu-ray movies with support
for Dolby Digital Plus Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio formats. AVCHD
and MPEG-2 video can also be copied to the internal hard drive (via USB
disc or SD card) and then edited before being transferred to Blu-ray or
DVD – making it a handy recorder for those looking to transfer HD home
movies to Blu-ray. Unfortunately Panasonic uses the BDAV recording
format rather than BDMV used by commercial Blu-ray movies which means
compatibility with non-Panasonic Blu-ray players is hit and miss.

it comes to watching television the BW850 is unfortunately still wanting compared to
dedicated Personal Video Recorders such as TiVo Foxtel’s iQ2 and IceTV-powered
devices such as Topfield and Beyonwiz PVRs.

Panasonic relies on the hotch-potch Electronic Program Guide embedded
in the broadcast signal and it can’t search the guide for your
favourite shows. Nor can it create a true Season Pass for
automatically recording your favourite show each week regardless of timeslot. The big green button on
the Panasonic remote calls up the onscreen TV guide from which you can
select a show to record. You can set a recurring weekly recording but
it will just blindly record the same time slot each week rather than
checking the EPG for schedule changes. The “Auto Renewal Recording”
option will automatically delete the previous episode as a new one is
recorded which stops your hard drive from filling up but you don’t
have the flexibility to specify how many episodes of a series to keep.
There’s also no option to automatically delete old recordings when the
hard drive is full.

Advanced features such as Wishlist
recordings according to program title or genre
are also lacking. As such it’s not really a “Personal” Video Recorder.
Another drawback of opting for the BW850 over a true PVR is that there
are no remote scheduling options –
you can’t schedule a recording via the web or your mobile phone.

Panasonic does have a few tricks up its sleeve such as the ability to
skip forward through the ad breaks in 58 second increments – a feature Australian TiVo users are denied. The
Panasonic recorder doesn’t always ask for confirmation when you press stop
while recording which is annoying but it does prevent you from accidentally changing channel whilst
time-shifting – a rare feature which should be mandatory on all PVRs.

The BW850 does offer excellent standard and high definition television pictures. Twin HD
tuners let you record two shows at once whilst watching one of them a
previous recording or a disc. You can pause live TV and watch the
beginning of a program while still recording the end but there’s no
automatic buffer for rewinding live TV. The Panasonic menus onscreen
display and remote control are far less user-friendly than TiVo and
you’ll need to keep the instruction manual on the coffee table for a

BW850’s biggest shortcoming is the whopping $2199 RRP price tag although
obviously you’ll find it for cheaper than that. Hopefully the price of
future models will drop if competitors such as Sony release Blu-ray
recorders in Australia. Meanwhile the BW850 is perhaps a great option
for early adopters with deep
pockets but power users would probably prefer the flexibility of a
true PVR. For the price of the BW850 you could buy/build a Blu-ray
media centre or else buy a Blu-ray player (or a PS3) and a HD PVR and
still have money left to play with. Of course the Blu-ray player/PVR
combo means you lose the ability to record to Blu-ray. If you’d settle
for recording HDTV to DVD you could consider Panasonic’s far cheaper
DMR-XW450 (500GB $1319) or DMR-XW350 (250GB $1099) HDD/DVD recorders
– but of course now you’ve lost Blu-ray playback as well. 

fact is that there isn’t one off-the-shelf device that offers the best
of everything but Panasonic’s DMR-BW850 comes pretty damned close.