REVIEW: Panasonic Blu-ray disc recorder
A relative took video of a recent wedding, but there was a problem – what to do with the video afterwards? The camera was a high-definition unit using a SD card. Even though it was fairly economical on the bit rate, the result was still 6GB of HD video. SD cards and USB sticks are getting cheaper, but sending copies to family friends on 8GB cards is still expensive. And there’s no guarantee that Aunt Daisy would be able to play video saved on a USB stick. One way would be to import the video to a computer, edit it and burn it to Bluray. But do you have a Blu-ray burner in your computer? You could convert to DVD-video, but at the cost of downconverting to standard definition. Or you could use the Panasonic DMRBWT800 Blu-ray disc recorder, and keep it at full high defi nition. What it is This unit is the 2012 version of a long-standing product category: the consumer DVD recorder, now updated to Blu-ray. For reasons that elude me, Panasonic is the only company to produce such a device. It has two HD digital TV tuners, 1TB of hard disk space for recording, and a DVD/Blu-ray player/burner. It supports Blu-ray 3D, and with Ethernet, WiFi, USB and SD connectivity, it offers lots of new media stuff. That recording capability includes TV shows, plus compatible content on SD cards, typically from an HD camcorder. All this is in one standard component width, reasonably slimline case. Setting up As you would expect with a modern Panasonic consumer device, setting up is straightforward. You are guided by a wizard, and this includes scanning the airways for digital TV stations and setting up your network. However, there are some advanced options worth investigating. You may want to set how the two HDMI outputs are deployed. Let’s say you have a decent home theatre receiver with HDMI inputs, but it doesn’t support 3D video. The way around this has been to use the HDMI output on your Blu-ray 3D player to connect to a 3D TV, and optical digital audio to connect to the receiver. Optical and coaxial digital do not support the high-defi nition audio standards – Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio – so you don’t get the full quality on the disc. With this unit, you can connect one of the HDMI outputs to the TV for the 3D video, and the other to the receiver for the full high-definition sound. Just set the video output for the ‘sub’ HDMI output to ‘off’. Only the audio (and a 2D black picture) goes to the receiver, so it will work properly. You can also set up as many as four ‘favourites’ lists of stations or hide those annoying repeated channels (e.g. ABC 1 is on station 2 and station 21). But most important of all, find the ‘24p output’ setting and switch it on (it defaults to ‘off’). Without that, you will get jerky video on most Blu-ray discs. Picture quality As a regular Blu-ray player, this unit’s picture quality is as good as that of other players. But with the more difficult discs, such as the 1080i50 versions sometimes released in Australia, it produces a much better picture than most. It is extremely good at detecting the type of video then applying the correct progressive scan conversion to optimise picture quality. And if it misses, you can force it into the correct mode – ‘film’ or ‘video’ as appropriate. With Australian DVDs the picture quality is as good as it gets, and at our present technological level it’s probably as good as it can get. These capabilities carry through to digital TV stations and playback of recordings made to the hard disk. PVRs are variable on this front, especially with standard-definition TV. Some do a really bad job at delivering this via HDMI, introducing various unwanted distortions. This unit makes SDTV look as good as it is capable of looking. Recording and burning There is 1TB of hard disk for recording and time-shifting TV programs, and when watching TV you can pause or rewind for a couple of hours. ‘Padding’ can be automatically added to the start and finish of programmed recordings to make sure nothing is missed – another reason to visit the set-up menu. The unit will record two stations at once, and play something back at the same time. But it can’t record three or four programs simultaneously, as offered by some of the higher-priced stand-alone PVRs. It beats all PVRs when it comes to editing on the hard disk. Some PVRs have the ability to cut out bits, but they do a hack job with marked macro blocking at the cuts. This unit generates new frames over the cut for clean transitions. That capability extended to the HD wedding video mentioned above. The SD card was plugged in and the video copied (in its AVC HD format) to the Panasonic’s hard disk. It was then edited and burnt to a Blu-ray RE (re-recordable format). When burning to Blu-ray, you can use the ‘high speed’ mode, which means the original format of the recording is retained. The Blu-ray picture quality was identical to that on the camcorder. Transferring 51 minutes of original recording to Blu-ray took about 30 minutes. Where this unit gets even trickier is that it can copy HD content to a DVD, reformatting it into standard-defi nition MPEG2 format. This is a slower process, and quality suffers somewhat, but the result is acceptable. It took more than 80 minutes for that 51 minute wedding video, because the whole thing plays through in real time while the conversion is processed. Only then is the video copied to DVD. New media The unit supports Panasonic’s Viera Cast internet functions. Pre-installed in the latest fi rmware update are YouTube, Yahoo!7 Plus7 catchup TV, Facebook, Skype (you will need Panasonic’s Skype camera for this) and some information apps. There is also access to the Viera Market, so you can download apps for many other things, including Twitter, plus games and other video sources – but not ABC iView. It plays a strange mixture of media from SD and USB, with the mixture varying according to source. So for SD you get JPEG and MPO photos (MPO is a 3D format), plus AVC HD and MPEG2 video. For USB you get JPEG and MPO photos, DivX, MKV, AVC HD and MPEG2 video, and MP3 music. You also get full Digital Living Network Alliance support. So, in addition to music, the unit can show photos and play video from your network. Conclusion The Panasonic DMR-BWT800 may come across as the perfect machine, but it isn’t, primarily due to some silly decisions on how it operates. If you are playing a Blu-ray disc, for example, and accidentally hit the prominent green key on the remote for the EPG, play stops and the EPG fires up without any request for confirmation – often losing your place on the disc. Several other keys to do the same thing. The eject key won’t work while the unit is handshaking via HDMI after a video format change, something that happens a lot. One important key is missing, and its function can be found only by digging around under the ‘options’ menu. However, I could easily live with that silly stuff. If you have a HD camcorder and don’t want to get into computer editing, or if you just want a high-quality disc spinner and HDTV PVR, then look closely at this unit.