In the highly competitive PVR market, the way to stand out from the crowd is to offer features the others don’t or simply do what they do but better. The Panasonic DMR-BW850 has a large 500GB of storage but also has a Blu-ray writer as well so you can copy recorded programs from the hard drive to disc. While the image quality that this PVR is capable of is incredible, the interface is fraught with issues including sluggish response times and being overly complicated and counterintuitive.
As far as image quality goes, this is easily one of the better PVRs on the market. It can be connected via HDMI, Component or Composite although it has trouble when attempting to set the resolution when connected via Component. No matter how many times we tried, we couldn’t get the device to display at 720p. Even when we selected 720p it kept displaying at 1080i. Over HDMI this wasn’t a problem at all. Channel switching is fast and since it has dual tuners, we were able to record more than one HD channel at the same time.
Copying to Blu-ray, even in fast copy mode, took an average of 1 minute per minute of footage. If you want to quickly make room on the internal hard drive you are out of luck. You can’t copy in the background either, so during the copy process you can’t watch TV. The layout of the menus is a little confusing and just trying to copy to Blu-ray is a chore. Scheduling programs to record is unnecessarily complex too and requires you to jump through multiple menus and even then it isn’t clear exactly what you have to do. Once you get used to the device, many of the usability issues will melt away but until then, there is a steep learning curve.
The most disconcerting problem is how sluggish and slow the device is. When you press a button on the remote it can take a few seconds for a menu to pop up on screen. That few seconds is enough time for you to press the button again thinking the first press didn’t go through. What you have on your hands is a frustrating button mashing exercise until something appears.
There is no WiFi but a LAN port is supplied so you can hook up the DMR-BW850 to the Internet to take full advantage of its web features. When listening to music, the device can access Gracenote for track information and album art. It can also hook up to YouTube and Picassa. The LAN port also allows you to use BD-Live content when watching Blu-ray films.
The Blu-ray drive, in addition to burning recorded programs, can also play back Blu-ray films, DVDs and quite a few other media types. There are some restrictions though but most of them are fairly obscure formats or not commonly used. All the main formats are represented and music/images burnt to DVD and CD writable media can also be played. This unit can play back audio and images but there is no UPnP streaming from a network.
The PVR also has a SD card and USB slot which can be used to play back video, audio and images. DiVX is supported so many files downloaded from the Internet will play fine. There is also an optical and coax digital audio connector. You can also play AVCHD format files from a video camera by simply plugging it in to the player. You can also copy files from any disc or SD/USB to the internal hard drive if you wish. For those not wanting to fork out the cost of Blu-ray writable media, programs can be compressed onto a DVD but they will have to sacrifice some image quality.
On the whole, this is quite a good PVR. It has all the functionality you would expect from a Blu-ray recorder as well as dual tuner and a wide range of connection options. However, for many consumers it may be scary to use and as alien as the VHS player was in the 80s. A simple, well laid out, easy to use and attractive interface would make this device absolutely stellar. The sluggish operation also needs to be improved in future iterations making this a good device in its current state but not a great one.