However, I have a confession to make about all of this. Although I love satellite, I'm too cheap to pay a monthly fee for it. Not without reason, though - I just have a real issue with paying premium amounts of money for programming that is anything but (and with the digital revolution and its bargain-basement bitrates, that often goes for its technical quality even moreso). OK, so Sky are now offering a decent selection of HD channels on their service, but I find Blu-ray meets my HD movie needs more than adequately.
Panasonic's DMR-BS850 is made for people like me. If you subscribe to Sky (or if you're reading elsewhere in Europe or in Australasia, a similar satellite service), then you probably already pay them to use one of their branded DVR units anyway, so Panasonic's machine isn't likely to be of any use to you. But if you want access to free-to-air satellite channels with both hard disk and Blu-ray recording - and the ability to play Blu-ray Discs - then it should put a smile on your face.
The DMR-BS850 is a 500gb Hard Disk Drive recorder, designed to store recordings made using its twin satellite tuners (Panasonic promotes these for use with the Freesat HD service, but the machine isn't limited to Freesat-vetted channels). With the BD-RE (Blu-ray Disc REwritable) drive, you can play back Blu-ray movies, and offload recordings to writeable or re-writable discs if you want to share them with a friend - or if your hard disk is getting full.
The uses don't stop there, though. The DMR-BS850 has a DV input on its front, so you can hook up a digital camcorder and record to the hard drive. And, there's an SD card input on the front (the new SDHC type, which can deal with larger capacity cards), in case your camera uses one of these. Oh, and, you can rip CDs to the machine's large hard disk too and use it as a music jukebox.
Watching and Recording Satellite TV, and using the EPG
The first thing I noticed was the image quality of the standard definition channels (in other words, just about every single free-to-air channel out there). Source permitting, it's really just about as good as it's going to get. There are some truly hideous looking channels, as well as some really, really good ones (whoever's behind most of France 24's image quality deserves a pay rise). If you've ever looked at how a Panasonic Blu-ray player plays back DVDs, you'll have a decent idea of the quality of the scaling and deinterlacing in the DMR-BS850. Both 576i and 1080i channels were converted to 1080p for output, meaning that when you jump between SD and HD material, your TV won't have to "resync" and you'll soon see video with minimal delay. Unlike branded decoders from cable and satellite companies, though, this conversion is done very well indeed, by Panasonic's own Uniphier chip.
Pushing the green GUIDE button on the remote control brought up a Freesat Genre Selection screen. Personally, I found this irritating - I’m used to pressing my TV’s own GUIDE button to quickly make educated channel-surfing decisions. Having to tell it that, yes, I really do want to browse all channels is a bit of a pain, especially considering that the DMR-BS850 stops to think for a second or two between button presses. An option to bypass this and go straight to the main EPG would be great, but this arrangement is so peculiar that I can only assume it’s mandated by Freesat.
Regardless, once you're in, the EPG is nice and easy to use. Simply select a show, hit the middle button, and you’ll be tuned to the necessary channel. Two usability improvements I’d personally make, though: first of all, allow a user to simply tune to a currently showing programme (the BS850 takes you to a screen asking you to set up a timer recording, seemingly requiring you to exit the EPG and key the channel number in manually), and second, allow the user to simply highlight a programme and press REC on the remote to schedule a recording (the BS850 requires you to go through a few more steps).
One feature of the EPG I really, really appreciated, though, was a reminder of when a show is simulcast in HD. For example, I was setting a timer recording for a programme on BBC Two, expecting to have to sit through Standard Definition the next night, so imagine my surprise and delight when a message told me that the same show was also being sent out on the BBC HD channel, asking me if I'd rather record that version instead. As far as I'm aware, this feature is unique to Panasonic's recorders.
As previously noted, the BS850 is not tethered only to receiving Freesat-approved channels. By going through some additional menus, you can pull in every channel that your dish can receive. Most of the good stuff is encrypted, and the recorder intelligently lets you filter such channels out and keep only the free ones (with decent, but not flawless accuracy). This allows you to receive some hilariously crazed religious programming, amongst other things. On top of that, you can also cut away to ITV1 London when Scottish Television (or your equally frustrating regional variation) decides to replace a potentially entertaining programme with a documentary about Gaelic speakers and their toils in the mountains.
If you find anything you want to commit to the ages, or commit until next weekend when you get a chance to watch it and then delete it, punching the REC button on the remote will begin writing it to disk. No surprises there, but unlike many other recorders, this process occurs without any recompression. Whilst many recording devices run TV pictures through a re-encoding process (and damage the quality even further in the process), the BS850 has a "DR" (Direct Recording) option, which simply grabs the Transport Stream from the dish and stashes it onto disk. In other words, the machine stores a bit-for-bit identical recording of the actual broadcast, meaning that no quality is lost during the recording process. It probably goes without saying that I'm a huge fan of this feature!
Because the video signal hasn’t been “flattened”, it also means that the user can toggle subtitles on and off, just as they would with a live broadcast. This feature should really be standard on all recorders, so it’s great to see it here.
It can ENcode, too
With that said, if you really want to cram gigantic amounts of video onto the 500gb disk, you can choose to lower the quality of the video by cramming the bit rate down even further. With the scarcity of HD content and the miniscule bit rates of most SD channels (and the option of offloading recordings you really want to keep to BD), I can’t imagine anyone is going to fill the disk anyway.
But, because I'm one to celebrate technical achievements, I should mention that Panasonic's machine does this job with surprising results. In a moment of sadism, I decided to compress a BBC HD recording using the lowest quality "EP - Extended Play" mode. Expecting to see an unwatchable mess of compression soup, I was astonished to see that the degradation, whilst apparent to my compression-weary eyes, was nowhere near as bad as I'd feared.
This process is performed in real time: a 40 minute recording will take 40 minutes to re-encode. This might sound like a drag to home users, but real-time AVC encoding is no fast task (some professional facilities encoding Blu-ray movies using software encoders have reported 18-hour wait times for their high-end machines to crunch through a 2-hour film). Besides, the DMR-BS850 can perform this process while you're not using it, making it incredibly convenient.
Would I ever use this feature? No. The point of HDTV has always been high picture quality, and the storage mediums available today (25/50gb Blu-ray Discs, and this machine's 500gb hard disk) provide plenty of room. Even although Panasonic's recompression is of a surprisingly high standard, I just see no logical reason to even risk the image quality.
It's a different story for standard definition, though. If you choose to recompress an SD broadcast, this will be done in MPEG-2. This is a bit of a shame, because a standard-def MPEG-2 broadcast could be compressed using AVC (the same codec used for most Blu-ray titles and HD satellite channels) with little loss of quality, but with a reduction in file size. I'd imagine that the decision to keep SD in MPEG-2 is to retain compatibility with DVD-Video, just in case you want to offload the shrunk recording to this format.
Digital “Rights” Management
BBC HD programmes can be shifted to BD once, and ITV HD programmes can’t be transferred at all, but everyone’s hoping that the latter situation will change shortly. Now, I can understand that BBC will have to keep Hollywood studios happy, but what does not sit well with me one bit is the fact that this restriction affects ALL of the corporation's publicly-funded HD output, rather than specific films. It does make me wonder if our public service broadcaster has the interests of their commercial arm at the forefront.
Regardless, I’d imagine that this won’t really inconvenience most users, who’ll typically record a programme for later viewing and then delete it. Still, I thought that the inanity of the situation merits attention. Again though, none of it is Panasonic’s fault.
BD Playback Quality
1080i contents are converted (deinterlaced) to 1080p for output with the same high quality performance as seen on machines like the DMP-BD35 and DMP-BD60. Using the Silicon Optix HQV benchmark disc (Blu-ray version), I verified that the Video Resolution Loss test, Film Resolution Loss test, and the two jaggies test passed with fantastic results. The latter two tests also revealed diagonal interpolation of extremely high quality, meaning that unsightly jaggies will almost never reach your screen.
Unlike the standalone machines, this recorder doesn’t have any video adjustments. Whilst the DMP-BDxx machines let you alter settings such as Brightness and Contrast, the DMR-BS850 only allows you to switch between a few picture presets: Normal, Cinema, Fine, and Soft. Don’t worry - “Normal” appears to be the “no processing” option which leaves things as-is, so the lack of adjustability during playback really is of no consequence.
DVD Playback Quality
No surprises here... the DMR-BS850 plays standard definition DVD-Video discs as well as (and no better than) the standalone BD players from Panasonic. Scaling is clean and sharp, but the player applies a touch too much edge enhancement to high frequencies, which exaggerates mosquito noise a little. On the standalone players, we have independent control of the Sharpness option and can undo (or at least conceal) the effect, but on the BS850, we have to select the “Soft” picture mode, which has different Gamma characteristics, which changes the appearance of the image a little. This is less than ideal, but not a huge issue in the long run.
As usual with the Panasonic range, Film Mode detection isn’t ideal for PAL Films, so a little user intervention is required to get the most from your DVD collection. The “Auto” setting under the “Progressive” option in the “Picture” menu doesn’t compensate for the 2-2 cadence automatically, so I left it on “Film” to ensure that PAL Film playback from DVD was as good as possible. Of course, this meant that I had to manually switch back to "Auto" or "Video" mode when I was watching a DVD captured using Video cameras, but because my DVD collection consists mainly of movies, it made more sense to bias the playback in favour of these.
NTSC cadence detection was highly predictable: the common 3-2 cadence is detected correctly, but most of the others are not. For NTSC discs, simply using the "Auto" setting gets you the best performance possible from this machine.
Panasonic DMR-BS850 Freesat HD Blu-ray Recorder Review
It’s probably fair to say that Panasonic’s DMR-BS850 fills a niche. If you subscribe to a pay-TV satellite or cable service, then you’ll probably have a machine with a Sky or Virgin Media badge on it that fulfills the same core recording functions. And if you don't like paying for TV, then you're probably receiving Terrestrial broadcasts.
But if you're starved of HD content and are on a tight budget, then Freesat is probably your best hope for the future (until the blunderers in charge follow the example of other countries and organise HDTV over the air, perhaps in time for the next decade). The only thing that might put you off such a machine is the price: £900 could buy a lot of premium HDTV content from Sky, as well as a standalone Blu-ray Disc player for the highest quality HD movie playback. And, unlike our friends in Japan, most consumers in the West will probably have little interest in actually recording to Blu-ray, so I wonder if Panasonic would be better off introducing a lower-cost machine which can play back BD but not write to it.
If you’re reading this far, though, then it seems like you’re looking for a well-designed HD satellite recorder and are at least interested in playing Blu-ray. The DMR-BS850 receives satellite TV in both SD and HD, records to its sizable hard drive, does a fantastic job of playing back Blu-ray Discs, a great job of playing back DVD, and still has additional features to offer. As a result, it’s not difficult at all to recommend it to anyone who decides that free-to-air satellite is for them.
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