For the DMR-BW500, Panasonic has retreated from the airlock-styled designs of the DMP-BD10 and DMP-BD30 and gone with something more utilitarian. But that's not to say this is an ugly box because it's kinda curvy — it's just more discreet. The chassis comes in an attractive black finish and is quite compact considering the amount of features stuffed into it.
It's not obvious at first glance, but then it slowly dawns on you — the front doesn't have any buttons on it! Instead, the play controls and several ports are hidden behind a very VCR-like flap. Also unusual is that the eject button is on the opposite side of the player to the disc tray, and the power button is directly above the tray — talk about unintuitive.
The remote is typical Panasonic fare and it's comfortable to hold in the hand. However, some of the buttons are a little confusingly named: for example, Menu is called "Direct Navigator". Some of the buttons also don't work how you want — the Drive Select button sometimes won't let you select "BD" when you want to switch from TV. Plus, there's also no eject button.
If you're looking for a full-featured recorder then the DMR-BW500 is pretty much a one-stop shop — only a media centre PC boasts more features. You get a Blu-ray player and recorder, dual HD tuners and a 500GB hard drive to keep your shows on.
The hard drive can also be used to rip MP3s from CDs and the Panasonic has an on-board Gracenote database of 350,000 titles. However, as the machine also carries an Ethernet port, it will seek out any discs it can't find on-board from the interwebs.
We were hopeful that this little port meant that the device would support BD-Live, but unfortunately it's only BD Profile 1.1 and not upgradeable to Profile 2.0. You could argue that there is a dearth of internet content available on Blu-ray so far, but it hasn't stopped Disney from announcing all its future titles will feature BD-Live content.
If you have a compatible camcorder, the DMR-BW500 supports AVCHD and SD cards which makes it simpler to transfer your camera footage. The remote control will also let you communicate with HDMI-enabled camcorders (only Panasonic at this stage) for playback control.
Inputs include HDMI, component and two SCART connectors. Though this device will accept video-in, unfortunately it's only in the form of S-Video or composite.
It's hard to know where to start with a device like this because it does so many different things. But we'll begin with recording HD, as this is what people buying the box will want to do with it.
Firstly, whether you're watching live FTA or pre-recorded vision on the HDD, the video quality is excellent. Jaggies and compression artefacts are not to be seen and the colour and detail the Panasonic extracts from off-air is very good.
The DMR-BW500 supports the seven-day EPG where we were able to browse through the following week and even sort by genre — movies, sport etc — which made recording even simpler. One of the devices we saw last year — the Beyonwiz DP-S1 was unable to walk and chew gum at the same time (translation: record TV and play movies simultaneously) but the Panasonic managed this with ease.
Playback on other devices isn't guaranteed, however — particularly if you own a PlayStation 3. Regardless of which media we used, we were able to see a menu of the recordings we made within the XMB but as soon as we clicked on one we got a message saying "This video cannot be played (80029945)". Apparently, this issue also affected early versions of BD burning programs for PC but it was fixed with later patches. Hopefully a future Panasonic firmware update will fix this.
As a comparison, we also tried playing the disc in a PC using Sony's BWU-200S Blu-ray burner and while it worked the video was very choppy. Retail movies worked fine in the same system so it's hard to say which player is at fault here.
Despite some recording niggles, the DMR-BW500 is a very good device. It supports advanced audio formats Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio and so sound quality is top notch.
But vision hasn't been forgotten either, and in addition to great recording quality, the Panasonic is able to playback commercial Blu-rays with all the fidelity of its brethren.