Panasonic's DMP-BD85K has great image quality and its 7.1 analog outputs are a nice plus, but it's slow and less featured than competing models.
Panasonic made the first standalone Blu-ray player good enough for us to recommend; however, since then the company's Blu-ray line has lagged behind other manufacturers. None of Panasonic's 2009 Blu-ray players support Netflix video streaming or include Wi-Fi, two features that now seem must-have as media streaming becomes a big reason why people upgrade to Blu-ray.
The DMP-BD85K is the midrange player in Panasonic's 2010 Blu-ray line, and it corrects for many of errors the company made with last year's model by including a USB Wi-Fi adapter and adding Netflix--as well as Pandora in the future--to its streaming content portal, VieraCast.
On the other hand, Panasonic still seems to be a step behind the competition as built-in Wi-Fi is now the norm, and Samsung and LG offer more streaming services, and the DMP-BD85K wound up feeling sluggish compared to other 2010 Blu-ray players.
If you need 7.1 analog audio outputs, the DMP-BD85K is one of the few affordable players still offering it, but otherwise we couldn't find much to recommend it over competitors such as the LG BD570 or Sony BDP-S570.
While most manufacturers update their design every year to look sleeker and glossier, Panasonic's Blu-ray players tend to look the same every year. The DMP-BD85K looks a lot like last year's DMP-BD80K, with its boxy edges and relatively muted aesthetics. It has an easy-to-read LCD screen on the left and a disc tray under an automatic flip-down panel in the center. Under the flip-down panel on the far right are some bare-bones playback controls (only stop and play), an SD card slot, and a USB port. Aesthetics are always subjective, but we prefer the look of the more modern looks of the Sony BDP-S570 and LG BD570 to Panasonic's design.
If like us, you think the Blu-ray player's exterior looks a little old, then you'll think Panasonic's user interface feels even older. Nearly every other manufacturer has redesigned its menus with spiffy high-definition graphics, but Panasonic's menus look nearly identical to the menus it includes with its DVD players. We also couldn't understand the naming behind some of the menu options. Selecting network brings you to VieraCast, which is Panasonic's online content portal. Why not name that VieraCast, especially since Panasonic labeled the button on the remote as "VieraCast?" None of the menu labels are too difficult to figure out, especially for tech-savvy users, but you get the impression that not a lot of effort has been put into the user experience.
Luckily, the VieraCast interface looks more modern than the main menus, with high-definition graphics and large boxes for the available services. Panasonic still hasn't released the firmware update enabling the most recent, multipage VieraCast interface we've seen at product demos, so we'll wait to comment on it until we've had more hands-on time.
Panasonic was also slow to get onboard with streaming media features, but this year its players offer a larger selection of services. With Netflix and Amazon VOD, Panasonic covers subscription and pay-per-view streaming movie services and adds extras like YouTube, Picasa, and weather, which we appreciate. Pandora support is coming later, although other players already support it.
The DMP-BD85K's AV outputs are standard, with the exception of the 7.1 analog outputs. The 7.1 analog outs are a nice step-up for anyone that has an older HDMI-less receiver, as they allow you to take advantage of the full resolution of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks without buying a new receiver.
Panasonic has been slow to add Wi-Fi to its Blu-ray players, so we were happy to see the company include a Wi-Fi dongle with the DMP-BD85K. Yes, we'd probably prefer built-in Wi-Fi for sleekness's sake, but nobody will ever see the USB Wi-Fi adapter on the back of the player.
The remote control included with the package is largely unchanged from last year, although we were happy to see Panasonic took our advice and brought back the eject button. A numpad dominates the top of the remote, with large blue playback control buttons underneath. The stop button is somewhat oddly set off on its own, but once we learned the new position, we actually liked the button layout. On the other hand, some of Panasonic's button labels, like "Direct Navigator" and "Submenu," feel archaic and like jargon; we think it's time for an update.