Panasonic's top-of-the-range DMP-BDT310 offers everything you could possibly hope for in a Blu-ray player. A range of networking options, 3D support and a pair of HDMI outputs make this £230 machine seem like the ideal choice for a home-cinema enthusiast. But how does it compare to similar models from Sony and Samsung, which are also well specified and sometimes cheaper?
Even though it's small, the beautiful DMP-BDT310 doesn't skimp on features. It offers two HDMI outputs, a pair of USB sockets, and the usual uninspiring composite video RCA jacks.
On the front, there's a drop-down cover that conceals some controls and one of the USB sockets. There's also a classy display that shows crucial information, such as how long you've been watching a Blu-ray movie for.
On the top of the player, you'll find a 'wave-sensitive panel' that allows you to open the disc tray without touching the player. We like this because we're monumental geeks, but we don't know what actual need it serves. Are members of the public entirely sick of pressing the eject button, and on the verge of some sort of mass revolution? We just don't know.
Panasonic's new graphical menus are very pleasant. Call us superficial, but the new interface makes us feel better about the player as a whole.
We used to moan on and on and on about slow disc-load times. We're still not thrilled that it takes tens of seconds to go from inserting a disc to it playing. Even so, Panasonic has now managed to get a disc playing between 10 and 20 seconds after it's inserted. That's a significant improvement on past efforts.
This year, Panasonic is changing the name of its Viera Cast online service to Viera Connect on its TVs. The company's not doing the same in the case of its Blu-ray players, however -- the DMP-BDT310 still accesses Viera Cast. Note that Panasonic has said -- but not promised -- some of its Blu-ray players may switch to the new Connect service at some point, via an upgrade.
The online features of the DMP-BDT310 are still similar to those on the company's new TVs. We still find them rather lacking too, especially when compared to the services offered on Sony's Blu-ray players -- there's no access to BBC iPlayer, for example. One feature we are totally sold on, however, is Skype video calling.
We reckon Skype is almost a killer feature, in fact, because the popular and free VoIP service allows friends and families to connect over long distances. Set-up is a simple matter of getting the DMP-BDT310 on your home network over either Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and plugging in the optional USB camera, which has built-in microphones. Once that's done, you pop in your Skype account details and you're ready to call.
You'll need a good connection to use Skype. We found the overall quality of the service to be decent, once we were connected. It's a really great way to stay in touch, and we can see this being a big deal on TVs in the future.
If you bought your home-cinema system before all this 3D nonsense kicked off, then you might not have a 3D-capable AV receiver. In that case, you probably won't be able to watch 3D images and listen to lossless audio at the same time.
Panasonic gets around this problem by offering a pair of HDMI outputs on the DMP-BDT310. One carries 3D video to the TV and the other carries lossless DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD to your 5.1-channel amplifier. This solution might, at first glance, appear clumsy, but it's actually incredibly useful.
Panasonic is really throwing itself into the network playback scene. Its newly redesigned menus bring DLNA sharing to the forefront of the DMP-BDT310 -- something that also indicates modern Blu-ray players are more like media players now, with plenty of extra codec support.
The DMP-BDT310 can play MKV-type files, which often contain HD video, with surround-sound audio. This is a crucial feature, and one that Panasonic is only just introducing. The DMP-BDT310 can play such files from Fat32-formatted USB drives, or via DLNA. If you want to use network streaming, be aware that it's something of a problem to set up. For some people, it works first time, while, for others, it never does. USB is a far easier way to handle video files.
If you own a Panasonic camcorder, or any other device that shoots AVCHD footage, then you'll be pleased to learn that the DMP-BDT310 can easily pop movies in that format onto your TV.
A headline feature of this player is its ability to communicate with other Panasonic equipment you own via its streaming capabilities -- in particular one of the company's Freeview PVRs. So, if you record one thing on your Panasonic PVR and then go to whichever room the Blu-ray player is in, you can resume playing the recording from where you left off.
We love this idea. The only problem is that it depends on you having other Panasonic hardware. We hope the world's electronics companies will put their heads together and come up with a fix for this soon.
The Panasonic DMP-BDT310 isn't the cheapest Blu-ray player around and doesn't offer the best Internet portal on the market. But, if you want to share media around your home and you have plenty of other Panasonic equipment, it will prove really useful. Even if you don't have any other Panasonic kit, the DLNA and media-playback functionality will still prove really handy. We also love its support for MKV files. Overall, we have to give this machine a big thumbs up.
Edited by Charles Kloet