It's all very well having a freesat receiver, but until now if you wanted to record something you'd have to use the only freesat recorder on the market, the Humax Foxsat-HDR. Now, don't get us wrong, the Humax is excellent, but we do like a bit of choice. Panasonic seems to agree with us too -- and to prove it has launched a pair of Blu-ray freesat recorders. The DMR-BS750, which we're looking at here, also has a built-in 250GB hard drive and a gaggle of other superb features. Its bigger brother, the BS850, is identical save for a 500GB hard drive.
There is one minor issue with this potentially excellent piece of hardware: the price. At £900 it's a very expensive addition to your home cinema setup (the BS850 will set you back a cool £1,000). We're not in the habit of ruling things out solely because they cost a great deal of money though -- so the question is, does it earn its keep?
To look at the DMR-BS750, you'd never know it was a Blu-ray recorder, let alone a twin-tuner freesat recorder. It's the same size as any other Blu-ray player and it has Panasonic's trademark stylish exterior. There aren't very many buttons on the front of the machine at all -- a power and eject control provide the only tactile finger-joy here.
On the right-hand side however, you'll find a little drop-flap, which conceals a few inputs, sockets and some basic deck controls. Among the sockets are an SD card slot, a FireWire connector and a USB socket. You'll also find the usual camcorder inputs, consisting of three RCA jacks for composite video and stereo audio and there's an S-Video input too. The disc tray is hidden behind another flap, on the right-hand side of the machine, which keeps the whole front looking delightfully symmetrical.
At the back of the machine, there's a further selection of inputs and outputs. Audio is handled by one optical and one coaxial digital output. There's also an RCA stereo output for people who don't have access to an AV receiver or soundbar. Video outputs include composite, S-Video and component jacks. There's an HDMI socket for HD video, of course, and this is what we'd advise you use.
Everything is controlled by a simple remote. Panasonic doesn't mess around with its controllers and the one provided with the 750 is very sturdy and feels pleasant enough to hold. The buttons are well laid-out, and large enough for us to operate. We'd question some of the labelling on keys, which doesn't always make it clear what result pressing a particular button might yield.
The Panasonic DMR-BS750 has an incredible number of features. To do them all justice, we need to run through them in a logical way.
The BS750 has two freesat tuners, enabling you to record one channel while watching another. Alternatively, you can watch a recording from the built-in 250GB hard drive or something on Blu-ray and record two separate channels. This functionality relies on two satellite inputs -- so if you only have one feed from your dish, you can only record and watch the same channel.
As you would expect, the BS750 is a fully featured Blu-ray player as well as using the format to record. It's profile 2.0-compliant, which means it can access online content via BD Live and play movies with picture-in-picture options.
With the ability to access USB keys and SD cards, you can watch video, look at photos or enjoy music from portable storage devices.
There's much more too -- for example, the BS750 can also play DivX video content, rip CDs to its hard drive and even look up what music it's ripping from an included CD database. It's really quite the box of tricks.
Panasonic has also included its much-vaunted VieraCast system too. If you haven't heard its boasting, we should explain: VieraCast is a content portal for online photo and video services. It's still in its early stages at the moment, but you can watch YouTube videos and see photos stored on Google's online Picasa photo-hosting service. It's actually a very interesting, likeable feature and we look forward to the addition of more video. It's also thought that at some point Panasonic will do a deal with the BBC to get iPlayer on the service. If that can happen we'll be thrilled to bits, and first in line to buy one.
As is traditional, we'll now perform our famous Blu-ray speed test. The BS750 can load our test Blu-ray in 1 minute 17 seconds, which is about the same speed as Panasonic's own BD35. That makes it seventh fastest on a list of eight players. Not really very good -- we're giving Panasonic a grade C here, with a side note of "please do better in future".
Another speed-related niggle is the BD Live access. We popped in our special-edition Casino Royale Blu-ray and accessed the online interactive features. Civilisations rose and fell in the time it took to see anything useful. Suffice to say, we weren't impressed. Still, when using Blu-ray menus to navigate around movie special features, the player is spry enough to stop its remote control from being hurled around the lounge.
Picture quality from freesat channels was, for the most part, brilliant. BBC HD looked magnificent, and most broadcast channels in standard definition looked decent too. Mind you, there's an awful lot of garbage on freesat, so we won't be conveying our opinion of the smaller channels. Suffice to say, BBC One, Channel 4 and Five all looked pretty decent to us. Recording is, of course, a direct bit-for-bit copy of the original. If you want to save some space, you can engage one of the lossy recoding modes, but we'd advise against it.
Blu-ray playback was excellent too -- our Casino Royale disc got another outing here. By way of contrast, we watched the stylish black and white opening sequence and the bright, colourful credits. Both looked utterly splendid and we would happily use this as our primary Blu-ray player.
We also really like the music-ripping service and the BS750's skilful way of playing music alongside a photo slideshow. This is really useful for parties where you want some background music while you show off your holiday photos. It beats hands-down anything the Popcorn Hour media streamer can do with photo and audio and it's pretty much nailed Apple TV in this department too.
The VieraCast system is also thoroughly likeable. Although it's sparsely populated at the moment, we really enjoyed the YouTube function. Our only complaints here are that the text entry on the YouTube menus is slow and arduous, and the machine beeps too much, which is really annoying. We couldn't find a way to shut it up either, which was even worse. When you're playing a clip the player does a great job of buffering and the video is always silky smooth. For sure, it's one of the best of these YouTube widgets we've ever seen.
When we were recording we noticed that noise from the spinning disc was occasionally a minor issue. Sometimes it was reasonably quiet, other times it was loud enough to scare a decent-sized lion. For most people that's unlikely to be a problem, as the amount you actually record to disc is going to be reasonably small.
In terms of using the recorder to copy video from the hard drive to Blu-ray, it works well -- although the menu options for doing it are a little confusing. It's worth pointing out that HD recordings can only be burnt to Blu-ray, and for the most part, only once. SD recordings can be burnt to either Blu-ray at high speed, or DVD at a slower speed and in reduced quality. DVDs with SD recordings on aren't copy protected in any way though.
Sadly, Blu-ray recordings are cursed with idiotic copy protection, but this is just Panasonic playing by the broadcasters' rules. It's up to the likes of the BBC to lift restrictions like that -- and given that freesat's satellite feed is unprotected, we think it's pretty ludicrous that saving recordings is prohibited.
We adore the Panasonic DMR-BS750, and we suspect you will too. The only barrier to us owning one is the very substantial price. Not only is the initial outlay of £900 a massive wedge of cash, but if you intend to buy recordable Blu-ray discs, you're also in for quite some expense on top of that.
If you're happy with paying the money though, we say go ahead and get one of these excellent machines. The picture quality is top-notch, it's a fully featured Blu-ray player and a terrific freesat DVR. If you want to record freesat but the £900 is too steep, we suggest the Humax Foxsat HDR, which at £300 is much more wallet-friendly. We'd also be happy to recommend any of Panasonic's Blu-ray players to go alongside it -- all are excellent.
Edited by Nick Hide