Blu-ray has finally gained widespread mainstream acceptance as the HD disc format of choice, and we've recently seen players hit the sub-AU$100 mark, such as the rather stupendous value Soniq QPB302B. This sort of machine is a great entry-level buy, but what if you want your BD player to do a bit more than simply play Blu-ray discs? Then you'll need something like this: the Panasonic DMR-BW880 Blu-ray recorder/PVR, which will, with patience, provide all manner of HD video and audio convergence.
Sharing the current Panasonic "look" for its DVD/BD hardware, the BW880 sports a metallic-lined front fascia with both disc draw, on-board controls and more hidden behind a couple of drop-down flaps. A flip reveals such hidden assets as a DV-in, SD card slot, USB input, composite video and stereo audio inputs, plus the basic functions of play, stop, record and channel selection. Everything else is on the remote, which is (understandably) quite a button-busy handset. Physically, the BW880 shares the same size footprint as your average slimline BD player.
Replacing the DMR-BW850, the BW880 adds a couple of noteworthy extra features and a price drop, but at AU$1199 it's still a relatively expensive machine compared to some hardware alternatives. Internal HDD memory has remained the same as the previous model at 500GB hard drive (Japanese buyers of the local BW880 do twice as well with a 1TB minimum HDD ... why is that?) and the twin, high-definition tuners are the same as before. Feature-wise, this model adds DLNA media sharing over a home network compared to its predecessor. The twin tuners mean you can simultaneously record/watch digital TV broadcasts and the 500GB capacity equates to around 350 hours of HD quality recording or 885 hours of standard definition.
The DLNA networking capability is extremely useful, but only if your home's already networked and set-up for such. If so, and you've the technical know-how, the BW880's content can be shared on any other DLNA-compliant media devices on the network, such as streamers, laptops or desktop PCs. Other external devices, such as digital cameras, camcorders or MP3 players can be plugged in to either the SD card slot or USB port. What's more, the DMR-BW880 also supports Panasonic's Viera Cast service — connect it to your broadband and it'll stream photos and video via YouTube and Picasa.
At the back are all the usual connection types, including a single HDMI output (surely, two would have been no hassle to include?), as well as the garden variety component, S-Video, and composite video ins and outs. A single coaxial input and output make the antenna connection and again it would have been handy to provide twin ins and outs for both on-board tuners. Finally, digital audio is outputted as you'd expect as bitstream or PCM via both coaxial and optical outputs.
The remote is the same sort that Panasonic's been using for a while now and with the Viera Link it has clearly been designed for use with Panasonic's range of LCD and plasma TVs.
Depending on how far you want to delve, buyers of this recorder will probably want to take it one step at a time, given the sheer amount of features and functions. If you could never program the VCR, we'd recommend you read the manual with this one before attempting any fancy recording footwork. It's a complex beast to use and the rather dated menu system also doesn't help matters much.
Once you've overcome this initial hurdle and eased yourself in, the Panasonic's performance will have you smiling. We didn't encounter any problems with the on-board tuners (as commonly reported online), which was apparently an RF attenuation issue. Digital TV reception for us was great — both tuners locked on to and held channels solidly, even during a typical Sydney late afternoon electrical storm; reception didn't waver.
Thankfully, recording from the twin tuners proved relatively straightforward and most moderately techno-savvy users will soon be able to time shift and capture favourite TV programs. Of particular use here is the seven-day Electronic Program Guide (EPG), which does away with worrying about the time and day of the week you want to record — all you need do is select your favourite programs by name. Another couple of recording features we found useful were the Direct TV Record, which starts recording quickly with a couple of button presses and you can pause live TV, handy for when the phone goes or the baby's nappy needs changing. Hit the pause button on the remote and it'll temporarily cache the channel you're watching for up to eight hours.
Picture quality, no matter which variety, was impressive. Recording to either the HDD or a BD-R disc (25 or 50GB capacities) captured all of the original's definition and clarity. Switch between the playback source and HD recording and you simply cannot tell them apart — of course dropping to SD and the compression in the picture quality became obvious, but it's still perfectly watchable. Hooked up to our Full HD Sony LCD display, the BW880 looked every bit as good as Panasonic's BD-only players. Spinning an imported, region-free BD of Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure, the visual magic of this masterpiece was pristinely apparent. Rich in colour and texture, the Panasonic provided spectacular-looking HD imagery, even with a film that was cut some 31 years ago.
It's not all about the picture though and the DMR-BW880 will play all manner of audio too. On-board processing handles all the new audio formats, plus it'll play a fair few disc types including plain old garden variety CDs through to ripped MP3 audio. As a music player it's a pleasant enough sounding device, especially for a PVR.
As a device that'll do it all, the DMR-BW880 has most tasks covered and is one of the better feature-laden PVRs around at the moment. It's hindered by its own complexity though, making it generally unpleasant to actually use. We can see how many prospective PVR buyers will be swayed by the long list of thing's it'll do, but if it's simplicity you're after we recommend you look elsewhere.