The Panasonic DMR-PWT520 is two things: a Blu-ray player with a good set of "smart" features and a 500GB twin-tuner PVR.
There are obvious differences with the straight Panasonic Blu-ray player: it's bigger, heavier and more conservative in styling. It is also more conservative internally, employing the same menu structure that Panasonic has been using for years. And it also has a standard, old fashioned, key-festooned remote control that is wonderful to use in comparison to Panasonic's touch-pad model.
Not that the remote is perfect. If you're recording something from TV onto the hard disk and press the Stop button, it just stops with no request for confirmation. If you're playing a Blu-ray and touch the Guide key, the disc stops and the EPG displays instead, often losing your place on the disc.
The unit is network savvy, but it also has Wi-Fi built-in for convenient connection in those places where the wires don't reach. It appears that this unit, however, does not work with the iOS control apps; the Panasonic 2012 Blu-ray Remote app wouldn't detect the unit at all. The 2011 version found it, but the controls did nothing — in my office, anyway.
The picture quality of discs played on this unit are up to Panasonic's usual high standards, even on default settings. When it comes to certain 1080i Blu-ray discs and Australian DVDs, the ability of this unit to select Film or Video mode processing, instead of the Auto mode, means that it can deliver the best performance that's technically possible. This, incidentally, is a rare feature and not offered by most mainstream brands.
The unit fully supports Blu-ray 3D, as well as all other Blu-ray features.
When it comes to Smart features, this unit is pretty much the same as the DMP-BDT320 Blu-ray player. It has the same screens and the same apps available.
In short, you get multiple layered screens, the top two of which have up to seven links to various apps, but it is up to you to populate the rest from the Market, which is also accessible from these screens.
Most of the most important stuff is there. On the video front, you get BigPond Movies, Quickflix, ABC iView, YouTube and Yahoo7, Daily Motion and Vimeo, plus a number of specialist topics (there are 15 items available in total, including at least one in 3D). These apps don't cost you anything, but the content they provide access to might cost. Quickflix and BigPond movies, for example, require subscription.
Other possibly useful things are Facebook, Skype, Twitter and Picasa web albums, plus 17 games (strategy ones, such as Chess, rather than reflex ones) and a couple of educational items for little kids.
DLNA is supported too, with high quality delivery of video, music and photos from devices on your network. The unit also acts as a DLNA server, so you can watch its recordings (but not DVDs or Blu-rays) on a suitable client.
The unit will also play some multimedia files from USB or SD. But which from which is a bit hit or miss. MP3, DivX and MKV work on USB, but not SD. No other music format is supported, but you can play MPEG2 and MPEG4 AVC video from both. JPEG and 3D MPO images also work with both formats.
The main extra in this unit is, of course, the twin-tuner PVR. Panasonic PVRs produce the best picture quality from free-to-air digital TV. Better than most dedicated PVRs. It looks cleaner, sharper, less noisy, but with full detail. As a PVR, the interface is a little clunky, but it works reliably and you can record two things at once.
You can also edit the video in great detail, deleting parts down to specific frames, breaking it up into Chapters, and so on. The main value of this is for Panasonic's higher-end recorders, which allow you to dub the results to recordable DVD or BD, but that's not available here. Still, we found it useful to cut out the advertisements on recordings, so we could watch them later on an iPad using the DLNA server function. The app we use, Airplayer, does not support fast forward, so getting rid of the ads makes the viewing experience much better (the picture quality was pretty good with the iPad as well).
The 500GB provides quite a bit of capacity; Panasonic says 69 hours at HD and 131 hours at SD. Our figures suggest that, if the disc is otherwise unused, these numbers understate matters. You can fit 90 hours of the highest bitrate HDTV station on a 500GB disk.
A unit like this provides an all-in-one source: discs, network and internet-based content, and free-to-air TV. That it delivers top quality picture with all these makes the Panasonic DMR-PWT520 a very useful product.