It's strange that Sony, a company very visible in the Blu-ray campaign, seems to have struggled to make a Blu-ray player that's actually useable. Sure, the picture quality on its BDP-S500 is excellent, but the starting price of £500 was nothing short of obscene and the painful slowness of its operation was insulting to those who spent the cash.
Panasonic, on the other hand, has kept its crowing about Blu-ray to a dull roar, and has knuckled down and produced a player that people will actually enjoy using and which won't break the bank at around £300. Without further ado, let's take a look at the features and performance of the Panasonic DMP-BD35, and find out if this is the start of a new, more useful era for Blu-ray.
The first thing that struck us was how much it looked like a DVD player. This is a massive compliment because until now, Blu-ray players have been the size of trucks and five times heavier. The Panasonic is a normal size, while offering all of the profile 2 functionality we would have hoped for.
Physically, the BD35 has quite a shallow design, too -- its depth is probably a third less than other players, meaning it feels very light. But because of that you won't be able to stack larger things on top of it. That's not likely to be a massive problem, but keep it in mind.
The remote control is compact too, but still manages to offer all of the key features we've come to expect from such a device. Play, Stop, Fast-forward -- all the classics are here, waiting for you to caresses them with your over-excited digits. The only button we couldn't find was one to switch angles with, which is useful for secondary video tracks. Shame on you, Panasonic!
At the back of the machine is a veritable treat for cables. There's an HDMI output, which is configured for HDMI 1.3a, for better colour support and full HD audio. You also get an optical digital audio output, which is useful if your AV receiver can't accept HDMI. Of course, using this socket won't allow you to make the most of uncompressed audio, but that's not the end of the world.
It's getting a bit old now to bang on about Blu-ray's pathetic lack of interactivity thus far. The profile system is a joke and all involved should be thoroughly ashamed of the whole thing. But the good news is that we're nearly there now, and Blu-ray is finally starting to produce players that have the same level of interactivity as even the most basic HD DVD players did.
The Panasonic is a profile 2 player, which means it has both Bonus View and BD Live, which are respectively the components that allow players to decode secondary video streams and go online for extra content. This addition means that the BD35 is now a very nicely rounded player with as much functionality as you could possibly hope for from a Blu-ray player.
Also featured is Panasonic's trademark SD card slot. Because the Blu-ray players all feature AVC video decoding, it's possible for Panasonic to support its own AVC HD camcorders, which is a smart move considering SD-card-based camcorders are more than likely to be the future.
Panasonic was also the first Blu-ray player manufacturer to embrace DivX playback, something we really approve of. The BD35 carries on with this tradition, but we think it's time for Panasonic to take it to the next level and support MPEG-4 in the MKV file format. And given the presence of an Ethernet socket on the machine, why not go the whole hog and offer media streaming? Added value like that would really make the £300 asking price seem much more reasonable.
Let's start our look at how this machine performs by timing how long it takes for the player to load a disc and start playing it. We picked a movie that has interactive features because these discs generally take ages to load. For this test we use the BD35 and a PS3. We turn both of them on, and then time how long it takes to play a disc after inserting it.
The PlayStation 3 can load our Vantage Point disc in 42 seconds. The BD35 takes 1 minute 16 seconds to perform the same task. Now that sounds like quite a difference, but trust us when we say that's one of the best stand-alone-player load times we've seen. It does lag behind the PS3, but that's effectively a supercomputer, so it's not surprising.
As you would expect, the picture quality is wonderful. Panasonic has invested a great deal of time and money into developing picture processing to make your HD material look as good as possible. Although that might sound unnecessary in the days of 1080p and 24hz playback, the Panasonic goes out of its way to keep colours accurate and ensure motion is as natural as possible.
We tested Casino Royale and Spider-Man, and were very happy indeed with the picture quality. Of course, with 1080p video it's easy to be blown away, but the Panasonic doesn't introduce any nasty artefacts and the video looked brilliant.
The other great news is that the BD35 also does a stand-up job with DVDs, which we discovered when we introduced it to our Jurassic Park DVD. The picture quality was excellent, with great colour reproduction and plenty of picture detail. The Panasonic also did a good job of coping with MPEG artefact noise.
The DB35 is easily one of the best Blu-ray players we've ever reviewed. It's a good price -- though still beaten in terms of value by the PS3 -- and a very good machine to use on a daily basis.
Sheer bang for buck, the PS3 is still the best Blu-ray player out there. But Panasonic is at least proving that stand-alone players can offer decent performance and other advantages such as lower power consumption, nearly silent operation and a much more sensible form factor.
Edited by Marian Smith