Panasonic's DMP-B15 portable Blu-ray player, available for around £470, initially put us in two minds. While the fact that it's the world's first such device tickled our gadget-loving fancy, the idea of actually watching a Blu-ray disc on its 8.9-inch screen had a whiff of the ridiculous about it. Could it overcome our doubts?
Fat and ugly
The DMP-B15 really doesn't make a good first impression. There's just no getting around the fact that it's ugly. In fact, it's fat and ugly. It takes up a sizeable amount of room in a briefcase or bag, has a rather plasticky finish, and makes many old portable DVD players look positively cutting-edge by comparison. Or at least this is the case when the DMP-B15 is closed so that you can carry it. Thankfully, it looks much cooler when you flip the cover around and prop it up on the pull-out stand, ready for watching.
The DMP-B15 really starts to show its appeal when you look behind its cumbersome exterior and notice its surprisingly plentiful set of serious Blu-ray features. The screen, for instance, offers a good resolution of 1,024x600 pixels, despite its relatively tiny size. This isn't a high enough resolution to qualify as HD Ready, and certainly not enough to match the 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution of most Blu-ray movies, but it's more than you get with your average portable DVD player.
Equally important are the DMP-B15's connections. Sporting an HDMI output, the player can be connected to a TV. The HDMI output can also be used for siphoning out high-definition audio to a suitably equipped home-cinema receiver.
Panasonic has even included an Ethernet jack on the DMP-B15's side, since it's compliant with Blu-ray's profile 2.0 specification. In other words, you can jack it into your broadband connection and access any BD-Live online content offered by a Blu-ray disc. The Ethernet port also enables you to use Panasonic's Viera Cast online system, which lets you access YouTube videos, Eurosport text and video news, and the Picasa photography site.
An SD card slot provides you with a means of adding storage so that you can download memory-intensive BD-Live features. This SD card slot also plays JPEGs and AVCHD video. The DMP-B15 can handle DivX, MP3 or WMA files burned onto CDs as well.
Surprisingly good pictures
The DMP-B15 doesn't just deliver more features that you might expect. It also impresses with its really exceptional performance.
The built-in screen produces pictures that are markedly clearer and more detailed than those you see on portable DVD players. Its images also avoid the pixellated, jagged look that can characterise many portable disc players' pictures. While HD material will never make as big an impact on the DMP-B15 as on a reasonably sized TV, the DMP-B15's little screen can at least allow you to distinguish between standard- and high-definition content. At this size, that's probably all you could ever ask for.
We were also very impressed by the DMP-B15's contrast range, the dynamism of its colours, and its brightness. Even though the image loses brightness and colour saturation if you have to watch from much of an angle, the DMP-B15 offers the best picture quality we've ever seen on a portable video screen, bar none.
Even the DMP-B15's built-in speakers are pretty decent, producing enough volume to satisfy anyone watching the unit from a sensible distance. Its audio is clear and detailed without sounding harsh.
The DMP-B15 has its downsides, though. We struggled to get much more than a couple of hours of use out of the battery, especially if we were using the speakers rather than the headphone socket. That's not ideal for fans of The Lord of the Rings. Also, the DMP-B15 is decidedly sluggish at loading discs compared to today's stand-alone devices, typically taking almost a minute to go from standby to a menu appearing.
In some ways, though, the single most significant aspect of the DMP-B15's performance is its ability to produce outstanding picture quality when attached to a TV and an AV receiver. Tucked away inside the DMP-B15's portable body is Panasonic's proprietary PHL Reference Chroma Processor Plus chipset, and this does its usual superb work, giving Blu-ray images an extra touch of clarity and colour that you don't get with most other Blu-ray players.
The DMP-B15's ability to function perfectly well as a main living-room Blu-ray player is essential to its appeal. It means you're not shelling out about £500 on something that's going to sit in a cupboard except for when you go on holiday or a long trip. There's another side to that coin though -- namely that you're spending hundreds of pounds more on the DMP-B15 than you would on a very good stand-alone, non-portable player.
Unless you're really serious about fully exploiting the Panasonic DMP-B15's portability, you'd be better off buying a much cheaper stand-alone player instead. But, if you do travel extensively, especially with children in tow, the DMP-B15's excellent on-the-road and at-home performance make its relative expense easier to justify than expected.
Edited by Charles Kloet