What is the Panasonic PWT550?
The Panasonic DMR-PWT550 is another in the long line of multi-purpose devices from the Japanese manufacturer. It features playback for DVD and Blu-ray discs, recording for Freeview broadcasts and a range of apps, notably streaming services from Netflix and Amazon and access to most of the major UK catch-up services – iPlayer and the like – via Freeview Play. That’s not to mention network and local media playback, 4K Ultra HD scaling and Panasonic’s own TV Anywhere service. All this, and more besides, can be had for just under £280/$420 (July 2016), online, which might be something of a difficult price-point to justify given the slightly higher specified, but retailer exclusive,PWT655EB is available for, more or less, the same money.
Design, Connections & Control
The PWT550 is not a remarkable looker but then there is no need for it to be as most will just stick it in a unit or in a rack. You’ll need 430mm width and 210mm depth in said unit to accommodate the device but it’s hardly what you would term large. The DMR-PWT550 is styled mostly in black metal but the drop-down, frosted flap at the front is plastic and conceals a tray disc-loading mechanism and is transparent where the display panel resides. On top of the chassis are couple of buttons for power and opening and closing the disc tray. The PWT550 feels well-made and goes about its business in near silence, although you will be able to hear the machinations of the drives if you sit very close.
Most of the connections are situated at the rear but the flap hides a USB 2.0 port and an SD Card slot. On the back are HDMI 1.4 and LAN ports, a further USB connection and a coaxial digital audio output. There’s also RF in and RF out terminals to connect your Digital TV aerial and for taking the signal to other devices, respectively; the PWT550 is also dual-band Wi-Fi capable.
The supplied remote control is of standard Panasonic design so it’s functional rather than being any coffee table beauty but it’s well planned and easy to use with nicely sized buttons. Two of those take you directly to Netflix and the Freeview Play apps, while our favourites for skipping through recorded or paused TV content are sat at the bottom.
Try as we might – and believe us, we tried a lot – we just can’t get Panasonic’s TV Anywhere service to run properly. This is the third product with the feature enabled that we’ve reviewed in 2016 but each has failed to fully work with what sounds like a very promising function. In theory, at least, TV Anywhere is a feature to allow you to set and access recordings anywhere you have an internet connection but in our experience it’s beyond flakey.
It needs the Panasonic Media Centre app (iOS & Android), to work and the user has to create an account and then link the player to it. We did get to the stage of registering the PWT550EB, this time, and that’s an improvement, but we were then met with repeated communication error messages. Our router and network infrastructure shouldn’t be the issue and we’ve used other similar services before but it’s a no-go for TV Anywhere, for us, and we just hope that other users don’t have such a frustrating experience with it as it should be really good. We did have a much more successful experience with the DLNA serving capabilities of the PWT550 which lets you access the recordings (or any content stored on the hard drive) from other devices on the same network.
There are a decent collection of apps available on the Diga Marketplace (Panasonic’s version of an app store) including both Netflix and Amazon Instant Video but they are locked in to a 60Hz video signal output when, ideally, this would dynamically change depending on the framerate of the content. In simple terms, the result is that you won’t always be seeing content displayed as smoothly as you might if the refresh rate should switch; there is no way to manually do it in the menus either. The implementation of Freeview Play, in terms of the catch-up apps – iPlayer, ITV Hub & All 4 – is good, although we have mixed feelings about the 7 Day scroll-back Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) which can seem like a very slow way to find something to watch, especially up against the fairly slick content organisation of the iPlayer but it works pretty well, although the PWT550 can be quite slow in loading up the backdated guide info. As per the PWT655EB, Demand 5 is also missing from the roster of catch-up apps when it is available on Panasonic’s dedicated PVR boxes.
Disc Playing Performance
Standard definition & DVD Playback
The DMR-PWT550EB benefits from Panasonic’s fine heritage as makers of video processing electronics and scales standard definition content in a very accomplished way. The Panasonic also has no problems in detecting a variety of film cadences and, very crucially for the Freeview side of things, it’s deinterlacing capabilities are also very strong so motion holds up well. The PWT550 produces no unpleasant ringing artefacts and given a half decent source, manages to output very watchable pictures. There’s not a lot that can be done with the substandard, bit-starved, channels that proliferate Freeview but that’s not any fault of this player.
2D & 3D Blu-ray Playback
We would expect nothing less than pristine Blu-ray performance from a Panasonic player and that’s precisely what the DMR-PWT550 delivers in both two and three dimensions. You’ll not want to touch the default picture mode settings – accessed from the Options button on the remote during playback – as the default Standard mode performs perfectly with no extraneous processing, noise reduction or tampering with the colours. Films captured and encoded at 24/23.976p (which is virtually all of them) are handled spotlessly but even those rarer examples at 1080i60 look excellent, courtesy of the DMR-PWT550’s near faultless video deinterlacing abilities.
Barring some of the cheap ‘n’ nasty TVs that might employ low quality scalers, we don’t think this particular feature of the PWT550 will bring all that much benefit to users. There’s no doubt it makes a great job of making 1080i/p sources look close to Ultra HD resolutions and even 720p images are noticeably improved but that’s the case with just about every Ultra HD TV we’ve reviewed in this last 12 months. You might perhaps give the Panasonic player the edge with Standard Definition material but the gains are negligible at typical viewing distances.
Freeview PVR Performance
We’ve already covered the HWT250 and PWT655 recently so the DMR-PWT550EB provided no shocks in terms of the Freeview recording side of things – in fact, it performed identically in every regard to both. As per every even half decent PVR, the PWT550 is able to make series links, whereby you can record a programme whenever it’s broadcast with just a click, or two, on the remote. Obviously you can also record singularly as well, in addition to a ‘one-touch’ facility which negates the on-screen message to choose series or single event recordings. Having had the box for a couple of weeks where we put it to the test with more than 60 recordings, with a mixture of recording types, we found the PWT550 to be extremely solid with only one missed, and that was when we inadvertently disconnected the aerial lead, so no fault of the Panasonic.
There have been improvements in the 2016 Panasonic PVRs over handling timer clashes – i.e. where you’ve set more than two recordings in overlapping time-frames – so, upon doing that, you will be taken to an options menu where you can alter or delete one or more of the timers; the other option is to leave them be and have a recording truncated but we’re not sure why anyone would do that unless it was a matter of a few minutes. We would like to see Panasonic take the idea a step further, as some other PVRs do, by notifying the user when there’s a HD version available where they’ve set a standard def broadcast to record; there is a little box at the top of the EPG showing you the text ‘SD>HD’ but it’s not very obvious.
As we hinted at above, two of our most used features on the DMR-PWT550 relate to ‘time slip/skip’ features accessed from buttons at the bottom of the remote control. You can skip back 10 seconds and forward by sixty using dedicated keys. Additionally, you can move around recordings or chase play content in segments at minute intervals using the TIME SLIP button, which is particularly handy for missing the ad’s or just getting to the point you want to be further in to the event.
There’s no doubt that the PWT550 is a good Freeview PVR but there are some niggles we’d like to see ironed out. One irritant, although admittedly instances were rare, is that you are unable to pause a channel you’re recording when both tuners are in use; instead you have to enter the Video Menu, press Play on the remote, which seems a strange limitation of the underlying software. The pausing of ‘live TV, could also be a more reactive process and it can take up to around three seconds for the player to acknowledge your button press, which leaves you with the impression the command from the remote hasn’t been received. You are also unable to change any settings while a recording is taking place and using the EPG when watching a previously recorded event sees you placed back in to live TV upon exit; it’s sometimes useful to be able to see what’s coming on later or schedule another recording while watching one so we’d like to see this addressed also.
- Very reliable recording
- Most major catch-up apps available
- Flawless disc playback
- Skipping features
- EPG can be slow to load
- Some operational nuisances
- PWT655 is priced only a very little less for 500GB more storage
- No Demand 5
Should I buy one?
The Panasonic DMR-PWT550EB has plenty going for it as a disc player, Freeview PVR and video streaming device. The build quality is solid with a black metal chassis and tinted facia which conceals a tray-loading disc mechanism and houses a useful display panel. The connectivity options are probably sufficient, for most, and consist of an HDMI port, a digital audio out, a pair of USB ports and an SD Card slot; of course, there’s also a Freeview HD aerial input too, as well as an RF out to take the signal to other devices, such as your TV.
The supplied remote is hardly chic but it’s designed with functionality in mind and delivers by way of a well-planned layout and some really useful dedicated buttons. Those include dedicated options for Netflix and the Freeview Play suite of catch-up players – iPlayer, ITV Hub & All 4 – and a couple that are invaluably useful for skipping through recordings with ease.
As a Freeview PVR, the PWT550 is a perfectly capable twin tuner entry with all the usual features you would expect, including season records, simultaneous recordings and chase-play capability. There are some operational limitations such as not being able to access the settings while recordings are taking place, the inability to view the guide effectively while watching a recording and some general sluggishness in loading the guide and pausing action but definitely no showstoppers and the PWT550 is very reliable.
As we would expect from a Panasonic player, this is an excellent disc spinner with first-rate video processing, no unwanted tampering with high definition and 3D images and sympathetic handling of DVDs. So, all-in-all, as a multi-functional device encompassing duties as a Freeview PVR, Blu-ray/DVD player and Smart TV box, the Panasonic DMR-PWT550EB is a bit of a triumph and worthy of recommendation. The only thing holding it back, in terms of its value rating, is the PWT655 which, for just a few pounds more, offers double the recording capability – and that’s not to be sneezed at.