Panasonic DMP-BD85: Mediocre Images, Annoying Menus
At a Glance
Features aren't everything. The Panasonic DMP-BD85 does all that a modern Blu-ray player should do. It plays Blu-ray discs and DVDs, and streams video over the Internet from Netflix, YouTube, and other popular sources. Stick a flash drive into it, and you can enjoy your own music, photos, and video. But disappointing image quality, combined with a difficult-to-use and ugly on-screen menu, makes the $190 estimated street price (as of November 22, 2010) seem high.
The images that the DMP-BD85 sent to our test HDTV weren't horrible; in fact, they were slightly better than those of our reference player, a Sony PlayStation 3. Ranking slightly better than one of the first Blu-ray players released, however, hardly makes this model a standout at the end of 2010.
The only place where I saw significant improvement was in scene 4 of The Searchers. This 1956 western was shot in VistaVision (a large, high-resolution format) and Technicolor; deeply saturated colors were part of the aesthetic. On the DMP-BD85, skin tones popped so much that they made the same actors on the PS3 look pale--without appearing artificial.
Elsewhere, with both Blu-ray discs and DVDs, the DMP-BD85 rarely performed significantly better than the PS3. It offered slightly better color saturation on Cars (chapter 1), and slightly better contrast and detail in the black-and-white Good Night and Good Luck (chapter 1). Its results on the Mission: Impossible III Blu-ray (chapter 7) and the Phantom of the Opera DVD (chapter 3) were identical to the PS3's. The Sony console actually outperformed it--slightly--on our Lord of the Rings: Return of the King DVD test (chapter 22).
You don't have to insert a disc for the DMP-BD85 to look bad; you merely have to turn the unit on. The on-screen menu system is blocky and unattractive. Worse yet, it's unhelpful, needlessly complex, and confusing. For instance, the main menu screen lacks a Setup option. So how do you set up this player? You select Other Functions, which summons a submenu with only one option: Setup. That's irritating. (You'll see additional items on the Other Functions menu if you have an SD Card or a DVD-RAM disc in the player.)
The confusion continues from there. I checked both the Video and Display submenus searching for a way to set the resolution and TV aspect ratio. No luck. I finally found these basic options in the HDMI Connection submenu of the TV/Device Connection submenu.
On the other hand, the DMP-BD85 offers exceptional amounts of information while you're watching a disc (even though the presentation is still blocky and unattractive). Press the remote's Display button, and you get a menu with a cornucopia of facts and changeable options. For me, the real delight came when I selected the Play submenu, then the Playback Information Window option; there the DMP-BD85 tells you in technical detail what it's reading off the disc and what it's sending out to the receiver or TV. It even displays the source's native resolution (not everything on a Blu-ray is mastered at 1080p).
If all you want to know is the time and the chapter, ignore the Display button and instead press the Status button twice (pressing it once prompts the player to tell you only that you're playing a disc). Like virtually all current Blu-ray players, it gives you the time elapsed and the total time for the current program, but not the time remaining.
The remote control, made of unusually lightweight plastic, is designed so that your thumb naturally falls on the play-control buttons (Play, Pause, and so on). The menu buttons are also reasonably easy to access. The number buttons and the circle of arrows are difficult to reach, but something has to be out of finger's reach. This remote is programmable, but not backlit.
As for the player's physical design, you won't find anything exceptional about the DMP-BD85, although a horizontal blue streak running across the front panel adds a bit of dash (and at some angles blocks the bottom of your view of the LED readout).
One nice touch: The player boasts two USB ports--one in front and one in back--as well as an SD Card slot in the front. Plug a flash drive into the front port, and you can enjoy your videos, photos, and music in your home theater. The DMP-BD85 supports a reasonable selection of video formats, but your music will have to be .mp3 files. You can combine those songs with your .jpg images for a slideshow, complete with fancy transitions. The SD Card slot, on the other hand, supports only photos.
You can use the second USB port (the one in the back) for BD Live storage, or you can plug in the included Wi-Fi adapter. Entering a Wi-Fi password with a remote control is always clumsy, but the DMP-BD85 makes it especially so. The process involves navigating an especially large and unfriendly grid with either the number or arrow keys (and using both is even more difficult because of the remote's layout). Luckily, you'll probably have to do this only once. Of course, if you can stretch an ethernet cable from your router to your Blu-ray player, you won't have to do it at all.
However you connect to the Internet, Panasonic offers an excellent selection of online entertainment under its Viera Cast brand. You get Netflix, YouTube, Amazon's on-demand service, and other goodies; Panasonic promises more in the future. Viera Cast has its own user interface, which is vastly easier to use, more intuitive, and just plain prettier than the DMP-BD85's main menu system. You can arrange how the icons for the services display, and set up your YouTube and Picasa accounts.
Overall, the Panasonic DMP-BD85 has all the right features. It just doesn't always execute them well.