The Panasonic DMP-BD30 is the world's first Profile 1.1 Blu-ray player.
A certain amount of deserved fanfare is in order, as some of you will be aware that the BD market has been cursed by dithering standards.
Profile 1.1 (also amusingly know as the Final Standards profile - which it isn't) mandates for persistent memory and a second video decoder, allowing for the provision of Picture-in-Picture functionality, aka Bonus View.
Sometime later in 2008, we'll see the first dedicated BD players compliant with Profile 2.0, which throws a LAN port into the mix, letting the unit go online for greater interactivity.
New Blu-ray special features
Even Bonus View PIP discs are few and far between. The first in the UK is Sony Pictures' Resident Evil: Extinction. Select its Under the Umbrella special feature and you can watch the film plus a secondary video window featuring talking-head commentary, behind-the-scenes material and storyboards.
Disney will be releasing its first Profile 1.1 disc in the summer, National Treasure: Book of Secrets. In the US, Sunshine has also been issued as a Region-locked PIP disc.
A different proposition to the first models from Panasonic, the Panasonic DMP-BD30's form factor itself has been much improved. The player is super-slim, standing just 59mm tall. Ergonomics are a bit bonkers, though.
An odd layout from Panasonic
The Disc Open button is bizarrely located to the right (opposite to the disc loading tray itself) while the Power button sits above the disc tray to the left. This arrangement is as logical as a loft full of Big Brother contestants. I often turned off the player by mistake when instinctively seeking to eject a disc.
If you're looking to buy into Blu-ray, it's because you want a disc-spinner that will blow your socks off visually, and this Panasonic doesn't disappoint. When it comes to picture clarity, the BD30 is probably the best BD player yet to grace our Tech Labs.
Its predecessor, the BD10A, was no slouch, but this model squeezes even more delicious hi-def detail out of Blu-ray platters, adding an extra polish to 1080p picture fidelity. Side-by-side with a PlayStation 3, it offered demonstrably more picture information with fewer visual artefacts.
Greater detail from your Blu-ray disc
By way of comparison, I compared the Skull and Crossbones menu sequence from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. In the lower background waves, a greater level of smooth and coherent detail is visible on the Panasonic when viewed alongside the same sequence played on a PS3.
This can largely be attributed to the brand's UniPhier video processing LSI, which incorporates both P4HD (Pixel Precision Progressive processing) picture processing (designed to handle all deinterlacing and scaling duties, and able to process more than 15 billion pixels per second) and a new PHL Reference Chroma Processor, derived from technology used at Panasonic's Hollywood-based authoring facility.
Audio performance is equally thrilling, but setup is complicated and there are caveats. The BD30 is compatible with both common (DD5.1/DTS) and hi-res audio formats.
Given that studios cannot seemingly agree on any coherent defacto audio system for Blu-ray (lossless PCM, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA all being used for A-list titles) this is significant.
The player must be configured via the sub-menu to squirt them out as a bitstream in order to deliver Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD MA soundtracks. And you'll need a receiver with suitable decoders on board to handle these audio formats.
Alternatively, you can output them as PCM, although this is derived from either the core/standard DTS mix or Dolby Digital 5.1 downmix - it isn't lossless.
High definition PIP
There's also another catch; you can't have audio to the PIP sub-window if you want to stream an HD audio format. You can only listen to the Secondary Audio feed to the PIP Bonus View sub-menu if you select PCM as your audio output format of choice.
This is irritating, as it means cinephile's will end up watching the movie with one menu setting and then have to go back into the player's setup menus to engage the Secondary Audio mode if they want to enjoy a PIP feature!
I tested the two Panasonic BD30s (one American, the other European) with Resident Evil 3 and the US release of Sunshine; the player managed each Profile 1.1 sub-menu without problem.
Panasonic deal with Java
One aspect that separates top-flight BD players from lesser models is their ability to handle BD Java.
The good news is that this model is significantly faster than its predecessor and many other dedicated models on the market. This means shorter disc-loading times and more responsive menu navigation. The BD30 loads the Java-heavy Day After Tomorrow in approx 54 seconds.
Disc compatibility is extensive. The deck spins both BD-RE and BD-R recordable discs, plus RAM (only caddy-less discs), DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/+RW and DL discs, CD/CD-R/CD-RW, DivX-encoded videos and, of course, Blu-ray and DVD, locked to Region's B and 2 respectively.
It would have been nice to have seen DVD-Audio playback included but then you can't have everything.
Given that you'll need to retain a DVD-Audio disc spinner in your rack (or any other Panasonic DVD player/recorder) you can set the remote control code between one of three positions to avoid zapper conflicts.
Play high-definition videos from your camcorder
Backside connections include an HDMI v1.3 output; coaxial and 50Mbps optical digital audio outputs; component, S-video and stereo phonos; and a six-pack of analogue audio outputs for routing high-res surround tracks to a receiver with matching inputs (required if you don't have a receiver with HDMI v1.3 input).
The BD30 even sports an SD card slot able to display high-resolution digital still images, as well as HD video shot in AVCHD format from a high-def camcorder.
An SD card can also be used with so-called Virtual Package-enabled BD discs. This is where a BD copies data to local storage, so that it can stream both the copied data and on-disc data simultaneously.
We've yet to see an application that uses this, but BD30 owners will find it worth investing in an SD card specifically for the player. This is formatted within the deck and should be left in situ (only swap it out when you want to playback digital images or movies).
Although most will rightly focus on the player's HD playback capabilities, this is actually a very capable CD player as well, offering a high level of sonic integrity.
In our Labs we measured just 91.1ps of audio jitter; an audiophile-grade performance when it comes to stability. The player utilises a 192kHz 24bit DAC and sports Panasonic's proprietary Remastering audio algorithm.
Introduced for CD playback, and now tweaked for use with both DVD and Blu-ray, Remastering restores lost high-frequency detail.
The Blu-ray revolution starts here
Overall, the Panasonic DMP-BD30 is an outstanding piece of HD equipment.
In the past, I've withheld Best Buy recommendations to first-gen Blu-ray hardware because it was clear those machines were heading for early retirement. This player is much more like the real deal. Its audio-visual performance is as huge as its dimensions are slim.
Visually, there's nothing to beat it at present and to finally get a Profile 1.1 machine out in the UK is a major relief.
The only question mark hanging over the player is whether to buy now, or wait for the updated Panasonic BD50 (or similar), which adds Ethernet and online interactivity.
For what it's worth, none of the BD Live applications shown to date are particularly compelling, so you may not feel inclined to wait. The real Blu-ray revolution begins here.