Panasonic DMR-HW120 review

Pros

  • Generous features
  • Hassle-free recording
  • Radiant HD pictures

Cons

  • No built-in Wi-Fi
  • No network MKV support
  • Limited web content compared with rivals

Freeview PVRs are no longer just a way of recording TV programmes. Thanks to companies like Samsung and Panasonic, they’re now full-on ‘smart’ entertainment hubs, offering features like web content and DLNA streaming alongside the usual digital terrestrial timeshifting tricks.

The DMR-HW220 is one such machine, boasting DLNA certification and access to Viera Connect – not to mention a sizeable 500GB hard disk for recording hi-def TV shows from the twin Freeview HD tuners.

Design and connections

Like most of Panasonic’s set-top boxes and Blu-ray decks, the look is unspectacular but tasteful and understated. The glossy black finish gives it instant living room appeal and at 59mm high, it’s slim enough not to take up a major chunk of your shelf space.

The front panel is actually a flap that drops down to reveal a USB port, SD card slot and channel change buttons. On the top edge of the fascia are power and pause live TV buttons, but apart from that the design is blissfully clutter free.

On the back is the sort of socket line-up you’d expect – an HDMI output, stereo audio and optical digital outputs for those who want to rig it up to external audio gear, RF in/loop and an Ethernet port for accessing the network functionality.

Ethernet isn’t the only way of getting online – the DMR-HW120 is Wi-Fi ready but you need to buy Panasonic’s optional USB dongle (DY-WL5) which will set you back about £50. This connects to a USB port on the back of the unit. Unlike the step-up DMR-HW220 (which boasts a 1TB HDD), the HW120 lacks Skype video-calling, so the USB port is reserved for the Wi-Fi dongle alone.

Features

First, the bread and butter stuff – the 500GB hard disk has room for 129 hours of high-definition recordings, or 258 hours of standard-definition programmes. Sound stingy? Then you can attach an external HDD to the USB port, dump your recordings and start from scratch.

There are two Freeview HD tuners, allowing you to record two channels simultaneously, or watch one channel and record another. While recording two channels you can’t watch a third channel on the same multiplex, but you can switch between the channels being recorded.

Recordings can be edited easily, plus there’s a wide range of convenient recording features like Series Link, Guide Link (which tracks programme start and stop times) and pause/rewind live TV. As an added bonus, you can convert 2D Freeview programmes into 3D when connected to a compatible TV.

What sets the DMR-HW120 apart from most Freeview PVRs is the inclusion of Viera Connect and DLNA-compliant streaming of music, photos and video from servers on your home network.

Viera Connect offers YouTube, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Acetrax, Twitter, Picasa, CNBC, Dailymotion, Facebook, AUPEO! and more. The choice lacks the games, puzzles and lifestyle elements of Samsung’s Smart Hub and the presentation isn’t as slick or pretty, but there’s still enough here to keep you entertained when the Freeview schedules let you down.

Onto DLNA and the DMR-HW120 is a versatile performer. It can act as both server and client, and you can conduct this streaming using a smartphone. As a client, supported formats include DivX, AVCHD, MP4, MOV, JPEG, MP3, FLAC and PCM, plus you can stream TV recordings to this unit from other Panasonic recorders and vice versa. Conveniently, you can copy content to the hard-disk and stream it from other DLNA devices.

The DMR-HW120 also plays the above formats from USB memory devices, but MKVs can’t be streamed over a network (although it wouldn’t play the DTS audio track contained in my file). And if SD/SDHC/SDXC cards are your storage media of choice you can play back AVCHD, JPEG, MPO, MP4 and MPEG-2 (SD Video).

Rounding up the feature list is a bunch of picture settings in the Playback Settings menu (presets, HD optimiser, Chroma Process, Detail Clarity, Super Resolution) and a couple of sound modes (Re-master and Dialogue Enhancer).

Operation

Initial setup is a cinch thanks to the onscreen guides, and day-to-day operation is rendered easy by the great-looking, logical menu system and fast-moving cursor. Some of the media playback menus could do with jazzing up next year but in general, I had no problems using the unit.

Thankfully, Panasonic has updated its EPG on its 2012 recorders, getting rid of the grey advert block that made the programme grid too small. Now the grid stretches right across the screen and shows eight channels at once. The layout is clean and uncluttered, plus a live TV box means you don’t miss anything while browsing. There’s an alternative Rovi EPG in Viera Connect, which looks slicker but is more sluggish to operate.

A quicker way of checking the schedules is to consult the onscreen info banner, which shows now and next details for each channel.

It’s easy to schedule single or series recordings from the EPG, but after selecting your programme the two subsequent confirmation screens feel like overkill. Recordings are accessed from the Direct Navigator screen, which boasts a clear tab-based layout that separates them by genre and uses colour-coded buttons to switch to photos or music on the HDD.

Meanwhile the remote uses large, rubbery buttons and clear labelling to achieve a level of intuitiveness that few handsets can achieve.

Performance

Freeview HD images look gorgeous – crisp, saturated in bold, natural colours and free from noise. The DMR-HW120 captures these splendid pictures in immaculate quality on the hard disk, retaining the all their dazzling detail and colour.

Live and recorded SD doesn’t impress in the same way but it’s never anything less than watchable, even when it comes to low-grade channels like ITV2. The deck upscales to HD resolutions without introducing artefacts like jaggies, and keeps everything looking solid and reasonably sharp.

Unlike Panasonic’s Blu-ray recorders, you don’t have any control over the quality of recordings – everything is captured in the best possible quality. That makes things nice and simple, and with such a big hard disk and external HDD support, capacity isn’t an issue anyway.

I had no trouble streaming videos and music over a network, and web video from apps like iPlayer and YouTube looks great – with a fast broadband connection, buffering breaks are non-existent. Converted 2D programmes are underwhelming but add reasonable depth to the picture.

Verdict

Not only is the DMR-HW120 a top-drawer PVR, boasting a capacious HDD and all the timeshifting tricks you’d expect, but it’s also a versatile entertainment hub that plays content via USB, network, internet or hard disk.

It’s easy to use, with an EPG that benefits from a much-needed redesign, and picture quality is impressive. The only (minor) gripes are the lack of MKV support over a network, the limited web content compared with other portals and the lack of built-in Wi-Fi, which might push many to find an extra £40 for the 1TB DMR-HW220. But that aside the DMR-HW120 is a solid PVR with a lengthy feature list.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Panasonic DMR-HW120

Tuner(s)

2 x Freeview HD

Hard-disk capacity

500GB

HDMI output

1

Max. recording time (HD/SD, hours)

129/258

HDMI output

Yes

Component video output

No

Composite video output

No

Ethernet

Yes

Digital audio outputs

1 (optical)

USB port

2

SD card slot

Yes

Built-in Wi-Fi

No (requires USB adapter)

iPod/iPhone support

Yes

DLNA media streaming

Yes

Smartphone control

Yes

Online content

Viera Connect

3D ready

No

2D-to-3D conversion

Yes

Editing features

Partial delete, rename, divide change thumbnail, edit chapters

Supported media formats

DivX; AVCHD; MP4; MOV; JPEG; MP3; FLAC; PCM; AVCHD; JPEG; MPO; MP4; MPEG-2 (SD Video) (SD card only); MKV (USB only)

Dimensions (main unit) W x H x D

430 x 59 x 238mm

Weight

2.5kg