Now that the Blu-ray player market has fully matured, there's very little that manufacturers can do to inspire excitement except, of course, when it comes to design.
On that score, Panasonic has attempted to inject some aesthetic spice into its range with the DMP-BBT01, a compact 3D deck with an array of interesting mounting options.
Design and connections
The DMP-BBT01 is a small square box measuring 179mm wide and 27mm thick, about half the size of a typical player. That makes it an ideal choice if you're looking for a deck to put in the bedroom.
Despite its reduced dimensions, Panasonic hasn't skimped on build quality - it's as rigid and rugged a unit as you could hope for, with a lovely dappled top panel and mirrored panels around the side giving off an air of glamour.
But here's the interesting bit. In the box is a plastic stand that clips onto the player in various ways. Attach it to the bottom horizontally and it points upwards as if floating, or for a jauntier take you can clip it on diagonally so it points upwards at an angle.
Alternatively, the player fits vertically into part of the stand, which could be useful for slipping it down a narrow gap. But if this is all too much faffing about, you can ignore the stand and lay it flat on a tabletop.
Panasonic pushes more aesthetic buttons with a discreet disc slot on the front, touch-sensitive controls and a flap on the side that hides a row of LEDs, an SD card slot and a USB port (for media playback and Panasonic's optional Skype camera).
Connections include a 3D-ready HDMI output, Ethernet port and an optical digital audio output. Sparse, but that's to be expected from such a small player.
Don't let its size fool you - inside lurks a feature list that puts some full-size decks to shame. Built-in Wi-Fi renders a USB dongle unnecessary, putting a range of networking tricks at your disposal as well as Viera Connect, Panasonic's online content portal.
This includes such must-have apps as BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Netflix, Acetrax, Skype, Facebook and Twitter, plus a number of less compelling services. Panasonic has resisted the temptation of padding out its offering with loads of games and puzzles, but I do feel it could do with adding a few more catch-up TV services, a la Sony Entertainment Network.
The DMP-BBT01 also makes it possible to stream music video and photos from DLNA PCs on your home network, as well as NAS drives and other non-DLNA devices. Format support includes DivX HD, MP4, MPEG-2, JPEG, MPO, FLAC and MP3. Additionally you can play MKV from USB storage devices, plus AVCHD 3D, MP4, MPEG-2, JPEG and MPO from SD cards. Owners of Panasonic recorders can even stream TV recordings to this player.
The hi-tech talents don't end there - Wi-Fi Direct lets you bypass a router completely, while Panasonic's Apple/Android app lets you control the deck with a smartphone.
These showcase talents aside, the DMP-BBT01 has a lot more up its sleeve, such as Digital Tube Sound (a processing mode that boosts the warmth of music playback); High Clarity Sound Plus (which shuts down the video circuitry to reduce interference); a range of picture presets and tweaks; plus Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio decoding.
All in all, a decent line-up of features that helps justify the rather steep-sounding price tag.
This year Panasonic has gone back to the drawing board with its Blu-ray remotes, incorporating a touch pad that's designed to satiate the restless fingers of the smartphone generation. The DMP-BBT01 has been given one of these, enabling you to control onscreen menus simply by swiping and tapping the panel.
Fine in theory, but in practice it's infuriating. The main problem is that it sometimes thinks you've tapped it when you've swiped it. Therefore, you have to be very clear and purposeful about your finger movements, which makes operation less free and easy than it was meant to be.
I also dislike the way you have to call up virtual keypads onscreen to control playback, rather than directly pressing buttons on the remote. It feels slow and counterintuitive, making the excellent iPad app seem very appealing.
But it does have some advantages - for instance, moving from letter to letter in the virtual keyboard interface is easier. And when using the Home menu, a single swipe takes you to the relevant option.
The presentation of this Home menu is superb, dressing up its options in bright, engaging graphics, and across the board there's a sense of simplicity and lack of hassle that many Blu-ray players can't match. There's even a Multi-User Mode that lets you customise the look and choose settings for different people.
I also had no trouble streaming content over my network - the robust Wi-Fi connection meant smooth, uninterrupted playback, even with large video files. The menu system isn't exactly helpful when it comes to finding particular songs in large libraries though.
True to form, the DMP-BBT01's picture quality is phenomenal. There's something about the way Panasonic's players pass on those pixels that makes the image seem deeper, sharper and more cinematic than most budget players.
Edges are clean and emphatic, textures seem preternaturally sharp and the deck has a way with colour that makes everything look vivid yet natural all at the same time. Much of this might be attributed to the Adaptive Chroma Processing, which aims to increase the accuracy and clarity of colours. I also love the subtlety it injects into the picture, from deft shading to fine details, backed up by a textbook contrast level.
When you switch to 3D these qualities crop up again, ensuring that images suck you right into the screen. Provided your TV cuts the 3D mustard, you'll get some properly absorbing images with a convincing sense of depth and no motion blur or crosstalk.
I also enjoyed listening to CDs through the DMP-BBT01. The sound is warm, nicely balanced and infused with plenty of top-end detail. Discerning listeners may rue the lack of transparency and slightly muddy bottom end, particularly with Digital Tube Sound activated, but anyone listening through a modest system won't hear anything to be concerned about.
Panasonic has gradually been reducing its disc loading times over the last few years and has got Java-heavy discs like Terminator Salvation and Spider-Man 3 down to around 40 seconds, while most 'normal' discs fire up in around 25 seconds.
The DMP-BBT01's main claim to fame is its unusual design, which looks great and offers real versatility when it comes to installation. Its compact shape and solid build quality are also appealing.
Whether or not that's enough to justify the relatively steep £280 price tag is a matter of taste, but what isn't up for debate is the generosity of its feature list. Built-in Wi-Fi, DLNA, Viera Connect, decent format support and 3D playback is quite a line-up, especially for a player with such diddy dimensions.
Only the hit and miss touch pad remote gave me any cause for concern, otherwise this is a very likeable little player.
Manufacturer and Model
Component video output
Composite video output
Digital audio outputs
Dolby True HD decoding
DTS HD Master Audio decoding
DLNA media streaming
Supported media formats
USB/DLNA: DivX HD, MP4, MPEG-2, JPEG, MPO, FLAC, MP3, MKV (USB only). SD cards: AVCHD 3D, MP4, MPEG-2, JPEG, MPO
Digital Tube Sound, High Clarity Sound Plus, Re-Master
Dimensions (main unit) W x H x D
179 x 179 x 27mm