Sony PlayStation 3 (80GB; as Blu-ray Disc Player)
From the outset, the PlayStation 3 has billed itself as more than just another game console. And this machine lives up to its promise: It's one of the most capable Blu-ray Disc players available today. The 80GB PS3 ($400, as of 2/18/09) has built-in gigabit ethernet and supports BD-Live (Profile 2.0) content that can be delivered via the Internet. It also supports Blu-ray Bonus View, for playing back picture-in-picture content.
The PS3's movie playback experience is best if you start from scratch, inserting a disc into the front-loading slot as soon as you power up the unit. It took just 3 seconds for a test disc to physically load into the unit itself, followed almost immediately by the PlayStation 3 startup music. The screen then blacked out, and the movie came up. Total elapsed time from disc insertion to the start of the film: a respectable 24 seconds.
The PS3 doesn't come with a separate remote control for video playback, so I had to use the game controller to navigate through movies, and that required two hands. (Sony does sell a dedicated remote control, for an extra $25; with this remote, the Blu-ray playback experience should be exponentially smoother.)
You'll want to buy the remote: Using two hands to control basic functions such as play, fast-forward, and rewind is both ungainly and imprecise. I missed not having dedicated buttons for such common features.
To navigate up, down, left, or right within the disc menus, you can use either the PS3 controller's directional pad or the left analog stick controller. You press X to select options and to activate play. The O button lets you exit the Blu-ray player, the square button brings up the disc's pop-up menu, and the triangle button gives you a handy, transparent-overlay on-screen menu that pops up on the left side of the screen. This menu provides quick access to certain settings, and awkward access to dedicated, software-based playback controls (buttons for fast-forward, rewind, play, and stop, for example)--which you need, since the game controller lacks such dedicated controls.
Trying to perform certain operations, such as precise fast-forwarding, was particularly frustrating. The fast-forward steps ahead at 1.5X, 10X, 30X, and 120X, and you must press the X button to cease moving forward. Stepping forward frame by frame is even more awkward: No option clearly exists for this, but you can press the controller's X button to pause playback and then use the analog stick or the right and left arrows on the directional pad to advance a frame at a time.
Unfortunately, you'll have to experiment to figure all this out: The manual included with PC World's PlayStation 3 test unit provided no clues on how to use the controller's buttons for movie navigation. I had to dope out the responses via trial and error, and frequently found several paths to the same operation. This could be either confusing or convenient, depending on your perspective and on how comfortable you are using the controller to navigate the interface.
I found the pop-up info display elegantly designed--unobtrusive, yet easily readable. (The easiest path to this display is to press the Select button in the middle of the controller.) It's a good thing that the display is a pleasure to read, because you'll be invoking it a lot: The pop-up is the only way to figure out where you are in the disc, since the PlayStation 3 console lacks an LCD screen such as those commonly found on DVD and dedicated Blu-ray Disc players.
In our jury evaluation of image quality, we found image quality to be good, but not as good as what you'll see from the standalone players. Images routinely appear a bit more crushed, and a bit less vibrant, as compared to our top standalone players, which rendered rendering sharper images with superior color and contrast. The differences are especially clear in content like our Good Night and Good Luck test. On this black and white film, the PS3 has difficulty achieving true black and white, settling instead for unsatisfactory gray tones.
Nevertheless, the PS3 remains quite a deal if you want to play high-def Blu-ray movies and aren't wedded to getting a stand-alone home-theater-style device. Even factoring in the cost of the remote, you're getting a versatile, reasonably priced Blu-ray Disc player that can handle all of the latest Bonus View and BD-Live content. Plus, you can use the machine to play games, browse pictures, and surf the Web, too.