The Best Blu-ray Disc Players: From Blu-Plate to Blu-Chip
Blu-ray's star is rising fast, for good reason. The high-def video format remains the best and most consistent way to take full advantage of a 1080p high-definition television. Armed with a capable player and an HDTV with a surround-sound system, you can create your own home theater paradise.
In the ever-evolving world of electronics, it can be hard to tell when to leap into the fray. While Blu-ray Disc players are not exempt from that rule, the ten current models we tested illustrate why now is a good time to jump. Lower prices, a greater movie selection (1000 titles and counting), and a wider array of extra features make Blu-ray more attractive than ever before. There's a reason why Blu-ray has enjoyed notable momentum from late 2008 and into this year, even as the full impact of the economic downturn hit.
Indeed, what a difference a year makes. The models we tested for our previous Blu-ray player review roundup cost $400 to $1000. Now, Blu-ray Disc players are also coming from Chinese manufacturers and other OEMs that specialize in producing midrange and budget-priced electronics. The trend has led to a more diverse selection of Blu-ray players, and has contributed directly to Blu-ray's breaching the $200 barrier--the point that often marks when a new technology has gone mainstream.
This time the cheapest model we tested was the $175 Memorex MVBD2510, with the $220 Sharp BD-HP21U close on its heels. The most expensive model we evaluated was Panasonic's DMP-BD55K, which was $400 at the time of this writing (close to the end of the model's life). Industry analysts expect to see a $150 Blu-ray Disc player this year--and that's not just assuming that aging 2008 models will drop in price to make room for new stock.
Among the ten models we evaluated in the PC World Test Center, we noticed a surprising trend: Yes, an inexpensive player can produce great-looking high-definition images. However, all three of the low-cost models we tried--the Insignia NS-2BRDVD, the Memorex, and the Sherwood America BDP-5003--had serious issues with upscaling standard-definition DVDs. If you plan to use your Blu-ray player for standard-def DVDs, too, you should choose a more expensive model.
The obituaries written for packaged media still appear to be premature. Blu-ray Discs not only offer a tangible good--which many consumers still appreciate--but also provide optimal visual quality.
Take, for example, what we saw from the LG BD300 and Samsung BD-P2500 Blu-ray players, both of which stream movies from Netflix. The image quality of the streams over our office's T1 connection was not even remotely comparable to that of a Blu-ray Disc. For all of the talk about streaming content from the Internet, the technology simply is not ready for mass consumption.
Industry experts agree: Recent estimates from research firm Media Control GfK International note that sales revenue from Blu-ray titles is projected to increase this year by 150 percent, to $2.9 billion. That represents about 11 percent of the packaged media sold in 2009, nearly triple Blu-ray's piece of the pie back in 2008. More people are aware of Blu-ray as a format, which has translated into sales and into more discs being released. According to DisplaySearch, 10.7 million Blu-ray players (including Sony PlayStation 3 game consoles) shipped in the format's first two and a half years. In comparison, DVD had shipped 5.4 million players (per the Consumer Electronics Association's numbers).
In addition to lowering prices, manufacturers are eliminating some of the more confusing points of differentiation among players. For example, a whopping 14 of the 19 Blu-ray Disc players introduced so far for 2009--including models from LG, Memorex, Pioneer, and Samsung--have BD-Live support for interactive content. More players these days offer on-board high-end audio decoders for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. And more models are serving as a conduit for streaming Internet-based entertainment to your HDTV: Aside from the LG BD300 and the Samsung BD-P2500, look for other streaming-enabled Blu-ray players from LG, Panasonic, and Samsung to arrive later this year.
Clearly, as prices continue to fall, the step-up cost of going Blu is less of an obstacle to shoppers, even those who are watching their budget.
In This Article
Read Our Blu-ray Disc Player Reviews
- Panasonic DMP-BD55K
- Samsung BD-P2500
- Sony PlayStation 3 (80GB)
- Sony BDP-S350
- Insignia NS-2BRDVD
- LG BD300
- Memorex MVBD2510
- Sharp Aquos BD-HP21U
- Sharp Aquos BD-HP50U
- Sherwood America BDP-5003
- Top Blu-ray Disc Players (chart)
The State of Special Features
With the jump to Blu-ray, people expect more extras with their movies than gag reels and deleted scenes. That means taking advantage of the medium in new ways--and making BD-Live live up to the hype.
On last year's Blu-ray players, BD-Live was a premium feature. This year, it's still an option, but an increasingly less costly one; in fact, the majority of Blu-ray players coming out in 2009 support BD-Live. To do so, a player must have an ethernet connection for Internet connectivity, and at least 1GB of flash memory, either on board or via a USB flash drive.
Though BD-Live promises more interactivity and online connectivity, so far it has been off to a shaky start. Between the first BD-Live disc, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (released in April 2008), and others issued last fall, the features boiled down to a couple of lame Java games, access to barren message boards, additional downloadable clips that didn't make the cut for the disc, and--wait for it--trailers for other movies. Still awake?
Things started to change in the fall, though, such that BD-Live is maturing to the point that you might want to try it out. Over 20 titles have shipped with BD-Live content. Social networking looks like the studios' magic bullet: Disney and Pixar, for example, are going far to push their interactivity features. With the 50th-anniversary edition of Sleeping Beauty, Disney introduced Movie Chat, in which you text friends while watching the movie, and Movie Mail, in which you record a video message and embed it within a scene. Disney also offers access to an online trivia game, Movie Challenge; here, viewers compete in real time for Disney Movie Rewards points (credits toward discounted Disney gear). Wall-E offers all of those BD-Live features and heaps on even more, including four video games, a digital storybook, and fly-bys of the film's digital sets.
Warner has gotten into the act, too. On top of great additional clips, Batman: The Dark Knight provides user-generated picture-in-picture video commentaries. Just fire up your Webcam, and upload your two cents--and your impressive Bat-knowledge--to share with the world. The community screening feature lets you sync up with your buddies over the Net to watch a flick in tandem. The feature worked great recently for fans of the film who got to watch it with, and ask questions of, director Christopher Nolan (who apparently had to adjourn to the men's room twice during the chat).
Will any of this persuade people to sprint out to the store and buy a Blu-ray player? Probably not, but it might make connected-deck owners feel better about their purchase. (We'd like the ability to re-edit movies the way we see fit and finally make Star Wars: Episode One watchable.) In the meantime, other films offer interesting extras--even if you aren't interested in the film itself.
Some flicks, such as the video-game-inspired Max Payne, incorporate D-Box Motion control code. That's terrific if you happen to own a pricey piece of furniture with hydraulics programmed to lift and lower when synced with a player. Max Payne, along with a couple other recent titles such as Babylon A.D. and Wanted, also experiments with digital graphic novels embedded on the disc.
Many Blu-ray Disc movies offer all sorts of picture-in-picture bonus content. This capability, called Blu-ray Bonus View, is accessible on any player labeled as Blu-ray Profile 1.1 or Bonus View capable (Profile 2.0 models, commonly referred to as BD-Live players, can also handle Bonus View content).
The Bonus View content lets you get behind-the-scenes commentary and special effects breakdowns in a window. But some films offer a deeper look inside a movie's world. In Doomsday, for example, pop-up windows give you greater context, explaining factions and weapons as the movie unfolds. The technothriller Vantage Point combines the perspectives of all the characters in the film and follows their locations with an in-film heads-up display while you watch everything unfold.
It's still early in the life of Blu-ray discs--and the rollout of BD-Live--but one thing is for sure: The pristine picture and dazzling audio aren't the only things that will determine the future of the format. We expect to see more from BD-Live: All Twentieth-Century Fox titles, for example, now ship with a gateway to BD-Live functionality dormant on the disc. Whenever that studio so decides, it can launch extra features, even if they're just trailers for soon-to-be released films.
Legal Digital Copying Catches On
Want to make a legal portable version of your favorite flicks? Just look for the Digital Copy logo on your DVD or Blu-ray Disc.
Digital Copy started in late 2007. Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros., recognizing the value of embracing the digital revolution, each decided to offer an option for consumers to access a digital, portable version of a movie that's stored on the same DVD they've purchased to play in the living room. If consumers are given a fairly simple way to make legal copies of movies, the studios reasoned, they won't turn to the same kind of rampant, illicit copying and file sharing that has slaughtered the music industry.
Fast-forward to 2009. Managed Copy, a similar concept that would function within Blu-ray's copy-protection scheme, is mired in development hell; the AACS (Advanced Access Content System) that encompasses it remains in Rev .921 while the organization that manages AACS tries to get everyone to agree to the final specs. Meanwhile, Digital Copy is going gangbusters, thanks to grassroots industry organization and a multitude of studios jumping aboard.
Late last year Digital Copy got a boost in the form of a common logo across participating studios, including Disney, Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner. The advantage to Digital Copy is that you don't have to download anything; the transfer speed is limited only by your DVD-ROM drive's ability to read the bits and transfer them to your PC or handheld device.
Over 50 titles have shipped with a Digital Copy version on the disc. Typically the Digital Copy version is stored on an extra disc in a multidisc set, though sometimes it may fit on the same DVD with other content. Blu-ray Digital Copy editions are appearing, too, but to use them you must have a PC with a Blu-ray Disc drive.
Fox's implementation of Digital Copy is compatible with both PC and Mac computers and assorted mobile devices. Fox's version works with the increasingly uncommon Windows PlaysForSure, and the practically ubiquitous Apple iTunes.
How does it work? If you use iTunes, for example, you just insert the disc into your computer and enter a code that comes with the disc into iTunes, and automatically the movie copies to iTunes in a matter of minutes. From there, you can watch the movie on your PC or Mac via iTunes, or transfer the copy to an Apple TV, iPhone, or iPod. The one drawback: Each DVD will transfer its iTunes Digital Copy to only one iTunes library.
Sony, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to make a variation of Digital Copy work with its PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable products (already the company has announced plans to offer a full PS3 game on the same disc as a movie; the first such title is due out later this year).
Sources say that, for Fox, the vast majority of movie transactions in iTunes are Digital Copy authentications, not actual electronic sales. Digital Copy usage makes sense, and we expect to see more studios take advantage of the capability on both new releases and catalog titles. And as the selection broadens, we anticipate that more consumers will take advantage--after all, no one enjoys paying twice for the same content in different forms.
Blu-ray on the PC: A Slow Start
Blu-ray Disc playback on PCs--laptops and desktops alike--seemed a no-brainer. Thanks to powerful processors plus high-resolution (even fully 1080p-capable) screens, as well as the increasing viability of using a computer as the center of an entertainment system, Blu-ray appeared destined for great things on the PC. After all, you could play a movie and burn up to 50GB of data with the technology.
The reality has proven somewhat different. While we are seeing a larger percentage of desktops and entertainment-centric laptops coming through with Blu-ray Disc drives, the drives typically just read Blu-ray content, and cannot write to the discs. (Prices for desktops with a Blu-ray reader start at $399; laptops, at about $750.) The trend developed in part because of the lower cost to manufacture Blu-ray Disc readers, and the ongoing high cost of media (25GB single-layer media ranges from $10 to $15 dollars, even if you buy a spindle; 50GB media costs $30 to $40).
Blu-ray writers have dropped from their initial lofty four-figure heights, but they're still pricey, running between $200 and $500 for internal and external models. And only a handful of manufacturers--Buffalo and Lite-On among them--are even bothering with writers.
External, add-on Blu-ray drives are especially scarce, since the complexities of viewing Blu-ray movies on existing desktop-PC gear pose a problem. Does your current graphics card support HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) security? Does your older monitor? Instead, Blu-ray has taken off in laptops, where the monitor is integrated with the components, and in new desktops, under the assumption that the buyer will likely purchase a new HDCP-capable monitor along with the PC. Even there, however, the number of systems getting Blu-ray is small: Research firm IDC estimates that no more than 5 percent of PCs shipped worldwide this year will have Blu-ray.
Nevertheless, if you want to watch discs on your system, getting Blu-ray on board remains the easiest path to doing so that we can recommend.
--Melissa J. Perenson