SLIDESHOW

The Best Blu-ray Disc Players

Thinking about upgrading to a Blu-ray player? We tested ten of the latest models--have a look.

Samsung BD-P2500

When you first turn on the Samsung BD-P2500, you see a low-resolution, jagged Samsung logo. That's pretty disappointing for a $350 Blu-ray player. Fortunately, it's one of the few disappointments with this model.

Our PC World Test Center judges found the Samsung's image quality simply amazing. The grades we gave it contained a few Goods, many Very Goods, and a lot of Superiors--unusual for our discriminating judges. The BD-P2500 also supports BD-Live for accessing supplemental disc content via the Web. This feature requires an ethernet connection as well as your own USB drive. Regrettably, this model's USB port is inconveniently situated in the back.

The BD-P2500 is one of two Blu-ray players we've tested that can stream video via the Internet directly from Netflix. Armed with an ethernet connection and a Netflix account, you use a PC to queue up 480p and 720p video streams; those streams are then available to you via the Netflix option on the player. But you can forget about the BD-P2550's great image quality when you stream from Netflix. A standard-def stream looked extremely blotchy, and even an HD stream didn't measure up to the best that standard-def discs--let alone high-def ones--can offer.

Still, the Samsung BD-P2500 is an excellent machine. You get what you pay for. In a Blu-ray player, a great-looking image can outweigh shortcomings and a high price.

LG Electronics BD300

The LG BD300 is a feature-packed Blu-ray player, with BD-Live, a USB port for viewing multimedia, and Netflix on-demand streaming. For $350, though, we expected better-looking images.

Like the Samsung BD-P2500, this player is one of the few that can handle Netflix's streaming video. But while the Netflix functionality is a cool idea, it isn't a foolproof approach to viewing movies. The main point to consider: You buy a Blu-ray player to get the best possible images in home video. A Netflix stream hardly qualifies. Think of Netflix downloads as a quick convenience, not a proper home-theater experience.

Physical discs--DVDs as well as Blu-rays--looked much better. In the PC World Test Center's evaluation, our judges tended to score the BD300's image output as Good or Very Good, but we noticed some issues, such as too much contrast. And the BD300 was at its worst when converting standard DVDs to 1080p. Colors appeared lifeless, and the images failed to pop.

If the price were a little lower, or the image quality more consistent, the LG BD300 would be a knockout. As it stands, it's a solid player, and for now it remains one of your few choices if you're determined to have your Blu-ray and your Netflix, too.

Sony BDP-S350

Any way you look at it, the $300 Sony BDP-S350 is an excellent Blu-ray player. It's well designed and easy to use. It supports high-end Blu-ray features such as BD-Live. And it produces good-looking images.

The judges in our PC World Test Center evaluation graded the BDP-S350 with a mixture of Good and Very Good scores, with the Very Goods seeing a slight edge.

So far this is the cheapest player we've seen with BD-Live, which lets you access supplemental content on some discs via the Internet. Like all BD-Live players, the BDP-S350 has USB and ethernet ports. But in this case the ports are limited to their BD-Live capabilities (and firmware updating via ethernet). The USB port is mounted on the back, a bit of an inconvenience considering you have to bring your own USB drive to use the BD-Live functions.

You can find cheaper Blu-ray players on the market, but the Sony BDP-S350 is a strong bet. This model delivers a solid all-around package, and it does so at a price that won't break your wallet.

Sharp Aquos BD-HP21U

The Sharp BD-HP21U packs lots of metal--literally. It's large and heavy, so much so that you could mistake it for an old Laserdisc player. In the end, the fairly low price ($220) gets you a Blu-ray player with only hit-and-miss image quality.

PC World Test Center judges found extremes of good and bad in viewing our suite of test discs. The Sharp wasn't always, well, sharp. And some images appeared dull and flat.

As you'd expect for its price, the BD-HP21U isn't heavy on extra features. The player supports Blu-ray Profile 1.1 (which all players at this point must support, at minimum), but not the fancier features contained in Profile 2.0 (such as BD-Live for accessing supplemental content via the Internet). Notably, it natively supports Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus audio, converting those high-end sound tracks to standard PCM for amplifiers that don't support them.

Unlike its first-generation player, the Sharp BD-HP20U, Sharp's second-generation model just doesn't impress. The Sharp BD-HP21U does its job without frills, and without oomph.

Insignia NS-2BRDVD

The Insignia NS-2BRDVD, Best Buy’s house-brand Blu-ray Disc player, is a bargain in almost all respects. Priced at $230, this model serves up a winning combination of sharp, well-balanced high-definition images and solid industrial design. The Insignia’s sole failing lies in its inadequate upconversion of standard-definition DVDs.

Our image-quality tests start with standard DVDs, and that's where the NS-2BRDVD outright bombed. It had issues upconverting standard-defintion video to 1080p: Scenes looked dull and muddy, with a distinct lack of detail.

In contrast, when we moved on to viewing Blu-ray discs, at their native 1080p resolution, the NS-2BRDVD performed superbly. Our judges awarded it grades of Very Good and Superior. If you're looking for a bargain in a Blu-ray player, the Insignia NS-2BRDVD is the best you can buy--but only if you’re willing to rely on another source for upscaling your standard-definition DVDs.

Memorex MVBD2510

At an estimated street price of $175, the Memorex MVBD2510 is the least expensive Blu-ray player we've seen thus far. But a poorly designed remote, uncommunicative menus, and acceptable but unexceptional image quality are the prices you pay for saving money.

Like the Insignia NS-2BRDVD, the Memorex did a better job displaying images from Blu-ray discs than from standard-definition DVDs; but while the Memorex outperformed the Insignia on standard-def DVD, its results with Blu-ray Discs were more mixed.

The remote's flat shape looks cool--in use it's anything but. The tiny buttons are all poorly placed, with some important ones (Popup Menu, for instance) far from the midpoint, where your thumb is most likely to rest. Buttons like Play and Pause are identified by spelled-out names (in a small font), rather than by the common symbols everyone is used to seeing.

You expect a no-frills player for $175, and that's what you get with the Memorex MVBD2510. You'll need to spend more money if you want better image quality or a more full-featured player.

Sharp Aquos BD-HP50U

The Sharp Aquos BD-HP50U ($290) may be the more expensive model in Sharp's Blu-ray Disc player lineup, but this model didn't impress us.

Pop a disc into the player, and you'll have to wait nearly 3 minutes before it starts playing. You can pass part of the time wondering who designed the ugly, white-on-black 'READING THE DISC' message on your TV screen. The sluggishness doesn't go away when the movie starts. Skipping a chapter takes about 5 seconds. By comparison, most players do the same in less than 2 seconds--and that 3-second difference feels like an eternity.

Another issue: The BD-HP50U doesn't upconvert standard DVDs very well. Movies looked overly contrasty and disappointing overall. The BD-HP50U performed better with Blu-ray Discs; judges' grades for the Blu-ray tests were mostly Goods and Very Goods, with a few Fairs and Superbs.

You'd expect a player in this price range to have plenty of extras, but you'd be disappointed. It has no ethernet port, and therefore no BD-Live (though it does support picture-in-picture Bonus View content). The Sharp Aquos BD-HP50U costs 1.5 times the price of the Insignia NS-2BRDVD, but you don't gain anything that makes this model worth the premium bucks.

Panasonic DMP-BD55K

At $400, the Panasonic DMP-BD55K is expensive. But its superb image quality, excellent design, and wide feature set make the DMP-BD55K a tempting choice for shoppers with deep enough pockets.

In the PC World Test Center, the DMP-BD55K did not receive a single grade of less than Very Good from any of our judges. Jurors' notes were filled with praise. Unlike less-expensive models, the DMP-BD55K had no issues with upscaling standard-definition DVDs to 1080p--in fact, the DMP-BD55K bested all comers we've tested in its handling of DVDs.

Packed with features, the DMP-BD55K can play DivX files, AVCHD movies, and other media formats. An SD Card slot sits in front; you can use the card slot to view photos.This BD-Live player has an ethernet port in the back, but no built-in memory: You have to bring your own memory in the form of an SD Card, annoying considering the otherwise premium qualities of this player.

If you're willing to pay a lot for a Blu-ray player, you deserve one as good as the Panasonic DMP-BD55K.

Sherwood BDP-5003

The Sherwood BDP-5003 is priced at $250, and not surprisingly it's a stripped-down, feature-free model. It lacks BD-Live and native Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio support. Of course, such omissions might be forgiven if the unit could deliver outstanding images for such a reasonable price.

The Sherwood's images aren't outstanding, but they are acceptable--most of the time. The player gave its worst performance on regular DVDs, where it had to upconvert the image. It did better with Blu-ray discs; altogether, we gave the BDP-5003 mostly Good scores for Blu-ray Disc image quality, with a few Very Goods and Fairs.

If you're shopping on a tight budget, Sherwood's BDP-5003 is worth considering. But if you want more features and better image quality, we'd suggest looking elsewhere.

Sony PlayStation 3 (80GB)

From the outset, Sony has billed the PlayStation 3 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) has built-in gigabit ethernet and supports BD-Live content that can be delivered via the Internet. It also supports Blu-ray Bonus View, for playing back picture-in-picture content.

In our jury evaluation of image quality, the PS3 was less impressive than it was when we judged it last year. Several dedicated Blu-ray players bested it this time, rendering sharper images with superior color and contrast. In particular, images from the PS3 seem especially bright compared with those of the best dedicated players out today.

Nevertheless, the PS3 remains quite a deal if you want to play high-def Blu-ray movies and you aren't wedded to buying a stand-alone, home-theater-style device. You get 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.