Buying guide: Blu-ray players

What do you want in a Blu-ray player? Easy access to Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and other Internet streaming services? A way to move your personal photos and videos to your television? 3D support? And, of course, you want something that can play Blu-ray discs—still the best video and audio you can get in the home.

But choosing a good, Internet-capable Blu-ray player isn’t as simple as grabbing the cheapest box in the store. You want a player that supports plenty of Internet services, and is capable of adding more. You need to know that you can successfully hook the player up to the Internet, and that you’ll have no trouble navigating the services. You may or may not want 3D, a QWERY Remote, or legacy outputs.

Stick around. I’ll tell you what to look for.

Streaming Internet content

Unlike a PC or Mac, a Blu-ray player can only stream media from services it supports from the manufacturer. So you want one with plenty of services that match your tastes.

The popular streaming services you must have. For the widest variety of movies and TV shows, you want a player that supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, and at least two pay-per-view services such as Amazon, Vudu, and CinemaNow.

Other services you might want. The more services the better, but keep an eye out for offerings that match your tastes. If you can’t bear to be away from your Twitter or Facebook feed, look for a player that supports social networks. Baseball fans may want MLB.TV, international news junkies should look for BBC News, and classic music lovers might want Berlin Philharmoniker. And all music lovers would appreciate Pandora.

The manufacturers add new services from time to time, which you can download. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll add the one(s) you want, so pick a player that does what you want right now.

Don’t get too excited about smart hubs. Thesefancy-looking screens provide easy access to the players’ various Internet services. But honestly, the simple menu systems on older or small-brand sets are just as easy.

Samsung’s smart hub

Smart hubs often include a browser and a search tool, which at first glance seem very smart, indeed. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a browser or search tool on one of these devices that didn’t disappoint. The browsers tend to be slow, difficult to use (you’ll really miss having a keyboard and mouse), and usually don’t support Flash. And the search tools never find everything available.

Consider your HDTV’s Internet capabilities. Your Blu-ray player’s Internet options aren’t as vital if your TV already offers an extensive selection of streaming services. But your player may offer services that your television lacks, especially if it’s from a different manufacturer.

Connecting your player to your network, TV, and sound system

You need to make sure that your player will connect with everything you need it to.

Ethernet or Wi-Fi. You’ll need a network connection, but it may not have to be wireless. If your home’s geography lets you string an ethernet cable between the router and the player, you can save $20 or $30 by getting a player without Wi-Fi.

HDMI outputs. All Blu-ray players have at least one HDMI port, and most people use a single HDMI cable to connect their player to their HDTV. Or, if they have an audio receiver that supports HDMI, they daisy-chain the devices, connecting the player to the receiver with one HDMI cable and the receiver to the television with another.

But some 3D Blu-ray players offer two HDMI outputs, which saves you the expense of upgrading your receiver to a model that supports the HDMI 1.4 standard needed for passing a 3D image to the TV. But two HDMI outputs also add flexibility, since you can bypass the receiver. This is handy, for instance, if you want to watch The Wizard of Oz while listening to The Dark Side of the Moon.

Unfortunately, only a few high-end players offer two HDMI outputs, so think about how important that feature is to you.

Legacy outputs. If you have an older HDTV, it may not even support HDMI. In that case, look for a player with component video outputs—which probably means buying a used player. See “How do you play Blu-rays on an older model HDTV?” for more details.

Other features

You might also want to consider the following:

3D. If you have a 3D HDTV, or are thinking of buying one, you’ll need a 3D Blu-ray player. These tend to cost more, but I’ve seen 3D players on sale for about $100.

The remote control. You want one that comfortably fits in your hand, with easy access to the buttons you’re most likely to press frequently, like Pause. Backlighting will make the remote friendlier in the dark. Buttons dedicated to frequently used features—such as Netflix—are not necessary bit can be convenient.

Vizio’s remote with built-in QWERTY keyboard.

Using the Internet inevitably involves entering text—searches, passwords, and so on—so a QWERTY keyboard built into the remote can be very handy. As of this writing, only Vizio offers such a remote.

Local media playback. You might also want a player that can handle your own video, music, and photo collections. Most players allow you to play media files off of a USB storage device, such as a flash drive. Some also support SD cards.

But does a particular player support the media file formats you use? Check the player’s product or support page (or manual, which should be online) to find out what formats it supports.

Many players can also access media off of your computer over your local network. Your computer will have to be running DLNA server software, but that isn’t much of a problem. If you have Windows, you already have such a program—Windows Media Player. And Mac users can download and install DLNA server software as well.

Image quality. In general, there’s very little difference in image quality with Blu-ray players these days. If you’re really concerned about it, check out online reviews and/or visit a local store where you can possibly compare different models. But if you have a good HDTV, you probably don’t need to worry about image quality much.

Price. Ah yes, money. These days, a Blu-ray player shouldn’t cost much. If you shop for bargains, you can get a very good player for $100 and an excellent one for $150 or less.

That’s a tempting price for a piece of hardware that brings Internet entertainment, your family photos, and the near-theatrical quality of Blu-ray discs to your television.

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