Sharp BD-HP90U: Beautiful Blu-ray Images, but Flawed Design
At a Glance
Blu-ray discs look wonderful on the BD-HP90, but Sharp got virtually everything else wrong with this player--and then priced it too high.
After you get over the sticker shock of a $350 estimated street price (as of November 22, 2010), the futuristic Sharp BD-HP90 makes a great first impression--and so will any Blu-ray discs you play on it. But before long you'll discover some serious flaws in this player's design and features, as well as in its ability to upscale DVDs.
Measuring less than an inch and a half thick, with a slot instead of a tray for discs, the BD-HP90 looks like no other Blu-ray player. In fact, it looks great. You even have the option to lay it flat or mount it vertically.
This original design has some problems, however. To make the BD-HP90 look sleek, Sharp tucked the HDMI, ethernet, power, and other connectors into a hidden compartment. The result: You can't plug anything in without first turning the player upside down. And the bundled stand for mounting the player vertically isn't stable unless you drill a hole in the desk or table you plan to mount it onto and screw it down.
Once you turn the BD-HP90 on and go to the Settings menu, you'll find a functional but unexceptional user interface. It offers explanations for the options, but they're not always helpful. For instance, the Control Panel option is explained with the question "Do you want to turn on the control panel function?" You have to check the manual to discover that the control panel is part of HDMI CEC.
In at least one case, a missing menu option can lead to disaster. When you tell the player that you have a widescreen TV, it doesn't ask how you want 4:3 video formatted. Instead, it simply stretches 4:3 material horizontally to fill the screen. That means you can't watch a nonanamorphic DVD, a five-year-old TV show on Netflix, or a pre-HD home movie without everything being distorted and everyone looking fat.
Someone at Sharp eventually sent me the workaround: Tell the BD-HP90 that you have a 4:3 television and want 16:9 material letterboxed. Oddly enough, this worked, although it's a little like turning on the cold water in the sink to get hot water in the tub. (The player displayed 16:9 content correctly either way.)
Even at the right aspect ratio, the BD-HP90 doesn't handle DVDs well. In a dark scene from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (chapter 22), the shadows looked too bright to be convincing. And a long shot from Phantom of the Opera (chapter 3) seemed flat compared with its looks on our reference player, a Sony PlayStation 3.
The BD-HP90 did much better with Blu-ray discs (an easier job since that doesn't involve upscaling). Here it offered significantly richer colors and better detail than the PS3, especially in the animated Cars test (chapter 1). But even with Blu-ray discs, of the three 3D Blu-ray players I've tested to date (the LG BX580 and the Samsung BD-C7900 are the others), it gave the least-spectacular presentation.
PCWorld does not yet test 3D image quality.
In addition to discs, the BD-HP90 can play streaming video off the Internet--once you hook it up to your network. If you choose Wi-Fi, and you keep your wireless network secured (as you should), entering your password into this player may be a major challenge. You get no easy way to enter a password from the remote control, and Sharp has made the job particularly onerous with an ugly and confusing text-entry screen. Luckily, you'll probably have to do this only once.
You can bypass the issue entirely, of course, by using ethernet. All that requires is turning the player upside down so that you can access the port.
The BD-HP90's Internet offerings seem limited at first: You get just Netflix, Vudu, and Pandora. But Vudu on this player is much more than the familiar on-demand movie rental service. Here it offers Vudu Apps, including Facebook, Picasa, and assorted television news and entertainment programs. But the BD-HP90 is missing one important service: YouTube.
It's also missing a second HDMI port, a problem particularly for 3D Blu-ray players. With only one HDMI port on a player, the only way to get the best-quality picture and sound is to daisy-chain your equipment, using one HDMI cable to connect the player to a receiver and another to connect the receiver to the television. But for this arrangement to work with a 3D video signal, the receiver must support HDMI 1.4, something that only the newest receivers do. If the BD-HP90 had two HDMI ports, you would be able to connect the player directly to both your HDTV and your receiver, without compromising.
While one HDMI port may be a shortcoming, one USB port is enough for viewing your own media. But even the BD-HP90's multimedia capabilities come with severe restrictions. The only supported formats are .jpeg, .mp3, and DivX. You can view your photos in a slideshow, but you can't accompany that slideshow with music.
The remote control is designed so that your thumb naturally lands on a nest of seldom-used buttons such as Audio, Subtitle, and Angle. The more important play-control buttons are too low for comfortable access, with Pause and Stop identical to the touch. Luckily, those particular buttons glow in the dark, so tactile differences (or a lack thereof) aren't that important. You can't program the remote to control your television, though.
If you press the remote's Display button while watching a disc, you'll get the title and chapter numbers, the time elapsed, and the total time (but not the time remaining). The Function button gives you a menu where you can change chapters, angle, audio, and other options.
In the end, despite the very good Blu-ray image quality, the Sharp BD-HP90 would be a disappointment at half the price.