Sony BDP-S780 Review: Blu-ray Player Has a Slew of Internet Services, Plus a Web Browser
At a Glance
On paper, the Sony BDP-S780 looks like a great Blu-ray player. It comes with a large and well-chosen selection of Internet apps, including a Web browser. You can convert 2D to 3D and adjust the 3D settings. It's the fastest Blu-ray player I've tested yet. But the gotchas are big ones: The browser won't play video, converted 3D video still looks like 2D, and the price tag hurts ($230, as of November 17, 2011).
The BDP-S780 comes with a huge array of Internet services. In addition to the usual Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube, this player has four pay-per-view services (Amazon, CinemaNow, Video Unlimited, and Vudu) as well as Blip.tv, Digital Cinema Concert Series, Dr. Oz: Tips For Healthy Living, Facebook, NHL Vault, and Skype, among many others. The Gracenote service is especially useful, as it allows you to interact with Gracenote's cloud database to get information on what you're currently watching or hearing. Sony promises to add even more services.
The Web browser's very existence promises the ability to access video streams that Sony hasn't specifically added. Alas, the browser doesn't support Flash, which makes most Internet video streams incompatible.
That isn't the only compromise Sony has made in the BDP-S780's Internet apps. If you want to view Hulu Plus or Netflix through this player, you must first sign up with Sony's My Essentials, after which you'll be able to use your existing Hulu Plus and Netflix accounts or start new ones. The extra step is aggravating, and it forces you to deal with yet one more password that you have to memorize or securely save.
Sony has created its own user interfaces for those two services that look very much (but not exactly) like the services' own navigation screens. They do have one big advantage, however. Thanks to these Sony interfaces, if you download and install Sony's iOS or Android remote-control app, you'll be able to use your smartphone's QWERTY keyboard in Hulu Plus and Netflix searches--something I haven't seen in any other Blu-ray player's smartphone app. The apps' keyboards also work with Sony's perfectly serviceable YouTube user interface.
You won't enjoy entering text on the BDP-S780 if you don't have a smartphone. The text-entry screen, with its particularly ugly representation of a dumb phone's keypad, is exceptionally clumsy even by the already-low standards of remote-control text entry. Entering a password--with its likely combination of numbers and both uppercase and lowercase letters--is especially difficult. (And, of course, you can't enter your Wi-Fi password with your smartphone, because the smartphone app works only if the BDP-S780 is already on the local network.)
That's just one of the BDP-S780's user interface problems. Here's another: A wizard comes up when you turn on the player for the first time, which is good--but it leaves out some important steps. For instance, although it asks whether it should "allow" an Internet connection, it doesn't actually help you set up the network.
Once you're done with the wizard, the main menu is reasonably easy to navigate, especially if you've used another Sony product. The on-screen descriptions are usually helpful, but not always.
One positive: This is the fastest Blu-ray player I have ever tested. When I inserted the Independence Day Blu-ray disc, the BDP-S780 took a scant 24 seconds before the FBI was warning me not to make a copy.
Since this is a Sony player, it came as little surprise that the image quality was nearly identical to that of the updated PlayStation 3 we use as a reference player. I saw slightly better detail on three Blu-ray discs--Phantom of the Opera (2004 version, chapter 3), The Searchers (chapter 4), and Cars (chapter 1)--but not enough to affect the score. On everything else, the images looked identical.
PCWorld doesn't formally test 3D image quality for Blu-ray players, but I popped in the Avatar disc, put on the funny glasses, and went to the action-packed chapter 7. It looked great.
The BDP-S780 has a menu option I've never seen before: 'TV Screen Size Setting for 3D'. In theory, if the player knows the size of your HDTV screen, it can adjust the depth accordingly. And in practice, the feature seems to work. At the correct setting, everything looked great. Then I lied to the player and told it that I had a smaller screen, and the 3D looked exaggerated, with everything sticking out farther than it should have. When I told the player that I had a larger TV, the image looked flat.
Speaking of flat-looking images, the BDP-S780 also has an option to convert 2D content to 3D. I object to this sort of thing on philosophical grounds--if the filmmakers wanted their project to be in 3D, they would have shot it that way. But now I can object to it on technical grounds, as well. In my tests, the moving images from Mission: Impossible III (chapter 7) still looked like 2D. Even a car moving quickly to the camera didn't leap out at me. The only things that did were the messages and menus that popped up when I pressed certain buttons on the remote.
If you can't find enough entertainment on the Internet or in your disc collection, you can enjoy your own music, photos, and videos on the BDP-S780. It can read media files off a USB storage device, such as a flash drive, or over your home network via DLNA server software (Windows Media Player qualifies). The player supports a modest selection of media formats (you'll find the list on page 36 of the manual, which you can download as a PDF file). You can also present your photos in a slideshow complete with background music and a decent array of transition effects.
All of this requires using the remote control, which is lightweight and feels a bit flimsy. The play-control buttons (Play, Pause, Skip, and so on) are too low on the remote for easy use. At least those particular buttons, and a few others, glow in the dark. And the remote provides enough tactile differences for you to easily identify buttons by touch--after some practice, of course. You can program the remote to control various televisions, which may come in handy.
The previously mentioned Android and iOS apps take a bit of setup, but once they're running, you'll have no complaints. You can program them to do a particular task (for instance, pause) when you shake your phone.
The Sony BDP-S780 Blu-ray player takes its 3D imaging and Internet access seriously. But its shortcomings make it seem overpriced.