Blu-ray Players Bring Cheap 3D, Great Images, and Internet Services
Five years after their introduction, Blu-ray players have evolved from simple receptacles for video discs to one of the most convenient ways to add the Internet to your television, too. Today, watching streaming video entertainment from Hulu Plus, Netflix, and other services on your television means buying an Internet-capable HDTV or a Blu-ray player. Guess which one is cheaper?
You can also use modern Blu-ray players to view your own photos and videos, as well as to listen to your music collection. And, of course, you can play Blu-ray Discs. Internet streaming keeps improving, but Blu-rays still provide the best moving images and surround sound you can get outside of a real movie theater.
To help you choose a Blu-ray player, I examined six current models: the Insignia NS-WBRDVD3, LG BD670, Panasonic DMP-BDT210, Samsung BD-D5700, Sony BDP-S780, and Vizio VBR122. The LG BD670 proved to be the best player of the batch, although some of the others are excellent options, and many of them are significantly cheaper. I compared these models with PCWorld's reference Blu-ray player, a Sony PlayStation 3 (with the latest firmware at the time of our testing). To see how all of these players ranked, check our latest Top Blu-ray Disc Players chart.
3D Comes Down in Price
A year ago, 3D Blu-ray Disc support was an expensive premium in a Blu-ray player. Not so anymore: Four of the six players can send left and right video streams to your TV--and one of those players, the Insignia NS-WBRDVD3, costs only $120.
However, 3D involves some trade-offs. In last year's tests, every 3D player we tried produced better 2D images than any of the players without 3D. These days, 3D capabilities no longer promise better-looking 2D. The 2D-only Samsung BD-D5700 produced better pictures than two of the 3D players, while the 3D Insignia had the worst image quality of the six.
Image Quality Boost
Not that those were horrible images. We actually saw surprisingly little variety in image quality with this round. All of the players reproduced colors spot-on. We saw some variation in sharpness and detail, but even those differences were usually minor.
Why is that? As technology improves, the number and quality of the chips required to produce great-looking images goes down, resulting in better image quality at low prices.
Nevertheless, we did see some significant differences, most of them in four of our eight tests. And an interesting four they were.
One was Good Night and Good Luck (chapter 1), our only black-and-white test. Imaging black-and-white video raises issues that seldom come up in color. Grayscale is much more important here, and the eye doesn't get distracted by colors. And some players in this year's roundup found this task harder than their predecessors did in the past.
We also saw noticeable differences between players in The Searchers (chapters 4 and 20), by far the oldest movie we use in testing. It was shot in 1956 in Technicolor and a high-resolution film format called VistaVision. Those two technologies, combined, resulted in more vibrant and highly saturated colors, as well more details, than you find in a modern movie.
Finally, we saw large differences in both of our DVD tests. For a Blu-ray player, upconverting a DVD's standard-definition video to 1080p is a much more complex job than playing a Blu-ray Disc. Therefore, it isn't surprising that we found more differences among the players here.
Among this test group, the LG BD670 provided the best image quality, surpassing the PlayStation 3 in almost every test involving a Blu-ray Disc. The Panasonic DMP-BDT210 came in a very close second. The Insignia NS-WBRDVD produced the worst images; they looked fine on their own, but when we compared them with the PS3's images, they looked dull and flat.
As Blu-ray players continue to morph into connected streaming devices, they must keep adding services to stay current. For a couple of years now, it has been all but unthinkable to imagine a new player without Netflix, Pandora, and more than one pay-per-view service. But now you can add Hulu Plus to the must-have list: Five out of the six players we looked at offered it.
All of this Internet use means that consumers are entering more and more text on screen--mostly, service passwords and content searches. But entering text with a conventional remote control is only slightly more easy than typing with your toes.
The solution, of course, is to add a remote control that has a QWERTY keyboard. Only one player I reviewed this year, the Vizio VBR122, comes with one. But three others have free iOS and Android remote-control apps that provide at least some QWERTY text-entry capabilities--a lesser but still useful option. Theoretically, smartphone apps seem an appropriate alternative for handling such tasks. After all, today's phones put the Internet in your pocket, while today's Blu-ray players put it on your TV. And they also give you movies that look so good they nearly rival a multiplex.