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Looking for a Blu-ray Player? The Only Good Choice Right Now Is...

Posted on Monday, February 11th, 2008 12:40 PM

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I've been a big proponent of the HD DVD format, as readers here will know. While the rival Blu-ray format had the better specs on paper, HD DVD had the better players and movies that actually made use of the advanced features the format offered.

In fact, when Paramount and Dreamworks announced they were going HD DVD-exclusive, I saw it as a sign that the format war was either going to go on for a very long time, or end in a stalemate that saw all the studios producing discs in both formats. This led me to recommend to others that they could purchase an HD DVD player without too much risk of it becoming a paperweight any time soon.

Then, Warner dropped their bomb on January 4, 2008 that they would discontinue producing HD DVDs after May 31, 2008. They had been the only major studio producing for both formats following Paramount's departure. While reports and rumors have it that Warner could easily have gone the other way if not for some prying open of wallets by Sony, the fact remains that Warner went to the Blu-ray side, and the news headlines since have demonstrated a steady shift of the rest of the industry in the Blu direction as well.

So, that leaves those of us HD DVD enthusiasts, and the very large majority of you out there that haven't purchased a Blu-ray player yet, with a question.

What Blu-ray Player Should I Buy?

Before I answer that question, let's look at some of the issues facing Blu-ray players currently in the marketplace.

Missing Features

My primary complaint about the Blu-ray format has always been that the players did not live up to the potential of the format. The specs can be as glorious as they want to be, but without players that support them, and discs that take advantage of them, the specs don't matter much.

The two glaring features missing from Blu-ray players are support for Bonus View (formerly called Profile 1.1) and for BD-Live (formerly Profile 2.0).

Bonus View provides the ability to have a second video feed, which is probably going to be the most useful for doing Picture-in-Picture effects while the movie is playing. This functionality was deemed important enough by the Blu-ray Disc Association that they set a deadline of October 31, 2007, where all players announced after that date needed to have Bonus View capability. Guess when all the current players were announced? Yep, that's right, before October 31!

This is a feature, by the way, that HD DVD players have had from the beginning, and more than a few titles make use of the feature, including the first disc I ever bought, Batman Begins (released by Warner Bros.).

Some Blu-ray titles have been released with the PiP window permanently shown on a second copy of the movie on the same disc to get around this problem, but that's clearly not the right way to handle such things. Last month's release of War was the first wide release to feature Bonus View content, and more have been announced, so any player missing this ability is certainly behind the times.

Another major failing of Blu-ray players is that few of them can be connected to the Internet via an Ethernet port. This is a feature that has also been present on every HD DVD player made. Not only does this connection make it very easy to update the firmware of the player (for performance enhancements, bug fixes, etc.), but it also allows the movie studios to provide additional content via specially crafted servers that you can access.

To date, there hasn't been a true "killer-app" using this feature, but the studios have been toying with the concept and learning as they go. December's release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix included a feature where you could invite friends that had the disc to join you in a community viewing of the movie that you could control, no matter where in the world they were located.

Other offerings have been much less inspired, but I'm confident that more will be done in the future. In fact, Disney has announced that the Blu-ray releases of Finding Nemo and Sleeping Beauty this fall will have online functionality, requiring BD Live to be present on your Blu-ray player to enjoy them.

Slow Performance, Title Incompatibilities

When Blu-ray titles started making use of some of the cool interactive features made possible by the format, many Blu-ray players had performance issues. Unfortunately for consumers who bought them, these players couldn't handle the complex code involved in providing such features as "Liar's Dice" on the Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and other such examples.

Some Blu-ray players have been plagued with incompatibility problems, as well. For these fledgling formats, such wrinkles are going to exist, and the real test of the studios and the player manufacturers is how they handle such problems.

There have been title-specific incompatibility problems on both formats, but the network connectivity features on HD DVD players and Toshiba's quick response to the issues by releasing firmware updates regularly has prevented the problem from becoming very serious.

However, the picture isn't quite as rosy on the Blu-ray side of things. This past week, an early adopter has decided to engage Samsung in a class-action lawsuit, claiming that they were aware of incompatibility problems, and have failed to address them completely by issuing firmware updates or repairing the affected players. I've heard the most incompatibility and performance issues with the Samsung players, but perhaps the more recent models have overcome those problems.

Since no Samsung player supports Bonus View and BD-Live, they weren't on my short list of purchases. That leads me to...

The only Blu-ray player worth buying right now is the Sony PlayStation 3

Even three months after the October 31 deadline has passed, there are only two Blu-ray players currently available for sale support Bonus View features. The Sony PlayStation 3 gaming console and the Panasonic BMP-BD30.

These two units are both very well-regarded by enthusiasts as excellent Blu-ray players. The Panasonic provides for analog outputs and bitstreaming output of the lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio audio formats. The PS3 provides online connectivity and the fact that it is also a gaming platform.

While I have not heard of any speed-related issues with the Panasonic, it does seem to have a problem with the LFE channel being too low on the HDMI output. More on this issue can be found on The Official Panasonic DMP-BD30 Owner's Thread over at AVS Forum. The big problem for me with the Panasonic is that it lacks an Ethernet port, so there is no chance that it will be able to support BD Live functionality.

Sony PlayStation 3That leaves the PlayStation 3, which is the choice that I have made.

Released in November 2006, the PlayStation 3 is a virtual supercomputer in a gaming platform's clothing. With processing power to spare, robust multimedia capabilities, and a Blu-ray drive built in, the PS3 is the 300-pound gorilla when it comes to Blu-ray players. While it has not seen as much success yet on the gaming system side of things (it still falls behind both the Xbox 360 and Wii), it represents an overwhelming percentage (>90%) of the Blu-ray players sold.

The PS3 is almost always recommended by those who have one as the most capable Blu-ray player available, and it stands as the only device currently available for sale that supports both Bonus View (made possible via a firmware update in December) and Sony has said that it will be updated to support BD-Live in 2008.

Given its flagship status and the sheer number of these units in the field, I have no doubt that we will see the BD-Live update before any such discs are available for sale. Sony has too much riding on the PS3 to omit that functionality, and all the pieces appear to be there for it to be possible.

The two most glaring issues with the PS3 are the lack of analog outputs and the lack of internal DTS HD Master Audio decoding. Less so is the lack of bitstream audio support, but one should not expect analog audio outputs or bitstream audio support in a gaming system. Rumors have it that DTS HD MA support will be coming in the next few months.

One final nit to pick with the PS3 is its lack of an IR remote control. Sony saw fit to equip the PS3 with Bluetooth wireless functionality only, so you are restricted to using the game controller as a movie remote, or to purchase Sony's Bluetooth remote control. Bluetooth wireless capability makes it great to have wireless game controllers, but not so great for those of us wanting to integrate the PS3 into a media system controlled by a single remote. Using the game controller for movie playback is frustrating at best, so a dedicated remote is pretty necessary in my opinion, and I want to have everything in my system controlled by my programmable Philips Pronto remote control.

Fortunately, Nyko makes the Blu Wave, an aftermarket IR-to-USB remote solution that provides almost all remote functionality via IR. The $13.99 package comes with its own remote and a dongle that plugs into the USB port on the front of the PS3. This makes it possible to program universal remote controls, like the Pronto and Logitech Harmony remotes, to control the PS3's movie playback functions. The only features missing are "Eject" and "Power" which I'm willing to handle by walking up to the unit.

So far, my experience with the PS3 has been quite good. I still have adjustments to make and I just received the Nyko remote, so I'm programming my Pronto for it now. I'm impressed with the media playback capabilities of the PS3 (it can play videos and music files off a local network), and I've even given a few games a try.

So, there you have it. Until the new players that were announced at CES are released, the Sony PlayStation 3 is the only Blu-ray player I can recommend to people. At $399, it's also one of the lowest priced players out there, and if you don't need the analog outputs or the bitstreaming audio capability of the Panasonic unit, it's really the only choice.

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