A Blu-ray Disc player remains the single best way of getting a crisp 1080p image onto a large-screen, high-definition display.
Before you shop for a Blu-ray player, you need a crash course in new Blu-ray terminology. The Blu-ray Disc format has gone through some awkward growing pains, which has resulted in the messy situation we have now of different players supporting (or not supporting) different Blu-ray features. Two new features you'll want to look for are BonusView and BD-Live.
Of the models we tested, three--the Panasonic, the Philips, and the Sony PlayStation 3--offered BonusView. Only one, the PlayStation 3, could handle BD-Live as well. Under the Blu-ray Disc spec, all players should be equipped to handle movie titles packed with fancy, complex menus (authored in BD-Java). One player, the Samsung, failed our BD-Java playback test: It refused to load Disney's Cars, so we could not watch the movie (let alone see the Java-intensive extra features).
Philips BDP7200/37 Blu-ray Disc Player
If your goal is to start enjoying stellar, high-definition image quality today, our Best Buy, the BonusView-capable Philips BDP7200/37 is a solid value, given its strength in producing both pictures and sound.
You'll need patience to use the BDP7200, though. While the unit powered up in less than 20 seconds (reasonably good for a Blu-ray player), it took an additional, mind-numbing 44 seconds to start playing a disc. The total startup time, 64 seconds, was the second worst in the group. Once running, the player responded sluggishly to such remote control commands as popping up the menu and skipping chapters.
In general, however, the BDP7200 distinguishes itself by delivering terrific image and audio quality at a comparatively low price (US$400). Support for BonusView, too, makes this model a great choice.
Sony Playstation 3 (40GB)
The PlayStation 3 has billed itself as more than just another game console. And this machine lives up to its promise: It's one of the most capable Blu-ray Disc players available today. The 40GB PS3 ($400, as of June 2008) has built-in gigabit ethernet and is one of the few Blu-ray players that supports BD-Live (Profile 2.0) content that can be delivered via the Internet. It also supports Blu-ray BonusView, for playing back picture-in-picture content. Sony's PlayStation 3 is an excellent choice: Its versatility means that you can start enjoying Blu-ray movies today--and play Grand Theft Auto IV, too.
Sharp BD-HP20U Blu-ray Disc Player
Sharp's first Blu-ray Disc player, the BD-HP20U, is a winner on all counts.
Turn on the BD-HP20U ($400 as of June 2008) and the unit is powered up and ready to receive a disc in under 6 seconds. That's less than a third of the time that any other player PC World tested took for that chore.
True, once on, it's slower than many others at starting to play, but the combined startup time of 41 seconds was still faster than that of any other player, and almost twice as fast as the Pioneer Elite BDP-95FD.
But it's what you see (and hear) when you have it going that counts. The Sharp simply surpassed every other player on almost all criteria. Our jury rated it number one in our tests of detail, color quality, brightness and contrast, and audio.
Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray Disc Player
Panasonic's DMP-BD30 was one of the first Blu-ray Disc players to support BonusView, the Blu-ray specification for watching picture-in-picture content. The $450 DMP-BD30 received the lowest overall rating from our jurors in video performance scores; it came in second worst in color quality, audio, and brightness and contrast.
That said, the DMP-BD30 doesn't look or sound bad when viewed in a vacuum. In fact, our jurors tended to rate it Good in one test after another, with the occasional Very Good and Fair ratings. But other players garnered higher marks; you don't buy a Blu-ray player for an image that merely looks good.
Menu navigation was clearly designed. The programmable remote has big, easy-to-read buttons and a curved back that fits nicely in the hand.
Samsung BD-P1400 Blu-ray Disc Player
The Samsung BD-P1400 is, at this point, one of the older Blu-ray Disc players currently available. And its features reflect this: It lacks both BonusView for picture-in-picture playback and BD-Live for accessing Internet-connected content.
In our image and sound quality tests, the Samsung BD-P1400 just barely nudged ahead of the Panasonic DMP-BD30, which had the lowest score in our spring 2008 roundup of Blu-ray players. At $300, the BDP-1400 remains among the least expensive Blu-ray Disc players available. But other models can offer better value.
Pioneer Elite BDP-95FD Blu-ray Disc Player
Compared with other players we've tested, Pioneer charges a premium for its Elite BDP-95FD--$1000 (as of June 2008), or more than twice the price of some players we've reviewed. The price would make sense if you were paying by the pound: The Elite BDP-95FD is heavy (14.3 pounds).
This model tied with the Sharp BD-HP20U for the best audio of the six players tested. Its image output impressed our jurors on many criteria, and it achieved a rating of Very Good for its performance on our color quality and detail tests.
The home media server is the BDP-95FD's one perk over competing models (only Sony's PlayStation 3 offers a media server, too). But you pay a huge premium for this unit over its competition.