If I had to recommend just one Blu-ray player for 2012, it would be Panasonic's DMP-BDT220 (about $130 street price). It's in the sweet spot of Panasonic's Blu-ray lineup, with built-in Wi-Fi and an excellent set of streaming-media services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, Vudu, MLB.TV, and Pandora. And while competing players from Samsung and Sony offer just as many streaming apps, they're hamstrung by awkward user interfaces. The DMP-BDT220 also has a few other perks, like 3D compatibility, 2D-to-3D conversion, and Skype, although the front-panel SD card slot is probably the most useful.
Granted, the DMP-BDT220 isn't that much better than its competitors, but it also doesn't have any major flaws. (Its inability to play back DivX and Xvid files may be its biggest drawback.) The Panasonic does cost a little more than some decent budget alternatives, like the Samsung BD-E5700, but the difference is only about $15. Altogether, the Panasonic DMP-BDT220 is the best current value, earning CNET's Editors' Choice Award for the Blu-ray player category.
Design: Look behind the flip-down panel
The DMP-BDT220 has one of the sleekest looks from the outside, with a long front panel devoid of buttons. That's because Panasonic uses a flip-down panel to conceal the disc drive, SD card slot, USB port, and Play/Pause buttons. The panel automatically flips up or down when you open or close the disc tray, so it's not a nuisance in normal use, although if you plug in a USB drive, the panel stays down and the look is unattractive.
The included remote is a good one, with dedicated buttons for Netflix, Viera Connect, and Skype. Playback buttons are well-positioned and the play button has a helpful tactile nub so you can find it by feel. The only problem is the positioning of the home, Internet, and pop-up menu around the directional pad. Those buttons are similar in shape to the directional buttons, so I ended up pressing them accidentally a few times.
User interface: Strange, but it works
Nearly every TV-based interface I've used is cursor- and icon-driven. Move the cursor to the icon you want, hit the Enter button, and away you go. Panasonic's interface breaks that convention by displaying a menu that replicates the remote's D-pad. There's no cursor, just press the direction you want and you'll jump to the next screen.
In theory, this layout should let you make choices even faster than a more conventional design, since it requires fewer button presses to make a selection. That may be true, although it feels slightly less intuitive (at least at first) than the more familiar icon-driven menus.
The Viera Connect interface uses a cursor and icons, and the home screen is wonderfully simple. It's a basic grid of icons, displaying seven different apps at once. Nothing fancy, but it's easy to use. Even better, you can customize which apps show up on the home screen.
There are quite a lot of apps supported by Viera Connect, and to access apps not available on your home screen, you'll need to move to another "layer" of the interface. There are small buttons under the center window for More and Back, which move you to different layers of the interface. The design is a little more complicated than it needs to be, but since most people will generally only need icons on the home screen, it's not a big problem.
In addition to the preinstalled apps on Viera Connect, there's also an app store called Market. You can install additional apps here and although the selection isn't great, there are few apps worth adding. Overall, the Viera Connect experience seems significantly more thought-out and integrated than any of its competitors.