Editors' note June 9, 2008: The rating of this player has been changed since its initial publication to reflect changes in the marketplace.
Blu-ray may have a sizable lead against HD DVD in the format war, but it still has a long way to go in persuading current DVD viewers to go high-definition. It's not going to be easy. As we've mentioned elsewhere, despite excellent audio and video quality, there are still plenty of reasons to stay out of the Blu-ray game for a while longer. Those reasons include: the confusing Blu-ray Profiles, inconsistent high-resolution soundtrack support, small movie selection, and the fact that prices are going to continue to fall.
Unfortunately, the Sharp BD-HP20U ($400 list) is part of this confused state of Blu-ray. It only supports Blu-ray Profile 1.0, which means it can't display picture-in-picture commentary tracks available on some new discs. Its high-resolution audio support is subpar, offering no ability to listen to the high-resolution DTS soundtracks, which are available on many Blu-ray movies. The standout feature of the BD-HP20U is its Quick Start functionality, but it works by essentially leaving the player "on" all the time and doesn't shorten load times with all discs. Don't get us wrong, the Sharp BD-HP20U does a solid job of simply playing back movies, and the image quality in 1080p/24 mode is excellent if your HDTV supports it. But for the same amount of money, most buyers would be much better served by purchasing a Sony PlayStation 3 or waiting a few months for newer players that support Profile 1.1, and all of the new high resolution soundtrack formats.
The trend for high-definition disc players is glossy black, and the BD-HP20U doesn't break ranks. The front faceplate is mirror-reflective and black, with a rather small LED display in the center of the unit, and a blue LED-lit circle just to the right. The display and light can be turned off (either in the setup menu or using the "light" button on the remote), leaving a small green LED as the only light source. The disc tray is positioned in the far upper right of the player, which is a little unusual. There are only two front panel controls--a power button on the left and a disc open/close button on the right--so you're out of luck if the remote goes missing.
Unlike some of the new high-definition menu systems we've seen from Samsung Electronics and Philips, Sharp's menus are stuck in standard definition. Pressing the "Setup" button on the remote brings up a bunch of awkward icons that look like they were pulled from a Windows 95 clip art package. But despite lacking some visual pizazz, we didn't have any issues navigating the options.
The included remote is average for a Blu-ray player. We liked the centrally located directional pad, and the clearly labeled Menu, Setup, and Pop-up Menu buttons are nicely labeled. One of our gripes is the location of the standard playback controls. They are far from the directional pad, which feels unnatural. There is a flip-down panel on the bottom of the remote, but it's not a nuisance since it only hides some nonessential buttons like a number pad.
In addition to Blu-ray Discs, the Sharp BD-HP20U can play standard-definition DVDs and CDs. It cannot play any discs of the competing HD DVD format. For more basic information on the differences between Blu-ray and HD DVD, check out our Quick Guide to HD DVD versus Blu-ray
While all Blu-ray players released in 2008 have to conform to the new Blu-ray Profile 1.1, the BD-HP20U was released before the deadline and it only conforms to the older Profile 1.0. Casting jargon aside, what this means is the BD-HP20U won't be able to play some picture-in-picture commentary tracks on newer discs, like Sunshine. This won't be a deal breaker for everyone, since many people barely have enough time to watch a full movie, let alone special features. However, it's still annoying to buy a Blu-ray player that doesn't give you access to all of the next-generation features. If you're dead set on buying a Profile 1.1 player, the competing Panasonic DMP-BD30K and Sony PlayStation 3 are both compliant. For a more comprehensive explanation, check out our Blu-ray profile explainer.
The BD-HP20U's high-resolution audio support is decent, although not complete. It has onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, but DTS support is limited to only standard DTS decoding. It also lacks bit-stream audio support for high resolution formats, which means you can't send encoded Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks to new receivers with decoding capabilities. Without onboard decoding or bitstream support for DTS-HD High Resolution and DTS-HD Master Audio formats, BD-HP20U owners can't take advantage of these new DTS formats. While we've been able to overlook onboard decoding in the past, it's getting harder to recommend incomplete players now that new models from Samsung and Panasonic have been announced with full soundtrack support.
The BD-HP20U's connectivity package is solid. The main connection is the HDMI output, which is capable of outputting 1080p video at 24 frames per second, plus high-resolution audio. High-definition video can also be output over the component video outputs (limited to 1080i), and there are also legacy S-Video and composite video outputs. For audio, there are 5.1 multichannel analog audio outputs, standard stereo analog audio outputs, plus both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs. The biggest omission is the lack of an Ethernet port, which means firmware updates will require you to burn a disc.