Blu-ray player buying guide

A Blu-ray deck will be a wise investment if your eyeballs crave crisp 1080p pictures. Allow us to help you choose the right machine.

Blu-ray is well on its way to replacing DVD as the format of choice when it comes to watching movies on the living-room TV. So, with Blu-ray player prices tumbling, it could be time to ditch that standard-definition deck once and for all. But what type of Blu-ray player should you buy? There's certainly no shortage of choice.

These days, Blu-ray players can do much more than just spin discs. Do you want your Blu-ray player to be feature-skinny or full-fat? It's time to weigh up which type of deck will suit you best.

Picture quality

Any Blu-ray player will blow your dusty DVD machine out of the water when it comes to picture performance. While a DVD stores 4.7GB of data, Blu-rays can hold 50GB. That equates to a darn sight more picture detail. If you have a hi-def TV, you won't find a better source of HD content.

Backwards compatibility is a given. All Blu-ray players can play DVDs. What's more, they'll upscale them to 1080p, so your treasured collection of discs will look better than ever. Blu-ray decks will also play CDs.

For the ultimate picture performance, you can't beat movies on Blu-ray. Even the cheapest decks offer a super-crisp 1080p picture. And it's not just the image that's sharper. You'll also get ultra-high-quality surround sound, in the form of DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. These cutting-edge technologies bring bit-perfect audio from the Hollywood studio mixing desk direct to your living-room sound system.

Networking

Every Blu-ray player sold today can go online -- BD-Live is a standard feature of the format and it means that all decks come with an Ethernet socket. When you connect your player to the Internet, you can access bonus content, view trailers and explore other cool stuff. Not every Blu-ray disc offers BD-Live functionality -- it's up to individual studios if they want to include it.

If you haven't got wired network access in your living room, you'll want a Blu-ray player with Wi-Fi. Some models have this built in. On others, it comes via a dedicated Wi-Fi dongle, which is an additional expense.

Web features

Just as TVs have become 'smarter', offering access to online portals full of streaming video and downloadable apps, so too have some Blu-ray players, such as the Samsung BD-D7500  (right). Taking advantage of the network connection provided for BD-Live, a number of companies have built Web-portal access into their players. What you get varies from company to company. Several offer catch-up TV in the shape of BBC iPlayer and YouTube, as well as other services.

If you already have a Web-connected TV, it's probably worth buying a Blu-ray player from a different manufacturer. That way, you'll gain access to two different Internet portals, rather than just the same one twice. It's a good way of broadening your viewing options.

3D compatibility

Not every Blu-ray deck will play the latest 3D movie discs. If you have a 3D TV, or are planning to get one soon, it's probably worth spending slightly more to bag a 3D-compatible player, such as the Sony BDP-S480  (right). Unlike 3D from TV broadcasters, Blu-ray delivers a 1080p 3D picture for extra detail.

A few 3D Blu-ray players will even convert your regular 2D discs into faux 3D. This feature isn't common to all decks, though, so check to see if your shortlisted model includes it.

Audio

If you're a hi-fi fan, the chances are you'll have some Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio discs lurking in your music collection. If you want to keep playing these, you'll need to get a so-called 'universal' Blu-ray deck. They're not as cheap as regular models, but they tend to be optimised for the best-possible audio playback. Typically, beneath the lid, you'll find high-grade digital-to-analogue converters, and other esoteric components.

Blu-ray recorders

If you're into archiving TV, then the idea of burning your own Blu-ray discs probably appeals. In that case, a Blu-ray recorder, such as the Panasonic DMR-BWT700  (right) will be right up your street.

Combining a Blu-ray burner with a hard-drive recorder, they come with either a Freeview HD or freesat satellite tuner. The basic idea is to record TV shows directly onto the hard drive, and then, if you want to archive anything, you can burn a copy to a blank Blu-ray disc.

Broadcasters have the power to restrict just how many times a recording can be copied, though. They can even prevent any discs being made altogether, thanks to copy prevention flags. While this restriction may keep copyright-holders happy, it's rather frustrating if you're used to burning your own DVDs or recordings to tape whenever you feel like it.

It's probably also worth bearing in mind that not all Blu-ray players can play home-made Blu-ray recordings.

One other compelling reason to own a Blu-ray recorder is to make HD recordings of your own camcorder footage. Using the AVCHD format, these discs will play on almost every other Blu-ray player. It's a great way to share your home movies.

Media playback

If you have music and video files on your computer, you'll ideally want a Blu-ray player with a built-in USB media reader. While many decks offer just such a USB input, file compatibility varies significantly. It makes sense to ensure that the player you fancy works with the files you like to use.

There are also differences between decks when it comes to presentation. Do you want album art delivered with your MP3s or is FLAC file compatibility a bigger deal? Prioritise your feature list.

Finally, try and ensure that your Blu-ray deck is also DLNA-compatible. This is vital if you intend to stream media files across your network from a PC or network-attached storage drive. DLNA compliance guarantees that your new Blu-ray player can see other DLNA-certified products on your home network.

About the author

    Steve May has been writing about consumer electronics for over 20 years. A veteran of both the first and second great format wars (Beatmax vs VHS and Blu-ray vs HD-DVD), he created Home Cinema Choice magazine in the Nineties and now writes about everything to do with AV. Steve also sits on the judging panel of both the UK CEDIA custom install Awards and the British Video Association software trade Awards.

     

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