If you have Ethernet connectivity in your living room, the smart move is to go with an entry-level Blu-ray player. Most such players available in 2010 offer much of the functionality of step-up models, minus built-in Wi-Fi. That's the case with the LG BD550 ($150 street), which is nearly identical to the step-up BD570, except it lacks Wi-Fi and DLNA compatibility and costs about $100 less. If you can live without those features, the BD550 still delivers excellent image quality, relatively speedy load times, and a generous suite of streaming-media services, including Netflix, Vudu, Pandora, and YouTube. It's missing the expandable Apps platform of the competing Samsung BD-C5500, but if you mostly care about core streaming services, the BD550 is a solid entry-level choice.
At first glance, the exterior design of the BD550 looks almost identical to the step-up BD570, but we actually liked it a little better. The main difference is that the BD570 has one long flip-down panel that covered the entire front panel, whereas the BD550 is broken up into three sections: disc tray on the left, power and eject buttons in the middle, and a flip-down panel on the right. We preferred the partitioned design since the BD550's automatic door mechanism tends to work better. We also favored the LG's more low-key look compared with the Samsung BD-C5500.
LG's included remote control is a complete redesign over last year's clicker. The main surface is glossy black, which looks sleek coming out of the box, but being a remote, it naturally accumulates fingerprints quickly. Its button layout is mostly straightforward. Playback controls have a "hill" that runs underneath them, making it easy to find by feel; there are also nubs on the rewind/fast-forward buttons. The remote's main directional pad is surrounded by six buttons, which is a little more cluttered than most Blu-ray remotes we use, but we didn't find it that troublesome. Along its bottom are a few buttons for controlling a TV.
We loved the dead-simple user interface on last year's BD390, so we were a little dismayed to see that LG has given this year's model a complete interface overhaul. The redesign moves all the streaming-media features off the main page onto the separate Netcast interface. We see why that makes sense--there are simply too many streaming-media services to fit them all on the main page--but Samsung's new interface does a better job of letting you quickly jump to the service you want. We also found the "floating ice cubes" design a little goofy and slightly slower to navigate.
Netcast is what LG calls its suite of media-streaming services. Once you enter the Netcast section, you're greeted by large tiles with the names of services. We found this design more to our liking; navigating the streaming services feels speedy and there are large buttons for each service. LG's YouTube layout is also one of the best we've seen, and we found it quick and easy to browse for videos. The exception, as always, is using the onscreen keyboard to input search terms; perhaps we'll see QWERTY keyboard remotes on future players to alleviate that problem.
We have one last design gripe, though: unlike nearly every other Blu-ray player we review, LG's players come in 1080i output mode by default. That's unfortunate, since many users won't realize this and change to 1080p, which means they'll be relying on their HDTVs to do some of the serious video processing.
|Key Blu-ray features|
|3D Blu-ray||Onboard memory|
Like all entry-level Blu-ray players, the BD550 has only a basic feature set. There's no built-in Wi-Fi, so you'll need to use an Ethernet connection to take advantage of its streaming-media functionality. Panasonic and Samsung offer the option to add Wi-Fi with a USB dongle, but the dongles are more expensive than it would be to just buy the step-up model, so we don't consider the lack of a dongle option a big loss on the BD550. If you're interested in 3D Blu-ray support, the cheapest option is Sony's BDP-S470 ($200), which will receive a 3D upgrade in the summer.
Online streaming-media services continue to be a major strength for LG's Blu-ray lineup. The BD550 includes the same NetCast features as last year--like Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora--but also adds Vudu, Picasa, and weather. Vudu is the major addition, as it adds a pay-per-view movie-watching option to supplement Netflix's subscription offerings. We consider Vudu to be a worthy alternative to Amazon Video on Demand, which some competing players also offer.
Unlike all of the other step-up Blu-ray players in LG's line, the BD550 is not DLNA-compliant and cannot stream music, photos, and movies from a networked computer. If network streaming is an important feature to you, check out the competing Samsung BD-C5500 or the Sony BDP-S370. (The Sony BDP-S370 will receive a DLNA firmware update sometime this summer.)
|Audio decoding capabilities|
|Dolby TrueHD||DTS-HD Master Audio|
|Dolby Digital Plus||DTS-HD HR|
|Bit stream output||SACD/DVD-Audio|
Like nearly every Blu-ray player available now, the BD550 offers onboard decoding for both high-resolution Dolby and DTS formats. If you want to play back SACDs and DVD-Audios, you'll need to look to Oppo's competing players; Sony's competing BDP-S370 also offers SACD playback.
|HDMI version||HDMI 1.3||Stereo analog|
|Component video||Multichannel analog|
The BD550's AV output selection is standard. The only surprise is the lack of an optical digital audio output, but that shouldn't be a problem unless your AV receiver is out of coaxial inputs.
|Ethernet||SD card slot|
|USB ports||1||RS-232 port|
Connecting the BD550's Ethernet port is the only way to access its streaming-media services. Though we would have liked a second USB--as is available on both the Samsung BD-C5500 and the Sony BDP-S370--it's more of a bonus than a missing feature.