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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.
Features: Fully stocked
The Panasonic DMP-BDT220 has all of the major features covered: built-in Wi-Fi, 3D Blu-ray support, and a full suite of streaming-media services.
Panasonic's Viera Connect has an excellent collection of streaming-media services. Video services are particularly strong, with a good selection of both subscription (Netflix, Hulu Plus) and VOD (Amazon Instant, Vudu, CinemaNow) apps. There's no Flixster for UltraViolet support, which is available on Samsung and Sony players, but I'm not convinced that UltraViolet will be all that important. Pandora and Internet radio will be good enough for most people on the music side, but support for at least one subscription music service would be nice. There are a ton of social apps too, but those generally aren't that useful when viewed on a TV.
While competitors like Samsung and Sony are in the same ballpark in terms of sheer number of apps, their UIs both have design issues that make them less attractive. If you're looking for a streaming-friendly Blu-ray player, Panasonic is the way to go.
Around back there's a basic set of ports, including an HDMI output, optical output, and Ethernet jack. There's also a USB port called "communication camera" that's used for connection with Panasonic's Skype camera. The DMP-BDT220 doesn't have dual HDMI outputs like Panasonic's step-up DMP-BDT500 or Samsung's flagship BD-E6500, but they're not that useful anyway. You can always use the optical audio output for audio (without losing much, if any, sound quality) if you have an older non-HDMI receiver.
The Panasonic can also play back a variety of digital media files over its USB port, its SD card slot, or over your home network using DLNA. I tested a mishmash of digital video and audio files, with largely disappointing results. While it played back an MKV file with no trouble, neither DivX or Xvid files played back, nor did any ripped DVDs. That's frustrating, but not a dealbreaker in my book, since all Blu-ray players are mediocre local-media streamers at best. If you're a heavy torrenter or digital music streamer, you're better off with a more specialized device.
Rounding out the features list is 2D-to-3D conversion, but I've never seen that functionality work well, so I wouldn't put much stock in it. There's no onboard memory, but most manufacturers are omitting that feature too. That's fine by me, as it was only needed for the (nearly useless) BD-Java features. The only "extra" feature worth caring about is the SD card slot on the front panel, which is nice for quickly viewing images from a digital camera.
Performance: Perfectly average
Performance may be the most important criteria for HDTVs and speakers, but it's almost irrelevant when it comes to choosing a Blu-ray player. Last year, we found that all major manufacturers' Blu-ray players had nearly identical image quality, and so far in 2012 the players show similar performance in terms of speed, too.
I still put the DMP-BDT220 through its paces to check Blu-ray image quality, DVD image quality, disc-loading speed, and Netflix image quality. Blu-ray and DVD image quality were unsurprisingly excellent, as you'll find on any modern Blu-ray player. Netflix streaming quality was also great, looking as good with HD content as any other player. Because many buyers complained about problems with last year's DMP-BDT210's Netflix streaming, I watched several programs, but didn't see any major issues, aside from occasional lip sync problems that occur on all Netflix devices. (I didn't have problems with Netflix on my review sample of the DMP-BDT210 either.)
The DMP-BDT220 (like all recent Blu-ray players) loads movies considerably faster than the Sony PlayStation 3, and it's slightly faster overall than its 2012 competitors. That's largely due to a superfast quick-start mode, which enables it to go from off to playing a movie in under 10 seconds. On the other hand, the Samsung BD-E5700 and LG BP620 players aren't that far behind and are faster in other areas; the DMP-BDT220 is particularly slow when skipping chapters. Still, if I had to pick a player for myself based on speed, I'd go with the Panasonic because of its quick-start mode.
If you want all the testing details, check out CNET's 2012 comprehensive Blu-ray chart, but the main takeaway is that Blu-ray player performance just isn't that important as a distinguishing feature. You're better off picking a player based on which model has the features you want and is easiest to use.
What about Panasonic's other Blu-ray players?
Panasonic offers several Blu-ray players, but none quite as attractive as the DMP-BDT220. Here's how the line breaks down:
DMP-BD77 ($90 list): Wi-Fi-ready (requires dongle) + basic streaming
DMP-BD87 ($120 list): Wi-Fi + basic streaming
DMP-BDT220 ($150 list): Wi-Fi + Viera Connect
DMP-BDT320 ($200 list): Wi-Fi + Viera Connect + touch-pad remote + slot-loading drive
DMP-BDT500 ($350 list): Wi-Fi + Viera Connect + touch-pad remote + dual HDMI outputs + 7.1 analog audio outputs
DMP-BBT01 ($270 list): Wi-Fi + Viera Connect + touch-pad remote + slot-loading drive + ultraslim design
Built-in Wi-Fi and the full Viera Connect suite of streaming services are worth paying for, but extras like the touch-pad remote, slot-loading drive, and dual HDMI outputs are generally not worth the extra money. Note that the basic streaming package on the DMP-BD77 and DMP-BD87 only includes Netflix, Vudu, CinemaNow, and YouTube.
Our pick: Best Blu-ray value for 2012
The Panasonic DMP-BDT220 is the best overall Blu-ray value, although you could save money if you don't need Wi-Fi by getting an Ethernet-only model like the LG BP220 ($87 street price). However, the lack of Wi-Fi really limits your options in the future if you want to move the Blu-ray player to a secondary room, like a bedroom or den, which might not have Ethernet. Unless you have a special need for Flixster or DivX playback, the Panasonic DMP-BDT220 is the Blu-ray player to get.