The Panasonic DMP-BDT230 is mostly a solid Blu-ray player, except it serves up obnoxious ads in its onscreen interface.
In 2012, the Panasonic DMP-BDT220 Blu-ray player won an Editor's Choice Award, and now with a couple of cosmetic changes and a few more features like Miracast, the BDT230 appears in its place.
While real-world performance is still excellent, there is one important distinction this year, and it's a fairly sinister one. Buy this Blu-ray player and you will be subject to advertising over and above what is already in your media, including undefeatable video ads when browsing for new apps. While most people are used to seeing ads on cable and in free apps, this is one of the first times it's been used to bolster the profits from a home theater product. And advertising aside, the menu system can be confusing at times.
By contrast, Sony's BDP-S5100 ($90 street) player not only offers a simpler interface, but also has more apps, costs less, and doesn't subject you to advertising. If I were buying a Blu-ray player today, I'd buy the Sony instead.
When Blu-ray players first emerged they were large hulking beasts, both overengineered and overpriced. But as the prices have fallen away unfortunately so have the cosmetics. Last year, the BDT220 had an attractive drop-down flap that covered the front of the player, but on the BDT230 the flap is gone. The player may be trapezoidal in shape, and in this way closely mimic the Sony BDP-S790, but the Panasonic is fairly drab-looking in comparison with both the previous model and the Sony. The Panasonic's top is gunmetal-gray steel, and juxtaposed against the black plastic of the rest of the machine, it gives the player a slightly mismatched look.
Last year, Sony's BDP-S790 was an excellent player, but, though nifty, its capacitive buttons were easily activated by accident. The Panasonic with its hard buttons is preferable, even if the buttons themselves are small and nubby.
So let's talk about that menu system, shall we? The Panasonic offers three different menus and menu styles with the main page, Viera Connect and the Marketplace. None of them operates like the others and the first two are the worst offenders in the ease-of-use stakes. Though the menu system hasn't changed much since last year, our thinking on it has.
CNET Executive Editor John Falcone said he found the menu system to be like a "Choose Your Own Adventure"; I prefer the term "mystery meat navigation" -- you never know where each icon will take you. While you will learn how to get to everything, the Blu-ray's competitors are much easier to use. Let's take an example of how befuddling this player can be. If you want to play Pandora, say, you'd think clicking "Music" might take you there, but instead it's Network, then Network Services, which sounds more like a settings page.
The worst thing about the menus is the advertising that appears, and it's not subtle -- from startup to the Viera Connect interface to the Marketplace banner, ads are everywhere, and in that last case you even have to put up with a video ad. While it's possible that Panasonic could remove this capability with later firmware, the latest version seems to have added more ads.
I did find that you can move the Sponsored Ad on the front page of Viera Connect to the back of the interface, but most users won't go through the trouble and will continue to see the ads. Also speaking of usability, the Marketplace doesn't indicate if you have already installed an app, which is a little frustrating.
Lastly, the remote control is compact and features most of the buttons you'll need. One minor annoyance is that it's very easy to accidentally hit the Netflix button instead of up, leaving you to wait around 30 seconds while it boots up.
Given there's only about a $30 difference between a "cheap" player and a "high-end" Blu-ray player from the major manufacturers, why would you bother getting one without features? The Panasonic is fairly well stocked at the top of the company's lineup, including Miracast support, which enables screen mirroring from supported devices. (On the other hand, mirroring didn't work well in our tests -- more on that later.)
Panasonic's Viera Connect offers a wide variety of video services from subscription (Netflix, Hulu Plus) to VOD (Amazon Instant, Vudu, CinemaNow) apps. The BDT230 makes up for the omission of Flixster on last year's model and this should please fans of the UltraViolet service. Pandora and Internet radio will be good enough for most people on the music side, but support for Spotify would be nice. There are a ton of social apps too, but those generally aren't useful when viewed on a TV.
As well as the cosmetic qualities, Panasonic has slimmed down the selection of connections on offer. Gone are the analog outputs (yay, no composite! Boo, no stereo!), but the HDMI and optical audio jacks remain. Whisked away like a political dissenter in the night, however, is Skype, with the dedicated USB port and app missing from this year's model. At the front of the player is a small flap that hides a single USB port and an SD card slot.
For the past few years, the performance of most Blu-ray players has been virtually identical, and based on my testing of the Panasonic versus its main rival Sony I can say this trend has continued.
The Panasonic demonstrated it was a capable upscaler of DVDs, and every bit the equal of our reference player, the Sony PlayStation 3. It easily passed both the suite of test patterns and the real-world playback of the "Star Trek: Insurrection" DVD. In the opening rural scenes of movie the camera pans over a bridge and houses and on lesser players this will result in jaggies. The Panasonic presented the scene flawlessly.
On the less tricky Blu-ray tests, the BDR230 passed most of our synthetic benchmarks, only demonstrating a brief and erroneous issue with the Chroma Multiburst test: a solid black square where there should have been intricate red and blue lines. Playing back the test a second time it was fine.
Moving to both films and video content on Blu-ray demonstrated that even the trickiest material wasn't a problem for this player, which managed to resolve both reds and tight, lined patterns without breaking up or causing moire.
Internet services: While I didn't use every single app, most of the streaming interfaces appear to be up-to-date and this was particularly true for Netflix, which will no doubt be the most used. In our startup test, the Panasonic and Sony were identical in the amount of time it took to load the Netflix menu: 20.96 seconds, averaged out of three tries.
While most apps were responsive I did notice some sluggishness in the YouTube interface, which could be network-related but seemed to have more to do with the animations and large art of the preview panes. Clicking on one video actually brought up the next one in the side-scrolling list after a moment of lag.
Miracast: Our experiments with Miracast weren't all that successful. First, you'll need to stumble around in the menus to find where to connect to a player, and it took us several goes to get it right. It also didn't work with a wired connection, which doesn't make sense as networked components should be treated equally, regardless of whether they're wired or wireless. Once we had it running, it didn't work very well anyway: video was only a fraction of a second behind, which is great, but audio lagged by several seconds on several different video sources. Without the ability to set lip sync, this made watching video very frustrating.
The Panasonic BDT230 works well and it's small enough to slot easily into most home theater setups. It works well and has a wide selection of services, and image quality is as good as you'd expect of a modern Blu-ray player. But with so many solid options available, there's little reason to settle for a Blu-ray player that's going to bombard you with ads.