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.
Quick Start performance
The standout feature of the BD-HP20U is "Quick Start," which is designed to address the sluggish load times that have plagued Blu-ray players. After we enabled the feature in the setup menu, it lived up to its name to some extent. With the BD-HP20U turned off, we hit power and within 10 seconds Mission: Impossible III was loaded. While this performance is impressive--most players take closer to a full minute to load a disc when the unit is off--the technology behind it isn't. Sharp accomplishes those faster load times by essentially leaving on the BD-HP20U all the time--even when you turn it off. We were able to confirm this using our Extech power meter, and comparing power consumption with the player in standby mode. With Quick Start enabled, the BD-HP20U consumes 18.8 watts, and with Quick Start disabled, it consumes just 1.8 watts. Considering the BD-HP20U uses about 21 watts when in operation, enabling Quick Start is about equal to leaving the player on all the time.
Another strange thing about Quick Start is that it only improves load times when you already have a Blu-ray Disc in the player and is turned off, which is a pretty rare real-world circumstance. Also, discs that use the increasingly common Java-based menus, such as Spiderman 3 or any of the Pirates of Caribbean series, don't start any faster than normal. With the player on, Spidey took 2 minutes and 5 seconds to load, while Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest took 3 minutes and 21 seconds.
When we couldn't use Quick Start with non-Java-based discs, load times were just as sluggish as most other players. With the player on, and us simply inserting the disc and closing the tray, M:I:III took 36 seconds to load, and with the player off and Quick Start off, it took 59 seconds to load. We really wanted to like the Quick Start feature, because Blu-ray load times can be so frustrating, but at the end of the day it's just not that useful.
To kick off our Blu-ray performance testing, we looked at Silicon Optix's HQV test disc on Blu-ray, and were disappointed to see the BD-HP20U's failing marks on both parts of the Film Resolution Loss Test. As the vast majority of Blu-ray content is film-based, these tests are the most important. On the first part of the test, the BD-HP20U failed to deliver a crisp, stable image, with the test patterns flickering and strobing as the image moved back and forth. The next part of the test involves a slow panning shot across Raymond James Stadium, and it looked about as bad as we've seen it--there was lots of moire and jaggies in the stands.
The defects in BD-HP20U's image quality were apparent in program material as well. The beginning of chapter 8 of Mission Impossible: III is a good scene for detecting defects in high-def video performance, and moire was very apparent in the stairs as the camera panned down. Similarly, at the beginning of chapter 16, we could see jaggies on the trimming of the limo as it drove across the frame. A few minutes later, we spotted some additional jaggies on the American flag painted on a jet. The artifacts weren't just limited to the scenes we're calling out either--we were noticing video-processing issues at a pretty consistent pace in M:I:III.
We switched discs to Ghost Rider. Toward the end of Chapter 6 is another torture test for 1080i deinterlacing, and the BD-HP20U came up short again, as we could make out moire; in the grille of the RV in the background as the camera panned up. About a minute later, as Nicholas Cage surveys this apartment, more jaggies can be seen by his motorcycle and the rack behind it. Like in M:I:III, we continued to see moire and jaggies as we watched the movie. The errors didn't crop up in every movie we watched--Apocalypto and Spiderman 3 looked mostly artifact-free--but it was noticeable enough when it did happen to be bothersome.
The main culprit of the moire and jaggies is most likely faulty 1080i deinterlacing by the BD-HP20U. Owners of high-end HDTVs with good 1080i deinterlacing can opt to set the BD-HP20U in 1080i mode and let their HDTV handle the processing, but a Blu-ray player shouldn't require an expensive HDTV to get solid performance. Home theater enthusiasts should also note that the video-processing flaws went away when the player was set to 1080p output at 24 frames per second (also known as 1080p/24). Presumably this is because the BD-HP20U takes the 1080p/24 video straight off the disc, without needing to deinterlace the video as it does when it creates a 1080p/60 signal. Unfortunately, most displays can't accept a 1080p/24 source, and even those that can don't always properly display it, so the vast majority of people will experience the previously mentioned defects.
We also felt like the BD-HP20U was a bit underpowered. For example, when loading the menus on Spiderman 3 for the first time, the background video was stuttering as the BD-HP20U just couldn't keep up. Along the same lines, flipping through scenes on the interactive menu was sluggish, with there being a slight delay between pushing the button and the menu responding--maybe we're just spoiled by the superfast PlayStation 3.
Standard DVD performance
Many viewers are still going to want to watch standard-definition DVD discs with the BD-HP20U, so we also put it through our full DVD-testing paces. We started off with Silicon Optix's HQV test suite, upscaled to 1080p over the BD-HP20U's HDMI output connected to the Sony KDL-46XBR4. It didn't quite pass the initial resolution test, as the most detailed section of the test pattern looked soft, which means it doesn't pass the full resolution of DVDs. The next jaggies tests weren't any better--it performance was mediocre on a test with a rotating white line and downright poor on three pivoting lines--each of which was filled with jaggies. We moved onto HQV's 2:3 pull-down test, and the BD-HP20U came up short again, with some of the most distracting moire we've seen on a DVD player. The BD-HP20U even struggled with the relatively easy scrolling titles test, as both vertically and horizontally scrolling titles stuttered along, and the background images filled with jaggies. In all, it was about as poor as we've seen an upconverting DVD player perform on the HQV tests.
Even though the BD-HP20U performed poorly with test patterns, its real-world DVD performance didn't show nearly as many problems. We took a look at the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection, a standard torture test for 2:3 pull-down performance on film-based material, and the BD-HP20U passed, clearly rendering the curved hulls of the boats and railings on the bridge. Next, we watched the opening sequence of Seabiscuit, which often gives players problems, and we didn't see any of the usual jaggies. It wasn't a standout upconverter, but at least most of the major issues from the HQV tests weren't apparent in program material.