So you want really smart, but really cheap, from your Blu-ray player? The Sony BDP-390 could be just the ticket. Basically, it has the same smarts as Sony's premium models, but saves money by trimming other elements.
The primary thing pruned away is support for 3D: there is none. If you're buying a unit to add smarts to an older TV, then the chances are that said TV doesn't support 3D anyway, so there's no loss.
A more obvious trimming is in the physical appearance of the unit. It looks and feels plastic-y. Sony says that it weighs 1.25 kilograms. My scales put it closer to 1.1. It is also below standard size: 320mm wide, rather than the norm of 430mm. This is the type of unit that you'd put on a shelf with your TV. Especially as it's shaped somewhat like a PlayStation 3, with a gently curved top.
And like a PlayStation, it lacks a display, another cost saving.
Yet, where it counts for its primary purposes, it's all there. Obviously, it has an Ethernet connection, but Wi-Fi is built-in as well, freeing it from being tethered to a network port.
And, here's a surprise. After Sony seemed to have been quite lukewarm about its own high resolution audio discs for a while, this unit actually plays the Super Audio CD. Enthusiasts of the format will be pleased to know that the unit can pipe the native DSD of the format out to a decoder, or convert it to multichannel PCM (at 176.4kHz sampling).
One saving too far perhaps is the presence of only one USB socket. That's on the front panel for convenient multimedia playback. But if you want to use advanced Blu-ray functions, such as BD Live, then there is only one place to add the memory required for its purposes: poking out of the front USB socket.
While it won't play 3D discs, it'll handle all DVDs and regular Blu-ray discs. If you like, you can also have the unit query the online Gracenote database, so that it can label many CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs.
It is a good player, giving excellent picture performance on the majority of Blu-ray and DVDs. On trickier Blu-ray discs, such as those encoded in 1080i format at 50 hertz, and some difficult DVD scenes, the results were good, but imperfect, with some film scenes being construed as video source. The processing generated visible artefacts. These were few though.
I recently checked out a Sony player that costs nearly three times as much, and the performance on this front was identical.
The unit also has good transport controls. Unusually, it can actually step back and slow motion back with Blu-ray discs.
Sony has loaded up the player — or more precisely, it loads itself up on first installation — with access to an enormous range of internet and other network resources. Access is made fairly easy by the use of a PS3-like cross media bar, with the content organised by type: Photos, Music, Video, Internet and SEN. There's also a dedicated key on the remote for SEN, which stands for the Sony Entertainment Network, a subscription service run by Sony in two chunks. Music Unlimited is on a monthly subscription (about £ 10) for unlimited access to an enormous range, while Video Unlimited is movies rented, online, on a per movie basis.
A glimpse at some of the online services available.
(Credit: Stephen Dawson)
The offerings under the Music category are (US) National Public Radio, the Berlin Philharmonic "Digital Concert Hall" recordings (this costs to use) and vTuner, an excellent internet radio station portal.
The Network category offers Facebook and a web browser, and some additional apps downloadable from the "Opera TV store", including games, and Vimeo on some educational stuff.
The biggest category is Video, which has 29 entries, not counting local sources. These range from The Wiggles channel through to Quickflix and a bunch of narrow interest items to catch-up services for Channel 10, ABC, Channel 7 and SBS.
The unit supports DLNA to deliver photos, video and music from your own network as well.
At this price, that ought to be the end of it, but in fact, you get some other extras, such as full control using apps for Android and iOS. The web browser available on the unit is difficult to use, of course, but the app allows you to navigate the web within it, and then "throw" it to the unit for display on the big screen.
You can play content from USB media: MPEG1, MPEG2 and MPEG4 AVC video, WMV9, Xvid and AVCHD (used on many consumer HD video cameras), but not DivX. JPEG, PNG and GIF photos, likewise, and MP3, AAC, WMA and LPCM music are available, but the unit doesn't know what to do with an iPod plugged into the USB.
The Sony BDP-S390 is an excellent unit for someone who wants to add smarts to their TV at low cost, offering almost all the important stuff and eliminating most frills.