While streaming media is undoubtedly more convenient than physical discs, Netflix (4K or otherwise) still can't match the picture quality of Blu-ray. If you want the convenience of streaming movies but also want to watch them in the best possible quality, then a Blu-ray player such as Sony's latest BDP-S5500 is still the best way to go.
Sony has improved on last year's BDP-S3200 and BDP-S5200 models by tweaking the user interface and picture performance. It offers a discreet size, and also some interesting features including 3D playback and streaming PS3 games thanks to PlayStation Now.
While streaming dominates and we wait for 4K Blu-ray to hit the market, the BDP-S5500 is one of the last of a dying breed. That said, it's probably one of the best disc players you'll see this year for the money.
Back when CD Walkmans were still a thing, I had a Discman that was only a little bigger than the CD itself, and it cost a lot more than a regular model. But in this modern era the reverse is true -- Sony somehow charges less for smaller models than it does for the larger ones.
Witness the S5500. At $100 (£109 in the UK and AU$169 in Australia) it's about as big as two Blu-ray cases side-by-side (roughly 8 inches square) which makes it half the size and price of the flagship BDP-S7200.
While last year's Sony players boasted jewel-like cosmetic touches, the S5500 has almost no flair. It's gunmetal gray and throws in some faux-brushed-aluminum accents. The front of the unit facing the viewer is fairly unremarkable, with just the disk tray, an eject and power button plus a USB port.
Sony eliminated the display entirely, so you'll need to rely on your television for navigation, which can be annoying if you just want to listen to a CD.
The remote control is small but fully featured and still includes a Netflix shortcut. The buttons are a little squishy and a little close together, though.
Let's start with the most interesting feature first: the S5500 and the $90 S3500 are the first Blu-ray players to feature Sony's PlayStation Now streaming service. For a $19.99-a-month subscription fee, or a la carte rental charge, you can stream 100 or more PS3 games to your TV without needing a game console. The only set-top box that offered this service previously was the $79 PlayStation TV , which lacks a Blu-ray drive. The Playstation Now service is only available in select areas of the continental US and Canada for now.
The BDP-S5500 is a 3D Blu-ray player that features support for all of the latest movie audio codecs. It can also transcode from DTS which is convenient if you have an audio system, like many sound bars for example, that can only decode Dolby.
As the BDP-S3500 and BDP-S5500 appear almost identical, what is the difference? Firstly, the S5500 offers "Triluminous" technology which Sony says provides greater color depth with the right discs (a handful of mastered in 4K Blu-ray) and a compatible Sony TV. Secondly, only the S5500 can play 3D discs.
Even with the forthcoming release of 4K UHD Blu-ray, the future of media consumption is undoubtedly in streaming. Sony's new Blu-ray interface recognizes this fact. Last year we despaired that Sony's aging XMB interface was holding its media players back from embracing streaming media. Who wants to scroll down a very long vertical list to find the service you want?
Happily the BDP-S5500 now has a new, user-moddable home screen. All of the apps are grouped on a single page, with "Featured Apps" on the left and the configurable "My Apps" on the right.
You can add shortcuts for up to 10 extra apps in My Apps, and the familiar Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Pandora already live in the Featured Apps section. One thing we did notice when delving deeper into the Settings menu is the XMB is still alive, though not quite well -- it's quite sluggish to navigate compared with the rest of the player.
If you actually want to play discs on this thing, there is a dedicated shortcut in the middle of the screen, which looks just like another app icon.
Connectivity includes HDMI, USB and coaxial digital (but not the more common optical). For networking there's "Super" Wi-Fi and Ethernet.
From a picture standpoint, the Sony put in one of the best performances I've seen recently. It aced every real-world and canned test in our arsenal.
The only test out of the dozens we perform that was almost a problem for the Sony was a text overlay on DVDs, but once the player locked into the scrolling text after a few seconds it worked fine. In short, even this relatively inexpensive player will deliver all the picture quality most people will demand.
Speedwise the player wasn't the best we've seen; it took 16.12 seconds to load Netflix. While compared with other Blu-ray players at the price this is about the norm, compared with a Roku 3 it's downright slow (around 3 seconds). As it appears no midrange players will feature dual-core processors this year, around 16 seconds is probably as good as you'll get.
One thing the Sony can't do as well as its rival Samsung is play disks as speedily. While the new Samsung BDP-J5900 was able to play "Mission: Impossible III" from "off" in just 6.77 seconds, the Sony was more meandering at 14.13 seconds.
If you want to play games on the S5500, the first thing you'll need to do is connect a PlayStation 4 (not a PS3) controller via a cable to the front-mounted USB slot -- sadly the unit doesn't support the Bluetooth used by these controllers.
We tried a number of games including the twitchy Twisted Metal, the zombie creeper The Last Of Us and the cute platform puzzler LocoRoco and didn't find any significant lag issues. However, as the company probably anticipates some networks could be choppy, it's not surprising that there aren't any high-profile multiplayer FPS (first person shooters) in Sony's list; too much lag can kill these games.
Things are winding down for Blu-ray players, and this year has seen a general trimming of features -- including dual-core processors -- while adding new ones like video game streaming. While the net effect is slightly worse, the writing is on the wall for the format, at least in its 1080p form, and players like the BDP-S5500 could be looked at as part of the "good old days." For $100 or so, this is a competent player with solid performance and some cool features, especially if you want a machine that can play games as well.