Now that Toshiba Corp. has conceded the battle over next-generation DVD technology to Sony Corp.'s Blu-ray, it's time to evaluate high-definition players. Unlike current DVDs, Blu-ray can store a full-length, high-definition movie on a single disc. When viewed on an HD television, a Blu-ray movie should look amazingly sharp and rich.
I tested Blu-ray players from four companies: Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. I also played Blu-ray movies on my Sony PlayStation 3 game console to see how it stacks up.
The image quality on all five devices was impressive, ranging from very good to excellent. I connected each player, one at a time, to my plasma TV and watched the Blu-ray versions of Planet Earth and Spider-Man 3, and the standard DVD versions of Lord of the Rings and the animated film Tarzan.
Samsung's BD-P1400 and Sony's BDP-S500 showed a slight edge over the other devices. Images looked extra sharp on my plasma and colors were truly vivid. Even standard DVDs looked better because the Blu-ray devices I evaluated can perform a technique called upconversion, which takes standard definition content and converts it to high definition by adding pixels on the screen.
Startup speed — the time between pressing the power button on the remote and the player showing the movie on screen — was where I noticed a difference. The PlayStation 3 and Panasonic's DMP-BD30 were the fastest at 31 and 32 seconds, respectively. The Samsung came in next at 55 seconds, followed by Sony's BDP-S500, clocking in at 1 minute and 1 second. The Pioneer Elite BDP-95FD was the slowest at 1 minute and 11 seconds.
Blu-ray players cost between $400 and about $1,000. Based on my tests and online research, the higher-priced models don't provide noticeably better performance or features than their lower priced counterparts. The $999 Pioneer BDP-95FD was slower than the others and has features almost identical to Samsung's $400 BD-P1400.
The key difference is the additional infrared port on the Pioneer, which allows you to connect an external infrared box for a specialized remote control designed to access the player even through cabinet walls. Pioneer said you can access movies and photos from your computer with the BDP-95FD player using an Ethernet cable.
The four Blu-ray players can be plugged in to high-end, surround-sound speakers and they all support high-definition audio. They all play music CDs, although to play MP3s on the $600 Sony BDP-S500, you must have the content saved on a DVD.
The BD30 from Panasonic is the only player I looked at that's designed with a SecureDigital memory card slot, which can let you view videos from a camcorder or photos from a digital camera. Convenient, but you can also just plug your camera or camcorder directly to a TV with a standard audio/video cable.
The Samsung and Pioneer Blu-ray players, and the Sony PlayStation PS3 game console have an Internet connection, allowing software upgrades.
Sony's BDP-S500 is the most aesthetically pleasing for my taste, thanks in part to the glossy blue, auto-sliding front cover. Pioneer's 95FD looks classy and would fit right in with an audiophile's home theater setup. The $500 Panasonic BD30 is the lightest and smallest — ideal for tight spaces.
Samsung's BD-P1400 and the Sony PlayStation 3 have the most bang for the buck, although I read several reports on Amazon.com from people complaining that the Samsung machine wouldn't play new releases in Blu-ray format. Samsung said it will provide software updates that users can download. To possibly avoid such hassles, consider the pricier Sony DBP-S500 or Panasonic BD30.
One advantage of the PlayStation 3: You can also play video games on it.