Monday, April 4, 2011

Entry level BD players compared

After all the theory in the previous post, now is the time to look at some entry-level BD players and see which one is best for you. Below are some of the commonly available entry-level BD players (in alphabetical order) with some of the unique features that may be the deciding factor in your choice.
  1. LG BD550
  2. Panasonic DMP-BD45/DMP-BD65
  3. Philips BDP2700/BDP3100
  4. Samsung BD-C5500
  5. Sony BDP-S370
Below are the good, the bad and the ugly of the various models which may be important for you.
  • The Panasonic DMP-BD45 is only with Profile 1.1 and thus does not support BD-Live while all the rest are with Profile 2.0 and can be connected to a network via the LAN (RJ45) port to enjoy BD-Live. To get Profile 2.0 on a Panasonic you have to move up to the DMP-BD65.
  • On the HD Audio aspect, all the players support both Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio except for the Philips BDP2700 that does not support DTS-HD Master Audio. To get both on a Philips you have to move to the older BDP3100.
  • Only the Sony BDP-S370 can play back SACD.
  • Both the Samsung BD-C5500 and the LG BD550 supports HDD formatted with NTFS and FAT32, all the rest only support FAT32 formatted HDD and thus limit the file size to 4GB.
  • In the Philips remote control, there is no Open/Close button for the disc tray! All the others have this. Also it does not have (programmable) buttons on the remote to control basic functions of the TV. The rest have these but the actual functions vary from brand to brand but at least the On/Off button for the TV is there. However, there is no guarantee that it will work for all brands.
  • Only the Panasonic remote control has (programmable) volume control buttons for an AVR (audio-video receiver) but again it may not work for all brands.
  • Only the Philips manual lists VCD as one of the playable discs but in practice, some VCDs are playable in the other brands to varying degree but there is no support for PBC (play back control) thus losing selection function on VCD. The LG rejects VCD outright! VCD PBC option is available on the Philips for full VCD menu control.
  • Only the Panasonic has a SD card slot where you can slot in your SD card from your camera or camcorder to view the media files.
  • For digital audio output, only the Sony has BOTH optical and coaxial outputs while the LG and Philips have only coaxial and the Panasonic and Samsung only optical output.
So the above is a summary of the major unique features (or missing features) that may help you decide the BD player that best meets your requirement. These are either taken from the user manuals or from my own user experience so if some readers find something different in their usage, please comment and share with others here.

Since I have the pleasure of using the Samsung BD-C5500, the Sony BD-S370 and the LG-550, below are my observations and opinion on the differences in these 3 models (other than those covered above) but I would not know about these features in the other brands, i.e. Philips and Panasonic.

User Interface. Best looking (and most colourful) is the Samsung, with 5 selectable screen background skins. Sony has the XrossMediaBar menu similar to the PS3 so owners of the PS3 will feel very much at home.
Remote Control. The Samsung remote control is the biggest (and some say ugliest) but it has luminous navigational buttons that glows in the dark, very handy in a dark room. Least responsive is the LG, you need to point right in front of the player to get any action. Also you cannot change the audio or subtitle with one click since they can only be accessed after pressing Display as there are no Audio or Subtitle button on the remote. To me this is the least user-friendly remote control.
Technical minded users will love the Sony since the Information button will show the current bit rates of the video and the audio which are not shown by both the LG and Samsung. It also has option to select the HDMI colour setting (YCbCr) as either 4:2:2 or 4:4:4 while the others do not have this option, just YCbCr is shown.

Samsung has the best screen saver implementation when playing CD. During playback, the screen saver will come on (after a while) and display the Samsung logo with the track number that moves around the screen, very clever and useful.

As for BD loading time, it varies depending on the BD title but overall, the Sony is the fastest.

In terms of picture and audio quality (PQ and AQ) they are all very similar to my untrained ears and eyes. I suppose any difference will only show up in high-end equipment so for most of us, any of them will do the job adequately. All can upscale your old DVDs to give them a new lease of life.

All models are Region-locked to the region that they are sold in for both BD and DVD but the Sony (very surprisingly) is region-free for DVD in the model sold locally in Malaysia.

You can read other users comments in Amazon on the various models in the links here. 

There is another BD player that I should mention. Price wise it is not at the entry level but for gamers, it is their only choice, the Sony PS3. The main function is of course for playing games but it will play BDs just as well as any of the other entry level BD players with some other network features. But unless you are a PS3 gamer, it is much cheaper to go for a standalone BD player. 

In conclusion, there is no best BD player among the entry level models as each has its pros and cons. You can only pick the best for your usage with the features important for you. I hope the above will help you in some way to make the choice of a BD player easier. But do test out the actual player you pick at your local store since specifications may change over time and may vary for the same model sold in different countries. Good luck and enjoy whichever you pick.

Ronald Kwok

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

BD quirks

Before going into some BD quirks, here are some additional information about BD for newcomers. As there are specific regions for DVD, there are also regions for BD and generally a BD player is region specific just like DVD players. However, the regions are different; from the 6 regions for DVD, there are only 3 for BD which makes life simpler.
Regions for DVD

Region 1- United States, Canada, Bermuda, U.S. territories
Region 2- Europe (except Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus), Middle East, Egypt, Japan, South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Greenland
Region 3- Southeast Asia, South Korea, Republic of China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, Macau
Region 4- Mexico, Central America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Oceania
Region 5- India, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Africa (except Egypt, South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho), Central and South Asia, Mongolia, North Korea
Region 6- People's Republic of China, Hong Kong
ALL Region- The discs can be played in any locale on any player.

Regions for BD

Region A- includes most North, Central and South American and Southeast Asian countries plus the Republic of China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, Japan and Korea.
Region B- includes most European, African and southwest Asian countries plus Australia and New Zealand.
Region C- contains the remaining central and south Asian countries, as well as the People's Republic of China and Russia.

When buying BD, make sure that they can be played on your BD player, i.e the Region matches your BD player. Some discs are region-free, meaning they can be played on any player and they will have the logo ABC on them. Your BD player bought locally will be region specific for the country you are in but there are hacks that will make your player usable for BD from other regions.

If you are coming from DVD (and most of us are) you will notice that are some things that do not seem right when you play your first BD. So BD is not all conquering and so much for progress.

Loading time
This is much slower than for DVD and it varies from title to title. Though newer players are loading faster but still it is nothing like for DVD. If you have a Profile 2.0 player, disconnect the player from the internet (either the wired LAN cable or Wifi connection) or it will try to access the website for BD with BD Live feature. This will make the loading even slower. Sometimes it will be just a blank screen so you do not know if the player has hanged or your BD is bad though some titles do have some animation or progress bar to show that loading is in progress. Still it is an agonising wait.

Menu Access
So after waiting for what seems like an eternity, the screen finally comes alive. For most BD, it will not go to the main menu but to some trailers or promotional stuff that will start playing. The worse thing is that you cannot skip this in most titles and you cannot move straight to the main menu by pressing any button on your remote. This may be OK for the first time but if there are 10 trailers to run through, and you are loading your BD for repeat viewing, it gets irritating after a while. The only solution I found so far is to press the Next button repeatedly until it takes you to the main menu. Hope other fellow sufferers can share if there is a quicker way to get out of this trap.

Stop, Pause and Go
For DVD, when you press the Stop button for the first time, it will stop and when you press Go, it will continue playing from where it stopped. Not so for BD, a stop is a stop for good, and to continue you'll have to start the whole long loading process again. Granted there are a few BD titles that do behave like DVD but these are the minority. Also there are some titles that remembers where you stopped the last time and will ask you if you want to continue from there if you load the BD again. Some titles also have Bookmark function but it is nothing like the convenience of the DVD by just pressing the Stop and then Go to continue.
You can use the Pause button but some users have complained that pausing a BD for too long will cause the player to hang or even leave a burnt mark on the BD! I suppose this is peculiar to the BD player and not the fault of the BD itself.

Despite all the BD quirks above, the superior picture and audio quality is well worth the inconvenience. How else can you show off your new HDTV and AVR? In addition, you can access the menu and other features while the movie is playing and you can have more extras and special features. For some titles you get the Bonus View or picture-in-picture function; great if you are a fan of director' commentaries and insights on movie making.

DVD Upscaling
Your BD player will also play DVD and audio CD so you huge DVD collection can co-exist with your growing BD collection. All new BD players can upscale or upconvert a DVD and makes it look better on your HDTV, though not to HD quality. This will depend on the source material itself and the process used by the BD player so the result varies but it should be better than watching on a CRT TV which will give your DVD collection a new lease of life. BD players are not meant to play VCD but some models can play VCD but without some of the functionalities like menu selection but really, you should leave this to your DVD player. And after watching BD, you will never go back to VCD again.

The time is now
Though there are move DVD titles than BD titles available, the number of BD titles is growing and older titles are being released with remastered sound and picture that will show you old favourite movie in literally a new light. The early BD releases cost much more than DVD but the price of BD is falling and for some titles on offer, they are even cheaper than their DVD equivalent. So it is time to get yourself a BD player and jump onto the BD wagon.

My next post will look at some entry level BD players for consideration.

Ronald Kwok

Monday, January 3, 2011

BD Player Features

To get the best out of your new (or old) HDTV, there is nothing better than playing Blu-ray discs (BD) on the HDTV. Apart from the visual quality in all its HD glory, you will also get full HD audio but for this you will need a separate AVR or audio visual receiver. This Blog will give some hints on choosing your BD player.

Before BD, there was the DVD which was a vast improvement over the earlier VCD format. With the coming of HDTV, there was a demand for better video to show-off the new TV. The logical successor to DVD was HD-DVD backed by Toshiba and gang but Sony and their backers had other ideas who developed the Blu-ray discs, BD in short at about the same time. So the HD format war was on, akin to the earlier VHS-Betamax contest in the videotape days. Unlike the videotape war that was long-drawn, the HD format war was short and swift. Toshiba surrendered in early 2008 (after just 2 short years of war) and we are now left with the BD format for our HD needs so we need not crack our heads to decide which HD format to go for. BTW, it is called BD because it uses a blue laser instead of a red laser (as in DVD) for reading the disc; leave it to the marketing genius in coming out with catchy names.

The advantage of BD over DVD is the much bigger storage capacity which is 50GB (for double layer BD) against the 8GB for DVD. With this capacity, you'll get videos in full HD at 1080p (1,920x1,080 pixels) as against the 480p (720x480 pixels) for DVD; full HD audio such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, and room for plenty of special and extra features. To enjoy the HD image, you must have a HDTV and for the HD sound, you must have a decent AVR as some entry level AVR do not support HD audio. And you must use a HDMI cable for the connection to get the best result.

As in all new purchases, the main consideration for many of us is the budget. So what are the features that are important so do we do not pay for features that we do not need? To get a BD player that is current, make sure that it is classified as Profile 2.0. The profile classification is an indication of what extra features on a BD that a player can handle. When BD player first came out, they were Profile 1.0 with just basic functions and subsequently came Profile 1.1 players that can access "Bonus View" features on a BD. Profile 2.0 is the current profile and this can handle BD Live. Not all extra features are available on all BD as it varies from title to title but a BD player with Profile 2.0 should be able to handle all the extra features that are currently available and for the near future as well.

"Bonus View" is basically a picture-in-picture feature where the film director gives a running commentary on the movie in a small screen within the main screen. BD Live is basically access to an internet site for additional contents such as trailers, deleted scenes, etc. that can be downloaded via a BD with this feature. Thus Profile 2.0 BD players will have either WiFi capability or at least an Ethernet (LAN) port for accessing the internet. Currently, most people find the BD Live contents not really worth the effort but probably there will be better contents in future so getting a Profile 2.0 BD player will keep you and your player up-to-date. Thus BD players with the BD Live logo below is with Profile 2.0

HD Audio

Make sure the BD player that you are looking at has HD Audio support and these are the Dolby True HD and the DTS-HD Master Audio, anything less should not be considered. These two are the lossless HD audio that are improvements over the Dolby Digital and DTS audio format found on DVD. Even if you do not have an HD AVR now, it is just a question of time so your BD player will be ready when the time comes. In any case, the BD player can downmix these HD audio to basic stereo for basic needs. So make sure your BD player has these HD audio logos on the box or on the player itself.

Basic Connectivity

All BD players will have a HDMI port as mandatory to give you the best connection to a HDTV or AVR but for connection to an older CRT TV, there should be composite (red, white, yellow) and component (red, blue, green) connectors. For audio connection to older AVR without HDMI port, there should be either an optical digital or coaxial digital output port and some players have both. As mentioned above, there will also be a LAN port for connection to the internet for Profile 2.0 BD Players. These are the basic connections that should be available on BD players that you are considering.

Other Features

USB port or memory card slot
Some players have one or both of these so that you can connect a USB thumb drive or an external HDD or slot in a memory card to play video, music or photo files. The type of file supported varies from player to player so it is best to get a stand-alone HD media player that will have move functionality and flexibility. My HD media player blog has general guidelines in choosing one. On some players, you can use the USB port to upgrade the firmware of the player downloaded from the internet or you can choose to upgrade directly via the internet.
Another point to check is whether the USB port can support HDD formatted in NTFS or just FAT32. The maiximum file size supported in a FAT32 formatted HDD is only 4GB meaning you cannot play those big movie files that can only be saved in NTFS formatted HDD.

WiFi capability
While all Profile 2.00 players will have a LAN port for wired connection to the internet, some models have built in Wifi (or Wifi enabled that requires a separate adpator or dongle) for wireless connection but the cost will be higher.

Movie Frames (24fps)
Many BD players can output video at 24 frames per second from the HDMI port. This is the frame speed of film used for movies so this is supposed to give a better picture quality. However, this will only work with HDTV that support this 24fps feature. Depending on how this is implemented, the improvement may not be that obvious to most viewers.

3-D capability
The higher end models will be 3-D capable but you will need a 3-D HDTV to enjoy this feature. There are not many 3-D BD titles available at the moment as this is still new in the market so this feature is not essential for most people.

Internet portal
Many BD players has access to their own portals where you can access social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc and also streaming video services such as Netflix, Vudu and the like. Each manufacturer has coined specific names for their portals, e.g. for Samsung it is
Internet@TV, for Sony it is Bravia Internet Video and Panasonic, it is Viera Cast but contents vary and change as the portals are updated.

Despite the great improvement in terms of audio and visual of BD over DVD, there are some quirks which will be highlighted in my next post.

Ronald Kowk