This summer, I was able to do a bit of research for the more leisurely side of life. I’ve had a large LCD HDTV for a while, and I enjoy watching high-definition programming on cable networks. I thought it was time to look into a HD Blu-ray disc player to expand my viewing options. Blu-ray discs provide a top-quality 1080p signal (1080 lines of resolution, progressive scan) while most cable feeds are transmitted at a slightly lower 1080i interlaced signal or even at 720p resolution. All but the least expensive Blu-ray players now also come with features providing for additional programming options via an Internet connection. Internet streaming allows for even more choices for HD programming through services like Netflix and many others.
Blu-ray discs, of course, cost more to purchase and rent, and it seems like there is a lot of competition from the other HD program source alternatives like cable and Internet. Because of these factors, I don’t think that sales of Blu-ray DVDs are anywhere near what the developers had once envisioned. So in an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” move, most players now include the Internet streaming features. As a typical consumer, it gave me another reason to decide to buy the Sony BDP-BX38 HD player, and now I have the option of switching over to Blu-ray DVDs.
So how does the picture quality of a Blu-ray DVD compare to a standard DVD? It is better, but in my opinion, it isn’t really that much better. That’s because most standard-definition DVD players will now upconvert the signal from your regular DVDs to near HD quality. This is true for any player that connects to your HDTV via the HD multimedia interface cable. Without a direct A-B comparison, it is hard to notice a dramatic difference.
Internet streaming is the more intriguing feature of the new player. There are multiple new sources for on-demand programming for movies (Netflix, Vudu), TV series (Hulu), music (Pandora, Slacker), and other video sources (YouTube, etc.). Many of them are from the same sources that you can access through the Web with your computer. But on the player, they are packaged in an easier to navigate collection that you can operate via remote control. The bigger advantage is that they are displayed on your large HDTV instead of a small computer screen.
But you do need a computer to access all of that Internet video. Most of the streaming services require you to log on via computer to register and, of course, provide credit card information. Since the streaming player connects to the Internet via your home network, each streaming service recognizes and links your specific device to an account, which then authorizes you to purchase content with just a few clicks.
Programming cost is a concern to me. Many of the newest movies rent at $5.99 for the best quality HDX (1080p) feed, $4.99 for the HD (720p) feed, and slightly less for the SD (standard definition) feed. There is also an option to “buy” HD movies for $19.99, essentially an unlimited rental period. Watching just a few movies a week can add up fast. Subscription services like Netflix are a flat $7.99 a month, but they don’t have that deep of a selection of HD streaming movies, and the HD is not at the best quality.
Your Internet service cost may go up, too, since you also need a stable, high-speed broadband connection to take full advantage of HD programming. The cheapest connection speed may not suffice. You may also have issues with the speed and stability of your Wi-Fi connection, so a direct-wired connection may be preferable.
Plenty of free content is available on my Sony streaming player, but most of that is streamed at standard quality or worse, and much of it is time-wasting junk programming – amateurish productions of all manner of Web video. However, you will find some amusing and interesting gems throughout the clutter, and it is easier to navigate than wading through the individual websites with your computer. The streaming music services like Pandora are nice, especially when piped through a home theater surround-sound system instead of computer speakers.
One other cool feature with my Sony player is the Media Remote application. It turns your Android or iPhone into an enhanced-function remote control that works through your home network to control all functions of the player.
Overall, the best value for HD movies is still the occasional Redbox rental at $1.50 per day. Streaming HD video is the growing trend, so buying a device that can both play discs and stream video makes a lot of sense. I recommend that you try one to go with your HDTV. There are many Internet-ready Blu-ray players available for less than $150.•
Stephen Bour ([email protected]) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.