Blu-Ray Buyer's Guide

Blu-Ray Buyer's Guide
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What's the best Blu-Ray player on the market? Our quick shopping guide to features to look for, compatiblity issues, connectivity, and our top pick.

The war is over. Blu-ray won, and you can now go out and buy a player with the certainty that you’re not going to invest in a technology that may be obsolete in a year. Well, almost.

One of the big advantages HD DVD had over Blu-ray was that the specification was nailed shut, making buying an HD DVD player rather less confusing than buying a Blu-ray player. All HD DVD players were required to support TrueHD, they were all required to have an Ethernet connection, and there was no region coding.

Not so with Blu-ray. There are four different specs, far fewer mandatory and more optional components and region coding similar to that used in DVD has made a comeback in Blu-ray. With that in mind, we’re here to help you decode all your options.

What do I need first?
There’s really not much point in getting hold of a Blu-ray player if you don’t have a high definition television to view them on, preferably one that’s full HD and supports HDMI connections.

Full HD means that the television can show 1080p video in its native resolution (that is, 1920 by 1080, progressive scan). TV manufacturers have, unfortunately, been very deceptive in the way they advertise HD sets. A great many sets say that they support 1080p, but when you read the fine print the screen is only capable of a lesser resolution such as 1366 x 768. While these sets can take a 1080p input, they can’t actually display them and instead convert them down to a resolution that they can display. A Full HD set, however, doesn’t need to do that and you get to see every pixel of the Blu-ray movie.

A digital AV receiver is also a very good idea, especially if you want to get 5.1 or even 7.1 channel audio. You can, of course, just plug the Blu-ray player into the TV set via HDMI (a cable that carries audio as well as video), or hook up speakers to the analogue outputs of the player, but you’ll typically only get stereo sound that way. A 7.1 channel AV receiver that has an HDMI input and supports Dolby Digital Plus and TrueHD is ideal, but a simpler 5.1 channel PCM-capable receiver will also serve you well.

Now with those things out of the way, what should you look for in a Blu-ray player? Here’s a quick list of five things that should be important to you.

1. Support for Blu-ray profile 2 (a.k.a. BD-Live)
One of the arguments for HD DVD winning the format war was that the Blu-ray spec was a shmozzle. Players came out that were incompatible with each other and with certain movies. Some Blu-ray discs implemented copy protections or used Java programming that a number of older (especially non-Sony) players couldn’t handle or handled incorrectly, and because there was no networking requirement on the initial batch of Blu-ray players, they couldn’t easily be updated.

If you get a profile 2 player, most of those problems can be avoided. Profile 2 players have a network connection, so their firmware can be updated. They also tend to be newer, and have had the bugs ironed out.

For the record, there are four official Blu-ray profiles: 1.0 (BD-Video), 1.1 (Bonus View), 2 (BD-Live) and 3 (BD-Audio, for which there are no discs and no players). Here’s how they’re different:

BD-Video: no local storage capacity, optional secondary audio and video decoder
Bonus View: minimum 256MB local storage, mandatory secondary decoders
BD-Live: minimum 1GB local storage, mandatory secondary decoders and Ethernet network connection
BD-Audio: no video support. Audio decoder only.

The local storage and secondary decoders on profiles 1.1 and 2 allow a number of interactive features and picture-in-picture capabilities that you just can’t get on BD-Video discs.

Profile 2 also allows internet functionality (such as downloading the latest previews or live updates to a disc). It’s rather complicated how these interact. In theory you should be able to play a BD-Live profile 2 disc on a BD-Video profile 1 player, but you won’t get all the interactive features available on the disc. You’ll just be able to play the movie.

It’s not always clear, when buying a Blu-ray player, which is which, since vendors don’t always make it explicit which profile their player supports. The key is to look for an Ethernet port on the player. If it has one, there’s a very good chance it will be profile 2. Here’s the thing: at the time of writing this guide, there was only one profile 2 player on the market: the PlayStation 3 (which became profile 2 only in March after a firmware update). Most stand-alone players are either 1.0 or 1.1 right now. We definitely wouldn’t recommend a 1.0 player unless it’s upgradeable.

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