Why a Blu-ray Player Might Become Your Only Set-Top Box

My love for Blu-ray players grows whenever companies add another feature that has nothing to do with Blu-ray. Now any worthwhile player is a home-entertainment hub, replacing cable box and Apple TV alike. How soon till they handle everything?

We looked at the four newly announced flagship players from the four biggest Blu-ray companies, LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony. Any self-respecting Blu-ray player today has Pandora and Picasa, and of course Netflix subscription streaming video. They also have some form of pay-per-view movie download service, from Vudu, Amazon or Roxio's CinemaNow and Blockbuster apps.

This year, though, the companies turned up the juice. LG added a built-in hard drive; Sony surprisingly built a remote-control iPhone app. And now all top Blu-ray players will go 3D. Integrated Wi-Fi was a stand-out feature last year; this year it's par.

Why a Blu-ray Player Might Become Your Only Set-Top Box

These won't be out till the summer, and there's no pricing announced yet, but already we're excited. See, putting everything but the the kitchen sink into a firmware upgradeable $200-to-$300 box is way smarter than jamming it all inside a $1500 TV, where picture quality should be the chief concern.

What Do Blu-ray Players Still Need? Video File Support

If you want to know who will soon be putting HD media players out of business, look no further than these connected Blu-ray players. Samsung and LG won't let smaller companies steal their spot on the TV stand; my guess is that they will have amazing file compatibility at launch or slightly after. I mean, LG put in a hard drive, for God's sake. If that isn't for dumping crazy video files, I don't know what is.

The hard drive sounds nice, but it's not even necessary. With Wi-Fi connectivity and DLNA compatibility, these players should technically be able to play all your home videos, wherever they are. But they absolutely need 1080p DivX, H.264 and AVC (TS) compatibility—and the ability to read DVD disc images—in order to be considered viable HD video players.

I don't list reported file compatibilities here because I have learned that spec sheets can easily lie when it comes to supported video, especially when the combination of codec, wrapper, resolution and file size all affect readability. Until the players are shipping, their true file support is a mystery. Still, I have hope for these.

The $100 Roku is already on the ropes thanks to current Blu-ray players, since they give you what Roku does plus disc playback. The $120 Roku HD-XR hasn't yet taken advantage of its USB jack, and the company didn't announce anything at CES. If they wait too long before providing wide HD video file compatibility, that product, too, will be hurting.

If the makers of Blu-ray players get with the program, and address the need for true universal home-video playback, they will easily shove aside Asus O!Play and everything else too.

OK, not everything else. Game consoles, already bestsellers, have been actively converting non-gamers by adding streaming video services, and developing natural interfaces like the Wii's popular motion controls and the more ambitious forthcoming Xbox 360 Natal project.

Hopefully this will be the year they see the light on video support, too. The PS3 could have been the ultimate set-top box, but Sony's inability to see the commercial value of openness killed the PS3's non-gamer appeal. The Xbox is a lot closer to the ideal, but it doesn't yet support all files, and betting on HD DVD—and then not jumping to Blu despite Ballmer's frequent (and justifiable) promises—means no HD disc support, also a mistake.

Look, some of these Blu-ray players won't go all the way with file support, either. Speaking of Sony, can you imagine the king of patent royalties and DRM embrace file formats it doesn't get cash payoffs from, or could possibly be used in the service of piracy? Still, at least one great Blu-ray player will rise here. Am I dreaming? A year ago I would have thought so, but from what we all now regularly get from our cheap HD media players, my dreams are likely to come true—and soon, too.