I've argued that a Blu-ray player could soon be your only set-top box. These $200-$250 models, the four fullest-featured you're likely to buy, all strive to be Swiss Army-like in their utility, but only one comes closest to the promise.
We call them "Blu-ray players," but if you use these right, you'll spend less than 10% of your time actually watching Blu-ray discs. Besides BDs and DVDs, you will use them to stream Pandora music channels, pull up the latest weird YouTube video to show off, rent high-def versions of new releases, and stream a marathon or two worth of cheesy sitcoms. And if you pick the right one, you'll be able to browse files stored on your computer or a network drive, too. All these are missing to be a complete all-in-one set-top box is Hulu—but that's because Hulu is rethinking its "give shows away free" strategy.
Let me make this clear: There are cheaper Blu-ray players out there, but all of the following come with YouTube, Netflix, multiple pay-per-view movie services and Wi-Fi. Once I saw Avatar in Vudu's HDX super-high-def format over Wi-Fi, I realized that wireless connectivity is finally good enough to be worth paying for.
LG BD570 - Following on the heels of our favorite pick from last year, the BD570 had a lot to prove, and it did a nice job. The key addition is file compatiblity—you can use this thing pretty much like an HD media player, a full-fledged Apple TV killer. It's not perfect in that department: You have to use PC-formatted (NTFS) drives, and it won't read disc image files (ISOs), but it read most videos I threw its way, both locally and on the network, so it's good for all but the most particular of file dweebs.
Other than that, LG's clean interface and useful lineup of services makes it a great choice again this year.
Panasonic DMP-BD85 - Panasonic isn't known for being on the cutting edge (unless by "cutting" you mean "huge" and by "edge" you mean "TVs"), but even so, the BD85 was a disappointment. It's the only one without integrated Wi-Fi (it comes with a dongle), and without a DLNA network browsing capability. As much as this might be spun as a "simpler" product for people who are easily confused by options, the godawful user-interface dashes that argument to bits.
Panasonic and Sony have "Quick Start" options, that reduce startup time from 20 or so seconds to under 5 seconds. I don't get it, because it doesn't make any other part of the process faster: The Panasonic is still the slowest at loading discs and jumping around the user interface in general; Quick Start just highlights the problem.
Samsung BD-C6500 - With arguably the best interface, the Samsung gives you loads of options, neatly integrated into a simple home screen. I had some trouble getting it to play files from a hard drive and from a NAS, and its USB jack isn't powerful enough to spin a portable hard drive. But on the flipside, it's faster than any system but the Sony, and is the only one of these four with analog 7.1 audio jacks. It also sells for the best price on Amazon (at least at the moment).
Sony BDP-S570 - The Sony clocked in as the fastest player of all, beating the Samsung by a few seconds. It is also the device with the most stuff in it—but that's not necessarily a good thing. It has more video-on-demand choices than everyone else, so many that it has a search engine for all of its available video. But it's mostly web snippets from Livestrong and CondeNet and other sources, not what you'd call premium, or even good, content. I do applaud its choice of audio services—in addition to Pandora and Slacker radio apps, it's got NPR.
Sony would have done better, except that it only takes FAT-formatted hard drives, and even then, can't read most of the test files I fed to it. That and when you set it up, you have to create an account on this really awful website in order to activate things like Slacker and Amazon VOD. And even when you've done it, a pointless icon that reads "activate enhanced features" persists in hanging around as a menu option.
The biggest advantage this Blu-ray player has over all the others is that in the summer, it will get a firmware update making it capable of playing 3D movies. I don't think that's enough motivation at this point, but if you're on the 3D forefront, you should weigh that in.
And finally, Sony gets props for its Blu-ray remote control app for the iPhone. I won't lie, it's awesome. But as a controller, it adds very little to the experience, and worse, I find myself mad that Sony engineers were dicking around with this when they should have been sorting out the other stuff. It begs the question, "If you can do that, why can't you handle basic disk and file formats, or give me a way to remove some of the useless channels that clutter the home screen?"
The Big Winner
My first prize goes to the LG BD570, because it works as advertised, where many of the others do not. It's not as fast as the Sony or the Samsung, but it's faster than the Panasonic, and is as easy to set up as any of them. Because Vudu is my favorite pay-per-view movie site—all you have to do is check out an HDX high-def movie and it'll be yours too—LG and Samsung get bonus points for supplying that, along with alternatives.
• If you have a great surround receiver that you either can't or don't want to swap out for latest digital model, you should go with the Samsung. The BD-C6500 has analog 7.1 output, a smart way to get much of the benefit of Blu-ray audio with the least amount of investment.
• As I said, if you are going 3D in the near future, you should opt for the Sony BDP-S570. Sony offers the best value for a 3D Blu-ray player. Just let us know when you find any 3D Blu-rays.
• Alas, under no circumstances should you buy the Panasonic. Its lack of power and its decade-old user interface means that even if they try to improve the thing via firmware updates, it'll remain behind the competition. Usually I love Panasonic products, so this judgment was particularly painful.
• Of course, for a $100 upsell ($300), you can score a PlayStation 3—which is a very media-capable machine with gaming piled on top—and it, too, will get a 3D Blu-ray update this summer. Just be aware that even the new "Slim" uses 3X to 4X the energy of any of these, and it actually can't do as much as LG in terms of HD media playback. Not yet, anyhow.