A few Blu-ray players are adding streaming features, such as Netflix and Vudu, and basically becoming media centers. The combination of capabilities is actually what some Apple TV customers have been eager to have but not found in the Apple TV.
There is a camp that says physical media is dead. Ship electrons, not atoms. However, we're no where near the universal broadband in the U.S. to support uncompressed* 1080p + Dolby 5.1 audio streaming. A different camp, perhaps driven a little by Hollywood advertising combined with the human tendency to collect things, not data files, likes dics. In addition, Bu-ray supports uncompressed 1080p video at high bit rates and advanced sound formats for the purists.
Therein lies the crux of the issue for Apple customers. With Blu-ray licensing issues and Apple's forward looking business model, it's unlikely that we'll see an Apple TV with a Blu-ray player built-in any time soon.
Meanwhile the second camp is quickly converging on Blu-ray players that are much more than players. A few models already have Netflix** streaming, Pandora music, Cinema Now, and recently an LG player is adding Vudu with Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound. The result of that is that modern Blu-ray players are beginning to invade territory that, at one time, was exclusive to stand alone boxes, like the Vudu box and the Apple TV.
The approach the Blu-ray manufacturers are taking also cleverly solves the "box fatigue" issue, that is customers are weary of adding new boxes to the living room and figuring out how to get them all set up with power, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, HDMI and so on. Everyone needs a DVD player, and upgrading to Blu-ray is a no brainer -- so long as the on screen menus are clear and friendly, not designed by a geek. That means that many average, non-technical customers will just need one additional box in addition to their DVR.
Here's a quick run down -- but not a full review -- on the Blu-ray players that have these additional streaming sources. More are likely to be announced before the holidays get into high gear, but that's just my guess.
LG BD 370/390. These two players, introduced in August, are highly regarded and CNET recently gave the 390 a very positive review. They liked the video performance, connectivity (Ethernet and Wi-Fi built-in) and YouTube user interface.
LG BD 390
Streaming features include: NetCast, Cinema Now, Netflix, YouTube, and (late September) Vudu. Note that while a few of the 12,000 Netflix offerings available for streaming are in HD/720p the associated sound is still 2-ch stereo. The Vudu service provides full HD/1080p and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround Sound. You will need at least 5 Mbps broadband for a satisfactory Netflix experience, and likely quite a bit more for Vudu.
The 370 model loses Wi-Fi capability, 7.1 channel analog outputs and the 1 GB of RAM in the 390 but can still stream all the services listed.
These LG players are advertised to work on a PC network and access video files, but they aren't set up to decode and play H.264 files used in the Apple community.
Samsung BD-P1600. This player was introduced in March 2009, and I'm watching to see if there's a new model (1700?) before Christmas. Along with the LG BD 300, late last year, it was one of the first to include Netflix streaming -- with the same restrictions mentioned above. This model also includes the ability to stream Pandora Music.
Reviewers have complained about the panel in the front that gets in the way and the fact that the Wi-Fi is an extra cost, add-on in the form of a dongle.
Samsung BD-P3600. This model uses the same video processor as the 1600, but adds 7.1 analog audio outputs for those without an HDMI equipped A/V receiver and a few other minor improvements but no Ethernet. (A Wi-Fi dongle is included.) CNET had trouble getting it to work, streaming video from a networked PC. Mac users are probably out of luck here as well. One should carefully look at the specs and reviews to make sure about the features needed.
Reviews suggest the video processing in these two families of Blu-ray players is about the same, (and very good) both are BD Live 2.0, and both will decode the advanced, uncompressed audio formats. Also, start up and load times are dramatically improved over early players. Because this is not formal review, and because I may have missed a few details, it's a good idea to make a checklist of features desired, then look at the reviews, to be completely sure. The Amazon pages also have lots of good technical information. For example:
- What streaming streaming services are supported?
- Are streaming services available in HD?
- What is the sound format of streaming services?
- Is Ethernet built-in?
- Is Wi-Fi available? Extra cost?
- Can the player decode advanced, uncompressed audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD MAster Audio?
- Is there a 24 fps output mode? And can your A/V receiver and/or HDTV accept that format without telecine 2:3 pulldown? (Typically, some Plasmas and 120/240 Hz LCDs, but not always.)
Things to Ponder
For now, LG seems to have the lead over Samsung in striking agreements for additional streaming sources, but that may change.
What's important is that Blu-ray manufacturers are seeing the light and adding a lot of practical functionality in terms of these streaming video sources while the interactive features of BD Live seem to have gotten lost in the noise. Accordingly, because new streaming features are continuously added with firmware updates, putting these players on your home network is essential.
There may have been a time when it was convenient to have both an Apple TV for on demand streaming content and also first generation Blu-ray player, but that situation is rapidly changing. It will interesting to see how Apple responds with the Apple TV. Or if Apple even feels it needs to respond.
*Blu-ray video is compressed from its original source format, perhaps 4K, down to 1080p. By uncompressed, I mean not in addition to the 17 Mbps ATSC standard.
** Here is a complete list of devices that support Netflix streaming -- including the HD TiVo and an Insignia Blu-ray player.