Technology

A Bargain Blu-ray Player


0522_bluray
Editor's Rating: star rating

The Panasonic DMP-BD30 has easy setup, but it doesn't support the latest Blu-ray specs. Still, it should do the trick for most users

Now that the consumer battle over which high-definition DVD format has been decided in Blu-ray's favor, we've decided to take a look at a few of the options out there. While I'm perfectly happy with the Blu-ray drive in my Sony PlayStation 3, many users might want to purchase a standalone player for a home theater or bedroom.

Panasonic's $475 DMP-BD30 player is a good choice. This sleek black device stands about half as thick as rival Blu-ray players from Sony (SNE), Samsung, and Pioneer, and just a tad longer side-to-side. There's an especially distracting blue light positioned squarely in the middle of the front bezel. To turn it off, you have to dive into the setup menu and find a setting labeled SD Card LED Control. There's also a flip-down panel on the right that hides a few quick-control keys and a slot for an SD memory card from your digital camera to view photos on the TV.

The player comes with all the requisite connection ports, including one HDMI (HD Multimedia Interface) and a component video output for connecting the player to HD televisions. There are also composite and S-video connectors for hooking up the player to older televisions—odd inclusions since presumably you're buying the BD30 to play high-definition movies.

Far-from-Intuitive Remote Control

The remote is compact but offers a confusing array of choices for gaining access to a disc's menu. The main "pop-up menu" button in the center lets you reach features on the disc without stopping playback of a movie. A "top menu" button lets you jump to the disc's main menu screen (assuming it has one). A third "submenu" button brings up more options, including changing the screen aspect ratio for viewing standard-definition DVDs and using their menus. Taken together, these three buttons are far from intuitive.

Some users might also be confused by the remote's buttons for picture-in-picture and secondary audio and video feeds, features that are usually found on TVs rather than DVD players. These controls are unique to Blu-ray players built under the Final Standard Profile 1.1, itself a confusing moniker because there's already another Blu-ray standard called profile 2.0 and another on the way.

Setup is a breeze if you have a TV that can display 1080p video, but potentially unnerving if it's a lower-resolution set. The player is set up to automatically figure out which outputs you're using and has a neat feature that lets you test whether the audio is being correctly pumped through to the right speakers. But users with 1080i HD or lower-resolution televisions may not see a picture at first. The company advises pushing the player's Stop and Play buttons simultaneously to reset the resolution.

The BD30 has the fastest startup time I've seen on a standalone Blu-ray player, powering up in under 30 seconds. Rival systems can take nearly two minutes to get going. The disc also begins playback fairly quickly as compared with what I've seen with Pioneer and Samsung players.

Trouble with Standard-DVD Playback

Blu-ray playback was clear and stutter-free. I watched the opening scenes of the movie 300, and the player faithfully rendered the fine detail without a hiccup. Then I slipped in a 1969 movie, Battle of Britain. I expected to see occasional stutters because it was shot on old film stock, but was pleased to find it had been remastered well and that the player picked up so much sharp detail.

The digital audio, piped via HDMI through my Pioneer receiver and high-end KEF speakers, delivered awesome sound as well. But anyone with an older receiver supporting early HDMI software should note that this Blu-ray player will downsample the sound to standard Dolby 5.1 audio instead of Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD.

The big problem with the BD30 is that if you're planning to use it to play older standard-definition discs, you're in for serious trouble. With both the DVDs I played, the picture looked exceptionally soft. And during action scenes, the player's processor struggled to upconvert the video data fast enough, resulting in "jaggies," or digital pixelation that looks especially annoying on big-screen TVs.

Despite its scattered flaws, the BD30 is a good deal for videophiles looking for a relatively cheap standalone Blu-ray player. The Profile 2.0 players coming out this year likely will cost quite a bit more, and many users may not be as interested in the added features, such as having an Internet connection to download video.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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