It's taken just a couple of short years for Blu-ray to go from cutting edge to mainstream with prices dropping like stones for quality machines. Even at the lower end of the market, these devices will pack in a lot of functionality and deliver a big quality step up from standard DVD.
With all of them you'll get 1080p/24fps HD video playback of course, plus 1080p DVD upscaling. Some will support sophisticated picture processing like x.v.Colour and 48-bit Deep Colour, while audio-wise, you can expect on-board decoding and bitstream output of all the HD audio codecs.
They're all Profile 2.0 machines with BD-Live compatibility plus Ethernet and USB connections. This will allow you to download additional content, chat to other viewers and view picture-in-picture commentaries where available as well as download firmware updates to your player, so building in a little bit of futureproofing too.
With even the former champion of HD-DVD Toshiba announcing that it's jumping on the Blu-ray bandwagon, don't you think it's time you did too?
Price: £200 More info: LG Electronics Size: 430x54x245mm Connections: HDMI, component, composite, analogue stereo, optical, digital coax, Ethernet, USB 2.0 Playback: Blu-ray, DVD, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, CD-R, CD-RW, MP3, JPEG, VMA, PNG, DivX, H.264, MPEG-4 Key features: Profile 2.0, DVD upscaling to 1080p, BD-Live, YouTube, LG SIMPLINK, closed caption, parental lock Memory cache: No Load time: 55 seconds (from drawer close to start of movie)
LG's BD370 is a good looking player, possibly the most attractive conventionally styled machine in this test (the Samsung's in a different ball park) with its cute blue-ringed button on the front and drop-down panel for controls and USB access.
But the most surprising thing about the BD370 is its YouTube feature, allowing you to browse the video sharing website and view whatever's there. No, you can't view any HD content, but it's easy, if a little slow, to find your way around the full YouTube site via the onscreen keyboard, and you can view videos in either reduced or full screen mode (though the picture tends to break up pretty badly here). It's not the destination for technical quality, but it adds a whole new video-on-demand channel to your programming.
Unfortunately, the picture isn't quite as good as it should be, with blacks appearing deep enough, but shadows are ill-defined, and there's a bit of stridency to the colour that didn't cut it with the best devices here.
Sound-wise it was decent enough, offering dynamic playback on all the films we tried. The user interface is big, brash and, er, pink, but it's nice and easy to find your way around the settings and features.
The picture quality may not match the best on test, but it's still not shabby, and the YouTube option illustrates the potential for web-connected players.
Good looks, YouTube, low price Minus points
Picture not as good as others
Price: £235 More info: Philips Size: 435x58x308mm Connections: analogue stereo, analogue audio multichannel, component, composite, digital coax, HDMI, Ethernet Playback: Blu-ray, DVD+R/+RW, DVD-R/-RW, DivX, H.264, VC-1, MPEG2, WMV, CD-R/RW, MP3, JPEG Key features: Profile 2.0, DVD upscaling to 1080p, BD-Live, Philips EasyLink, x.v.Colour, Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby True HD, DTS-HD Memory cache: 1GB Load time: 60 seconds (from drawer close to start of movie)
Philips hasn't been particularly prolific on the Blu-ray front as yet, and the BDP7300 is top of its current three-strong range, despite its modest price tag.
It's not lacking in features though - it's one of only two devices on test that includes its own hard drive cache for use with BD-Live (you'll need it to download content). It's not much at 1GB, but that's a gig more than the others, for which you'll need to add your own via USB. It's also the only device with analogue audio outputs, which can come in handy if your AV amp doesn't have an HDMI connection.
Blu-ray playback is more than competent though not the very best here, being a little soft with edges on occasion, though black levels and colours are rich and well rendered. It was fine with DVDs too, upscaling to 1080p, which all these players are capable of, and delivering a smooth and vibrant picture from anything we tried with it.
The sound is punchy and detailed, with a good range of formats handled, and the menu system is large and simple - just the way we like it really.
All in all this is a terrifically versatile, high quality player that delivers above and beyond the call of duty for a budget machine.
Good picture rendering, built-in memory cache for BD-Live, multichannel analogue outputs Minus points
Not the very best picture available