Smart Shopping: Blu-ray & DVD Players

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Getting Started l Types l Features

Home-entertainment options are expanding. High-definition Blu-ray players are steadily gaining favor, though regular DVD players are still going strong. Portable players of both types let you take the show on the road. Digital recorders can capture HDTV content and standard-definition video.

GETTING STARTED

Home-entertainment options are expanding. High-definition Blu-ray players are steadily gaining favor, though regular DVD players are still going strong. Portable players of both types let you take the show on the road. Digital recorders can capture HDTV content and standard-definition video.

Blu-ray players are a good match for high-definition TVs, which can display all the detail contained on Blu-ray discs. All Blu-ray players can also play standard DVDs, upconverting the video to quasi-HD resolutions for display on an HDTV, as well as CDs, so you can use one player for all your discs. Many new players can now stream video from the Internet, providing instant access to movies and TV episodes from Amazon Video on Demand, Blockbuster on Demand, Netflix, Vudu, and other online movie services. Another exciting development: 3D-capable players, which let you enjoy three-dimensional entertainment on the new 3D TVs now arriving in stores.

Standard DVD players are still widely available. Almost all new standard players are progressive-scan models. When used with an HDTV, they can provide picture quality that's better than that of typical standard-definition TV programming. Most are ¿upconverting" models that can convert the video contained on regular DVDs to pseudo-HD (when viewed on an HDTV, of course). Picture quality isn't as good as true HD, however.

Portable DVD players have a built-in screen so you can watch standard DVDs in a car, plane, or dorm room. Portable Blu-ray players have started to appear, and we expect to see more models in the near future.

A DVD recorder lets you record standard-definition TV programs on removable discs. Digital video recorders can capture video on a hard drive. Some DVRs can record only standard-def while others can capture high-def.

This guide can help you sort through the various options to find the right model. While price is always a factor, also consider the features and brand. Make sure you check out our shopping advice, which should help you find the right model at the best price.

TYPES

If you have an HDTV, we strongly recommend that you buy a Blu-ray player. A basic high-def player won't cost you much more than a standard DVD player, and the superior picture quality of Blu-ray is well worth it. On the other hand, if you have a standard-def TV and don't plan to buy a high-def set anytime soon, it makes little sense to buy a Blu-ray player, even though it can play regular DVDs. On a standard TV, you won't be able to appreciate the benefits it offers.

Blu-ray
Blu-ray discs contain 1080p video, currently the highest-resolution HD. Prices have been dropping as manufacturers battle for market share, and are likely to continue falling over time. Players generally start at about $130, though you may find some models on sale for less. Many full-featured models from major brands are going for $200 to $300. The first 3D-capable players on the market are selling for about $400. These can play 3D Blu-ray discs as well as regular Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and CDs. There are already many thousands of Blu-ray titles, both movies and TV episodes, on the market, and 3D Blu-ray titles are starting to appear. Most Blu-ray players are single-disc models that hold only one disc at a time, but Sony has a 400-disc changer, and LG has announced a player that also has a built-in hard drive for storing music, photos, and home videos.

Standard DVD players
This type of player is a smart choice if you have a standard-definition TV. If you have an HDTV, it's a questionable choice, unless the lowest price is more important to you than picture quality. As the transition to high-definition DVDs gains steam, you're likely to see fewer standard-def models being introduced, and retailers may not stock as many models as they used to.

Almost all new DVD players are progressive-scan models. These players can convert (or deinterlace) the interlaced video (480i) contained on DVDs and output it to your TV as a 480p video signal. With a TV that can display high-definition images, you can expect a smoother, more detailed image. That's because HD sets can support the player's progressive-scan 480p mode, drawing 480 consecutive lines on the screen in a single pass. Prices for progressive-scan players start as low as $25, and many major-brand models are priced in the range of $50 to $75.

Portable DVD players
A portable player lets you watch a movie anytime, anywhere¿perfect for long trips or waits between flights. While you can also play movies on a notebook computer that has a built-in Blu-ray or DVD drive, portable players are often smaller and lighter, and might offer more playback options. Most portables are standard DVD models, but Blu-ray players are starting to show up as well.

Most portable players look much like small laptop computers minus the keyboard. These typically have a 5- to 10-inch screen (measured diagonally) with a clamshell-style cover that protects the screen when it's not in use. Others use a tablet style; the screen is always exposed, which might make it easier to see if the player is on your lap. Convertible models feature displays that fold back so that the player can be used in either laptop or tablet mode. Some models have mounts designed for use in cars.

DVD recorders
A standard-definition DVD recorder gives you a lot of bang for the buck. It offers better recording quality than a VCR and random access to sections of a disc. Because it uses removable discs, it allows unlimited storage and easy sharing of standard-def TV programs, as well as a great way to archive recordings, home videos, and photos. It can also replace a DVD player, an advantage over hard-drive recorders, which don't have a disc slot. Prices typically range from $100 to $200 or so.

Some DVD recorders in stores have a built-in digital off-air (ATSC) tuner and a basic digital cable (QAM) tuner; a few may have no tuner. A built-in ATSC tuner is important if you want to record over-the-air broadcast TV without the use of a separate set-top box. A QAM tuner lets you record basic digital cable programs without using a set-top box. Some DVD recorders have cable or satellite box control, so they can change the channels of a set-top box for time-shifted recording. You'll also find some combo units that have built-in VCRs, which can make dubbing your old home-made VHS recordings to DVD a fairly simple process.

As high-definition video continues to gain favor, you'll find fewer DVD recorder models and brands from which to choose.

Digital video recorders
A DVR records onto a built-in hard drive much like the one in a computer. Though you can't record high-def TV programming onto a DVD, you can do so on some, but not all, DVRs. DVRs don't have a slot for removable discs or tapes, so they can't play recorded media; you'll still need a Blu-ray or DVD player to watch a movie you rented from Netflix. A DVR is a good choice if you often record TV programs.

Many DVRs have space for 100 hours or more of standard-definition programming at high quality. Some let you record at lower quality, which raises capacity to 300 hours or more. HD-capable recorders usually hold about 20 to 30 hours of HD content. A new TiVo recorder has an exceptionally large capacity of 150 hours of HD programming and up to 1,350 hours of standard-def; you pay a fee for programming service. Moxi has a recorder that can hold 75 hours of high-def, 300 standard-def. Many DVRs have two tuners, so you can record two shows simultaneously. The Moxi unit has three tuners, enabling you to record three programs at the same time.

Most DVRs are integrated with a set-top box and leased from a TV service provider, which charges an additional fee for DVR service. There are a few DVRs available for purchase in retail stores, most notably from TiVo, whose name has become almost synonymous with this type of product. While you can purchase a TiVo DVR outright, the company also charges a service fee. You can also purchase units made by a company called Moxi. It doesn't charge a service fee, but you may have to pay your cable company for a CableCard to use with the recorder.

FEATURES

Getting a Blu-ray or DVD player with all the right features will increase your long-term satisfaction and enjoyment.

Internet connectivity/BD-Live

Most newer players have a feature called BD Live that enables them to connect to the Internet to access extra content, such as outtakes and video games, from a movie studio's servers. Typically, you need a wired connection to the Internet, but some players can access the Internet via your WiFi network. (WiFi access is sometimes built in, but for models called "wireless-ready," you have to buy an optional adapter to enable wireless connections.) Models without BD-Live are typically less expensive, but there are fewer available.

Video streaming

Many, but not all models with BD Live, can also receive streaming movie services from companies such as Amazon Video on Demand, Blockbuster on Demand, Netflix, and Vudu, as well as YouTube videos, Internet radio stations such as Pandora and Slacker, photo-sharing sites such as Picasa and Flickr, and more. If you want a model that offers online streaming, see which movie services it supports. If you have a Netflix subscription or plan to get one, for example, make sure a player works with that service. Some content, such as YouTube, is free, but you have to pay for movies. Generally, it's a pay-per-view arrangement, but Netflix subscribers with an unlimited plan can stream as many movies or TV episodes as they like. (Unlimited subscriptions start at $9 a month.) Available services could change over time if the manufacturer makes different arrangements with Internet companies. Updates might be automatic, but in some cases you might have to search for new content.

3D capability

The first 3D-capable Blu-ray players are now on the market. When used with special 3D discs, 3D glasses, and a 3D TV, they enable you to see honest-to-goodness 3D images. They can also play normal Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and CDs.

Surround sound

Another benefit of Blu-ray and standard DVD players is the ability to enjoy movies with multichannel surround sound. To reap the full sound experience of the audio encoded into standard DVD titles, you'll need a Dolby Digital receiver and six speakers, including a subwoofer. (For 6.1 and 7.1 soundtracks, you'll need seven or eight speakers.) Dolby Digital decoding built-in refers to a DVD player that decodes the multichannel audio before it gets to the receiver. Without the built-in circuitry, you'd need a decoder built into the receiver or, in rare instances, a separate decoder box to take advantage of the audio. (A Dolby Digital receiver will also decode an older format, Dolby Pro Logic.) Most players also support Digital Theater System (DTS) decoding for titles using 5.1-, 6.1-, or 7.1-channel encoding.

When you're watching a movie on DVD, dynamic audio-range controls help keep explosions and other noisy sound effects from seeming too loud. Some Blu-ray players support a few additional multichannel formats, including Dolby Digital Plus and DTS High Resolution Audio, higher-resolution 7.1-channel audio, and new lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master formats that are bit-for-bit reproductions of the movie's master soundtrack.

Most DVD players also provide features such as multilingual support, which lets you choose dialog or subtitles in different languages for a movie. Parental control is a DVD player feature that lets you lock out films by their rating code.

BonusView

All Blu-ray players have a feature called BonusView, a PIP (picture-in-picture) feature that displays bonus content on some Blu-ray discs in a window while the main feature is onscreen.

Navigation

DVD and Blu-ray players enable you to navigate the disc in a number of ways. Unlike a VHS tape, most DVDs and Blu-ray players are sectioned. Chapter preview lets you scan the opening seconds of each section or chapter until you find what you want. A related feature, chapter gallery, shows thumbnails of section or chapter opening scenes. Go-to by time lets you enter how many hours and minutes into the disc you'd like to skip to. Marker functions allow easy indexing of specific sections. Blu-ray interactivity allows you to navigate the disc's menus and other content without leaving the movie. Many BD-Live models, when playing certain discs, also allow you to access Web-based content from a movie company's servers, and a growing number of models offer access to streaming movie services from Amazon Video on Demand, Blockbuster on Demand, Netflix, Vudu, and more.

Picture control

DVD and Blu-ray players give you all sorts of control over the picture. The aspect-ratio control DVD player feature lets you choose between the squarish 4:3 viewing format of conventional TVs (4 inches wide for every 3 inches high) and the 16:9 ratio of newer wide-screen sets. Picture zoom lets you zoom in on a specific frame. Black-level adjustment brings out the detail in dark parts of the screen image. If you've ever wanted to see certain action scenes from different angles, multiangle capability gives you that opportunity when used with discs that include this feature.

Connections

Almost all high-def players have HDMI and component-video connections, which are required to view high-definition pictures on an HDTV. Most also have composite-video outputs, and some have S-video connections, which you would use with older TVs. 3D Blu-ray players use newer HDMI 1.4 connections, but can connect to a TV using standard high-speed HDMI cables. Most standard DVD players also have HDMI connections now, as well as component-video, and composite-video outputs; some have S-video as well. All players will support at least 5.1-channel sound through the digital-audio outputs. Blu-ray players will also support high-resolution audio from Blu-ray discs.

USB connections and memory-card slots

Many players now include a USB port or a memory-card slot that allows you to play digital media files, such as music, photos, or videos on your TV. Some have a slide-show capability for digital photos.

Disc capacity

Most standard DVD and Blu-ray players accommodate a single disc at a time. Other standard players have carousels that can hold several (generally three or five) discs. DVD jukeboxes are able to hold 100 discs or more. Sony has announced two multidisc Blu-ray players, and we expect to see more in the future.

Disc formats

In addition to commercial DVD titles, DVD players often support playback or display of many other formats. They include CD-R/RW recordings of standard audio CDs, the recordable DVD formats DVD+R/RW, DVD-R/RW, and DVD-RAM, Video CD (VCD), and DVD-Audio. They can also play CD-R/RW discs containing MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files and JPEG picture files. All Blu-ray players can play commercial Blu-ray discs and standard DVDs. All current Blu-ray players play commercially released CDs, and may play CDs burned with MP3 files. A given model might or might not play JPEG, WMA, or video CDs, or DVD-/+/R/RW or DVD-RAM discs you've recorded.
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