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The Tech-pert: Choosing a Blu-ray Player for 2012

By Guest Blogger(view all posts by Rick.Broida)
at 9:55AM Tuesday January 3, 2012
under Shop Smarter

Image courtesy of Gizmodo

It's been awhile since I wrote about Blu-ray players, and a lot has changed in the last couple years. Thus, let's revisit the topic with an eye toward what to buy--or even if to buy--in 2012.
As you're no doubt aware, Blu-ray has been the de facto high-definition movie standard for many years. But only recently have player prices dropped to attractive levels (which to my thinking means under $100).

Thus, there's never been a better time to buy a Blu-ray player, though you shouldn't necessarily jump at the cheapest model you find. There are certain features worth having, and worth a few extra dollars.

For starters, let's talk about Blu-ray movies. During the holiday break, my family and I indulged in a "Harry Potter" marathon, watching all eight movies on a Blu-ray player. However, the first seven were ordinary DVDs. The player did a pretty good job upscaling them to meet my TV's 1080p resolution, but when we finally popped in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" on Blu-ray, the difference was astonishing.

In other words, if you're not watching movies--especially your favorite movies--on Blu-ray, you're missing out.

The good news is that Blockbuster, Netflix and Redbox all offer Blu-ray rentals now, so just about anything you can get on DVD you can get on Blu-ray as well.

So, what should you look for in a Blu-ray player? All models have certain features in common, like support for 1080p output (the max viewable on HDTVs) and the aforementioned DVD upscaling (which makes the movies you already own look considerably better than they did on your old DVD player).

Most current models also have an Ethernet port, which allows them to access various online features. The catch, of course, is that you'll need to run an Ethernet cable from your router to the player, which can be inconvenient.

Thus, look for a player with built-in Wi-Fi (and not one that's merely "Wi-Fi ready," which means you'll have to purchase a separate, usually pricey, adapter).

What makes Internet connectivity so important? In Blu-ray's early days, it was solely to access a smattering of extra (and usually lame) features not contained on the disc itself.

Today, however, many Blu-ray players have built-in "apps" for services like Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Netflix and Pandora.

In other words, these players can do much of the work of a Roku box, streaming movies, music, and TV shows on-demand from your favorite subscription services. That's a huge perk, especially considering that some Blu-ray players (especially refurbished or closeout models) are priced the same as, or even less than, some Roku boxes. I wouldn't buy a player that didn't have support for Netflix at the very least.

Another feature that's cropping up in more and more Blu-ray set-tops is 3D. But don't think you can just pop in your copy of "Despicable Me" and enjoy a three-dimensional experience. For any given movie, you need the 3D version--and few places rent them at the moment, so you rarely have any choice but to buy it.

You also need a 3D-capable HDTV and at least one compatible pair of 3D glasses. I'll admit to having seen some pretty decent home 3D, but with so few viewing options and so much extra gear required I'm definitely not a convert. If your Blu-ray player supports 3D, great--but I suspect few people will actually take advantage of it.

One last thing: You'll need an HDMI cable to connect your Blu-ray player to your HDTV. As I wrote many moons ago in "The Myth of the Expensive HDMI Cable," don't bother with the "fancy" ones costing $20 or more. You can get a perfectly good HDMI cable for as little as $3.59--possibly even less.

What are your thoughts on Blu-ray players? Worth having, or past their prime now that streaming is so prevalent?

Self-proclaimed cheapskate Rick Broida has been a technology writer for over 20 years. He has authored over a dozen books, including, most recently, "How to Do Everything: Palm Pre." Currently he writes the Cheapskate blog.