As pundits argue whether Blu-ray or broadband will define our home entertainment future, LG has circumvented the issue by introducing a player that can accommodate both. The BD300 ($349.99) is both a Blu-ray player and a streaming-media device. On the Blu-ray end, this is a Profile 2.0 player, which means it supports BD-Live Web functionality and picture-in-picture playback. This well-endowed model has a 1080p/24 mode for Blu-ray disc playback and can pass Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio in bitstream form over HDMI. It also features onboard Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD decoding, but lacks DTS-HD Master Audio decoding. In addition to Blu-ray, DVD and CD audio, the BD300 supports playback of MP3, WMA, JPEG and AVCHD files.
The Profile 2.0 Blu-ray spec demands the inclusion of an Ethernet port in order to access Web-based features, and it is through this network connection that the BD300 also receives streamed Netflix content. For some time now, Netflix's Watch Instantly feature has allowed PC users to enjoy immediate viewing of select tiles in streamed form. In 2008, Netflix began partnering with CE manufacturers like LG, Samsung, Microsoft and TiVo to add this streaming functionality to dedicated set-top boxes. LG's BD300 is currently one of two Blu-ray models (the other is from Samsung) that features Netflix streaming; while the function has some limitations that we'll explore momentarily, it still gives the BD300 a compelling feature that's missing from other similarly-priced Blu-ray models. During our review, LG announced new 2009 Blu-ray models, due later in the year, that will support Netflix, YouTube, and CinemaNow content; there is no word yet on whether LG will be able to add YouTube and CinemaNow functions to the BD300 via a future firmware update.
The BD300 has a clean, attractive appearance, with a smaller-than-average footprint for a Blu-ray player. The mostly black chassis has a few silver accents and an uncluttered front panel that hides the disc drive behind a flip-down door on the left side. In the center, you'll find a small LCD screen, as well as buttons for play/pause, stop, forward and reverse. To the right is a USB port that's also hidden by a pop-on cover. This port supports playback of MP3, WMA and JPEG files, and is necessary for BD-Live functionality. The BD300 doesn't have internal storage, so you must add a USB storage drive (not included) whenever to you wish to download BD-Live features from the Web.
Around back, you'll find the aforementioned Ethernet port (which also allows for easy firmware updates), along with HDMI, component and composite video outputs, plus both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs and one set of stereo analog audio outputs. The BD300 lacks multi-channel analog audio outputs, so the only way to pass decoded Dolby Digital Plus and TrueHD soundtracks is over HDMI; this means the player isn't the ideal choice for someone who owns an older, non-HDMI-equipped A/V receiver. My Pioneer VSX-91TXH receiver offers 1080p HDMI video switching and high-resolution audio decoding, so physical set-up was as simple as running an HDMI cable from the BD300 to the receiver's back panel and running an Ethernet cable from my router to the player. Unfortunately, the BD300 doesn't support wireless networking, but you could use a power line Ethernet adapter if your router or modem is not located close to your entertainment set-up.
LG earns points for offering one of the more attractive onscreen menus I've seen in the Blu-ray realm. Upon start-up, the player immediately cues the Home Menu with big, colorful icons labeled Movie, Streaming, Photo, Music and Setup. Navigating the menu is an intuitive process, which makes set-up all the more simple. The BD300's default A/V settings are the safe-bet options for the user who simply plans to connect the player directly to a TV: 1080i video and PCM stereo audio. Like most Blu-ray models, the BD300 supports up to 1080p over HDMI and 1080i over component video, and it includes the option to enable 1080p/24 output over HDMI. If you do so, the player will always output 1080p/24 when available on a Blu-ray disc. The Setup menu lacks some higher-end options available in similarly-priced players, such as advanced video controls (like preset picture modes, black-level adjustment and noise reduction) and the ability to adjust speaker size, level and delay for multi-channel PCM signals over HDMI. Also, the owner's manual is pretty vague when it comes to explaining the various audio set-up options. There are two main options for home theater users: "Primary Pass-Thru" sends all signals (including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio) in bitstream form for your receiver to decode, but you won't be able to hear PIP and other secondary audio cues. The "PCM Multi-Ch" option uses the player's internal decoders and mixes in secondary audio cues; however, as I mentioned, the player lacks an internal DTS-HD Master Audio decoder, so you'll only hear the core DTS stream when playing back such soundtracks. Theoretically, LG could add DTS-HD decoding via a future firmware update, but nothing has been announced at this time.
Setting up the Netflix streaming function is an easy task. As with all Netflix-enabled devices, most of the set-up process must be done on your computer via your online Netflix account. The first time you enter the BD300's Streaming menu, it clearly details the steps you must take and provides you with an activation code. Enter that code into your online account, then add titles to your "Instant" queue; the titles appear almost immediately in the BD300's menu for playback. If you're not an existing Netflix customer, the BD300 menu gives you the option to start a free trial.
From an ergonomic standpoint, the BD300 is simply a pleasure to use. It has the fastest startup and load times of any standalone Blu-ray player I've tested. Even discs like the Pirates of the Caribbean series (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) and Ratatouille (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), which contain dense, animated menus, load in under 40 seconds, and DVDs cue up in about 15 seconds. The player responds quickly to remote commands and never locked up or hiccupped during my time with it. As I said before, the onscreen menu is highly intuitive, whether you want to watch a disc, stream Netflix, or navigate music and photos loaded on a USB device. My only ergonomic gripe is that the remote lacks backlighting and puts many black, similarly-shaped buttons on a black background. As such, I found it difficult to use, even in a moderately dark room.