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.
As with many Blu-ray players I've tested, I could find little fault with the BD300's handling of Blu-ray films, especially when played back at their native 1080p/24 resolution. Detail, color and black detail were all excellent, and the player did nothing to deter from the inherent quality of the Blu-ray source material. With the player's 1080p/24 mode disabled, I ran through several demos to test its conversion of 1080p/24 to 1080p/60, including the staircase descent in chapter eight of Mission: Impossible III (Paramount Home Video) and the RV grille at the end of chapter six in Ghost Rider (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment). The BD300 cleanly rendered both scenes, creating little to no moir�.
Next, I switched to DVD to test the BD300's processing of standard-definition signals; here, the results were mixed. The player passed the basic film-processing tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD (Silicon Optix) and did a better job handling video-based content than many players I've seen. I spent a cheery evening with the Atonement DVD (Universal Studios Home Video), and I saw no blatant digital artifacts and was generally pleased with the level of detail produced by the up-conversion process. However, when I popped in my favorite real-world film torture tests - demo scenes from Gladiator (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) and The Bourne Identity (Universal Studios Home Video) - the BD300 produced a lot of jaggies and other digital artifacts. Due to this lack of consistency, videophiles may want to hang on to their reference up-converting DVD players, but the more casual viewer will likely be satisfied with the BD300's DVD performance.
In the audio realm, I compared the BD300's internal Dolby TrueHD decoder with that that of my Pioneer receiver, using the soundtracks on the Iron Man (Paramount Home Video) and Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds: Live at Radio City (Sony Music Video) Blu-ray discs; the quality was very similar, with my receiver's decoder offering maybe a hint more bass response. PIP and BD-Live features worked as advertised. The remote has handy PIP and PIP Audio buttons that make it easy to enable and disable PIP bonus features. Accessing BD-Live features was an intuitive process, and the BD300 seemed to download Web content a bit more quickly than other Profile 2.0 players I've used.
Finally, it was time to try out the Netflix feature. It's important
to emphasize that the Netflix system streams content, as opposed to
downloading it the way the Apple TV or Vudu player does. This approach
has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, you don't have to wait
for a title to download. Instant means instant, and you can watch a
Netflix title as soon as you've added it to your queue. Also, you can
watch content at your leisure and aren't locked in to the obnoxious
24-hour viewing window imposed on most download platforms. Finally, any
Netflix member with an unlimited subscription (prices start at
$8.99/month) can watch unlimited instant titles on the BD300 for no
additional cost. Unfortunately, the tradeoff for all of this
convenience is diminished picture quality. When you're dealing with a
download platform like Apple TV, if you have a slow Internet
connection, it may take a long time to download the film, but the video
quality isn't affected. That's not the case with a streaming platform.
Each time I cued up a Netflix title, the system evaluated my broadband speed at that moment and adjusted the compression level to suit it. I have a fairly unspectacular 1.5Mbps DSL connection, so the content was usually presented at no better than the middle quality range. (Netflix recommends at least four Mbps for best picture quality.) Some titles looked better than others, but the overall result was not close to the claimed "near-DVD" quality, often appearing soft with obvious compression artifacts. Of course, this isn't LG's fault; it's just the nature of the Netflix service, but it's worth keeping in mind as you decide whether to invest a little extra money in this particular Blu-ray model.
The BD300's lack of internal storage requires the addition of a USB device for BD-Live content. This adds a little to the cost and could cause confusion for those people who don't bother to read the manual to find out that they must insert a USB device for BD-Live features to function properly. When I tried accessing BD-Live content on Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) without a USB device installed, the player did not specifically state that missing storage was the issue; it just told me to check my Internet connection.
I've already mentioned that the BD300's processing of 480i DVD signals is not as consistent as it could be, and its handling of 1080i signals is even more questionable. Test patterns on the HD HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc (Silicon Optix) showed that the player does not correctly deinterlace 1080i video content or pick up the 3:2 cadence with 1080i film sources. This isn't a huge issue, since most Blu-ray films are natively 1080p, not 1080i. However, you may encounter the occasional HD concert video or other title shot in 1080i; in those cases, the BD300 may produce more artifacts than other players that offer better all-around processing.
As for the Netflix feature, convenience comes at the sake of quality, at least for unfortunate souls like me who have slower broadband connections. I wouldn't go the Netflix route to watch the latest big-name movie releases, which doesn't really matter, because those titles aren't part of the Watch Instantly library anyhow. The company is consistently adding to its library of instant titles, but right now, that library consists mostly of older films, independent titles and some TV shows. Also, while Netflix's selection of physical Blu-ray discs is quite good, most of the instant titles are standard-def only, with stereo audio. (The BD300 does up-convert this content to 1080p, as it would a standard-def DVD.) Netflix has just begun adding HD titles to the streaming platform; I watched several C.S.I. and The Office episodes that were supposedly in HD but, again, with my paltry broadband speed, the quality wasn't much better than I saw with non-HD titles.
The BD300 is first and foremost a Blu-ray player - and a good one at that. It's fast, it's user-friendly, it's Profile 2.0, and it serves up a beautiful picture with Blu-ray films. The only missing features are onboard DTS-HD decoding and multichannel analog audio outputs, which are absent from many (but not all) players around this price point. While it's my job to point out some of the limitations of the Netflix feature, I don't want to paint an overly negative picture. If anything, my experience with the BD300's Netflix streaming is a great example of why Netflix is wise to incorporate this feature into set-top boxes that offer other performance benefits...and why I don't see broadband killing Blu-ray anytime soon. If you've got a super-fast broadband connection that makes downloading or streaming the clear choice, congratulations. You're ahead of the curve, and the rest of us hope to catch up. Given my current system limitations and my videophile bent, I wouldn't enjoy a standalone box like the Roku Netflix player, yet I'm happy to have streaming as an add-on feature. With the BD300, I can enjoy lots of high-quality Blu-ray discs (usually sent to me by Netflix, I might add), with high-resolution audio and bonus material galore. Yet I also have the convenience of instant access to tons of smaller titles and TV shows I may have missed. That's two great tastes that taste great together.