It's taken a couple of years, but it seems that Blu-ray is finally gaining some ground as a format. Not only are some decent movies finally coming out, but the price and feature sets of players has made them more compelling as well. Of course, the PlayStation 3 still looms like the Close Encounters mother ship over the whole preceding, but fabulous little players like the LG BD370 are making the step to Blu-ray that much more enticing.
For a company that prides itself on the design of its televisions, we found the BD370 to be curiously stodgy. While in essence most Blu-ray players look the same — squat boxes with glossy fronts — LG has tried to "pep up" the look of its player with a very 80's-looking Power/Play button in the middle.
While the build is mostly solid, it's the disc tray which we have the most issues with. The disc tray looks (and probably is) like the one you'd find on a PC DVD-RW. It also opens and closes with some difficulty — a bit more spit and polish would have helped here.
The remote, on the other hand, is great. All of the necessary functions are close to hand and it has the faux leather top that we've liked on previous remotes.
For the price, the features list on the BD370 is simply phenomenal — even if it is missing the US version's coup de grace, Netflix downloads. While we are assured that LG has been in talks with local movie downloads providers to implement this feature, it will only be available in future products. However, you still get one of the best value-adds we've seen in a Blu-ray player so far: YouTube. Unlike the Apple TV that launched with a vetted list of YouTube videos, the full library of content is available via the remote, which also includes an easy search function.
The second reason to buy this player is for its comprehensive support for movie formats, not only can you play DVDs and Blu-rays but most of the most popular 'net formats including MPEG2, MPEG4 AVC (H2.64), raw VC1 files, DivX, and for you HD fans, MKV. It will even playback videos encoded in the AVCHD camcorder format.
For a budget player we were also impressed by its assortment of audio decoding options. You can either let the BD370 decode both DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD, or let them through to the keeper (read: receiver). This capability should please users who've bought a modern receiver and want the flexibility and potential improvements of letting it decode high-def audio streams.
There is a high degree of control in the menu options within the BD370, but sometimes you need to know what the options mean. For example, you can set 1080p display mode to 24Hz or 50Hz, and while this is helpful for people who want to enable Blu-ray compatibility quickly it doesn't explain what 24Hz is. The audio options also let you fiddle with the sampling frequency, offering you a choice of 48, 96 or 192kHz — again with no explanation of what this means. Presumably, it will up- or down-scale audio to the frequency you choose, with 192kHz being the highest quality option. As a comparison, DVD is usually sampled in 48kHz. Moving on from audio, a small degree of interface customisation is also offered — while you can't change the appearance of the menu options you can change the wallpaper. Woot!
Outputs are limited to HDMI, component and composite for video, and an optical and coaxial digital, and a stereo out. No 5.1 or 7.1 audio outs unfortunately.
Given the budget nature of this player and its rather plain-Jane looks, we were actually surprised by how well it performed once we had it plugged in. It's a confident Blu-ray player, and in some ways better than our benchmark player: the PlayStation 3. While the BD370 wasn't able to render movement as smoothly as on the PlayStation 3, it threw up more detail in the opening garden "chase" scene in Batman Begins — the tracking shot as the young Bruce runs through bushes showed out more of the foliage on the LG but was jerkier than the Sony console. The LG also has the advantage of outputting native HD audio streams where the PS3 doesn't, and it's half the price. To further cement the LG's credentials as a Blu-ray player, it was able to ace the HQV Blu-ray test disc — a good test of a player's capabilities.
DVD replay was almost as good as its Blu-ray performance, while not as impressive as a stand-alone player for image depth. Nevertheless, it replayed the King Kong DVD with no image noise, and yet still a usable amount of detail. Black levels, while not as inky as some players, were still very good and full of shadow detail. Colours weren't as eye-popping as leaders like the Marantz range.
Now the player has been sent back home, the one feature we've found ourself missing the most is the YouTube feature. If only more devices did this! We would have preferred a QWERTY keyboard in the search but this doesn't really matter. The player features a great looking interface, with five videos across. It's a little slow to navigate, as it takes about five seconds to populate the next page, but it's not a huge problem. However, some search queries are more effective on the web than through the interface. For example, we tried searching for a song by The Lonely Island (language warning), and couldn't find the official videos in the first five pages, whereas a quick YouTube search on the web brought it up as first.
While the player sadly isn't able to stream files from your network, plugging a memory key in was relatively straightforward. To test the player, we used a 720p MKV movie file, which it recognised straight away and looked fantastic. If you've specifically been looking for support of codecs other than bog-standard DivX this could be the player to get.
Finally, the first generation of Blu-ray players were Jurassically slow — taking a minute or longer to play a disc from a cold start. While the PS3 is still lightning quick, the LG is leading the way for the stand-alone players with its "Quick Load" feature — it took Mission Impossible III just 22 seconds to play from standby.