May 27, 2009 LG clearly has a vision where home entertainment is going and it is pressing ahead into the connected TV world by making sure that even its affordable entry-level products are shipping with some very cool new features. We've just spent a week with the LG BD370 Blu-ray player, which features LAN and USB connectivity, YouTube video streaming, Netflix downloads and BD Live content downloads. It's a fair swag of add-ons for a simple Blu-ray player, but perhaps the BD370's greatest strength is how well it does the basics.
The task of playing Blu-ray discs - and DVDs for that matter - is a fairly simple one that really doesn't require a whole lot of buttons and features. It's not like your VCR of old or a PVR that has to take care of recording and scheduling duties. It's a simple matter of playing a disc and giving the user easy access to the kinds of controls they want.
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This kind of simplicity, though, must make home-theater customers nervous, particularly when the Playstation 3 looms overhead as a particularly highly specified Blu-ray player that can also play games and connect to the net - so companies like LG are looking to connectivity as a way to boost the feature set of cheaper entertainment units.
The BD370 is a classy-looking addition to a home theater system. Its one-big-button face is simple and clean, and even when you fold down the front panel there's only three buttons and a USB port to clutter the view. Without access to the remote, you can use the play/pause, eject, stop, skip forwards and skip backwards buttons.
The remote, too, is fairly simple, with the home, play, stop and pause buttons easily controlled. The menu navigation directional keys are simple to use, too. My only complaint is that the scan and skip buttons aren't next to the play button - but you'd get used to that fairly quickly.
LG has put a lot of time into designing attractive and simple menu screens across its 2009 audio/visual line-up and the BD370 is no exception. Given it's just a Blu-ray player and you don't really have to do anything too complex with it, everything in the menu system is easily found and operated with the remote.
Intimate dissection of the Blu-ray image quality and DVD upscaling (the BD370 uses a software algorithm to take standard-def DVD vision up to HD for better display on big-screen TVs) is probably best left to the boffins. To my eye, the BD370 may not have the huge graphics and processor power of rivals, like the PS3, but Blu-ray movies looked fantastic to me and so did upscaled DVDs.
One of the key selling points for LG is how quickly the BD370 can start up and play a Blu-ray disc - and indeed, the start-up time really isn't an issue with this unit. From power-up to when the disc starts playing takes about 20 seconds - and that 20 seconds include the time it takes for the tray to open, the disc to go in and the tray to close again. Certainly, the reams of advertising and copyright warning crap at the start of our Blu-ray were far more annoying than the machine's start-up time.
I wasn't expecting to enjoy YouTube videos on my TV so much, but even without a keyboard and a mouse, the world's biggest video-sharing website is a great thing to have access to in your lounge room. The ABC keyboard for in-putting search terms is disappointingly clunky, but once you're up and running, YouTube is every bit as addictive as always, as you slavishly follow related video links and responses.
You can only read part of the descriptions, and you can't follow links around - but really, it's surely just a matter of time until home entertainment systems come fully equipped with browser software and some sort of pointer system. In the meanwhile, this small glimpse into lounge-room computing is very satisfying.
US customers will also be able to use this to access Netflix for full HD movie downloads - and what a killer ability that is! If you've got a wide enough internet pipe, your Blu-ray player can become your video store. It's a pity there's no similar service hooked up for us Aussies as yet, but it can't be long.
The BD370 unfortunately requires a LAN cable plugged into it before any of the internet stuff starts happening. I'm not sure who still uses LAN cables around the house - I had to spend a while digging in the old cable boxes in the basement to find one. Nonetheless, this is rectified on the recently-released BD390, a more expensive Blu-ray unit but one that comes equipped with wi-fi and a gigabyte of internal storage.
USB and network media
Another great next-gen feature included on the BD370 is the ability to play all sorts of media files, either burnt onto discs, on networked drives or through USB, which means you've got access to all your external hard drives and USB keys and any media you've got stored on there.
It handles formats like DivX, MPEG-4, MP3, WMA and JPGs - but can't do FLV. It turns out to be quite a useful feature - it lets you get all comfy on a couch or beanbag for the kind of content you'd normally need to be sitting in an office chair to watch.
Sony's Playstation 3, the dominant Blu-ray player in the market, costs about AU$700 in its most basic form. The LG BD370 goes for about AU$450 (prices can start from about USD$300 in the US). As a budget or entry-level Blu-ray player, the LG unit does a great job. Build quality seems fine (our review unit had done the rounds of the journo test circuit and still looked brand new) and the YouTube and network media playing abilities add extra dimensions of viewing fun. It's simple and a pleasure to use.
Whether you'd spend an extra AU$250 for the PS3's gaming abilities and higher-end processing hardware is up to you, but the BD370 is a quality and fun piece of gear.
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