Philips Blu-ray player proves competitive

The Philips BDP9000 is the second dedicated Blu-ray Disc set-top player to hit the market, following Samsung's BD-P1000, which released last summer. I looked at a shipping version of the US$899 (AUD$1131, as of 12/21/06) Philips device and found that it offers a sleeker design and has more well-rounded functionality than the Samsung does.

The BDP9000, which is about the same size as a standard DVD player, sports a glossy, piano-black finish. The front features a soft blue light that illuminates the top and sides of the drive tray. An LCD on the front shows disc information; the memory card slots, as well as the (too-small) buttons necessary to operate the unit sans remote, hide under a flip-down door on the bottom of the unit.

The player's sharp design extends beyond its hardware. Compared with the Samsung, its menus are better organized. The home screen has friendly navigation menus to adjust options like audio output and display, with clearly readable selections that don't overwhelm you with choices. One of the screens -- for speaker setup -- is even graphical, with audio prompts to help you test your speaker arrangement. And if something isn't clear from the menus, you'll likely find the answer in the generous, well-crafted manuals.

The BDP9000 can play back videos on Blu-ray Discs or DVDs (it upconverts standard-definition DVDs to 1080p via HDMI); music on audio CDs or MP3 files on CD or DVD; and JPEG pictures stored on DVD or CD. Unlike the Samsung, it also has a dual-slot CompactFlash, Memory Stick, and SD Card media reader, and it can play back MP3s and JPEGs from media cards.

Blu-ray Disc movies looked vibrant and sharp -- as expected on a Pioneer Elite FHD1 50-inch plasma screen, the TV I used to view the movies. In my casual hands-on trials, disc-startup time was reasonable, but occasionally I noticed a delay as I switched scenes in the middle of the movie.

The unit's limited audio codec support depends on how you output from the player to the TV. For example, it supports Blu-ray Disc playback of 2- and 6-channel PCM audio, but not 5.1-channel Dolby Digital (which is supported over analog but not HDMI). If you want to hear a rousing movie soundtrack in its full multichannel glory using audio codecs other than those supported on-board, you'll need to output audio as bitstream, to an HDMI 1.2-capable receiver that can decode the raw audio signal stored on the disc.

The comfortable ergonomic remote has responsive buttons that I found easy to navigate once I familiarized myself with the layout (several buttons were smaller than I had expected). The bookmarks button -- a standard feature of Toshiba's competing HD DVD player -- offers to save up to ten favorite marks for a disc. Unfortunately, unlike the Toshiba version, the feature in the Philips unit worked only while a disc was inserted; once you take your movie out of the player, you won't be able to jump right back to your favorite scene.

With its sophisticated look, easy navigation, and support for CDs, MP3s, DVDs, and flash media cards, Philips's BDP9000 is a well-designed challenger to the Samsung in the Blu-ray player market.

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