The Game Console Option
Microsoft's and Sony's game machines offer a relatively inexpensive way to enter the world of high-def movies. While the PlayStation 3 easily beats the Xbox 360 here, neither system offers an optimal home theater experience.
If you already own an Xbox 360, the USB-connected HD DVD Player costs an additional US$200--a bargain if you're a gamer looking to play high-def movies on the cheap. But movie playback is clearly a secondary consideration on the Xbox 360. For instance, when you press the eject button on the Windows Media Center-like remote, out comes the Xbox 360's DVD drive tray; the HD DVD Player's tray remains closed. Furthermore, the Xbox 360 provides the worst picture and sound of the bunch by a wide margin, due to its analog-only component video and comparatively limited audio support.
The dramatically sloped PlayStation 3 offers a far better movie experience--though, like the Xbox 360, it won't integrate well with other electronics components in your entertainment rack. For now, the PlayStation 3 is the cheapest Blu-ray player around, even if you factor in an extra US$25 for the optional remote control. The PS3 produces terrific high-definition video, and it has some pleasing movie-centric touches--insert a movie disc into its slot-loading Blu-ray drive, and the unit powers up and starts the movie. But it also has a way of reminding you that movies aren't its main business: Slip in a disc while the unit is on, and nothing happens (you have to initiate playback manually).
Buy Now--or Tomorrow?
Even if your HDTV doesn't support 1080p resolution, any of these next-gen players will give you a huge image-quality advantage over a conventional DVD player. Our best player overall happens to be a Blu-ray player, Samsung's BD-P1000; it delivers great image quality at a more reasonable price than does the Sony BDP-S1, our best image and audio performer.
Not in a hurry to see high-def movies? I recommend waiting another six months. By then, lower-cost players will be available (Sony has announced a US$600 Blu-ray player, due out mid-year). And a clearer winner in the format war may emerge.
-- Lincoln Spector