The differences between different models are often minor; every manufacturer supports a difference suite of streaming-media services and they all pretty much look the same. And a lot of the information you need to make an informed choice isn't readily apparent by browsing the placards at a local retailer.
Luckily, you can narrow your choices quite a bit by asking the right questions. We've isolated the most important features, and once you've made your picks, you should be to make an informed choice from just a handful of players.
1. Do you need built-in Wi-Fi?
If you don't need Wi-Fi, you'll be able to get by with an entry-level player from a major manufacturer, which will probably cost you a little over $100. If you need Wi-Fi, you'll have to step up to a player that's closer to $150.
2. Are you a gamer?
This is an easy one. If you're a gamer, the Sony PS3 Slim is still the best value, since you get a solid Blu-ray player, media streaming, and high-def gaming console in one box. If you're not a gamer, you're probably better off with a standalone player, which is easier to use for nontechies and works with a universal remote without the need for an adapter.
3. Which streaming services do you need?
Blu-ray players these days are as much about the streaming services as they are about disc playback. Each manufacturer has its own suite of services, so you want to make sure you get a player that supports the services you'll actually use. It's also worth delving into our reviews to check out the user interface for each manufacturer; we tend to think LG and Panasonic players offer the best overall streaming experience.
Beyond these basic questions, we've got a few additional tips to put you on the right path:
Skip the extra features
Most of the other bonus features you'll see promoted (2D-to-3D conversion, dual HDMI outputs, onboard memory) aren't worth considering. The 2D-to-3D conversion almost always looks bad, the advantages of dual HDMI outputs are minor (unless you have a projector), and onboard memory is only useful for BD-Java extra features that are almost never worth watching. Most Blu-ray players are 3D-compatible already, but there's not enough content available to make it a feature we'd look for. In short, don't put a lot of consideration in these features when shopping.
Don't worry about image quality We've tested a lot of Blu-ray players over the years, but nearly all modern Blu-ray players put out a nearly identical image on Blu-ray movies. In fact, only the Philips BDP5506/F7 had noticeably inferior image quality compared with other players this year in our image quality tests. Unless you're dealing with a giant projector screen where you may see some differences with a premium player like the Oppo BDP-83, you'll be perfectly fine with a Blu-ray player from a major manufacturer.
Don't let them sell you an HDMI cable in the store
We can't say it enough: all HDMI cables are the same, so buy a cheap one from an online retailer. The expensive cables in the store aren't worth it, no matter what your salesperson might tell you.
Look out for holiday deals
And of course all this advice goes at the window if there's a great deal to be had. At moment I'm writing this guide, the excellent LG BD670 (built-in Wi-Fi, excellent streaming services) is available for just $110 from Amazon--the same price as the Ethernet-only LG BD650.
CNET's Blu-ray player resources
In addition to our reviews of specific models, there's also lots of great Blu-ray player resources right here on CNET: our best Blu-ray players list, in-depth comparison spreadsheet and direct comparison of the major manufacturers' streaming suites.