While real-world performance is still excellent, there is one important distinction this year, and it's a fairly sinister one. Buy this Blu-ray player and you will be subject to advertising over and above what is already in your media, including undefeatable video ads when browsing for new apps. While most people are used to seeing ads on cable and in free apps, this is one of the first times it's been used to bolster the profits from a home theater product. And advertising aside, the menu system can be confusing at times.
By contrast, Sony's BDP-S5100 ($90 street) player not only offers a simpler interface, but also has more apps, costs less, and doesn't subject you to advertising. If I were buying a Blu-ray player today, I'd buy the Sony instead.
When Blu-ray players first emerged they were large hulking beasts, both overengineered and overpriced. But as the prices have fallen away unfortunately so have the cosmetics. Last year, the BDT220 had an attractive drop-down flap that covered the front of the player, but on the BDT230 the flap is gone. The player may be trapezoidal in shape, and in this way closely mimic the Sony BDP-S790, but the Panasonic is fairly drab-looking in comparison with both the previous model and the Sony. The Panasonic's top is gunmetal-gray steel, and juxtaposed against the black plastic of the rest of the machine, it gives the player a slightly mismatched look.
Last year, Sony's BDP-S790 was an excellent player, but, though nifty, its capacitive buttons were easily activated by accident. The Panasonic with its hard buttons is preferable, even if the buttons themselves are small and nubby.
So let's talk about that menu system, shall we? The Panasonic offers three different menus and menu styles with the main page, Viera Connect and the Marketplace. None of them operates like the others and the first two are the worst offenders in the ease-of-use stakes. Though the menu system hasn't changed much since last year, our thinking on it has.
CNET Executive Editor John Falcone said he found the menu system to be like a "Choose Your Own Adventure"; I prefer the term "mystery meat navigation" -- you never know where each icon will take you. While you will learn how to get to everything, the Blu-ray's competitors are much easier to use. Let's take an example of how befuddling this player can be. If you want to play Pandora, say, you'd think clicking "Music" might take you there, but instead it's Network, then Network Services, which sounds more like a settings page.
The worst thing about the menus is the advertising that appears, and it's not subtle -- from startup to the Viera Connect interface to the Marketplace banner, ads are everywhere, and in that last case you even have to put up with a video ad. While it's possible that Panasonic could remove this capability with later firmware, the latest version seems to have added more ads.
I did find that you can move the Sponsored Ad on the front page of Viera Connect to the back of the interface, but most users won't go through the trouble and will continue to see the ads. Also speaking of usability, the Marketplace doesn't indicate if you have already installed an app, which is a little frustrating.
Lastly, the remote control is compact and features most of the buttons you'll need. One minor annoyance is that it's very easy to accidentally hit the Netflix button instead of up, leaving you to wait around 30 seconds while it boots up.
Given there's only about a $30 difference between a "cheap" player and a "high-end" Blu-ray player from the major manufacturers, why would you bother getting one without features? The Panasonic is fairly well stocked at the top of the company's lineup, including Miracast support, which enables screen mirroring from supported devices. (On the other hand, mirroring didn't work well in our tests -- more on that later.)