Sony may be the "face" of Blu-ray, but the company's standalone Blu-ray players have been a step behind those of Panasonic, LG, and Samsung, which featured extensive streaming media functionality early in 2009. The Sony BDP-N460 is Sony's attempt at catch-up, released just a month before the holiday season and Netflix-enabled a few weeks afterward. Yes, the BDP-N460 is overdue, but it's largely worth the wait, with a suite of streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Video On-Demand, YouTube, Slacker, and NPR) that challenges the media-rich LG BD390 at a substantially lower price. The BDP-N460 can't compete with the BD390 when it comes to hardware features, though; it's missing built-in Wi-Fi, onboard storage, multichannel analog outputs and media streaming over your home network. The PS3 Slim is also available for about a hundred dollars more, which is worth it if you want a high-def gaming console and media streamer. Still, the BDP-N460 offers a compelling combination of streaming functionality and solid Blu-ray playback at a more affordable price, making is a strong choice for buyers on a budget.
The BDP-N460 nearly copies the design of Sony's entry-level BDP-S360. The majority of the front panel is made of glossy black plastic. It has a sleek look, without a visible disc tray and only two buttons on the far right that are slightly raised. The front panel automatically flips down when you hit eject, revealing the disc tray. The "hidden" disc tray helps the BDP-N460 keep a sleek look--and it's less clunky than the Samsung BD-P1600's flipdown design--but we wonder how smoothly the mechanism will work two years down the road.
The LCD display is on the small side, although still readable from seven feet back. Thankfully it can be dimmed or turned off completely, although there's no way to dim the light above the Blu-ray logo. The front panel design is rounded out by a handy USB port in the far right bottom corner for quick hookups.
We usually don't have much to say about the design of a Blu-ray player's back panel, but the BDP-N460's unusual USB port is worth pointing out. The port is recessed into the unit, surrounded by black plastic, and the small opening won't accommodate some of the fatter USB thumbdrives you might have lying around.
The included remote has a great layout and simple design, except it lacks an open/close button for the disc tray. Not having an eject button is a pet peeve of ours, and if you're used to popping open the disc tray before you get off the couch to change discs, you'll find it as frustrating as we did. Of course, you can always opt for a quality universal remote to get around this issue, as the BDP-N460 is capable of receiving an open/close IR command.
User interface and streaming media services
The BDP-N460 uses an XMB-based interface, similar to what's used on the PS3. The main categories are Setup, Photo, Music, Video and Network. It's not completely straightforward; we expected streaming media services to be under Network, for example, but instead they were categorized by their media type. (The Network category apparently is only used to activate some streaming features.) We also would have liked to have seen a simple icon for "Watch Movie" for tech neophytes; instead you have to click on the user-unfriendly phrase "BD-ROM."
We usually don't go into detail on Netflix streaming when we review Blu-ray players, since the interface is usually the same across devices, but Netflix on the BDP-N460 is somewhat different. Instead of large movie covers arranged horizontally, five of which are visible at once, the BDP-N460 displays 18 small movie covers at a time. In most cases this is a plus, as it's easier to quickly cycle through your instant queue, especially if you have a lot of titles in there. On the other hand, sometimes the movie covers are just too small. "Broken Flowers" wasn't legible from our seven foot seating distance on a 50-inch TV--we didn't know what movie it was until the cursor was over it and the movie titled displayed below.
Sony's Netflix interface also handles fast-forward and rewind differently. Other devices typically show still thumbnail images indicating where you are in the movie, but the BDP-N460 just has a scrub bar at the bottom with no thumbnails, which makes it hard to find your favorite scene. We also noticed that the overall streaming video quality seemed to be slightly worse than we're used to seeing. We saw more "jerky" playback than we're used to seeing on other players; normally we find all Netflix-enabled devices have about the same video quality. That being said, it's always difficult to isolate whether the problems are due to network inconsistency or due to the player.
While we don't find most of YouTube's content to be "couch-friendly," it's worth pointing out that YouTube does have some premium movies and TV shows. However, when we streamed "Supersize Me," the image quality left a lot to be desired, even on a documentary where image quality isn't a primary concern. "Wallace & Gromit" looked a little better, but still it's only borderline watchable on a TV-size screen. One big plus is we found that aspect ratio was typically handled correctly, which gives it a leg up over the integrated YouTube service on the competing Panasonic DMP-BD60 and LG BD390.
Sony also offers choice titles from the company's movie studio for streaming, and our review sample allowed us to stream "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" before it was out on Blu-ray or DVD for free. (Without the promotion, the rental costs $25!). Image quality was excellent on this stream, on par with the best streams we've seen from Amazon and Netflix. Sony also had three free movies available at the time of review ("Ghostbusters," "Muppets in Space," and "Steamboy"). It's a nice treat, but we wouldn't count on this being a consistent source of content.