You have a DVD player, right? Complicated machine, isn't it (he said sarcastically)? Turn it on, hit open, drop in a disc, hit play.
Have you been shopping for a Blu-ray player lately? Scan the feature list of the latest decks and you'll come away thinking that playing a movie disc may be the least important function it performs.
But this isn't a bad thing. The Blu-ray player has morphed into a device that brings a Blockbuster and a music store to your HDTV, plus can keep you in visual touch with friends and family.
Take the newest models from Panasonic, for example. In fact, I think I will.
In case you're a bit Blu-ray befuddled, Blu-ray is high definition DVD (not to be confused with the now defunct Toshiba HD-DVD format). Blu-ray decks play not only high-definition discs, but regular old DVDs and regular old CDs. Blu-ray is the highest high-definition content source there is.
But let's eliminate the illusion that Blu-ray decks are expensive. Panasonic's new entry level deck (BDT75) is $100. The top of the line Panasonic models which I'm about to explore are $200 (BDT210) and $250 (BDT310). (Both models will be available in the next few weeks, but you can pre-order the BDT210 now for $180.)
Other than playing a Blu-ray movie, you also can stream HD movies and TV from Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand (VOD), CinemaNow, Vudu and YouTube for more viewing options, Twitter for TV texting, and Pandora for internet music listening and Picasa to view all your pictures.
And, of course, you'll have access to BD Live – online content specific to each Blu-ray movie.
With this varied selection of content sources, there's no way you can say "there's nothing on."
Of course you have to connect the Blu-ray player to the internet. The BDT210 and BDT310 both include built-in WiFi, a growing and welcome trend among all manufacturers of connected HDTVs and Blu-ray players (you'll need a WiFi router to create the WiFi signal in your home, of course – contact whomever you get your high-speed internet connection from for more information).
And, the new models play back 3D Blu-ray movies, handy if and/or when you buy a new 3D HDTV (Panasonic also unveiled some gorgeous new 3D plasma HDTVs that also are the best 2D HDTVs extant, IMHO).
What the Panasonic decks are missing is Hulu Plus, which streams programs from ABC, Fox, NBC, E!, Comedy Central and others a day or two after their original broadcasts. And, no, you can't actually surf the internet on these connected boxes, so you'll still have to prop a laptop or iPad on your lap while watching TV.
Your TV as telephone
But a lot of new Blu-ray players offer these extra Internet content options. What sets the new Panasonic Blu-ray players apart is they also are video telephones.
A couple of years ago, Panasonic and LG unveiled special HDTVs that could make and receive Skype video calls with the addition of a camera/microphone array.
Here's a video from last year's CES demonstrating how Skype video works on a Panasonic HDTV:
By adding Skype video to the Blu-ray player, any HDTV can be turned into a video telephone, making it a perfect way to "visit" your grown kids and grandkids without expensive travel. Initiate or receive a Skype video call via another Skype HDTV or a PC – there's a dedicated Skype button on the Blu-ray player remote. You will need the $170 Panasonic camera/mic array for your HDTV; a cheaper camera/mic array – the Freetalk 7181 – will soon be available.
For you convenience
Aside from Skype video, two other things set these new Panasonic Blu-ray players apart from their competition.
First, they're fast – just around 15 seconds between dropping the disc into the tray to watching your movie, about twice as fast as last year's swifter models.
Plus, Panasonic has made opening and closing the tray easier. Instead of squinting to find the tiny "Open/Close" button, just wave your hand over the top of the player and the disc tray magically slides out or in.
In a few weeks, you'll also be able to download an iPhone/iPad app to control your player, another growing trend among all A/V gear makers.
I'll be ordering the BDT210 right after I post this.