What is the best Netflix device for the big screen in your house? With over 700 hundred different devices to chose from, shouldn’t it be easy to find the one offering the best Netflix experience? By the end of 2011, the Roku 2 XS had become my go-to-device for watching Netflix in the living room. It offered the best audio and video possible from Netflix streaming and supported closed captions. Now, I have a new favorite, the Panasonic DMP-BDT220 Blu-ray player ($135 at Amazon). Announced at this year’s 2012 Consumer Electronics Show and just starting to ship, it shares the same internals as the higher-end BDT320 and BDT500.
Just like the Roku 2 XS (and XD), the 2012 Panasonic Blu-rays players can access the native 1080P video streams, Dolby Digital Plus surround sound and closed captions available for select Netflix TV shows and movies. However, the BDT220 has some advantages.
To enjoy surround sound from Netflix, the Roku 2 requires a receiver with HDMI and Dolby Digital Plus. If your receiver is a few years old, you may only have digital optical (TOSLINK) and RCA inputs. The Panasonic includes a digital optical out in addition to HDMI. Over the digital optical out, the audio is downmixed to regular Dolby Digtial but still sounds good. The other advantage the Panasonic has is its ability to automatically select the Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. For some reason, the Roku requires you to go into the “Audio and Subtitles” menu for each title and manually select it.
Video is not just about resolution
Netflix picture quality is outstanding. The picture is sharp and colors are vivid but balanced. The Panasonic’s other distinguishing feature is that it can play back streaming content at 24 frames per second (fps). For the most part, movies are filmed at 24 fps, but historically TV broadcasts are at 30 fps. So, there’s all sorts of tricks that are played to map a movie’s 24 frames into TV’s 30. This conversion only causes problems during actions scenes or camera pans and creates an effect called “judder” (a jerkiness to the picture). By playing a movie back at its original frame rate of 24 fps, those artifacts are eliminated. Netflix has content encoded at 24 fps. Unlike most Blu-ray players, most streaming-only devices only output 30 fps (doubled to 60 for you geeks out there). While Panasonic can play back streaming material at its native frame rate, it’s a manual setting. The unit does not automatically set itself to the proper frame rate as it does with Blu-ray discs. Up to this point, other devices could be forced into a 24 fps mode but the setting was inconveniently placed in the device’s set up menu. Panasonic has improved on this feature by letting you control the setting from within Netflix itself. To access the feature from within Netflix on the Panasonic, press “Option” on the remote, then chose “24fps” and set to “On”.
As nice as this feature is, here’s the rub: There’s no easy way to tell if Netflix content is encoded at 24 fps or 30 fps before you start a title. In theory, movies should all be at 24 fps and TV shows at 30 fps. In reality, that’s not the case. Some TV shows were shot on film and are encoded at 24 fps. Some examples include Battlestar Galactica and Sons of Anarchy. My sources tell me that consumer electronics manufacturers should be able to implement a feature that auto-senses the frame rate and be able to output 24 fps when appropriate. (in theory the Boxee can do it but it doesn’t support 1080P in Netflix). If you do set the frame rate to 24 fps and the material was encoded at 30 fps, you’ll realize it very quickly! So, there’s still an opportunity for a company to come out with a Netflix device that automatically detects and outputs the proper frame rate of streaming content.
Netflix User Interface
From a user interface point of view, I prefer the HTML5-based user interface on the Panasonic versus the Roku. The interface is similar to the one you see on the Sony Playstation3, the Boxee and other Blu-ray payers. Netflix has the ability to update its HTML5 interface without software updates. While the Roku’s interface is fine for browsing titles, the Panasonic’s is better when you need to browse through the episodes of a TV series. The Roku produces a long sequential list that you need to scroll through. The Panasonic’s HTML5 interface break episodes up by season. Like many of you, I do prefer the earlier version of the HTML5 interface that showed more titles on the screen. The good news is that Netflix has started to restore features from earlier versions of the HTML5 interface.
3rd Generation Apple TV?
What about the just introduced third generation Apple TV? It joins a number of players that can play 1080P streams from Netflix including the Sony Playstation3, the WD TV Live as well as the Roku and Panasonic. However, the Apple TV can only play content at 30 fps like the Roku. On the audio side, it does offer Dolby Digital but not Dolby Digital Plus. What’s the difference you ask? Dolby Digital Plus provides a better sounding, more immersive surround sound experience with the same amount of network bandwidth as Dolby Digital. The opening scene of Lost’s first episode demonstrates the difference. It’s a shame that the new Apple didn’t build in the ability to handle Dolby Digital Plus. I speculate that it’s not a technology problem as much as the fact that Apple probably doesn’t want to pay additional licensing fees to Dolby.
Does the Panasonic have any disadvantages? It can take between 27 and 40 seconds to start up Netflix from the main menu and the interface could be a little snappier. Netflix starts almost instantly on the Roku or the Apple TV. The Panasonic also costs a little more than a Roku 2 or Apple TV 3. That shouldn’t be a surprise since it can also play Blu-rays. There also seems to be a bug where audio is out of sync with Netflix video. It’s been cited on AVSForum and I experienced it once. Unplugging the unit solved the problem. The BDT220 has some other quirks but most of its shortcomings can be addressed with menu tweaks. From a unit that’s just come to market, some of this is expected and a future firmware update should address it. Here’s my review and tips for the Blu-ray portion and other features of the Panasonic BDT220.
I’ll update the TOH’s central repository of Netflix device information and Netflix UI Gallery shortly.