The Best Netflix Device for the Living Room

March 13, 2012
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Panasonic DMP-BDT220: The Best Netflix Player

Panasonic DMP-BDT220

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.

Audio

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.

Netflix Opening Screen on the Panasonic DMP-BDT220

Netflix Opening Screen on the Panasonic DMP-BDT220

Browsing TV seasons on Netflix's HTML5 interface

Browsing TV seasons on Netflix's 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.

What I do like about Netflix on the Apple TV is its user interface for browsing titles. I’ve always liked the way it suggests content when you are looking a particular TV show or movie. If you keep all of your music, photos and videos in iTunes (and now iCloud), the Apple TV is a great choice. It’s just not my number one choice for a Netflix device because of its minor audio and video shortcomings.

Conclusion

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.

Finally, in addition to Netflix, the Panasonic offers a great selection of streaming services including Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Cinema Now and VUDU. The only significant service missing from the Panny is HBO GO. Alternatively, the Roku supports HBO GO and has a better Amazon Instant Video player as it offers surround sound. Unfortunately, the Amazon player on the Panasonic is limited to stereo. I’m waiting to hear if there’s an upgrade in the works.

 

VieraCast on 2012 Panasonic Blu-ray Players

Streaming services on 2012 Panasonic Blu-ray Players

Another Netflix device worth looking at is the WD Live TV. I haven’t tested it but it supports all of the premium Netflix features including 1080P and surround sound. It has lots of other streaming services but no Amazon Instant.

 

To wrap up, the good news is there’s a lot of devices now offering premium Netflix features in 2012. If you’re looking for a great Netflix player that can also play Blu-rays, the Panasonic DMP-BDT220 is for you. With its superb audio and video performance, the DMP-BDT220 is now my go to Netflix player in the living room. However, 2012 is young and the battle for best Netflix experience is far from over. There’s still offerings from LG and Vizio’s $99 Google TV box coming out. Also, I’m sure there’s another firmware upgrade for the Roku 2 right around the corner.

I’ll update the TOH’s central repository of Netflix device information and Netflix UI Gallery shortly.

 

Tags: Amazon, Apple TV, Dolby, HBO, LG, Netflix, Panasonic, Playstation3, Roku, streaming, surround

9 Responses to The Best Netflix Device for the Living Room

  1. Craig on March 14, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    Can anyone confirm that the lower/lowest end model of the 2012 Panasonic Blu-Rays (DMP-BD77) also has a 1080p Netflix client…seems like a good deal for a $100 player. Too good to be true?

    (Sorry to double post…I asked in the “Is 1080p Netflix COming to my Device” thread..)

    • Gabe Gagliano on March 14, 2012 at 12:17 pm

      Hi Craig,

      No problem. I’m waiting to hear back from Panasonic on this question. I know it doesn’t have the same set of VieraCast apps. I don’t know if the Netflix app is different or not yet. Soon as I know, you will know.

      Gabe

      • Craig on March 15, 2012 at 12:10 am

        Thanks for looking into it Gabe. You rock!

  2. Mike Plone on March 14, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Hey Gabe,

    Any word from Panasonic if their 2011 models (specifically the DMP-BDT310) would be getting 1080p Netflix functionality?

    Thanks,
    Mike

  3. Mike on March 21, 2012 at 9:45 am

    I prefer the PS3.

  4. Bob on May 6, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Setup: DMP-BDT220, Denon AVR-1312, Samsung LN40D550, using (eventually) 4ft and 8ft Monoprice 24awg cables (well within HDMI’s recommended limit of 5 meters of cable length (yes, I know, longer unboosted runs are possible).

    When I first connected the player, it would snow and drop video intermittently. I returned it and got a second unit…same thing. I got a third unit…same thing. Needless to say, I was ready to tell Panasonic to stuff this thing. However, in the interest of knowing what the point of failure was, I embarked on some meticulous troubleshooting.

    I first improved the cables from the 26awg, ferrite cored cables that I was using to the 26awg cables mentioned previously. This had no effect.

    I/we then discovered (with the help of a friend whose setup we used to verify the symptom as unique to the player) that in the player video settings, the player CANNOT be left to auto-detect resolution, as the amp and the television are also trying to discover resolution.

    After forcing the player resolution to 1080p, all video and audio problems disappeared.

    Now I just have to figure out why my television is dropping frames during 24p playback, whether disc or Netflix…arrrgh.

  5. JOSE PONCE on July 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    My new 05/20/2012 Panasonic Blu Ray 3D / Md. DMP-BDT220 freezes up while watching 1/2 of the Netfix movie. Unable to reconnect to watch the second half of the movie. BIG BUMMER !
    Please advise.

    Thx

  6. Clinton on July 10, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Thanks for the review. Can anyone tell me what the search function is like in the Netflix app for this player? We are looking for a Netflix player that allows you to search on more than just titles. For example, if I want to search by actor and pull up all movies he/she are in. Does this player allow for that in Netflix?

  7. James Lee on February 27, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    Hi! there

    Can anybody tell me whether the Panasonic DMP-BDT220 supports Hulu Plus closed captions. I have a Apple TV but does not support Hulu Plus closed captions. I know the BDT220 supports closed captions on Netflix but how about Hulu Plus?
    Any reply is greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance. From James Lee

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