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In this report

It's the Sony BPD-S5100, but only by a nose

Some Blu-ray players have slightly better image quality (at least as measured on a test bench), some will have better or better-implemented features, and some Blu-ray players will cost less. However, expert and user reviews say that the Sony BDP-S5100 hits the sweet spot between picture quality, overall performance, extras and value.

Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity provides the most exhaustive review of the BDP-S5100 and provides a largely positive assessment. Like virtually every Blu-ray player at any price point, Blu-ray Disc picture quality is unbeatable with the vast majority of content. Chris Heinonen finds some test-bench shortfalls, but adds that what's seen won't show up when watching standard program content. Other reviewers simply say that Blu-ray image quality is outstanding. The same is true on the DVD side of things; though the BDP-S5100 can't provide detail that's not recorded on a DVD to begin with, those standard-definition discs are made to look as good as the current state of the art will allow.

Heinonen notes that loading performance is "very fast compared to most players," though it's not the fastest on the planet. Streaming performance is excellent, though some take issue with Sony's Xross Media Bar menu system, which is starting to strain under the weight of the ever-growing number of available apps. While user reports of Wi-Fi issues are not unheard of, Sony's built-in Wi-Fi seems to work exceptionally well. The number of content partners is smaller than what's available from some competitors, but all the major ones -- and lots of the not-so-major ones -- are well accounted for. The Sony TV SideView app lets you use a mobile device to control your player. It's more sophisticated than similar apps from other makers, but only some reviewers are impressed enough to care.

While we give the Sony BDP-S5100 the crown as the best Blu-ray player for this year, it's not without some very, very close competition. The most compelling alternative is the Samsung BD-F5900 (Est. $120) . The major leg up that this Samsung Blu-ray player has over the Sony is Samsung's Smart Hub streaming platform -- widely regarded to be the best streaming platform built into consumer gear such as Blu-ray players and TVs this year. Content is comprehensive and then some, with virtually every streaming provider present and accounted for. There's also an app store where you can get a bevy of TV-optimized mobile-device-like apps. The interface is both updated and well liked. User feedback is equally strong as for the Sony BDP-S5100, but the one professional review we spotted gives the BD-F5900 only middling ratings despite this player's strong video performance. Home Theater Magazine's David Vaughn's biggest gripes are with noisy disc loading and a remote that could have better ergonomics. He still gives the Samsung Blu-ray player a qualified recommendation, however: "While it falls short of a Top Pick in this price class due to the aforementioned issues, its friendly user interface and wide variety of streaming options still make it a viable option for the budget-conscious consumer."

Other players in this class to consider include the Panasonic DMP-BDT230 (Est. $120) and the LG BP530 (Est. $120) . PCMag.com gives the DMP-BDT230 an Editors' Choice award. Picture quality and speed are both very good, but Will Greenwald nicks up the player a bit for a sluggish and awkward interface. Chris Heinonen, who reviews the Sony Blu-ray player for Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity, looks at the LG BP530 on his personal site, Reference Home Theater. He gives a clear edge to the Sony BDP-S5100 as the best Blu-ray player. His gripes with the BP530 include DVD playback that's a step behind, as well as some issues with lockups while playing Blu-ray Discs. It's worth noting, however, that user feedback on the LG and Panasonic players is on a par with the Sony and Samsung players above -- and all four rate much better with owners than Blu-ray players of past years.

All of the Blu-ray players discussed thus far are 3D capable. For those without a 3D TV -- and with no plans to get one in the foreseeable future -- a standard Blu-ray player without 3D might seem to be more appropriate. The issue lies in value. Case in point is the Sony BDP-S3100 (Est. $110) , which sells for only $10 less than the step-up BDP-S5100. For that cost, you give up any chance that you can change your mind regarding 3D without needing to also upgrade your disc player, along with a few minor features such as SACD support and an on-player display. On the other hand, if none of that is an issue for you, the BDP-S3100 is every bit as capable in playing back Blu-ray Discs and DVDs as its big brother.

Step-down players from other makers save more, but ask you to give up more in return. For example, the Samsung BD-F5100 (Est. $70) costs $50 less than the BD-F5900, but removes the built-in Wi-Fi, and getting a Wi-Fi transmitter will eat up a bit of the savings. Most of those who opt for the BD-F5100 won't want to bother, however, because also gone is Samsung's outstanding streaming platform, replaced with streaming from just three providers -- Netflix, Pandora and YouTube. When it comes to spinning discs, however, performance seems to be just fine. No professional reviewers have weighed in, but user reviews at sites like BestBuy.com (where more than 95 percent of owners say they would recommend the BD-F5100) show high satisfaction.

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Samsung BD-F5900 3D Wi-Fi Blu-ray Disc Player (2013 Model)
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