Blu-ray Hits $299

The standalone Blu-ray Disc player has hit a significant milestone- Samsung's BD-P1400 is now available at $299 or less at several major retailers, including Best Buy, Amazon, and Circuit City. This makes for some fascinating comparisons with the other lower priced next-gen HD players out there. Let's take a look what your $300 or less will buy you.

The Toshiba HD-A3 is widely available at $220 or less. This player will decode Dolby Digital Plus and TrueHD, and convert it to PCM for output over HDMI. But it is limited to 1080i output. It has secondary audio and video decoders and an Ethernet port and is compatible with all current HD DVD interactivity.

On top of that, as I write this if you buy this player for $217 from Amazon you get a whopping ten free HD DVD titles with this bad boy. You read that right. 300 and Bourne Identity are in the box with the player. You select three HD DVDs from a list that includes Blood Diamond, Children of Men, Knocked Up, Serenity, The Shining, Top Gun, Disturbia, and more. These are thrown in your cart, credited and prepped for shipping. Then, you get five more HD DVD movies through a mail-in rebate.

According to Samsung's web site the BD-P1400 offers 1080p/24 and 1080p/60 output, and some degree of compatibility with Dolby Digital Plus, TrueHD and even DTS-HD MA (the latter via bitstream output over HDMI). It has an Ethernet port but is not nor ever will be compatible with advanced interactivity on Blu-ray, such as streaming PIP commentaries, BD live features, etc. A mail-in rebate for five free BD movies is included, and that list includes The Prestige, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and a number of other catalog titles.

Sony's BDP-S300 was the lowest priced standalone player for a time at around $399. That player offers 1080p/24 and 1080p/60 output but has not yet been upgraded for compatibility with multichannel Dolby TrueHD, a significant omission. It does not have any provision for bitstream output of TrueHD or DTS-HD MA. Like the Samsung it is not compatible with upcoming advanced BD interactivity. The BDP-S300 is $384 at Amazon right now, with Spider-Man 3 in the box and the same offer of five BD titles with a mail-in rebate.

Now, I saw Toshiba's HD-A30 at Best Buy on Sunday at just $299. The A30 offers 1080p/24 and 1080p/60 output, and decodes DD+ and TrueHD to PCM for output over HDMI. It has no provisions for bitstream output of TrueHD or DTS-HD MA. It also has Ethernet and is compatible with all of HD DVD's current interactivity features. Amazon currently has that player at just $249 and it also sells with the same offer for ten free movies described above.

So, obviously whichever format you choose, you can score big savings. I wonder if this is cheap enough for the mainstream press to stop whining yet. you can't buy the Apple God phone that cheap; the 80GB iPod is $249 with no free music. Heck, buy a player from each camp and start training the family. "Honey, the red packaged discs go in the Toahiba, and the Blu(e) ones go in the Samsung." (Hey, I know you think that's a joke, but it actually works at my house.)

Who knew a high-def player would be this year's bargain stocking stuffer?