Blu-ray Players: Tales of the Undead

It’s that time of year again when the undead walk the earth. But along with ghosts, vampires, and zombies, another partially animated entity haunts us: Blu-ray players in need of a firmware update.

The Red Screen of Death

The Blu-ray format is an evolving thing, with studios and disc producers constantly playing around with BD-Java enhancements and content-protection tweaks. That’s why (assuming your player is connected to the Internet) a window occasionally pops up when you turn on your player letting you know a firmware update is available. If you want to skip that step and watch your movie, the player will play the disc just fine in most cases. But eventually you’ll toss in one that triggers this screen: WARNING Your Blu-ray player requires an update in order to play this disc. Time to update!

Upon discovering that Fox’s recent Blu-ray release of Rio had been causing Blu-ray players right and left to choke, sputter, and gasp for a fresh firmware injection, I decided to test it on two recent players, Oppo’s BDP-93 and LG’s BD670, as well as on several older players I had kicking around. The idea was to see how prompt Blu-ray player manufacturers are in issuing firmware fixes for players old and new. Rio hit store shelves in early August, so you’d think 3 months would be plenty of time for manufacturers to get their firmware house in order, right?

As it turned out, the answer to that question was a mixed bag.

Let’s start with the older players. The group I checked out consisted of the original Sony PS3 (2006); two Samsung models, the BD-UP5000 (2007) and BD-P2550 (2008); Panasonic’s DMP-BD35 (2008); and Pioneer’s BDP-09 (2008). Here’s what I found. Both the Sony and the Panasonic models were able to load Rio without first requiring a firmware update, though the Panasonic took a poky 2 minutes-plus to do so. After updating its firmware, the Panasonic loaded the disc in a slightly speedier 1 minute, 45 seconds. My old reliable PS3, meanwhile, loaded it in just under 1 minute.

Trying to play Rio on both the Pioneer and the pair of Samsung players yielded the firmware-update warning screen. Once I updated the Pioneer, it took a full 2 minutes, 40 seconds to load the disc — about as long a wait as I’ve yet experienced with a Blu-ray. The Samsung BD-P2550, meanwhile, loaded it in about 1 minute, 30 seconds after its firmware freshening. As for the Samsung BD-UP5000, it still displayed the red warning screen of death even after I cruised through the update process. Fail!

After making sure that both the Oppo BDP-93 and LG BD670 had been loaded with each company’s latest firmware offering, I next lugged those players into my Blu-ray torture chamber and proceeded to administer the Rio test. The Oppo loaded it with no problem in around 50 seconds. The LG was also able to load Rio, although the process took around 2 minutes and it froze up several times after that point on the Fox logo screen. (I had reported in my December issue Q&A column that this player’s most recent firmware wasn’t compatible with Rio, though I eventually succeeded in getting the disc to fully load after initializing its persistent storage a few times.)

Burnt Offerings?

To wrap things up, my survey of Blu-ray players old and new indicates that most manufacturers generally keep on top of issuing firmware fixes to prevent your player from joining the legions of the walking dead. There are exceptions, however. The Samsung BD-UP5000, a 2007 model designed as a dual-format player to also handle the now thoroughly lifeless HD-DVD format, looks to be hovering in some netherworld between active duty and paperweight status. And some players — Pioneer’s BDP-09 and LG’s BD670, for example — may load certain discs so slowly you’d be liable at first to lump them with the undead.

Here’s something for your treat bag: Update your Blu-ray player’s firmware on a regular basis, and if you find that a particular disc won’t play, then harass the company’s tech support about it ASAP. You’ll be doing your own heroic part to prevent a horde of zombie electronics from dominating the earth.