"These below-$200 price points are great for sales, but what happens six months from now? Will Blu-ray become a commodity?"--Matthew
Just one year ago, HD DVD was selling tons of $99 players, Blu-ray players cost an unreasonable $400 or more, and we were advising buyers to hold off going Blu because the format wasn't quite ready yet. Now we're already wondering if Blu-ray is a commodity. It's a great illustration of how far the technology has come in just one year.
When a product is referred to as a commodity, that generally means that the differences between brands is so small that buyers treat all brands as essentially the same. For example, many would consider DVD players a commodity, and to a large extent we'd agree--aside from high-end models that offer exceptional DVD playback, most people don't care about the differences between players. That's why we've mostly stopped reviewing them.
If you look at our ratings for standalone Blu-ray players, it's easy to see that we clearly don't think Blu-ray is a commodity yet. Not all players are Profile 2.0 compliant, many don't have onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, operation speed still varies significantly, and quite a few players don't have perfect video quality when outputting a standard 1080p signal. While it's arguable that the average consumer doesn't care about those aspects, we feel it's pretty safe to say buyers will prefer the Panasonic DMP-BD35 to the Insignia NS-BRDVD.
That being said, we generally feel like there's less room for differentiation on Blu-ray than there was on DVD, especially for video quality. Even the "worst" Blu-ray playback looks very good, and the major deficiency that we do see--players incorrectly handling film material when outputting a 1080p at 60 frames per second--has been figured out by brand-name manufacturers. It's only a matter of time before that trickles down to bargain players, and then they'll all have nearly identical image quality. Audio quality is the same story. Using the HDMI output, we don't hear any differences in audio quality between the players.
Manufacturers seem to be aware of this, which may be why we've seen recent Blu-ray players add streaming services, like Netflix and Pandora, to further differentiate themselves. These extra features don't necessarily have anything to do with Blu-ray, but it's a lot easier to justify the cost of a new Blu-ray player if you're also getting access to Netflix. We'd also like to see standalone Blu-ray players add Wi-Fi to the feature set, as most people don't have Ethernet access in their living rooms. (The PS3, of course, already has WiFi.) We're also seeing Blu-ray itself being used as a differentiating feature, such as the handful of Blu-ray HTIBs released in 2008. Don't be surprised to see home theater systems with built-in Blu-ray hitting the $500-and-below price point in 2009, with Blu-ray listed as merely another check mark under features.
In short, it seems unavoidable that standard Blu-ray playback is going to be a commodity in the near future. Manufacturers will try and differentiate the players with additional features, and who knows, maybe they'll even push for new technology like Deep Color or 3D on Blu-ray to keep the profit margins high. The good news for buyers is that it won't be long until they can expect basically any Blu-ray player to offer a consistent user experience.