Those of you who followed the format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray will probably remember LG's BH100, the first – and only – UK machine to play both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. The deck was a great idea that was badly executed, but it enabled LG to dip its toe into the hi-def water without pledging allegiance to either side. But now the war is over LG is focusing on Blu-ray with the BD300, a keenly priced BD-Live-capable player.
Despite being a 'budget' model, the BD300 certainly doesn't look cheap and nasty. The translucent front and silver strip running along the top give it a classy appearance, and the large display panel makes the crucial disc info easy to read. The fascia also sports a USB port for flash memory drives, which can either be used to store content downloaded from the internet or to play MP3, WMA and JPEG files.
The stand-out feature is, of course, BD-Live support, which is pleasing to see on a player at this price, particularly as some decks costing twice as much only stretch to BonusView support.
The rear panel is equipped with a Deep Color-capable HDMI v1.3 output and an ethernet port for hooking up to the web via an internet router. You'll also find a choice of optical and electrical digital audio outputs for regular Dolby Digital, DTS and PCM output, alongside component and composite video outputs. The lack of multichannel analogue outputs is symptomatic of cost-cutting, but you won't feel their absence unless you don't have HDMI inputs on your AV receiver.
The LG's HD audio decoding capabilities are limited to Dolby True HD and Dolby Digital Plus and it won't decode DTS HD Master Audio. That means you can turn True HD into uncompressed PCM and still enjoy the same high-quality sound, but with Master Audio it only converts the low-res 5.1 DTS core.
We're also slightly disappointed to find that the BD300 won't play DiVX HD files like its DVD stable mate, the DVS450H, but it does handle regular DiVX files as well as MP3, WMA, JPEG and AVCHD.
The most impressive aspect of this affordable deck is that it boots up from standby in under 20secs and loads Blu-ray discs in around 30secs. Given that it takes most other players about one minute to load a disc, this could be one of its most significant features.
Elsewhere it's a joy to use, mainly thanks to the excellent user interface that boasts sharp, snazzy graphics and eye-catching colours. It revolves around the Home menu, which provides access to different types of media and the set-up menu, which is slick and responsive. Also impressive are the CD and MP3 playback screens, which provide you with a graphic equaliser during playback.
The top-notch graphical user interface (GUI) is further backed up by a superb remote control. With its spot-on button placement and terrific labelling it's a breeze to use, even in the dark. In fact its only flaws are that it's on the large side and not particularly attractive.
Although our impressions of the LG's picture quality are generally positive, it's not quite in the same league as players like Pioneer's BDP-51FD or Panasonic's BD35.
For instance, when playing the HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc, it fails the important Film Resolution loss test: the deck displays excessive strobing in the corners and there's a lot of moiré noise on fine detail as the camera pans over an empty stadium.
It also fails the Diagonal Filtering test, with steep jaggies on the edges of the rotating bars; players with more competent video processing, such as the Panasonic and the Pioneer, make them look completely smooth.
But Blu-ray movie discs, such as Hellboy II: The Golden Army are more forgiving. The movie's stunning troll market scene is packed with crisply rendered detail and mind-blowing colours that make the wildly imaginative characters almost burst from the screen, and when running at 1080/24p motion is tracked without a trace of judder.
However, even with movie fare you can see the LG playing second fiddle to the superior BDP-51FD and DMP-BD35. Scenes like the tooth fairy attack or shots of Nuada's underground lair aren't as distinct as we've seen on those players, and shadow detailing isn't as convincing.
DVD playback is decent enough when viewing movies, making Gladiator, look sharp, clean and filled with natural-looking colours. Switch to more demanding test patterns, however, and it tells a different story, with rotating diagonal lines juddering wildly and showing more steps than the Empire State Building.
Sending a Dolby True HD or DTS HD Master Audio bitstream to a compatible AV receiver is the best way to hear movie sound, but pleasingly the sound is virtually indistinguishable when decoded into PCM. It's not bad as a CD player either, with those analogue stereo sockets serving up some clean, dynamic and surprisingly full-bodied music.
Let's look at the facts: for £250 you get a good-looking Blu-ray player that supports BD-Live, loads up discs in double-quick time and serves up respectable pictures. And that sounds like excellent value for money to us.
It won't give Pioneer and Panasonic anything to worry about in terms of picture quality, and you need an HDMI-equipped receiver to make the most of its audio talents, but on the whole the BD300 serves as a fantastic entrée into the world of Blu-ray.