Sharp has so far failed to set the hi-def world alight, and the BD-HP21H gets off to a bad start in the looks department, with a dour black finish.
There's a blue ring of light on the fascia that injects a bit of pizzazz, but this is a rather ugly duckling compared to its rivals.
On another negative note, it's also disappointing to learn that the rear panel lacks some of the sockets found on its predecessor, the HP20H, but to be fair, the remaining selection is no worse than most other players.
The HDMI output offers Deep Color, 1080/24p and HD audio bitstream support, and there's a set of component video outputs, too. You'll also find a USB port on the rear, but this can't be used to play back multimedia files – it's simply for uploading Virtual Package BonusView data and making firmware updates.
In fact, the deck's multimedia support is pretty useless all round. Surprisingly, it won't play MP3, DivX or WMA at all, although you can play JPEG files from CD-Rs which is scant consolation. Fortunately, DVD playback is on the menu, and the deck enables you to upscale them to 1080p for viewing on full HD TVs.
Next up on our list of gripes is the player's Profile 1.1 spec, which rules out the possibility of accessing BD-Live features. We appreciate the latter isn't for everyone, but its absence here makes the Sharp feel outdated, and will no doubt drive buyers towards the LG BD300 or Panasonic DMP-BD35.
And, as if that wasn't enough, the Sharp's audio decoding talents are also limited. All of the HD audio formats can be transferred in bitstream form to a compatible AV receiver, and Dolby True HD can be converted to LPCM, but the lack of full DTS HD Master Audio decoding means you can only convert the 5.1-channel core to LCPM.
On a more positive note, the player is exceptionally easy to use, thanks to the brilliant setup menu that uses large, legible text, cute graphics and handy explanations of each option. The remote features a really simple button layout, which makes menu control and disc playback feel like second nature.
The real coup de grâce is the Quick Start mode, which enables the player to boot up in about 15secs, making it faster to load.
Although we've been a bit hard on this player, there's no denying that its hi-def picture quality is excellent.
It reproduces fine detail with a great deal of focus, giving the image a clean and forceful quality, while tricky textures and patterns are rendered without moiré flickering. Edges, meanwhile, are so sharp you could cut your finger on them.
When playing bright, animated fare, the deck's impressive reproduction of reds, greens and blues makes the image burst from the screen with tremendous vibrancy.
Also impressive is the deck's black levels, which may not dig down to the depths of the Pioneer or Panasonic, but still lends a great deal of solidity to the picture.
Shadow detailing is also decent, ensuring that you can see folds and creases within dark items of clothing, which means they retain their three-dimensionality and don't appear like black holes.
Sonically, the Sharp is at its best when piping Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio bitstreams to a compatible amp, but there can be few complaints about the quality of PCM or CD playback through the analogue outputs, both of which are perfectly enjoyable.