For the Sony BDP-S490 Sony has kept faith with the Xross Media Bar layout for its main menu system, which operates smoothly enough but st starting to show its limitations. The menu uses two rows of intersecting icons, the horizontal row showing the categories with the corresponding options in the vertical axis.
This is fine when there are a small number of items to display, but in the case of the Sony Entertainment Network and its extensive content, the line of options is rather long, which means it takes a long time to reach certain services. Thankfully stuff like BBC iPlayer and Demand 5 are placed near the top.
That aside, it’s a slick, attractive interface. Each web service is accompanied by its logo and it even displays the name and principal actors of the disc you’re watching. There are Video, Music and Photo options, and in each case it lists all the devices containing that type of content. The setup menu initially seems more abstract than usual, but it’s comprehensive and sets up the key functions using useful step by step guides. It also skates smoothly from option to option without any hesitation.
During playback you can hit the Display button to view the video and audio formats, bitrates, chapter, elapsed time and output resolution. Another Options button brings up a sidebar menu that provides quick access to often-used functions, such as title and chapter search and Video settings. With the latter you can select from three picture presets (Standard, Brighter Room and Theatre Room) or apply black and mosquito noise reduction (three incremental settings in each case).
The remote is shorter than your average zapper, which means Sony has stripped the button count right down. It’s sensibly laid out too, with the all-important direction pad in the centre with Return in easy reach. The playback keys at the bottom and large blue keys for Home and SEN are thoughtfully placed. A great effort.
The deck’s Quickstart feature means loading times are fast – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King started playing in 25 seconds, while the trickier Terminator Salvation disc took 43 seconds.
The next platter in the tray was Silicon Optix’ HQV evaluation disc, and the BDP-S490 does a decent job with its demanding test patterns. The Film Resolution Loss test exposed its only weakness, making the vertically striped boxes strobe slightly, but not quite as violently as some decks we’ve tested. The diagonal filter (jaggies) and Video Resolution Loss tests were both handled with the utmost composure and clarity.
Moving to 2D movie playback, Return of the King on Blu-ray looks stunning. Lavish detail, vibrant yet natural colours and crisp edge resolution makes the picture effortlessly inviting, supplying the wow factor that makes Blu-ray so special. The film’s epic action is tracked without any judder issues, while noise is completely absent and dark scenes (like those set on the outskirts of Mordor) are bolstered by dense blacks and excellent contrast, which allows shadow detail to punch through.
But with any high-definition source it’s the detail that really grabs you, and the BDP-S490 lets none of it slip through its grasp. The movie’s sumptuous CG images are spectacularly sharp, particularly the sweeping shots of Minas Tirith as Gandalf rides his horse towards the castle, or the part where Gollum climbs up the side of a mountain – the texture and shading on the rock face is remarkably lucid. This results in a dazzling, poised picture that seems three-dimensional even without the aid of the active shutter system.
But grab yourself some glasses and you’re in for an even bigger treat, as the deck’s 3D picture quality is superb. The 3D edition of Avatar offers up rich, entrancing images, brought to vivid life by the BDP-S490. During the ‘First Sortie’ chapter, shots of the helicopter touching down in the Pandoran rainforest boast wonderful depth, with crisply composed layers that make it look like the picture extends far into the TV screen. Colours are radiant and the razor sharp detail boosts the sense of immersion.
The quality of web-streamed video is a revelation. Videos from BBC iPlayer are sharp and solidly coloured, with only a little pixel fuzz here and there to remind you that you’re not watching a live broadcast.
Impressions of the BDP-S490’s audio talents are boosted considerably by the inclusion of SACD playback, which sounds fabulous, but the deck also makes high-bitrate MP3s and CDs sound great.
The BDP-S490 is a highly impressive Blu-ray player available at a great price, but just three things prevent it reaching top marks – the lack of built-in Wi-Fi, its refusal to play DivX and a menu system that’s starting to creak under the weight of Sony’s growing number of internet apps, making it a hassle to reach certain services.
But those things aside it gets everything right – excellent internet content, hassle-free DLNA streaming, generous socketry, an arresting design and entrancing Blu-ray pictures in 2D and 3D. As a result, it’s hard not to like the BDP-S490, but those seeking built-in Wi-Fi might be tempted to check out similarly priced rivals from LG or Samsung, or step up to the BDP-S590.