What a difference a year makes. Last year, this guide was about Blu-ray players; this year, while a majority of the devices mentioned still handle Blu-ray discs, only one lacks Wi-Fi as a standard feature (and it's still available as an add-on option). The transition to streaming video via these wireless connections and apps from Netflix, Amazon and others as a mainstream component of living room viewing is underway, and big names like Apple and Google are involved in furthering that development. These players are a good place to start if you want to bring some 21st-century technology to your recipients' living rooms.
It isn't the holy grail of next-generation video devices, but it's closer to that than previous iteration of Apple TV. For starters, it's priced right for more mainstream success, comes with built-in Wi-Fi, and is much, much smaller than its predecessors. While it still hopes you rely on iTunes for your video rentals, it acknowledges the broader world of Internet entertainment by letting you stream Netflix videos for a monthly subscription fee. The new AirPlay feature, which will let you streaming content from your iPhone or iPad to your HDTV via Apple TV, could help make up for the lack of other built-in streaming media options (Pandora, Rhapsody, et all.)
Apple haters have a compelling -- and cheaper -- option in a streaming media device in the form of the Roku XD. For $20 cheaper, you get the same built-in Wi-Fi and Netflix streaming, but you also get 1080p support, plus a slew of additional streaming app options like Amazon, Pandora and MLB.tv -- though not YouTube. Have an older TV? Pay even less for the Roku HD, which eschews 1080p playback. Want even more? Spend as much as you would for the Apple TV with the Roku XDS, and you'll get dual-band Wi-Fi, USB port, and component-video output.
The first Blu-ray player with Google TV baked in, the NSZ-GT1 costs a bundle, but for the extra $100 over a Logitech Revue Google TV box, you get Blu-ray capabilities. You also get built-in Wi-Fi (no USB-based dongle needed), support for streaming-video apps from Netflix, Amazon, and Sony's own Qrocity, and keypad/mouse input device for search or messaging functions. Select Android based phones can double as remote controls for the devices, and you'll be able to download Android apps starting early next week.
Not everyone cares about, or can afford, streaming media or Google TV. For those you just want a basic Blu-ray player that gives you the option to go wireless in the future, there's the Samsung BD-C5500. It provides sterling Blu-ray image quality, and features Samsung's new and improved interface. You can buy a Wi-Fi dongle to connect to the player's USB port, which gives you access to streaming apps like Netflix, Vudu, and Pandora and lets you stream media files from your home network via its DNLA compliance.
If you prefer to buy your Blu-ray player as part of a home theater system, this Sony set has pretty much everything you need. The 5.1 system (complete with wireless rear speakers) delivers excellent sound quality, along with a 3D-ready Blu-ray player that comes with a USB Wi-Fi dongle to give you wireless access to streaming media services from Netflix and Amazon. The only negative is that the BDV-E770W lacks any HDMI inputs, but if you don't plan to hook up a gaming console to it, then you have the complete package for watching and listening to movies on your HDTV.