In February 2008, after an 18 month high definition disc format war, a clear winner had finally emerged. Following a series of unfavourable announcements for Toshiba early in 2008, the company decided to pull the plug on its HD DVD format. Sony’s rival Blu-ray format officially became the next generation HD disc format. During the next few years, Blu-ray will stride to eventually replace the aging DVD format. The end of this format war is fantastic news for both consumers and the audio video industry as a whole. Now, the consumers no longer have to choose sides and the industry can focus on the development and promotion of the new high definition disc format. But as consumer awareness about Blu-ray grows, questions will be asked: How much better do movies look and sound in the Blu-ray format compared to standard DVDs? Just as importantly, are Blu-ray players ready for the prime time?
Standard DVDs have entertained us with their picture quality, surround sound and ease-of-use for years now. But with our hunger for increasing TV sizes, the shortcomings of standard DVDs have become noticeable. When displayed on a 42-inch or larger TV, the standard DVD picture begins to look soft and shows few details. The 480p resolution (720 by 480 pixels) of standard DVDs can only be blown up to a certain size screen before the picture starts to loose its sharpness. The Blu-ray format offers a 1080p resolution (1920 by 1080 pixels), which contains nearly six times the number of pixels to define the picture. This extra number of pixels translates into a much sharper picture that contains many more details. The benefits become particularly noticeable on larger displays. Will an average viewer notice the improved picture quality of a movie on a Blu-ray disc? Yes, they certainly should! The first benefit that most people notice is the additional amount of picture detail. A high definition picture can contain very fine details such as wrinkles on an actor’s face, the textures of fabrics and even the individual hairs on a person’s head.
The development of a new high definition disc format also paved the road for higher quality audio. Four new high resolution audio formats are available on Blu-ray titles: Dolby Digital Plus, DTS HD, Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. The latter two formats are lossless, which means they produce sound that is bit-for-bit identical to the studio master. These new audio formats are capable of producing fuller, more immersive sound that is much closer to the original performance.
In addition to improved video and audio, the Blu-ray format offers new navigation and interactive features. Advanced navigation allows fully graphical movie menus to be superimposed over a movie while it’s still running, rather than having to pause the movie to display menus as standard DVDs currently do. Future Blu-ray players will come equipped with an Ethernet port which will allow them to connect to the internet and download firmware (software) updates for the player. Future Blu-ray movie releases will allow the user to download extra audio and video content, movie trailers, game demos and other similar add-ons.
Something that a lot of consumers don’t realize is that the picture quality of Blu-ray discs can be substantially better than HD satellite and HD digital cable. A number of picture artifacts (deficiencies) are visible in satellite and digital cable HD channels. The most annoying of these is the “boxing” artifact which presents itself as a series of different sized boxes in large parts of the picture. These artifacts are caused by data compression required to send the signal over these mediums. Fortunately, the Blu-ray discs don’t suffer from these artifacts, instead they produce a crystal clear HD picture.
So by now, you may be convinced that you need a Blu-ray player. But should you be jumping at purchasing a player right away? Well, there are several factors that should be considered.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first consideration for most consumers is the price. Blu-ray players start at about $400 for an entry-level player, which is still a substantial premium over standard DVD players. Of course, Blu-ray movies are also significantly more expensive than standard DVD releases, they range somewhere between $20 for older catalogue titles to nearly $40 for new releases.
A healthy number of Blu-ray players are available in stores today from manufacturers including Pioneer, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, Denon and Sharp. Aside from these players, the Sony PlayStation 3 video gaming system has a built-in Blu-ray player. It is likely that later this year we’ll also see Blu-ray players from Onkyo, Integra, LG and other manufacturers.
Virtually all Blu-ray players output 1080p video and up-convert regular DVDs to the 1080p resolution. In order to get 1080p video from the player, you’ll need to use an HDMI cable between the player and your display. How well a player performs the up-conversion of standard DVDs can vary noticeably between players.
Audio decoding is still a bit of a mixed bag with Blu-ray players however. Some models decode all the new audio formats but many decode only some of the formats. The latest high-end models can send the bitstream version of all the new audio formats to an A/V receiver for decoding, which is preferred by most home theatre buffs. Multi-channel audio outputs, also used for high resolution audio output, may or may not present in the player.
As if this wasn’t confusing enough, three different versions or “profiles” of Blu-ray players exist: 1.0, 1.1 and 2.0. The initial 1.0 profile indicates the inclusion of the Blu-ray version of the Java programming language, BD-J for short. BD-J allows Blu-ray titles to contain advanced features such as menus to be displayed on top of a playing movie or games that can be played while watching a movie. All Blu-ray players introduced after November 1, 2007 adhere to profile 1.1, also referred to as Full Profile or Final Standard Profile. A profile 1.1 player must include at least 256 MB of persistent memory (which retains its contents even if the power is turned off) and a sound generator that produces sound effects when on-screen menu selections are made. But the most significant upgrade in profile 1.1 players is picture-in-picture (PIP) support, which requires additional hardware. Finally, profile 2.0, also known as BD-Live, requires Blu-ray players to contain an Ethernet port to connect to the Internet. This will allow players to download new content such as movie trailers, additional info and bonus materials for certain titles, online games, and online shopping. Profile 2.0 players must have at least 1GB of persistent memory.
Although firmware updates are released regularly for Blu-ray players, these updates cannot upgrade the player to a higher profile. Therefore, a profile 1.1 player will always remain just that, a profile 1.1 player. The only exception to this is the PlayStation 3 because it already contains the hardware necessary to meet even profile 2.0. Currently, the PlayStation 3 meets the standards of a profile 1.1 player but it is likely that Sony will release a firmware update that will upgrade it to a profile 2.0 player in the future.
So should you go and buy a Blu-ray player right away? Well, that depends. If you want to enjoy all the special features that will eventually be found on Blu-ray titles, you may want to hold out for a profile 2.0 player. Of course, the longer you wait, the more affordable Blu-ray players will become. If you want to enjoy the best high definition content available today, you can certainly buy a Blu-ray player right now. Hundreds of Blu-ray titles are already on store shelves. Just be warned that you may not be able to take advantage of all the special features on Blu-ray discs released in the future.
One thing is for sure – we should all be glad that the format war is officially over. Now all we need is for George Lucas to release Star Wars on Blu-ray. Only then, the transition to HD will be fully complete! In the meantime, I would also be happy with Spaceballs on Blu-ray.