Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The State of the Blu-ray Art

(The following contains several insets featuring some of the most attractive Blu-ray player models as of June 2009. Each inset provides basic information about the model, and is clickable. When you click on one of the insets, you will be taken to a CNET review of that model. To look at a list of all Blu-ray player models, listed in order by CNET Editors' rating, click here. This list does not include the Sony PlayStation 3 video game console, which doubles as an excellent Blu-ray player. That machine — to which the CNET Editors award 4 of 5 possible stars, and which is the Blu-ray player I myself own — is shown as one of the insets below.)

When I compiled Which Blu-ray Player for You? a year and a quarter ago, in March 2008, the world of home video was just getting used to the idea that one of the two competing high-def disc formats had abruptly emerged as the winner over the other, Blu-ray over HD DVD. Blu-ray as a commercial reality was not yet mature, truth to be told. One reason was the relative dearth of Blu-ray titles, along with their high prices compared with the established DVD format. A second reason was that Blu-ray players were generally super-expensive, and most of them lacked features and amenities that everyone knew were in the offing.

Much has changed today. Although Blu-ray players and discs still command a premium price over DVD, the price spread is a lot smaller than before. There are over 1,500 Blu-ray titles available in America as of January 2009, according to Wikipedia. And this page at Blu-rayStats.com currently shows (scroll down) a total of 1,538 "features" in release on Blu-ray, as well as giving a line item on each of them. (If you click on each title, you get all sorts of useful information about that release.)

Most new movies that come out on DVD are being released on Blu-ray on the same day, and studios are gradually releasing BDs (Blu-ray discs) of their popular titles from the past. For a list of upcoming Blu-ray releases, click here. For another list of Blu-ray releases that you can already buy, click here. (A trivia question: what was the first Blu-ray Disc release, and when did it happen? Answer: The Funny Guy Collection (Napoleon Dynamite, Office Space, Young Frankenstein), on May 12, 2006.)

Also, the latest Blu-ray players all have the full complement of features and amenities anyone could expect.

Still, the Blu-ray takeoff has not been as rapid as was the DVD takeoff some dozen years ago. One reason (see this story) is that "just 26.5 million households in 2007 had the required high-def TV set for Blu-ray." DVD had the advantage of being able to look pretty close to its best on just about any TV. (Note that you don't really require a high-def TV for Blu-ray; any lesser TV will work fine, just not give you all the vaunted video resolution and detail.)

I've been piping a high-def picture from my Sony PlayStation 3 game console/Blu-ray player into a Samsung 52" 1920x1080p "Full HD" LCD HDTV since late last year, and I can attest that until you've seen a movie in Blu-ray high-def, you haven't really seen the movie on home video.

With a state-of-the-art, "Full HD" 1080p TV and a Blu-ray player, you can see a picture that is 1,920 pixels across by 1,080 pixels down, with a widescreen 16:9 width-to-height ratio (the "aspect ratio"). Though DVD pictures can match that aspect ratio, they offer only 720 horizontal pixels by 480 vertical pixels, and their pixels have to be stretched horizontally to fill the wide screen — which robs the image of apparent detail."Full HD" 1080p on Blu-ray has fully six times the number of pixels as DVD, and thus six times the resolution.

Also, state-of-the-art Blu-ray allows movies to be shown at their native 24 frames per second, whereas DVDs are stuck with 60 fps. The latter might seem to be better, because the number is greater. But 24-fps movies have to be compromised to get 60 displayable TV frames per second out of them, by means of a technique called "3:2 pulldown." That's geek-speak for some of the information from a given film frame being repeated in different video frames. That happens in herky-jerky fashion, such that some of the frames of the "interlaced" 60-fps TV picture wind up coming from different — frequently, mismatched — film frames. Result: a mess.

DVD players try to disentangle this mess as best they can, with varying degrees of success. A Blu-ray disc being played at 24 fps into a state-of-the-art TV, using "progressive" and not interlaced frames, simply bypasses "3:2 pulldown compensation" entirely, since 3:2 pulldown wasn't done in the first place! You see a picture that is not only superbly detailed, but one that is super-clean and artifact free. It really is like being in a movie theater. (See 1080p24 ("24p") on Blu-ray for more on 24-fps video from Blu-ray.)

So, why wouldn't you want to invest in Blu-ray?

Well, the obvious reason remains price. We would all like to see cheaper players — and they're coming. When the computer chips and the fancy blue-laser assembly that make up the guts of the player are manufactured in sufficient volume, costs will drop. The same thing happened with DVD: prices were high until chips were cheaper. (The red laser used by DVDs was already cheap, since CDs had used red lasers since the early 1980s. And, by the way, all Blu-ray players also incorporate red lasers, to play DVDs!)

DVD players got cheaper faster because (as noted above) all TV households could use them to reasonably good advantage. True, few TVs were widescreen in 1997, when DVD hit stores, but most consumers had as yet no idea their old 4:3 TVs were becoming obsolete. Today, everyone knows digital HDTVs are the state of the art. Lots of people haven't upgraded yet, but they know it's only a matter of time until they do. When and as they do, a Blu-ray player will suddenly seem mandatory for the bulk of them.

Blu-ray disc prices? They're all over the map right now. If you click here, you can check out all of the BDs sold at Amazon.com, sorted supposedly by price, low to high. (The number of results is at this moment fully 3,960, but I assume this number is inflated by some X-factor that I can't guess.) I find that Amazon's price sorting leaves something to be desired, but clearly there are numerous Blu-ray titles available for under $20.00. Many are under $15.00, and quite a few are under $10.00! An example: you can get hot titles like The Dark Knight, complete with BD-Live interactivity and an iPod-compatible "digital" version of the movie, for $23.99 instead of the $35.99 list price.

What's BD-Live interactivity? Also known as Profile 2.0 of the BD-Java computer language resident in every Blu-ray player, it is what extends Blu-ray disc interactivity to be able to access Internet-based (not just disc-based) added content! Not all titles use it, but those that do possess it require players that themselves implement Profile 2.0, assuming you want to use all of the features of the latest discs and access all the added content. Virtually all of the player models introduced in 2009 support Profile 2.0 — so, be warned! Don't buy an older model of Blu-ray player unless the price is so low, you can't pass it up.

Many of the player models introduced in 2009 or late 2008 are able to stream online video content from sources like Amazon, Netflix, CinemaNow, Pandora, and that perennial favorite, YouTube. Most do this via a wired (Ethernet) or wireless (WiFi or 802.11) home network, but some omit WiFi (and in my opinion should be avoided). Players that support WiFi are often compatible with a speed-boosting "draft" version of that standard, 802.11n, while others support only the familiar-but-poky 802.11b/g.

Some of the latest player models support DTS-HD Master Audio Essential, an audio codec that differs from standard DTS-HD Master Audio in that it lacks decoding for a few legacy DTS DVD soundtracks formats such as DTS 96/24, ES, ES Matrix, and Neo:6. DTS-HD Master Audio in all its lossless, 7.1-channel glory is, needless to say, still supported. This is a cost-saving measure, since it is cheaper to build a player that lacks the chips to decode the legacy formats.

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