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Blu-ray Disc Report Card

Feb 27th, 2008
What’s right and what’s wrong

Now that the war is over, I find little value in reporting the aftermath. HD DVD deep discounts, fire sales, Microsoft discontinuing the Toshiba-manufactured Xbox external HD DVD drive… these are of less value than returning to what this site has done for over a decade. Proselytize a very worthy format, which, with Blu-ray Disc, finally is capable of delivering the motion picture theater experience to the home. And provide constructive criticism that we hope will help that format improve going forward.

Firmware

Years ago, when DVD was young, we routinely kept track of the incompatibilities and playback problems found on combinations of specific DVDs and DVD players. In fact, so prevalent were the problems that we maintained a glitch list as a handy reference for our readers. For example, early adopters will recall the problems many DVD players had with The Abyss, the first DVD to be released with seamless branching to provide both the theatrical cut and a more dramatic extended cut on a single disc. Many players simply crashed, and unlike today’s convenience of firmware updates available via disc or Internet connection, the owner’s only recourse was to bring the DVD player to an authorized service center to have the system PROM or E-PROM replaced (assuming the manufacturer was able to correct the problem at all, which was not always the case). Those of you who resent having to perform firmware updates may not have lived through those dark times. Take it from someone who did that today’s convenient availability of firmware updates should be greatly appreciated.

Readers corresponded with me to complain that Blu-ray Disc is deficient; they claim that so many firmware updates to correct compatibility problems with discs featuring advanced BD-J content is an indication of the immaturity of the format. This point has merit. Blu-ray Disc was indeed brought to market prematurely; it was a defensive tactic to prevent HD DVD from gaining such unopposed market traction that it would have become the de facto high definition disc standard. As a consequence, we’re seeing a succession of BD players at advancing levels of capabilities defined by the players’ Profile.

The Frustrations of Obsolete Profiles

My Sony BDP-S1 is a Profile 1.0 player; it can neither display PiP content (BonusView), nor can it communicate through a network port over the Internet for Web-enabled supplements (BD-Live) or for firmware updates. Panasonic introduced a Profile 1.1 BD player last fall that was capable of PiP. And Profile 2.0 players that can do it all are scheduled for delivery a little later this year. Sony, for example, is superseding its very popular BDP-S300 with the BDP-S350 and its BDP-S500 with the BDP-S550. Both will be Profile 2.0 players (see the February 26th press release below). Panasonic had already announced its DMP-BD50 Profile 2.0 BD player. Other manufacturers will follow, introducing their Profile 2.0 players this year.

Having Blu-ray Disc finally catch up with where HD DVD was when it was first introduced will be a relief and a pleasure, but there are other issues I hope the industry can be motivated to address.

The Report Card

The right… You know that I’m extremely pleased with the images BD can provide. With the highest bit rate of any high definition content delivery vector on the market (and the storage capacity to back it up), the images can be breathtakingly beautiful. Lossless and particularly uncompressed audio tracks can have striking fidelity with remarkable transparency. The combination of the two really draws the viewer into the onscreen drama and action; the visual and audible fidelities make the presentation more compelling, more involving, and more emotional. And even with an uncompressed audio track and superb images, there is still room for extensive supplements. As a high definition delivery system, Blu-ray Disc is simply unsurpassed. But there are annoyances.

The blight… Current BDs with advanced BD-J menus and features are frustratingly slow to load. I reluctantly tolerate what seems like minutes of delay before I can access a disc’s contents and I was shocked at how conditioned I’ve become. Early BD releases load slowly as well, compared to DVDs, but I recently had occasion to load a year-old BD and I was surprised by how quickly the movie came up. Current load times are unacceptable, but there is a solution.

Two months ago, a friend brought his PS3 to my home so I could compare its video performance against my Sony BDP-S1 dedicated player (indistinguishable based on both film content and test patterns). As PS3 owners know, BDs, even with extensive BD-J content, load quite smartly in their game consoles. In fact, I could be quite happy living with those shorter load times. The difference is the PS3’s Cell Microprocessor, an extremely powerful processor that was jointly developed by Sony, IBM, and (ironically) Toshiba. So if Sony can afford to market inexpensive game consoles equipped with the Cell processor, how about building them into dedicated BD players? Surely the economies of scale will make the inclusion of the Cell processor affordable.

I can’t find the source for fact-checking, but I seem to recall a market report that included a survey that indicated that only 30% of DVD viewers care about supplements. So why should we suffer the inconvenience of long load times for fancy supplementary content? Let’s face it, the games included on Blu-ray Discs are lame; they are simplistic and can’t compare to real games available on popular consoles. And do we really need the unnecessarily animated menus to access and enjoy the disc’s content? And are Java-based easter eggs really necessary? So my second suggestion is directed at the studios. Add the BD+ layer of security if you must, but how about backing off on BD-J eyewash that adds little to the disc’s enjoyment but slows the load times to a snail’s pace.

Discs rich in BD-J content also negate one of BD’s advantages over HD DVD. I was always annoyed that if I stopped an HD DVD, it couldn’t resume at the same point at which I halted playback. My Sony BD player, on the other hand, readily resumed at the point of interruption. Alas, that capability does not function with a BD containing extensive BD-J content. This is yet another reason to avoid adding superfluous Java content.

BD-J features will not motivate DVD player owners to transition to Blu-ray Disc. I feel that Blu-ray Disc presentations are so compelling that switching to high definition is a must for any film lover. But if the studios want to make BD even more compelling, offer real presentation value instead of supplementary eyewash. I’ve written before that BD is the ideal platform for the delivery of 3-D films. With a 60 frame per second progressive format alternating for each eye, and synchronized shuttered LCD glasses, full color, high definition 3-D presentations would be a snap. And no Java would be required. Now that’s something DVD can’t do.

Parting Thoughts

When DVD evolved into a mainstream product, late adopters simply didn’t live through the turmoil of glitches that plagued the format’s first few years. Those owners expect the newly introduced and immature high definition formats to be as reliable as decades-old DVD. Those are not realistic expectations. Blu-ray Disc should reach maturity this year with the introduction of Profile 2.0 players, but there remain problems that continue to annoy users, including this writer. Fortunately, those flaws can be resolved. We can only hope that now that the format war is over, the studios and the player manufacturers concentrate on consumer satisfaction and real value added.



Addendum: Sony Press Release

SONY ADDS NEW BLU-RAY DISC PLAYERS WITH ADVANCED INTERACTIVITY
New Models Feature Ethernet Port for Interactive Functionality and Easy Firmware Updates

LAS VEGAS, Feb. 26, 2008 - Sony updated its Blu-ray Disc player line today with two new models that will be capable of accessing advanced interactive features such as BonusView and BD-Live.

The BDP-S350 and BDP-S550 models both support BonusView (Picture-in-Picture) featured on some of the new Blu-ray Disc theatrical releases. The BDP-S350 model is BD-Live ready featuring an Ethernet port for an easy firmware update and access to Internet-based interactive content features. The BSP-S550 is BonusView and BD-Live capable when it ships.

Both models also feature an external port for local storage, so users can add optional storage device. The BDP-S550 ships with a 1GB storage device.

"Building on the exceptional picture and sound quality of previous players, Sony's next-generation Blu-ray Disc models bring exciting interactive features to life and offer consumers a ground-breaking experience," said Chris Fawcett, vice president of marketing for Sony Electronics' Home Product Division. "These new devices bring home movie experience beyond the cinema and into a whole new realm of entertainment."

The players feature 1080/60p and 24p True Cinema output. They are compatible with most standard DVDs and feature 1080p upscaling through an HDMI connection to capable HDTV sets, improving the picture performance of existing DVD libraries.

The models offer 7.1 channel Dolby® TrueHD and Dolby® Digital Plus decoding and bit-stream output, as well as dts®-HD High Resolution Audio and Master Audio bit-stream output. The BDP-S550 adds dts-HD High Resolution Audio and dts-HD Master Audio decoding as well as 7.1 channel analog audio output.

The players support AVCHD discs encoded with x.v.Color™ (xvYCC) technology, an international standard for wide color space reproduction. The standard expands the current data range of video by about 1.8 times, allowing the players to output more natural and vivid colors similar to what the human eye can actually see. The players also feature compatibility with an array of video formats, including BD-R/RE (BDMV and BDAV modes), DVD+R/+RW, DVD-R/-RW, CD, CD-R/RW (CD-DA format), and JPEG on DVD//CD recordable media.

The new models feature a slim design with reduced depth and height compared to previous models matching Sony's new home-theater-in-a-box systems, the HT-SS2300 and HT-CT100 T-SS2300, also announced today. Optimized for Blu-ray Disc™, the new component systems feature three 1080p compatible HDMI™ inputs making them the perfect match for a Full high-definition home theater when connected to a new Sony BRAVIA® 1080p HDTV.

The new BDP-S350 ships this summer for about $400 and BDP-S550 will be available this fall for about $500. They will be offered at Sony Style stores, online at sonystyle.com, at military base exchanges, and at authorized retailers nationwide.

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