Blu-Ray Blues and HD Movies, Generally (u) | iLounge Backstage

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Blu-Ray Blues and HD Movies, Generally (u)

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Friday, March 16, 2007
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It was supposed to be remembered fondly as “The Year of HD” - you know, 2005, when then-Sony president Kunitake Ando joined Apple CEO Steve Jobs at Macworld Expo to discuss the companies’ exciting new high-definition video products. But as it turned out, no one actually thinks 2005 or even 2006 was a watershed year for HD products - each year saw only a gradual trickling-in of HDTVs, HD camcorders, and related gear into homes. Tellingly, we’re now three months into 2007, and Apple hasn’t even introduced a computer with a HD disc player or recorder yet.

Why? Take your pick as to the interrelated reasons: there hasn’t been a lot of consumer demand for them, the “format war” between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Discs is as yet unresolved, and, of course, the drives are still expensive - around $400 and up for HD-DVD players, $500 and up for Blu-Rays - so they’re not quite ready to become a standard feature in every shipping iMac, MacBook, or Mac mini. Then there’s the whole iTunes Store thing - Apple’s focusing on mass-market reselling of sub-DVD-quality videos while its competitors (Microsoft, Sony) are moving to high-definition videos and download services. Surprisingly, for reasons discussed below, Apple might actually have the smarter approach here.

For more on the current state of Blu-Ray Discs - including a bunch of shots of Sony’s new Casino Royale and Paramount’s older Nacho Libre - plus a bit more on HD content on TVs and computers, click on Read More.

I’m writing this entry mostly to share a short story about the last three months I’ve spent as a Blu-Ray player owner. As noted in prior entries, I was lucky enough to wind up with a PlayStation 3 as a holiday gift, even though I wouldn’t have bought one (or any other $500 high-definition disc player) for myself. Naturally, though I’ve played a number of high-definition games for the PS3 - most notably Virtua Fighter 5, covered in a previous entry - I’ve been curious about the system’s Blu-Ray video capabilities. Not curious enough to drop $30 or $40 on a single disc, but curious nonetheless.

I disclose those and the following caveats up front because they’re important to understanding my perspective: as long-time readers may know, I’ve been a 3-D graphics and high-resolution display watcher for a very, very long time, and yet I’ve never been so wowed by high res video programming to actually subscribe to HD cable or buy HD video players. There just hasn’t been any content that I’ve felt was worth a premium price over standard cable services or DVDs. My philosophy, and I suppose the one that’s evident as most of the population’s, as well, has been that HD content will be fine when it replaces standard-definition content at the same prices, or a truly tiny premium. Put another way, Blu-Ray has a shot at replacing DVD when Blu-Ray players cost roughly as much as DVD players and discs do, too.

Right now, they don’t. As is fairly typical with DVDs and Blu-Ray Discs, Amazon’s selling the Nacho Libre DVD for $15, off its normal $20 price, while the Blu-Ray version shown above sells for $28, off its normal price of $40. Having purchased and watched the Blu-Ray Disc a couple of months ago, I have to tell you that it was the sort of experience that basically killed my desire to buy any other Blu-Ray titles: on a normal-sized TV, there just isn’t any need for higher resolution when watching a movie of this sort, and certainly not $13-$20 worth of premium in the experience. A movie really needs to have been shot (or CG-enhanced) with some amazing visuals to make the HD experience compelling, and like most movies, Nacho Libre wasn’t. Though you can see all the detail in the second shot above - a crop of the first shot - the question really is whether most people would care to do so.

In the months that have passed since I bought Nacho Libre, I’ve made repeated trips to Blu-Ray retailers to find something - anything, really - worth buying as a better test of the format. Hard core HD fanatics may disagree with this, but in my view, there has been next to nothing worth buying on Blu-Ray; there were a number of HD-DVD titles that I would have considered, but on Blu-Ray, the shelves at the local Best Buy were depressing: tons of bad Sony movies mixed with more films that were more Nacho Libre than Star Wars in visual appeal. Reviews of a “gimme” disc for video testing, Luc Besson’s near-classic SFX film The Fifth Element, have knocked the quality of the video transfer, and suggested that a better-looking version of the disc was on the way. So I held out for Sony’s Casino Royale, expecting that it would be as impressive of a format showcase as possible.

Like Nacho Libre, Casino Royale didn’t exactly win me over to buying future Blu-Ray discs, though I suppose it’s more impressive in the abstract. The two shots above are taken from the same frame, the second a crop of the first, and they show just how much detail you can see in a paused still image. Again, the next two shots do the same thing - there’s roughly as much detail in the cropped shot as in the entire frame of some poorly-mastered early DVDs.

But it bears mention that I had to hunt around a lot on the disc for scenes that really showed off the benefits of the added high-definition resolution: even when slowed to still images, most of the movie’s visuals don’t benefit enough from the added detail to matter on anything but a really large screen HDTV. In motion, the differences are even less noticeable. And this is supposed to be a showcase Blu-Ray Disc - one that Sony is packing in with PS3s sold in Europe.

Then there’s the picture above. A huge issue - and one that the HD hardware and content industries have done little to tackle - is consistent video quality. Average buyers have no idea whether all or part of a disc isn’t even recorded in HD resolution, so vendors sell discs with mixed-resolution content. Consequently, various parts of the disc - the main feature, special features, menus - may look different from each other, and not entirely high-definition. This special feature on the girls of James Bond looks to be roughly DVD quality, perhaps less, but it’s sitting on the disc. A Chris Cornell music video on the Blu-Ray Disc appeared to suffer from the same issue. The photos here don’t fully show the differences, but in real life, if you couldn’t tell the difference between these resolutions on a TV of the size you plan to own, perhaps you probably don’t need a Blu-Ray player at all.

The video quality consistency issue goes beyond just discs that are poorly encoded - there are also hardware concerns. If you were one of the first people in line to buy a HDTV several years ago, bad news: your TV doesn’t support the top video output standards of today’s players. Also, if you just bought a top-of-the-line HDTV last Christmas, more bad news: companies such as Sony have been working to develop copy-protection standards (e.g. HDCP 1.3) that will supposedly render upcoming 1080P video discs unwatchable at that resolution on all of the expensive, pre-2007 1080P TVs people have purchased. In other words, if you really loved HD enough to buy the best TV last year, Sony wants you to buy another TV with HDMI/HDCP 1.3 this or next year, too. And HDTVs have been chronically mislabelled so that many people don’t know exactly what technology they’re buying or not buying at the time of purchase, only to be surprised later when they find that their “HDTV” isn’t “full HD.” Clarity in labelling and marketing are desperately needed, and now.

[Updated Mar. 19, 2007: As a brief addendum to the video discussion above, I also wanted to note that the Casino Royale disc exhibited an unusual audio issue, as well. The entire main feature appeared to have mastered without regard to two-channel listeners, as we found the voices extremely difficult to understand throughout the film, despite having the PlayStation 3 set up to automatically perform Blu-Ray audio for a 2-channel environment. Fearing that two sets of ears were failing us, I opted not to discuss this in the initial story, but after hearing the same complaint from other viewers - including those watching the DVD version of the movie - it’s apparent that there was some sort of larger audio issue with the film. Not exactly what one would expect for the price.]

In sum, this really isn’t the best time for consumers to buy into HD video hardware or software - even after years of releasing HD products, the content and hardware companies have not managed to put together products that are worthy of mainstream purchase. Consequently, I think it’s going to take a few more years for the quality, marketing, and pricing dust to settle on these formats; in the meanwhile, professional and prosumer users will continue to pay early adopter prices and sort through all the messy, confusing hardware and software issues for a while.

What will Apple do? On the consumer side, it has clearly decided that the lower-resolution iTunes Store video offerings are good enough for now, and unless people decide that they need to freeze-frame still images from their movies as above, it may well turn out to be right for the next few years. But it is surely already considering at least optional high-definition optical disc drives for its computers; there’s every reason to believe that Leopard’s upgraded DVD Player will handle either or both of the competing formats, as Tiger and its apps already have limited support, today. Professional and prosumer users could start to see Blu-Ray or HD-DVD drives for authoring or playback as additions to the company’s Mac Pro workstations by, say, the NAB conference in April, maybe sooner, and third-party companies are already offering the drives if you really want them now. Based on my experiences, I wouldn’t rush out to buy them quite yet. What do you think?

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Comments

1

Jeremy,
“Hello my name is John and I’ve been a recovering earlier adopter since 4 track”.  I’ve also read the players are finicky and relatively unstable.  I’m a veteran of the 4 track vs. 8 track, quad vs. discrete, Beta vs VHS, and DTS 5.1 vs. DVD Audio vs SACD format wars and will wait this one out for a while longer.  I bought the original Panasonic “Reggie Vision” convertable VCR and few years later paid $1000 for a JVC HR5000U VCR which was the first ever with MTS Stereo and HQ.  At 51 I do know better but I’m still chomping at the bit for HD DVD.  I have a 42” Panasonic Plasma HDTV and willingly pay about $15 a month for HD Service and a HDDVR. NFL, Discovery HD and PBS-HD alone are worth the price.  Hype-free articles such as yours really help me hold out longer.  If there were an Early Adopter’s Anonymous would you be my sponser?
PS:  Too bad The 3rd Element didn’t live up to expectations but that bit of bad news is probably good news for me.

Posted by Elcoholic in So Cal on March 16, 2007 at 4:08 PM (PDT)

2

I too am paying the “Early Adapter” price, dropping nearly 7K on a Hitachi 42HDT20 Plasma that for almost all intents and purposes is nearly obselete now. Of course, being a 2002 model, it has no HDMI, only DVI which I hardly use anyway, as I use Component Video which is also being phased out as well. I also bought into D-VHS but for a different reason. I fell in love with the idea of being able to fit 17-18 hrs of standard definition programming on one tape. The only problem of course is trying to find any blank D-VHS tapes. Like you, Elcoholic, I’ve been through the Beta/VHS wars, as well as SACD/DVD-A and before that the Mini-Disc/DCC debacle (even though in that one, I picked one side: Mini Disc, which I still use and love). Geez, I’ve even got into DAT for a while (due to my days spent in a few NY recording studios).

I guess I will be waiting this one out as well. No more Early Adopter stuff for me. Besides, I have kids now. ‘Nuff Said.

Posted by Tenchi211 in California on March 16, 2007 at 6:09 PM (PDT)

3

I’d like to get some links or a source for the claim that HD players will require HDMI 1.3 AND HDCP 1.3 specifically in order to get full 1080p resolution for future 1080p discs. Most of what I have read online discusses that HDCP will be required if the studios have the ICT (Image Constraint Token) on their discs, but I have not seen anything that specifically states that HDCP 1.3 will be required, and users of sets with earlier versions will be left out.

This is a huge concern with buying a PS3 as I have a 1080p monitor with HDCP (not sure which version), but not HDCP 1.3. Interestingly, I have heard that sometimes this monitor as well as some HDTV’s do have some other “handshake” glitches with the PS3, but hearing about this possible HDCP 1.3 constraint really makes me wonder if I (or anyone) should ever get a PS3.

After doing some research, the rumors are that only Warner is turning on the ICT on some of their discs, and that the other studios will not turn it on until 2010 (or it could be 2012).
http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20060521-6880.html
Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs are way too expensive right now, and I’d be more likely to rent than buy for now.

The supposed 2010 or 2012 agreement may not be much consolation to early adopters, but it seems to me that perhaps this would be a good time to contact your members of Congress (and maybe the studios and HD player manufacturers) to tell them what a sad and confusing mess this is for consumers so that maybe the studios will never turn on the ICT (which may be wishful thinking).

Posted by Confused HD Consumer on March 17, 2007 at 6:39 AM (PDT)

4

Tenchi,
All I can say is ouch on $7k.  We got our plasma in ‘05 to make our living room work for 5.1 SS.  The only location to avoid windows, glare, etc is over the fireplace.  We were lucky and found a Panasonic just one model back from current for $2500 at Costco.  The display was the same the only differences were the speakers and cable-card, neither of which I use.  Another reason for me to wait is that I will need to get a new AV receiver that switches what ever signal format wins.

Posted by Elcoholic in So Cal on March 17, 2007 at 9:08 AM (PDT)

5

Have to say, im not sure if this was a fair review of blue ray movie play back. what screen where the movies played pack on?

LCD, plasma, or dlp and at what res 720p 1080i or 1080p.

if at 1080p im sure you would see an outstanding differnce? anyway

First HDMI 1.3 is just the next standard for players and flat screen TV,s meaning youll get an improved picture with less banding and better colours. people with older plasma’s with HDMI 1.1 or 1.2 can still use Blu ray players or even HD-DVD players that output with HDMI1.3 you just dont get the best picture.

HDCP is a form of copy protection and most tvs and players in the past 2 years use this technology.

from my experience the PS3 has been an extremely good Blu ray player with images much sharper than those displayed by comcasts HD chanels and my pioneer elite DV-59avi up-converting DVD player.

to get the best out of the technology in the short term i would wait for ther HDMI 1.3 players and TVs which should be available in the next month or so…but do your research, staff at best buy and circuit city wouldnt know the difference between HDCP, HDMI 1.1, 1.2, 1.3.

but as with all tecnhnology we have to buy it at some point or else we be forever waiting for the next best thing.

Posted by dean on March 19, 2007 at 6:49 PM (PDT)

6

The problem is you ain’t trying the right media.

I dare you to play Nine Inch Nails’  “Beside you in time” Blu-Ray (or HD-DVD) disc and say you don’t really see any difference. It was natively shot in HD 1080p and the soundtrack is awesome in DolbyHD.

And the great thing with that disc is, even in a stardard def. tv, you actually see a difference. That’s what HD is all about, IMO.

Posted by Arturo Lugo on March 21, 2007 at 2:27 AM (PDT)

7

I think HD should be about making substantial improvements to content I’m interested in buying. If I have to go out of my way and consume content that doesn’t interest me just to see the advantages of the format, something’s wrong.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 21, 2007 at 9:16 AM (PDT)

8

Jeremy,
I agree but isn’t that pretty much the same old chicken and egg story?  Programmers want the HD sets out there before they produce in native HD.  Equipment mfrs want more programming out there to sell more units and lower costs.  Standards are still in flux.  I remember when the only thing on TV in color was Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights.  The 2nd show I remember in color was the debut season of Star Trek.  Consumers, broadcasters and mfrs all jumped on that band wagon like they were giving away color TVs.  Why are we so jaded 40 years later?  I would say that specs and performance gains have been enormous.  Engineered-in obsolescence, replace instead of repair, format wars, and lack of backward compatibilty have most people waiting this one out for good reason.

Posted by Elcoholic in So Cal on March 21, 2007 at 2:36 PM (PDT)

9

I do consider myself an early adopter.  I own a PS3 (as a Blu-Ray player), Toshiba HD-DVD player, Sony 50” 720p TV, and a 32” 1080p TV.  I, however, do not feel burned by the HD situation.  Even with the best upconverting possible, the difference between DVD and HD is noticable.  Now the question remains “is it worth the premium?”  I think this can only be answered by how much of a movie fan you really are.  For me, it is a no-brainer.  Why spend $15 on a DVD, when I could spend $25-$30 and know that I am future proofed for a much longer period.  Either way, you will probably have spent the same.  Buy the DVD now and then wait for HD to drop in price equals buying the HD upfront.  Why wait?

Posted by Tracy Bolte on March 22, 2007 at 5:59 PM (PDT)

10

I think the issue here is that most people only started buying DVDs relatively recently. My dad still buys VHS tapes and you can laugh at him but he watches all the movies he likes and he gets them for like a buck each. Who’s stupid now? Most people are uninterested in home theater crap, and at the end of the day the most convincing, immersive, future-proofed experience is provided by:

—-> a BOOK!

Posted by Yakov Hadash on April 2, 2007 at 9:10 PM (PDT)

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