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

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.

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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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?