10 questions about Blu-ray you’ll want the answers for
This was to be the season Blu-ray won our hearts ó and it still may. But the economic downturn has thrown a tough new hurdle at the high-def disc. Blu-ray faces strapped consumers worried about investing in a new format, a new library and still-pricey players. But it’s the best video source around, and if you have or plan to get a new HDTV, you may be considering Blu-ray, too. USA TODAY tech writer Mike Snider offers an FAQ.
Q: Why do they call it Blu-ray?
A: Because Blu-ray Disc players and PC drives, as well as Sony’s PlayStation 3, use a blue laser beam to read data from discs, rather than the older red lasers used for DVDs. A blue laser can be focused more tightly, so disc makers can pack more data on a disc the same size as a DVD. Blu-ray Discs can hold up to 50 gigabytes, compared to a DVD, which holds less than 10 GB. That added capacity can hold video up to six times the resolution of DVD, plus more bonus features and improved surround soundtracks.
Q: Can you really see the difference between Blu-ray and DVD?
A: Side-by-side, most people can easily see Blu-ray’s improvement in picture quality. The video resolution, called “1080p” because it constantly (or progressively, hence the p) redraws 1,080 lines across the screen (each line containing 1,920 pixels), surpasses the best HDTV broadcast or cable signals. “Once you start seeing high-definition (video) on a 1080p monitor, DVD cannot compare,” says Peter Bracke, editor of HighDefDigest.com. “Even my mom is impressed with it.”
And filmmakers are doing their bit as well to make Blu-ray stand out. “We spent more time on (the Blu-ray image) than on the theatrical release, making sure every single color and shade is there for a reason,” says Hellboy II: The Golden Army director Guillermo Del Toro. “The movie has never looked and sounded better.”
Q. What do I need to watch Blu-ray?
A: Other than a BD player, you’ll probably want an HDTV, to get the full quality and widescreen effect. (When watched on a older, standard-shaped tube set, the image is severely letterboxed with dark bands above and below.) Before buying a Blu-ray player to connect to an older TV, check the player’s back panel: Not all have the kinds of outputs needed to connect to older sets. Most players send audio and video to newer TVs and displays via a single cable called HDMI. And don’t get caught up in the various flavors of HDTV ó 720p, 1080i and 1080p ó because Blu-ray players can send an HD signal to any of them. As for screen size, most viewers won’t get much benefit, Bracke says, unless it’s at least 40 inches (diagonally).
Q: Are all Blu-ray players the same?
A: No. But most important, all Blu-ray players will play standard DVDs ó and most “up-convert” those DVDs so they look closer to HD quality. Most players handle music CDs as well. If you are particularly interested in checking out picture-in-picture commentary tracks and online bonus features on discs, look for players that include Profile 1.1 (picture-in-picture capability) and BD-Live or Profile 2.0 (online connections) among the specifications.
Initially, the only player that was fully equipped was Sony’s PS3 game system, but many current Blu-ray players in the $250 range have both sets of features. “It’s bad for early adopters, but for mainstream consumers it won’t matter because by the time they jump in, it will all be settled,” Bracke says.
Two recent entries, the LG BD300 ($350) and the Samsung BD-P2550 ($370) also let Netflix subscribers stream movies.
Q: Should I buy now or wait for prices to drop?
A: That depends. Earlier this year, players sold for at least $400, but special holiday deals have resulted in entry-level models “for as low as $149, and $249 for really good, fully featured models,” says Bill Hunt, editor of TheDigitalBits.com. “And if you don’t already have an HDTV, some manufacturers are going to be offering combo deals, where you’ll get a player free or nearly so when you buy an HDTV. With the economy the way it is, major retailers are all offering terrific bargains, too.” As newer, more expensive models continue to hit stores, older ones will be reduced in price. “If you love movies, buy now,” says TVPredictions.com’s Phil Swann. “If you don’t, wait. Prices will (continue to) fall.”
Players “have gotten to where they are more in the consumers’ sweet spot,” says NPD Entertainment analyst Russ Crupnick, but price resistance has shifted to the software side as many Blu-ray Discs cost $25, he says. “Consumers have become increasingly price-sensitive, thanks to DVD.”
Q: Do I need to replace all my DVDs with Blu-ray Discs?
A: No. Remember, Blu-ray players will play DVDs and most will boost the video resolution (or “up-rez” them), so “there is no reason for the consumer to think that all of their video library is going to be antiquated,” says Panasonic’s Rich Simone. Adds Swann, “I would recommend getting new releases in Blu-ray, either by rental or purchase, and watch your old ones using the up-converting feature.”
Studios will try to entice movie lovers to repurchase films they may have already on DVD (and perhaps videocassette) by remastering the video and adding new extra features. “They can see them in the way the director originally intended them to be seen,” says Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Rich Marty. “DVD is a huge market, and those will continue to look great, but now they have a choice. We think once they see them in high-def, it’s going to be a no-brainer.”
Q: What features do Blu-ray movies have that DVDs don’t?
A: Most bonus features such as commentaries, documentaries and deleted scenes are “the same kind of thing DVD has, except that it tends to be more interactive and complex on Blu-ray,” says Hunt. Some discs have interactive games, such as the Casino RoyaleCollector’s Edition’s multiplayer Bond trivia game. A few of the newest releases take advantage of bonus features delivered via the Internet: Last month, Del Toro conducted an online chat with owners of the Hellboy II Blu-ray Disc.
“It is my hope when we are proposing, planning and designing the interactive instruments for The Hobbit (Part 1 is scheduled for 2011), we can take full advantage of it,” Del Toro says. “We are trying to make people very aware that there are features locked in the Blu-ray Disc that allow them to go interactive with the Net.” And The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan will have a Dec. 18 screening of the Blu-ray Disc (9 p.m. ET/6 PT), during which those who own it can watch and chat online with him during the film. (More details at thedarkknight.warnerbros.com/dvdsite/event.) Another online feature lets viewers post their own feature-length commentary to share with friends.
But overall, while Hollywood may tout next-generation interactive features, Swann says, “the real feature is the picture.”
Q: Will my sound system work with Blu-ray?
A: The simple answer is Blu-ray will sound as good as DVDs do on your system. Many HDTVs and displays have built-in speakers, but surround-sound fanatics will want to make sure their receiver has digital audio inputs. And movie fans who want to get the most out of Blu-ray’s improved soundtracks will want to look for higher-priced players that either decode or pass along ultra-high-resolution sound formats Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Discs such as Dark Knight (out Tuesday) can hold one or more soundtracks with up to seven speaker channels (plus a subwoofer) for those fortunate enough to have top sound equipment. The result sounds “as good as the studio masters in some cases,” Hunt says.
Q: How large a selection is available on Blu-ray?
A: So far, about 1,000 Blu-ray Discs have been released, compared with more than 93,700 DVDs, according to The DVD Release Report. Releases have ramped up this fall, Hunt says. “There’s an amazing lineup of both new and catalog movies coming out now, with an even more amazing slate on the way next year,” from The Dark Knight and Iron Man to Sleeping Beauty and Casablanca.
Still, Bracke says, “It’s going to be a long time until the volume of Blu-ray titles matches DVD. ”
Q: Rather than buying Blu-ray, shouldn’t I just wait for HD movie downloads?
A: Current movie downloads can take two hours or more to arrive, and even those labeled high definition do not match the quality of Blu-ray. “Blu-ray is going to give you to the best-looking high-definition video quality you’ll see anywhere ó better than video-on-demand or downloading, or HD cable, or even HD satellite,” Hunt says. “Blu-ray simply offers the best video and audio quality available, with the most advanced bonus features.” And discs also are more convenient, whereas, “HD downloads are years away from being a convenient alternative,” Swann says.
10 questions about Blu-ray you’ll want the answers for