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BLU-RAY – THE PROS AND CONS

Are you thinking of going Hooray for Blu-ray this Christmas? Be sure you know what you’re getting into, says Ben Hooft, as he explains the pros and cons of Blu-ray so you can make an informed choice. 

What does Blu-ray offer over DVD?
The big thing is up to five times the picture resolution of DVD. What this means is a much sharper, more detailed image on your television. To put this into perspective, where DVD offers enough resolution to count the freckles on an actor's face, Blu-ray offers enough resolution to count the pores in their skin. 

Blu-ray further advances picture quality by offering movies in their original frame rate. The overwhelming majority of movies are filmed at 24 frames per second but until the advent of Blu-ray it was not possible to view movies at home in this format. Owing to the technical limitations of the PAL video format almost all DVD movies (available in Australia and Europe) are in fact sped up by 4% compared to the cinema presentation. 

While the difference is unperceivable to most, those with a keen ear may detect a pitch increase in the score of their favourite film. However, a far more obvious difference is movies have a shorter run time on DVD than they did at the cinemas. For instance Titanic clocked in at 194 minutes at the cinema yet on DVD in Australia it's only 186 minutes, though not a single second has been cut from the film (...unfortunately). Blu-ray overcomes this technical limitation and can present movies in their original 24 frames per second (known as 24p) with the correct running time; exactly as the director intended. 

Blu-ray also offers substantially higher quality audio than DVD, with up to 7.1 channels of high resolution audio. The result is more realistic, more dynamic sound that comes from more directions. A 7.1 surround sound system adds two additional side speakers to the traditional 5.1 audio set-up (so that's front left, front centre, front right, side left, side right, rear left and rear right.... phew!). I should point out though, 7.1 ideally requires the listener to be in the middle of the room and generally speaking most people have their couches parked at the back against a wall. If you intend to install a 7.1 surround sound system start with the speakers and then organise your furniture around them (not the other way around). To men everywhere I say this: good luck getting that past your wives, girlfriends or partners.

Having said all this it is important to note not all Blu-ray movies offer full high definition video, 24p or 7.1 channel audio. Blu-ray can in fact use one (or more) of many different video and audio formats with varying degrees of quality (some not better than DVD). Like DVD before it the quality of a Blu-ray title is also largely dependent on the effort studios have gone to restoring and/or remastering, particularly when it comes to back catalogue titles. Blu-ray is unforgiving when it comes to picture quality; if the studio master is not up to scratch the result will be clear at home on Blu-ray.

Backwards Compatibility
The bad news first: Blu-ray discs are not compatible with standard DVD players. The good news is that standard DVDs are compatible with almost all Blu-ray players. Rest assured your existing DVDs will not become coasters. 

Pricing
Blu-ray player prices have dropped dramatically in the last year to the point where they are the same price as standard DVD players. Some manufacturers have even ceased production of standard DVD players in favour of Blu-ray players.

As far as software pricing goes new releases still attract a small price premium, typically around $5. Studios are aggressively pushing Blu-ray to the point where you can even find Blu-ray ads at the start of some DVDs. Some studios are even offering Blu-ray and DVD combo packages.

Extras
Blu-ray discs generally offer the same extras as DVD though in some instances they have less (like Ronin) or more (like V For Vendetta). Blu-ray is also able to offer new exclusive features that only Blu-ray's advanced technology can offer like picture in picture and online content via the Blu-ray player's network connection (if you have it connected). 

3D
With the success of Avatar, studios and hardware manufacturers are keen to cash in on the popularity of the 3D by bringing the technology into living rooms. Blu-ray now offers optional 3D content in full high definition (using similar technology to that found at IMAX cinemas). The new 3D Blu-ray discs are backward-compatible with existing Blu-ray players and televisions, but unless you have a 3D television and 3D Blu-ray player (not to mention the appropriate glasses) you will only see the standard 2D version of the feature. At this point Blu-ray 3D titles are scarce in Australia and even, rather perversely I might add, the newly released Avatar Extended Edition Blu-ray (the second Avatar Blu-ray release) is still only in 2D. Apparently double dipping was not enough for studios, triple dipping seems to be the order of the day. 

Equipment Required
Well obviously you need a Blu-ray player but as I will now outline this will only get you into first gear. In order to really experience the increased picture quality Blu-ray offers you'll need a large, full high definition LCD or Plasma television (ideally 32" or above with 1080x1920 pixel resolution). With smaller or lower resolution televisions the picture improvement is likely to be negligible at best (thus not worth the upgrade). For those of you still using an old CRT (tube) television a Blu-ray player will unfortunately offer you no picture improvement at all (and may not be compatible). Importantly I should note that to watch full high definition content on Blu-ray you generally need to connect to the television with a HDMI cable so make sure your television has a HDMI input. 

A Blu-ray player and large full high definition television will get you into third gear; getting to the top though requires an almost complete system overhaul. I should stress that most of Blu-ray's advanced features should be considered optional; a Blu-ray player & a televison with HDMI will, if you'll pardon the ongoing motoring pun, get you from A to B.

Blu-ray's 24p video feature requires a compatible television, though many current models are 24p capable it's not a mandatory feature so check the television's specifications. You'll also need to make sure you disable the 100Hz or 200Hz feature on the television (if present) as this will completely obliterate the 24p frame rate. As mentioned 3D Blu-ray content requires not only a 3D Blu-ray player but a 3D television and glasses (reportedly you will also require a new HDMI 1.4 cable). To take advantage of Blu-ray's high resolution audio a new surround sound receiver which supports the new audio codecs (like DTS Master Audio) is required. Remember if your hardware does not support these features the Blu-ray player will convert the video and audio to a format compatible with your television (though the quality may be sacrificed in doing so). 

Summary
So there you have it; that's Blu-ray in a nutshell. If it sounds complicated it's because it is. I would love to say that this inherent complexity does not affect the average user but unfortunately it does. User forums online are rife with reports that new Blu-ray releases are not compatible with even recently manufactured Blu-ray players. Such Blu-ray players require what's known as a 'firmware upgrade' (sometimes more than once) to rectify the problem. I hasten to say that if you don't know what a firmware upgrade is this will likely become a problem. Equally rife are reports of Blu-ray discs taking up to a minute to load in players (and this is before you're blasted with unskippable ads). Most concerning though is the fact that Blu-ray supports dozens of video and audio codecs of vastly different quality. No guarantees exist when it comes to video or audio quality, what you might get in the end may well be no better than DVD. (The numbers look impressive, though: DVD offers up to 414,720 pixels & BD offers 2,073,600 pixels.) 

Personally, I'm not rushing to upgrade just yet. As enticing as the picture quality is I'm not yet convinced that manufacturers and studios have ironed out all the kinks. The cost of upgrading the hardware doesn't worry me so much though, I'm far more concerned about the prospect of upgrading my extensive DVD collection. Despite trying to convince myself otherwise I just know the temptation will be there; I will end up purchasing many movies I already own (at considerable expense).

The lingering question is will Blu-ray replace DVD? I very much doubt it. Blu-ray will certainly serve as a complimentary format to DVD for a while to come but the writing is on the wall for all disc based formats. I think, for better or for worse, online streaming and downloads are poised to revolutionise the home video industry, travelling down much the same road as the music industry. After all, how many of you purchase your music on CDs these days? I suspect a growing number of kids now know only of iTunes and may regard the humble CD as obsolete as the rest of us regard the cassette tape. 

The limiting factor at this point seems to be bandwidth of broadband services. At present streaming and/or downloads at DVD quality are coming online but Blu-ray quality downloads are still a major technical challenge. For instance a single Blu-ray quality movie download would probably exhaust the average consumer's monthly data allowance (taking up to 50GB). Whether the Government's new National Broadband Network addresses this remains to be seen. 

Pros
* Up to 5x DVD picture quality
* Up to 7.1 channels of high resolution audio (substantially higher than DVD)
* True 24 frames per second video
* 3D compatibility
* Exclusive extra features
* Scratch resistant disc coating (good for kids)
* Blu-ray players backwards compatible with DVD

Cons
* Blu-ray discs not compatible with DVD players
* Substantial and expensive hardware upgrade required to get Blu-ray into top gear
* Blu-ray discs can take a long time to load (up to a minute)
* New release Blu-ray titles sometimes require Blu-ray player firmware upgrade or will not play
* Full high definition picture resolution, 24p and high resolution 7.1 audio not mandated, Blu-ray picture and audio may vary largely (may not be better than DVD). 
* HDMI cable usually required to watch high definition content. Not all televisions have HDMI. HDMI specifications also change about once per year leading to consumer confusion
* Blu-ray 3D requires new player, television and HDMI cable ... again. If you want 3D even 12 month old televisions and Blu-ray players become obsolete
* Blu-ray titles attract price premium

Published December 16, 2010

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No, this isn’t Ben Hooft. It’s Sam Worthington in Avatar, available in Blu-ray (but only 2D).








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