From The New York Times - March 13, 2008: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/13/te.../13basics.html
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By JASON TURBOW
I GOT the lecture as a 10-year-old, from the father of one of my friends. “This is the future,” he said, waving his arms enthusiastically toward the squat box resting on a shelf in his living room. He had never before spoken to me with such fervor about anything, even his children. “Mark my words, kid,” he grinned. “This was the best $1,000 I ever spent.”
It was 1980. The man’s source of pride was a brand-new Betamax video cassette recorder.
Looking back, I realize that I learned something that day, and not just about unleashing one’s inner blowhard in the presence of children. It was an easily analogized lesson about the benefit of patience: of choosing the best horse in the race, not necessarily the first; of waiting for the dust to settle before staking one’s claim.
Last month, the dust settled.
Until then, two main formats competed for consumers’ high-definition DVD dollars — Blu-ray (backed by Sony, Samsung and Sharp, among others) and HD DVD, from Toshiba.
The recent avalanche of companies to side with Blu-ray (including Warner Brothers, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Amazon) tipped the scales, and Toshiba, like Sony with its doomed Betamax players from the mid-’80s video wars, cried uncle and abandoned its format.
Perhaps it was the cautionary tale inadvertently taught by my friend’s father, but I have never been one to ride the vanguard of anything technological, preferring instead to wait for market stability and plunging prices before making a purchase. The news of Blu-ray’s victory, though, perked up my ears. As the owner of a high-definition L.C.D. television (bought, of course, once prices had dropped sufficiently), upgrading my home theater experience is at least of passing interest. As it turns out, companies that make Blu-ray machines are happy to urge me on.
“If you’re a consumer and you’ve invested in a high-definition television and you’re looking for alternative uses for it, Blu-ray is a way to expand your pleasure,” said Gene Kelsey, vice president for entertainment at Panasonic. “Based on the software and the hardware that’s available, particularly at these price points, now is a great time to buy.”
People in Mr. Kelsey’s position are paid to tell us it’s always a great time to buy. Marketing executives were saying something similar two years ago, when Blu-ray players cost $1,000. But should you buy one now that the lowest-priced models cost about $400?
There is no denying Blu-ray’s advantages. Because a dual-layer Blu-ray disc can store 50 gigabytes of data (more than five times the capacity of a standard dual-layer DVD), detail in a movie can be captured in a much higher quality, with plenty of room left over for a wealth of bonus features. And if watching the N.F.L. in high-def every Sunday is a much better experience than doing so on a regular TV (and it is; oh, it is), the same holds true for movies.
In the Blu-ray version of “300,” I discovered the female lead, Lena Headey, has fabulous pores, but Gerard Butler, who played the heroic King Leonidas, might have suffered from an ingrown hair at the base of his beard midway through the third act. Also, I found the granular sparkle of the lip gloss worn by the Oracle to be a bit distracting.
All of which is to say that the precision and clarity of picture was beyond anything I had ever seen on my TV. I wasn’t truly able to appreciate it, however, until I did a side-by-side comparison, loading up Pixar’s “Ratatouille” in both its Blu-ray version and as a standard DVD on my old player.
Samsung’s director for home product planning, Kevin Morrow, said that a Blu-ray picture contains “about a six times increase in picture quality” over that of a standard DVD, and as I toggled back and forth between them, this became glaringly apparent.
A tractor in the background in the opening shot went from fuzzy and insignificant on DVD to sharp, vibrant scenery on Blu-ray. A smooth piece of canvas turned into richly textured fabric. Every pebble, every blade of grass, every hair on every rat’s back — it was all just stunning in comparison.
You will get an intense experience on a 1080p HDTV and on a less expensive, and lower resolution, 720p TV.
Audio quality is consistently stellar across the Blu-ray platform. “Every Blu-ray model I’ve seen offers virtually the same thing,” said John Neff, a field engineer at Anderson Audio Visual East Bay, in Emeryville, Calif., which sells an assortment of Blu-ray players.
Amazing image and audio clarity, though, is the simple part. Things get muddled when it comes to other features, many of which are not yet available, or are not compatible with every machine on the market.
Most players in stores now use a version of the technology known as Profile 1.0. A machine with Profile 1.1 (also known as a “Bonus View”) is necessary to access what the industry refers to as picture-in-picture, with which one can, while the movie plays, do things like activate a supplementary “commentary” audio track, see a storyboard comparison of finished scenes or watch behind-the-scenes footage of how each shot was set up.
Bonus View became an industry standard in November, although the market still has plenty of Profile 1.0 machines unable to access these features.
Additionally, manufacturers are now promoting BD Live, which can be accessed through an Ethernet port on Profile 2.0 machines. It provides extensive online content like documentaries, video games and even online discussions. The first 2.0 machines, however, will not be available until later this year.
BD Live should not add much, if anything, to the price of the machines. With that in mind, waiting for the next generation of Blu-ray players takes on added appeal, though not everybody shares that opinion.
“There’s a whole host of buyers for whom Internet connectivity is not as important, who want a stand-alone player they can start enjoying today,” said Chris Fawcett, vice president for Sony’s home video group.
He has a point. If one is unlikely to run an Internet connection to a Blu-ray player in the living room, there’s not much point in waiting for a machine with online capabilities. The picture and sound quality of a 1.0, 1.1 or 2.0 machine are the same.
Buying a Sony PlayStation 3, which incorporates a Blu-ray player, an Ethernet connection and a hard drive, eliminates the problem. Software upgrades can be downloaded, turning a Profile 1.0 machine into a Profile 1.1 or 2.0 machine. For the price of a low-end Blu-ray player ($399), you get a pretty spectacular game system. This is as close as it gets to a free lunch.
The only other factor holding me back is the concern that tomorrow the prices will drop. And they will. Prices fell about 60 percent during the two-year format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD.
The field is still competitive, with at least 10 manufacturers selling machines, so prices won’t stabilize just yet.
Indeed, the head of Sony’s American electronics operations, Stanley Glasgow, recently said he expected a $400 player would cost $300 by Christmas — a 25 percent drop — and might be under $200 by the end of 2009.
Mr. Glasgow may be conservative, but there is another factor in play. Chinese electronics companies, which drove down the price of DVD players to the point that they were almost disposable, are not being sold licenses to manufacture the Blu-ray players.
Bruce Tripido, associate vice president for marketing at Sharp’s entertainment division, said, “If this time around — and hopefully we’ve all learned something from the first time around — the technology consortium that owns the technology makes a conscious decision to protect it, and ensures that any company that’s going to manufacture takes a license and protects royalties, then I think the price compression should happen at a reasonable rate.”
One thing is for sure, though. If I run out to buy a Blu-ray player tomorrow (and I just might), even with a low-end Profile 1.0 machine, there’s little chance that I’ll be stuck with the modern equivalent of a $1,000 Betamax.
I can’t wait to tell my kids’ friends the news.