Blu-ray's Real Battle Begins

Stepping away for a few days and returning to find the format war over is sort of like being in a restaurant, hitting the rest room, and returning to find your meal waiting for you. Time to dig in!

But now that the format war is solved, the real work begins: getting consumers at large to embrace HD on a disc in a market crowded with more ways than ever before to obtain and consume media. While flat panel HDTVs are flying off the shelves, it's not even clear how much of the general public knows high-def sources are required for them to actually see a high-definition image.

While year one indicators for the HD formats showed a pace that was actually ahead of where DVD was in its first year, that pace slackened dramatically in year two. Software sales are shockingly low in absolute numbers, and if you take away the PS3 the hardware numbers aren't big shakes either. Even relatively modest forecasts for player penetration and dollar figures for 2007 were re-jiggered ever downward by both camps.

Blu-ray manufacturers and studios are betting that confusion over the format war has been holding people back, and now the path is clear for Blu-ray to make an impact.

But just what threshold will indicate success? And how fast will any degree of success become apparent? I ask the first question simply because that is something that will need to be re-defined. I don't believe that any physical medium will ever be as ubiquitous as the DVD was. Between Video-On-Demand from cable and satellite providers and downloads and other network applications (from PS3 to Vudu to Xbox Live) there is simply too much competition. Just how much success can Blu-ray really look forward to compared to its predecessor?

DVD had huge advantages in following the clunky, low quality VHS tape and coming before these other applications. And since a huge selling point of BD players is being backward compatible with DVD, average consumers can and probably will be far choosier about the catalog titles they replace with BD versions than they were replacing their VHS tapes with DVDs.

And can whatever broad success BD is bound to have happen fast enough to prevent inferior but more convenient download models from taking greater hold? Take a look at Sony's own PlayStation 2- a larger library of games and cheaper prices had that seemingly dated console outselling the PS3 often in 2007. PS3 has time on its side while developers come up with new games and prices drop, perhaps even years, as PS2's sustained success shows. BD might not have the same luxury in time.

And as I've frequently commented, Blu-ray can do more to clean up its hardware specs and improve the end user experience. The speed and relability of playback must get a lot smoother if mass adoption is to be driven by positive word of mouth and user satisfaction. Hopefully a raft of of faster, less expensive players will carry Blu-ray to big success this holiday season.

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COMMENTS
Dennis Barron's picture

I agree 100%, and in regards to hardware specs, I could not agree more, especially in the case of the PS3, concerning the lack of response to end users requests for full spec compliance(features), due to either hardware limitations,not sure what HDMI chipset is being used, or unreleased firmware .I can only hope for a solution soon, or will need to wait for a stand alone player which does support the full specs.

John R.'s picture

I don't think the cost of HD hardware, Blu-ray (BD) or HD DVD, will be as big of an issue as is the cost of the movies. Having said that I am still waiting for BD players to get quite a bit lower. Since all studios are now on the same format with BD, that will relieve some confusion about disc. However, the disc prices are ridiculous and sales usually only include old movies that most people have on DVD, or at east have already seen. One comment I heard in the past was that BD was always destined to win because they had Disney studio. Do you really think a 5 year old cares about the extra resolution a 1080P picture gives? Parents won't spend $29.95 to shut their kid up when they already have a DVD or can get one for $15.95. One bad thing I have noticed in the midwest is that the price of new DVDs on release day seem to be a couple of dollars higher than last year and sales aren't a sure thing.

Shane's picture

I think this is a huge point. The software needs to get cheaper for certain and we'll see if it can do so fast enough. Big investments are going to be required to ramp up replication, and there's the chicken and egg of player sales to drive high enough software sales to reach economy of scale. I'll be very curious where we are with all this come the holiday shopping season.

Claude's picture

Shane - Welcome back! I will have to agree that prices of Blu-ray discs need to come down to an MSRP of $20 or less to make the buy more of an impulse. Interest is starting to peak on Blu-ray however even in my liitle world. My neigbor has already asked me how I like the PS3 as he is now in the market because HD DVD is out. Another friend will buy a BD player (2.0) this year because HD DVD is dead. I've also had a couple more inquiries from co-workers. None of these people were interested till there was a winner. Two things need to happen and quickly...lower SW prices and entry-level BD players in the magic $200 range.

Claude's picture

One more quick comment on Shane's blog - replacing catalog DVD's with Blu-ray and how people would think twice.....I said when I got into this..."I won't buy any movies that I already have!" Bunk......I have bought some catalog titles that I already had on DVD due to the pristine picture....could not help it. It's difficult to watch regular DVD as it is for me now to watch regular NTSC TV....I'm hooked on HD!

shane's picture

I should also confess- I'll re-buy any movie I give a fig about on HD provided I believe it's a new improved transfer and not something from the paleolithic era of HD.

Colin Robertson's picture

Shane, I couldn't have said it better myself. BRD's biggest hurdle in the future is downloads, but until enthusiasts can download movies in as good, if not better quality picture and sound, with all the extras, in a convenient manner, and for a fair price, then BRD should find a comfortable place on peoples shelves for some time to come. Right now, as spacious as hard drives are, they would still feel tight with the space required for that level of quality. Even if we all had the storage space, bandwidth is nowhere near the speed it needs to be for that. However mp3s proved that people generally really don't give a rats about quality.

Louis T. P.'s picture

Good article Shane, but I am keeping my HD-XA2, a hell of a player, HD-DVD or upconverting! The upconverting capability of it is unmatched by any other player (Reon chip on board) ...and my HD-DVD collection will keep on playing no matter if the format is dead or not, so to me it does not matter that the format died, I will still enjoy Transformers for example in all its HD glory for years to come. HD-DVD should have been the winning format, since it was ready from the start, worked great also from the start, and Toshiba had more reasonable prices, not as greedy as the Sony/Blue Ray bunch, which in the end had their format win by pushing a gaming console matted with their player (and Toshiba not matching that factor).... and lots of bribe money to studios. I will get into Blue Ray but after their prices AND their players get it right ...perhaps in the upcoming 2.0 players... but I want to make sure they work as good as my HD-XA2, so far they have lots of issues they need to fix before I jump in with them.

Claude's picture

Louis - My PS3 has had no issues. Period. I keep hearing how HD DVD was the perfect format from the start, that's just not true. The original player had many issues including incredibly slow start ups. If you followed any of the Forums you would also hear from many unhappy folks. Far from perfect. I will give HD DVD it's place in the sun for getting all the bells and whistles to work before Blu, but personally I could care less about the "extras", all I want is the best audio and video I can get. As to including Blu-Ray capability in the PS3, that was really a great move on Sony's part. The death of HD DVD is good for the hi-def disc format but not for those who picked it. I would hope that after the sting wears off that HD DVD owners buy into Blu for the sake of hi-def movies and that Toshiba as well as Blu-Ray manufacturers give some sort of discounts to encourage adoption.

noah's picture

it's not even clear how much of the general public knows high-def sources are required for them to actually see a high-definition image.EXACTLY! 80% of the people I talk to think that DVD IS HD. Prices need to be a great deal cheaper for broad adaptation. Until then, blu-ray will remain in the enthusiast camp. The movie studio's will also need to improve the quality of conversions. The vast majority of movies more than 5 years old don't look much better on blu-ray than a good up-converting DVD player. Why would people pay 2-3x the price for a 5% improvement.

Shane's picture

Terrific points all. I think the one area in which BD is vulnerable is in the costs to ramp up replication to mass-market levels, assuming BD makes it that far. HD DVD's biggest boon perhaps was how quickly and inexpensively existing replication lines could be retrofitted relative to BD, which is more expensive by several orders of magnitude. If BD replication doesn't ramp up with demand disaster will ensue.There is no question that HD DVD had some bumps at launch, but there's also no question that HD DVD set the quality bar higher right off the bat, and that HD DVD quickly evolved into a more reliable stable platform than Blu-ray. Many of Blu-ray's issues are on playback.As I write this there are standalone players on the market that still don't offer advanced audio support and as I've said many times, the players are embarrassingly sluggish and the interactivity situation is a mess.It's ok that some don't care about that, but you just should have to choos

shane's picture

Our character counter is bunk. It must be authored in Java. Ouch!What I was saying, is for a next-gen product like Blu-ray, it's embarrassing that you should have to choose between having access to the interactivity with 3rd and 4th generation players. Even if you don't think you're interested in these new extras, how do you know until you try them? And if you're plunking your money down, don't you want the choice?And yes, viva PS3. We have two now. In our second system, which my wife and son use more than I, my wife demanded that we buy another PS3 instead of using a standalone I had in that system. She was frustrated by the longer than life load times that she didn't experience downstairs with the PS3.We don't play any games at all, so it's only a BD player. I won't get rid of it until a standalone matches its speed and convenience, and that has nothing to do with interactivity. The standalones need to catch up, period.

Claude's picture

Shane - Agreed, that's why I have a PS3 and three other friends also own a PS3 based on my recommendation. This has to and will change. The Panasonic BD30 is a great improvement and hopefully the forthcoming BD50 2.0 player. Looking forward to a review! The manufacturers know we want fast load times, seemless software compatibility, and internet connectivity for firmware updates. You will see improvements this year.

Shane's picture

Agreed on the new Panasonic. But I have used the BD30, and while it is a vast improvement over standalones, it's slo-mo compared to the PS3. If the PS3 gets DTS-HD MA at some point, I might never own a standalone.But really, my wife's experience is something important. She's usually not picky but became extremely frustrated by the sluggishness of the standalone players. Granted, she's always loading the Pixar discs, and Underdog, and other kiddy titles that are the most heavily authored discs. But still, standalones need to speed up a lot or there will be frustrated consumers out there.

Traveler's picture

The real battle now is BluRay vs. Download. Eventually internet will win, but there still enough licencing ant tech hurdels for BluRay to be ontop for a few years.

Dave's picture

I'm also waiting for the PS3 upgrade for DTS-HD MA. I know that the PS3 currently decodes and sends out the DD-HD track as PCM over HDMI but what about bitstream? I've read both that...A) a future firmware upgrade will enable DD and DTS tracks to be sent to a receiver as bitstream and...B) that the lack of HD bitstream capability is actually a hardware issue that cannot be rectified by a firmware upgrade Can anyone confirm which scenario is true? My Onkyo receiver can handle both the PCM signal or bitstream to be decoded but I'd like the flexibility to use either option.

Louis T. P.'s picture

Good article Shane, as for me I am keeping my HD-XA2, a hell of a player, HD-DVD or upconverting! The upconverting capability of it is unmatched by any other player (Reon chip on board) ...and my HD-DVD collection will keep on playing no matter if the format is dead or not, so to me it does not matter that the format died, I will still enjoy Transformers for example in all its HD glory for years to come. HD-DVD should have been the winning format, since it was ready from the start, worked great also from the start, and Toshiba had more reasonable prices, not as greedy as the Sony/Blue Ray bunch, which in the end had their format win by pushing a gaming console matted with their player (and Toshiba not matching that factor)....and lots of bribe money to studios. I will get into Blue Ray but after their prices AND their players get it right ...perhaps in the upcoming 2.0 players... but I want to make sure they work as good as my HD-XA2.

Bill's picture

I agree with a lot of the comments as I just purchased a new Panasonic bd-30. I've purchased three Blue ray titles in movies in one week. But also just purchased 5 blue ray titles music dvds which have lossless audio. That always had an attraction for me. And even though I have over 250 DVD's, I will purchase my favorites in Blue ray if they have 1080p and HD Dolby and Master audio included. The sound is just as important as the picture. I really think once people get used to High def. Television which is coming in Feb of 2009. No one will want to watch movies in 480i. just my two cents

Alex Chavarin's picture

I also agree with most comments, but I don't think the average person really sees or cares for the difference between DVD and Blu-ray. The average person doesn't have anything larger than a 42" HDTV, if that big, so DVD or Blu-ray won't make a big difference. Once people start buying bigger sets, then maybe the difference in resolution will stand out.

Claude's picture

Alex - I respectfully disagree with you concerning whether you can see a difference between regular DVD and Blu-Ray(or HD-DVD for that matter) on a screen smaller than 42 inches. I own a Sony KV-34XBR800 and the difference is night and day. Easily seen by everyone who views it. I hear this all the time that you need a huge screen to see the difference....simply untrue.

Vernon Barnes's picture

This is directed to Shane's superb article on the Sony PS3 in Mar 08 HT. I would greatly appreciate comparison with the new PS3 with the problem -ridden BDP-S1 (finally behaving after 3 firmware upgrades). At about double the price this should be Sony's flagship BD player, performance-wise, but from what you said, without mentioning any other player specifically, the PS3 still rules. Have I made a terrible blunder in my choice in favor of the BDP-S1?

shane's picture

Vernon- I don't think this is a blunder so much as the pains involved in being an early adopter. I've not made any secret about how disappointed I've been in Blu-ray's hardware rollout as far as how many early generation units aren't compatible or upgradeable to some of the most desirable features of the format. Especially the expensive second and third generation units.I was at UAV during most of the format war and did my best to educate our readers on these complex subjects and let them know what they were and weren't getting with the early generation players.As I've said so many times, the PS3 seems all the more remarkable as time goes by. And I've been down in our LA office and haven't even gotten to play back any DTS-HD MA discs yet!

vernon barnes's picture

Shane--your response is insightful and much appreciated. What I'd like to see is a head to head review with the flagship Sony BDP-s200ES against the old BDP-S1, S301 , S500 up against the PS3. While you are at it, why not throw the other Blu-Ray players into the review too. You might have to devote an entire issue to Blu-Ray players.

Greg G's picture

I do agree that downloads, if they can match Blu-rays in picture and audio quality, will eventually win. Unfortunately though, I have read alot lately about content providers wanting to change the current business model. They want to do away with the unlimited downloads we enjoy now and move to a tiered download scheme were you pay for how much you download. This will be more profitable for the internet providers and more expensive for those of us who want to download HD content. Home Theater mentions this in a previous article and other magazines have reported this as well. Lets make sure we keep the industry in check with our wallets and letters.

blueraynomore's picture

as a high end audiophile i was suckered in early to blueray by samsung and my experiencce has been terrible, 1,000 dollars for a player with a hit or miss chance of being able to play a new disc. firmware updates have not been added since early this year and i no longer buy blueray discs. tobad because i loved the quality but it is not worth the agravation any longer, i may come back to it in a year or so but for now no more for me.

Betclic's picture

So interesting topicBetclic

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