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After You've Gone

So now we have a single HD disc format. Hallelujah. No more excuses for sitting on the fence. No more "my upconverted DVDs look almost like high definition" claptrap. The clouds will part, angelic choirs will sing, and…oops, wrong blog.

But not everything is just hunky-dory. (Sorry, I just watched the beautiful new Disney Blu-ray release of Crimson Tide and couldn't help myself.) Now that the war is over, it's time for the Blu-ray group to clean house.

Neither HD format had the patent on trouble-free operation, but HD DVD came closer to it than Blu-ray. This was largely because one company, Toshiba, built all of the hardware and could establish and enforce strict controls. All HD DVD machines played all discs from the get-go, and if they didn't, Toshiba was quick to issue firmware updates to correct the situation. The only missing pieces on some early models were the ability to play back all the advanced audio formats and 24 fps operation. And those oversights were corrected in either additional firmware updates or new players, which hit the market with striking regularity; a year and a half into the format Toshiba was on its third generation of HD DVD hardware and, in my opinion, was poised to launch a fourth very soon when, as they say, events intervened.

HD DVD players weren't perfect, but they were a dream compared to the issues that have afflicted Blu-ray. Only the PlayStation 3 escaped serious criticism for its overall functionality, since it was ready on day one and played virtually all discs flawlessly. But even the PS3 lacked some desirable features. It still doesn't offer bitstream out for Dolby TrueHD, and won't play back DTS HD Master Audio in any form.

But there don't appear to be any old or new BDs that the PS3 won't play. You can't say that for most stand-alone BD players. The big roadblocks appear to be BD's aggressive copy protection and BD-Java, or BD-J, issues. The copy protection is here to stay, but BD-J's three different, so-called Profiles have caused a lot of heartburn. We have Profile 1.0, Profile 1.1, and Profile 2.0. Profile 1.0 won't play all of the special features on some new discs, Profile 1.1 will, but not those features that require Internet connectivity. Profile 2.0 does it all, or should, but only the PS3 currently has Profile 2.0 capability.

While those 1.0 players will, in theory, play the movies on 1.1 and 2.0 discs and only hiccup on the advanced features, in some cases the movies themselves have refused to play properly some 1.0 players. Firmware updates have usually fixed the problems, but left in their wake a lot of grumpy Blu-ray owners. And we've seen updates that have fixed one problem while causing a new one.

Now it's time for the Blu-ray group to lay down the law. All future players should be Profile 2.0, or at least 2.0-capable with the addition of outboard storage in the form of a flash drive or memory card. All players must be built to the same strict standards, and software manufacturers must be held to those standards. If a disc won't play on a fully compliant player, no more firmware updates should be issued to make do; the disc itself must be remastered to comply. Standards have to begin somewhere.

Firmware updates (which are a nuisance for the more mass-market users the format must attract to succeed) should be limited to significant feature upgrades. Even then, the upgrade should be sent to all registered owners on a simple, playable disc. Insert disc, push play, update installs with no further actions required. The first company that does this will earn a lot of PR brownie points. Not everyone wants to, or can, fiddle around with an Internet connection in the home theater room. Some potential BD customers don't have a high-speed Internet connection, or a home network. Some don't even have home computers—though obviously this doesn't include those reading this blog!)

In addition, more than a few HDMI problems still need to be worked out. For example, I've used a number of player-display combinations that constantly break HDMI lock at the transitions between studio logos, trailers, and menus at the beginning of a Blu-ray disc. Even though the situation (usually) stabilizes by the time the main menu arrives, this constant flashing on and off is annoying, and a reminder that HDMI is not yet a perfectly seamless interface, 1.3 or not. As if we didn't know that already.

And please, studios, if you want Blu-ray to be perceived as the premium format it is, stop cluttering up the front-ends of your releases. I love trailers, but can do without a dozen of them prior to the main menu, particularly when they can only be skipped one at a time. Worse, we get the same trailers over and over on every disc issued within a two-month period (or longer). I love every Disney-Pixar film, and the Wall•e trailer was a hoot the first time I saw it. But if I hear "Waaleee" once more I'm going to find me a robot so I can strangle it. Give me the trailers, but put them in the menu as a feature. Kudos to the studios, such as Warner Brothers, however, whose BDs are mastered to get to the movie as soon as possible, sometimes with little more than the FBI logo and the menu.

And when will Blu-ray mandate that its resume feature, which lets you stop then restart play from where you left off, be required on all BDs. Some studios lock it out. In fact, the discs with the most trailers and promos up-front, or those that take the longest to load, seem to be the worst offenders here. If you stop the disc, intentionally or otherwise, they make you start again at the very beginning and slosh through the mush all over again.

Speaking of load times, while most enthusiasts will put up with the 2-3 minute loading times some discs require, the general public will not, particularly if they then have to sit through trailers for another 12 minutes (or skip them one at a time) to get to the movie. If the PS3 can load quickly and sell at competitive price, why can't stand-alone players? If it takes a Cell processor (the brains of the PS3) or something equivalent to provide this for all players, do it.

Finally, we come to price. The elephant in the room. We want a packaged high definition format to succeed, and that now means Blu-ray. There will always be premium players for those that demand them. But until the price of the average BD player comes down to a level that the typical consumer will consider (my best guess here is $200-$250), Blue-ray will remain a niche product while DVD continues to prosper for the "good enough" crowd.

Blu-ray software is still too expensive as well. If the DVD of a movie lists for $25, the BD should be $30, tops, not $35 or $40. Early adopters and enthusiasts may pay that sort of premium, but only for a title they really want. J6P won't even consider it. Fox recently dropped the prices on a few of its $40 BDs to between $30 (for older catalog releases) and $35. It's a start.

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