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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Colin Robertson's picture

The thing with the PS3 is it's sold at a loss. When it comes to videogames, Sony makes the most money with the software, and licensing. So, while the PS3 is an excellent blu-ray player because of it's cell processor, hard drive, and networking capabilities, Sony has to sell it at a loss to get it into gamers hands so they can start selling software as soon as possible. The thing is, most people don't feel that a games console should cost them more than $200-$300, let alone the initial PS3 cost of $600. With increasing demands for gameplay, graphics, and sound, a lot of power needed to be built into an HD games console, and subsequently, it lent itself to relatively easy playback of HD content, and easy upgradablity because of the fact that it's commonly connected to a network. So, my point is, most manufacturers cannot afford to sell a product with these features at the prices most are demanding out of a blu-ray player. With Moore's law, give it some time, and this issue will disa

David's picture

Tom, I couldn't agree more with you here. Although my testing of BD players has been limited, it has been enough that I am glad I spent my money on a PS3. Although it will never provide bitstream out because of the internal hardware, it's lightning fast usability more than makes up for this. David

Steve in Manitoba's picture

Excellent Tom. You hit on everything I can see wrong with Blu-ray. I only hope studio exec's and manufacturers pay heed. I want HD. I would have gone to HD-DVD due to many of the issues you raise. But I'm not diving in until I can see something that will prevent my new collection becoming obsolete while the format is still alive. The trailer issue is of importance as well. Not just HD but DVD as well. Its a source of constant frustration. I have purchased all of the disc's in our collection. When I go to a friends house and see his pirated version playing without the trailers, that option starts to look attractive. I don't want to go down that road because I appreciate the great effort it takes to provide the content. But they are pushing law-abiding people to that. Colin raises a good issue as well. If the PS3 is sold at a loss anticipating game sales, how will Sony deal with those that start buying the PS3 just as a Blu-ray player with no game purchases to prop up the loss on the player?

Stephen - Ontario's picture

Steve, I don't think you have to worry about a blu-ray collection becoming obsolete because of a new player, it's more the reverse - possible new blu-ray releases may reveal your player to be out of date. I have been recommending the PS3 to most of my friends (and you can get them second hand now at very reasonable prices with warranties at some electronic boutiques). We now have two and over 200 blu-rays. I can't watch regular DVDs anymore - and don't buy them anymore either. I though i wouldn't replace my DVDs, but find myself doing so. Although i recommend the PS3 to most people, i am this month contemplating a Denon player to squeeze the most out of my Pioneer plasma. I am aware of the above issues, but do have the PS3s in case a disc has a play back issue. Trailers have been a problem on DVD and, as said, is not unique to blu-ray. They are annoying, but i now use the time to get the snacks etc. together before sitting down (assuming the Top Menu doesn't let me jump to the

Stephen - Ontario's picture

(cont.) ... main menu). On another note, it would be nice (but likely impractical) to have the blu-ray disc include the necessary manufacturer firmware updates on the disc to play (similar to the way some PS3 games include the necessary updates for the PS3). The user could then update their player - even if they had no internet. This would require cooperation between the studios and the manufacturers. Stephen

Colin Healy's picture

Great article Tom, i agreed with a alot of your points. Althought i think you give Toshiba too much credit for quality control and playabitly without fw updates. I mean their most recent fw 2.0 for a35 and 2.8 for Xa2 crippled 1080/24 playback by introducing jaggies on avc encoded material.In my personal experience it has only been my A35 that hasn't played discs, in fact i needed to update fw the day i bought just to play bourne identity and 300. Seeing that i have the ps3 for bd playback i realize i am spoiled by the fastest and most stable blu ray player and therefore a35 v ps3 isn't the best way to compare formats. The major gripes you have with bd have been in my experience the major probs of hdvd. You mentioned the hdmi handshake as an issue with bd but not hd. If you check out the A35 forum at AVS there is still a major issue with the a35 changing resolution or not bitstreaming if you switch the input on your reciever from hd to cable and back. Plus no hd's even have a resume play funct

Colin Healy's picture

I was wondering why publications like Ultimate av mag and other ht mags don't call out Toshiba for there recently blundered fw updates. Both fw 2.0 for the A30 and 35 and 2.8 for the XA2 introduce jaggies with avc encoded content at 1080/24. This issue is well reported and documented on AVS, yet i haven't seen any stories on this. I have spoken with numerous tosh csr's and none of them are aware of the issue, in fact they try and suggest unplugging my machine every time, it makes me go crazy. The fw is still up for donwload on toshiba's site despite it's malicious nature. Normally i wouldn't be concerned with toshiba fixing the issue but with the death of hd dvd i worry, without the proper outcry Toshiba will never fix the issue. Are the editors of ultimate av mag unaware of this issue. Talk about being user unfriendly, in order to enjoy beowolf and into the wild in ful 1080/24 glory i had to use a hexidecimal editor to trick my a35 into thinking fw 1.3 was 2.1 in order to downgrade to

David Vaughn's picture

Colin, I have read about the issues over at AVS as well, which is why I didn't update my firmware. I have mentioned to a member of the HD DVD Promotional Group the issues with the Toshiba players and firmware specifically and he has been just as frustrated as we have been with the firmwares that fix one thing, but break something else in the process. It makes you wonder if they even test these things! David

70sam54's picture

And to think that this is "The HD Format Winner". Please continue to voice your satisfactory opinions and not your displeasures with the big Blu Ray format. After all, it is the "hd winner". As for me I will continue to use my hd dvd a1 player to upconvert all my dvds if I so please. I'd rather that then to have to put up with all the issues with Blu Ray. Somehow can anyone see that big smile on my face? Have some fun guys and stop crying the blues.

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