Almost Perfect

If you love someone, set them free,” is the advice Sting offers. He goes on to add, “Free, free, set them free,” about 300 times, but it does little to alter his basic message. Der Stingle can be forgiven for a lack of subject/pronoun agreement because he was probably doing something tantric at the time he wrote it. But even if we do him the favor of correcting it to, “If you love someone, set him or her free,” I’m not entirely sure I’d buy it. I’d counter with, “If you love someone, keep working on her, correcting her tiniest faults, and nudge her toward perfection at all times until she is exactly how you want her to be.”

No, I don’t feel this way toward my wife. She knows that I fully agree with her assessment that she’s already perfect. But I do have this attitude about home theater. Things are pretty good right now. We have high-resolution TVs, near-perfect audio, convenient storage media, falling prices, and ever-advancing technology. Still, there are some improvements that could be made and edges that could be sanded down with some efficient nagging.

I bow to no one when it comes to my affection for Blu-ray. (It’s purely platonic, Blu-ray, don’t get any ideas.) But dealing with its packaging quickly puts me into a rage that, although I’ve previously never had even the slightest inclination, makes me want to set fire to my own hair. The tight, shrink-wrapped cellophane is impenetrable, even though it offers a tantalizing hint that it may be vulnerable at the ends, where it folds over and fastens. But any probing with a fingernail quickly proves that it, too, is utterly inviolable. It rewards you with more frustration and possibly minor injury. The only dependable way to open it is to whet and hone your thinnest Rapala fishing knife to a razor edge and do your best to get its tip under a fold at the end. If you can do this and avoid major blood loss, you’re ahead of the game. Would it kill you, Blu-ray packagers, to engineer a little convenient peel-up tab for easy access? I submit to you that it would not.

Don’t get cocky, though. You’re only through the first layer. You’ll now have to deal with the army of security stickers. Designed and engineered to vex you, they do their job superbly. Although they are impossible to peel up by the edges, they can, with some effort, be torn in half. Or you could slice them with the Rapala, but since you just finished bandaging a pretty serious Rapala-caused wound, you’ll probably be a little wary of blades. You then have to face the arduous task of picking off the sticker shards. This usually proves to be a relatively easy, if unwelcome, task. But it quickly leads to a new problem: You have a dozen or so sticker shards adhered to your hands. You must peel them off and stick them to something else. I usually stick them to the inside of a garbage bag, since it’s not always possible to choose the more desirable option of sticking them to their inventor’s face.

Once you’ve freed the disc from its prison and pressed Play, you are greeted with the ubiquitous FBI warning screen. We’re used to it now, but step back and think about the user experience. The cellophane wrapper, the stickers, the FBI warning. The message from the manufacturer is clear: “You are a filthy, thieving pirate. We will hunt you down, find you, and hang you from the nearest yardarm with a sign around your neck that reads, ‘Filthy, Thieving Pirate.’ Now, enjoy your movie.” I sympathize with their desire to minimize the theft of their product, but it’s a little like walking into a store and having to submit to a cavity search before being allowed to shop. 

I also love downloadable and streaming content, but here again, there’s room for improvement. Since I have no other TV service, I’m forced to stream sporting events. If you’re considering it, I strongly urge that instead, you grab a buddy, mount his shoulders, and find yourself a nice knothole in the fence through which to view the game. I’m confident it will be an altogether superior viewing experience. 

This past fall, I was excited to see that MLB.com had finally taken the subtle hint of my twice-daily letters that urged them to offer high-quality streams of the games, so I quickly laid out the $10 for their post-season package. I was fully taken in by their promise of “up to four different camera angles,” which I naturally assumed were in addition to the game feed itself. I thought it was a harmless gee-gaw, one that I’m not likely to use, but hey, if the chaps at MLB.com like to keep themselves busy providing it, I’m happy they’re happy! As it turns out, the stream was only from a single individual camera. This is a big plus for those people out there who like to go to a ball game and focus their eyes on one tiny quadrant of the field, without ever moving their heads or changing their focus. But for those of us who actually like to follow the action as it moves, for instance, from one base to another, it had major drawbacks. Yes, you could select other camera angles, but only as tiny inset pictures, which offer a similar viewing experience as being high above the stadium in a helicopter with a dirty windshield. Oh, and no replays, no feeds of interview subjects, etc. It’s as though Major League Baseball said, “You can watch a little bit of our game—that’s too much! Stop watching!” 

Yes, I’m sure it has to do with pre-existing contracts, etc., but in a fast-moving digital world, not being able to deliver your product in a high-quality format seems a little behind the times. Like, Honus Wagner–era behind the times.

In short, I love you, home theater experience. Now change.

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