LG BH-100 Super Multi Blue Player

Going back to those heady days of wine, roses and Laserdiscs, the general public, if aware at all of LD's existence, would yawn and claim to be interested when a recordable LD is introduced. Of course that never happened and LD is currently residing in the "where are they now" of consumer electronica.

Step into the next century, and a common refrain among the unwashed today is that they'll be interested in buying a next-gen player when there's a clear winner in the format war or a combi player that plays both formats. The idea is to prevent the purchase of either a good size paperweight or undersized boat anchor.

Out of the blue (pun intended) at CES 2007 LG Electronics announced its surprise entry into the combi player market with the BH-100, which goes by the cool handle of Super Multi Blue player. But we'd hardly gotten over our excitement that the player was coming when LG told us it was coming to retailers in February. And before we got over that, we heard that the player was going to be missing HD DVD's key interactivity layer, and therefore wouldn't be allowed to use the official HD DVD logo on the player or its marketing lit. Buzz kill. Cue sound of a toilet flushing.

Still, the Multi-Blue is here. And we're here to tell you if you'd be missing anything in buying all your next-gen goodness in one $1,199 player. I guess I gave some of that away a paragraph ago. Oh well.

End of the Format War or a New Beginning? (Or at Least a Longer Middle?) My colleague at Home Theater magazine, Geoff Morrison, stole my thunder on this take. He had the same reaction to the Multi Blue that I had to Warner's announcement of the dual-format Total HD disc. Namely, that rather than end the format war this player, like Total HD, has the potential to prolong it by propping up a format that might be dying of natural causes in the market place (bet Geoff didn't know that take makes him an advocate of a free market economy).

My response is, "true dat." But at least the LG player is here now for the people that want it and may grab some fence-sitters; by announcing Total HD to launch in the second half of 2007 hasn't Warner given the sideline sitters yet another reason to wait to buy into either format?!

The Multi- Blue from the Outside
In short, it's pretty. The Multi-blue has an almost minimalist exterior, with just five softly lit buttons on the top of the unit and a smallish front panel display on the right of the chassis. There's a power button and the others are open/close, play/pause, stop and resolution.

The back panel features a component and an HDMI output, TosLink optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, 5.1-channel analog audio outputs, and an Ethernet port. The power cord is not removable.

A Blu-ray Player That Pretty Much Plays HD DVDs
For a time, LG was an exclusive Blu-ray supporter, and then later decided to get into the game with a combi player. The Multi Blue reflects this history to spooky degree. It's more functional as a BD player than as an HD DVD player in a number of critical respects.

Regarding the Multi Blue's peculiarities, let's start with what's been known since CES. The Multi Blue isn't compatible with HD DVD's HDi (formerly iHD) interactivity protocol. HDi authoring is involved whenever a menu or anything else comes on screen over moving video, which essentially means every HD DVD I've seen so far is an HDi title. The lack of HDi therefore renders inaccessible any full motion video commentaries and other picture-in-picture video features that run while a movie is playing.

But lack of HDi compatibility means more than missing out the bonus features that include running video. The chapter menus that come up over the running video are also HDi encoded, and this is the key navigational tool for playing back HD DVD discs. The studios author the discs to be navigated using HDi and this is why players bearing the HD DVD logo must be HDi compatible.

HD DVD movie chapters don't have names or other verbal descriptions for their chapters, and HD DVD packaging typically doesn't include a chapter list of any kind. The studios expect that your player will bring up full motion chapter menus on screen and you'll select them that way. The Multi Blue generates its own Title and Chapter menus. But they are designated by numbers only, and this is confusing. Classic example: I just picked up the Nine Inch Nails Concert video Beside You In Time. There are no track listings on the packaging, and only chapter numbers come up from the Multi Blue's internally generated menus. Would be nice to see the song list, which you do in a Toshiba HD DVD player.

In fact, none of the HD DVDs I had on hand had chapter descriptions or lists in the packaging. To select any special features on an HD DVD disc with the Multi Blue you have to use the Title numbers. Audio commentaries are a little easier to find as you can identify and switch audio streams more easily. But most navigation with the Multi Blue is blind. To make an analogy, this is like searching a computer file structure with DOS via command line prompts vs. a graphical user interface like Windows. Not fun. It robs the HD DVD format of some of its best assets.

I also reported previously that a source at Microsoft indicated that these might not be the only problems the Multi Blue would have with HDi encoded discs. The speculation was that since HDi is an authoring environment, some discs encoded with HDi might not play back correctly at all. Thus far, this fear appears unfounded. I've loaded a bunch of the titles that are loaded with extensive HDi features, like Batman Begins, V for Vendetta and a bunch of the Universal U-Control titles. They all played, although Batman had to be reloaded two or three times before the disc would read properly and Miami Vice froze when I tried to unload the disc. But playback bug-a-boos are common to Toshiba's first-gen players too, so I can't say the LG is any worse in that regard with HDi heavy titles.

As to why LG decided to forego HDi, all we can do is speculate. The HD DVD spec mandates that two video decoders be included on an HD DVD player to accommodate these interactive features, and maybe LG was uncomfortable pushing the player's price even higher. But the lack of HDi is, to me, a bigger deal than simply missing some video commentaries; it really makes navigating HD DVDs a drag.

Other Oddities and Ends
On the video output front, the Multi Blue deserves major props as the first HD DVD player we've seen that can output native 1080p/24 over HDMI, which it does with both HD DVD and Blu-ray. Super cool!

But it won't output 1080p/60 at all. Although the number of displays that will accept 1080p/24 is growing, 1080p/60 compatibility is more common. And if the Multi Blue detects that the display isn't 1080p/24 compatible it automatically sends 1080i. While this isn't a death knell for image quality, especially if your set can deinterlace 1080i properly, the less processing the better in a purist sense.