June 10, 2008
| by Jeff Winston
Blu-ray supporters let out a collective sigh of relief following the format war victory several months ago, but manufacturers have yet to reap the benefits. Turns out consumers are reluctant to give up their now-pedestrian DVD players. In a recent poll, only nine percent plan to buy a Blu-ray player within the next year. All things considered, you might do well to wait awhile.
It’s true that a Blu-ray disc can hold up to 25GB on a side (compared to 4.7GB for a regular DVD), and can hold high-definition TV formats (720p, 1080i, 1080p) vs. the 480p of a regular DVD. But still, is that sufficient reason to upgrade? The answer really depends on your taste in movies, the size of your wallet, and your tolerance for changing technology.
Most movies made over the last 60 years were not filmed with HD formats in mind. It’s possible to re-process a film into HD resolution, and the studios are doing so with many movies. However, it’s a manual process, and the results for older or less popular films are mixed. So, before you run out and buy a player, read some unbiased reviews for the titles you plan to re-purchase. Also, keep track of which of your favorite TV shows were recorded in HD, as there’s little benefit to buying the Blu-ray version of a show shot in standard-def!
Blu-ray isn’t cheap, yet. The early adopters are moving in, and equipment is priced to match. Players are still priced over $1000, and even low-end units cost at least $400. For example, the Panasonic DMP-BD30 is priced at $499, the Sony BDP-S300 at $399, and the Samsung BD-P1400 at $399. Over time, the equipment costs should drop close to regular DVD pricing, but that will take at least a year or two. In the meantime, every week you hold off could save you a few dollars. (Alternately, you may already have a Blu-ray player, and quite a good one. Every Sony Playstation-3 ships with a top-quality Blu-ray player inside).
But the investment doesn’t stop with the player. To really see the improved quality of Blu-ray, you need to make your entire signal chain 1080p-compatible. That means all HDMI cabling, 1080p compatible displays and 1080p compatible home theater switchers or receivers. This is all pricey equipment today, with displays costing at least $1000 (Panasonic TH-42PZ80U 42-in. Plasma, or Toshiba 42RV530U 42-in. LCD, both $1,199), and receivers at $500 and up (Yamaha RV-663, $499, Onkyo TX-SR705, $649). Multichannel audio is a must, with at least five speakers and a subwoofer (Polk Audio RM-6880, $499, Boston Acoustics MCS 100, $599). Older DVI cabling isn’t sufficient, and 720p plasma displays really take you only half-way.
Ever Changing Technology
Finally Blu-ray technology is still evolving. There are at least 3 generations of Blu-ray: The older “Profile 1” format, the current “Profile 1.1” format, and the soon to be shipping “Profile 2” (aka “BD-Live”) designs. Older discs will play on newer players, but older players won’t support all the features on newer disks. Also, many Blu-ray players don’t support all the older CD formats (CD-RW, etc), and some won’t play MP3/WMA disks, which means you need to keep your old player even after you buy a Blu-ray player. Bottom line: No matter what you buy today, you may find yourself replacing it within a couple of years.
It’s good for us all that the format war is done. Now manufacturers can get off the fence and deliver some fine, cost-effective products. However, it’s still early in the game, as designers discover which features are important, and work out the bugs. Over time, early-production models will give way to more mature products. If you’re upgrading your system now, make sure it’s 1080p compatible. And if you’re not quite ready to buy, don’t worry about being left behind, the best of Blu-ray is yet to come.
Jeff Winston has been writing about home electronics since 1998. An electrical engineer, Jeff has contributed to the development of products in the computer, consumer electronics, and wireless industries. He spends his spare time with his wife, kids, and many PCs, sometimes in that order.