Last year there was a high-definition media format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray. Well, the war is over and Blu-ray won. No parade is needed, but there is a lot you’ll need to know to get that big, beautiful HD picture. First, you’ll need an HDTV and a Blu-ray player. The players are becoming fairly plentiful, even available on desktop and laptop computers. Sony’s PlayStation 3 also functions as a Blu-ray player. Stand-alone players start at around $400, and go into the thousands.
Next, you’ll need Blu-ray movie titles. You can’t load your old copy of Predator into a PS3 and get high-def magic. You can play standard-definition DVDs on your Blu-ray player, and it will “upconvert” that content (see “Undecided About Upconverting?” on page 42), making the image appear better than it did on your standard DVD player. However, only Blu-ray discs can deliver a true high-def image to your HDTV’s screen of 720p, 1080i or 1080p resolution. While some disc deals can be found for $10 a pop or buy-one-get-one-free, most Blu-ray titles run between $20 and $40. Like standard DVDs, many newer Blu-ray releases include extra content, but the latest buzz is interactive content.
Interactive content comes via BD Profile, also known as BD Live and Bonus View. The first crop of stand-alone Blu-ray players did not include this feature. Those players were not equipped to connect to the web, which meant no special web content and no special downloadable upgrades. This feature is being built into newer players to allow you to tap into games, picture-in-picture commentary and other extras. PS3 owners have had this capability since day one. All others wanting to experience BD Profile will need to upgrade their players.
While many pooh-pooh the idea of purchasing another player, it can come in handy. Another player will give you a spare to watch DVD movies elsewhere in the house. Blu-ray discs will not play on your old, trusty DVD player. The competing HD DVD format produced many “combo” discs, which had a high-def version on one side, standard-def on the other. This gave consumers the convenience of playing titles on other DVD players in and out of the house. Most people do not own multiple Blu-ray players, however, and that could help drive the price of the titles down, says Josh Martin, senior analyst of Media & Entertainment Devices at the Yankee Group, a research and consulting firm. “You can’t charge a premium for a title that is in some degree less functional than a standard-def title,” he says.
To hook up your Blu-ray player, you will need an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) cable. While some Blu-ray–capable media machines will work with DVI (Digital Visual Interface), stand-alone players will not. HDMI is a single connection that handles high-definition video and uncompressed audio. There are various incarnations of HDMI; each version adds functionality, including new connectors and audio technology. Currently, HDMI 1.3 is backwards compatible with HDMI 1.1, which is what you’ll find on most HDTVs.
Web firmware updates and cable upgrades also pave the way for better technology. The PS3 recently used a web download to add support for DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. These newer technologies promise a 5.1 or 7.1 surround-sound audio experience to match that eye-popping picture.
While you probably want a killer audio setup for Blu-ray, the video portion remains a bit more subjective. We surveyed our ElectronicHouse.com audience for judgments. Some swear by 1080p TV resolution as a necessity to experience true Blu-ray, which outputs “Full HD” 1080p content. Reader Derek Fulford says, “Blu-ray is the highest quality source of video content available, and having a 1080p setup will ensure that you are capitalizing on all the fine picture details that Blu-ray provides.” However, plenty of people are perfectly happy with a less-expensive 720p set. “I’ve heard people say that having a Blu-ray player without a 1080p TV is like having a Ferrari without tires,” says reader Roman Sohor. “Just because you have a Shelby instead of a Ferrari doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy yourself a set of tires! If you have a 720p TV, run to the store and get yourself a Blu-ray player.” You will get a better picture with Blu-ray, no matter what type of high-def set you have.
Which player you buy may depend on factors such as features, brand name and cost. Some people love the PS3 package, which delivers Blu-ray as well as gaming. “The load times on the PS3 are much quicker,” adds reader Dean Bunn. “My PS3 has never had an audio glitch or playback problem, and Sony keeps updating it with firmware to show they are committed to making it the best. It is overall the best BD player money can buy, in my opinion.”
Others stand by stand-alone players—as well as brands they know. What separates one player from another? Of course, there will be some technical differences. “For $5,000, you’d better have a better product than the ones for $400,” Martin says. However, most of the basic features are probably the same. “I think a lot of it right now is going to deal with brand and brand reputation more than anything, which isn’t to say that more expensive products aren’t technically better than cheaper products or that cheaper products are necessarily worse, but brand plays a huge role.” Also, more expensive devices may offer additional storage (such as a media server) or whole-house features. If you aren’t into bells and whistles, you can save a few bucks. No matter which brand of player you choose, there is a noticeable bang with Blu-ray.
Learn more about the audio side of Blu-ray in our recent Ask a Pro article:
“What Are the Differences Between Dolby Digital, Dolby TrueHD, DTS and DTS-HD?”
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Over the past 15 years, Rachel Cericola has covered entertainment, web and technology trends. Check her out at www.rachelcericola.com.