THE BLU-RAY SPECIAL or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blue-ray 101008

So here we go. What follows is a short article containing some of what I have observed in taking my jump to Blu-ray. Right up front I will say this is just some babblings from a dork who loves movies and is now able to see them in high definition, thanks to Blu-ray. I'm happy I've made the jump and I am impressed with just how good the films look. Yet, there are some problems with the format and you may want to be aware of them before making the leap to high definition movies. I apologize if there are some inaccuracies or if you just think I'm way off the mark with this stuff. I'm hoping that if someone is thinking about getting a Blu-ray player and some films, this might give them a heads up.

A bevy of recommended Blu-rays. These are either A) films with excellent transfers (or in the case of 'The Dark Knight', “hopefully” an excellent transfer) or B) films with solid transfers that look about as good as they could on the format (IE. 'L.A. Confidential', 'The Getaway' and 'The Wild Bunch'.)

For some time the format wars waged with HD-DVD and Blu-ray going head to head for the crown of being the sole high definition format. Early on HD-DVD took the lead. Blu-ray players were hard to come by and some early Blu-ray releases looked downright embarrassing. Then things began to change. Sony took (and is still taking) huge losses to release their Playstation 3 (PS3) video game system. The losses may be a gamble that pays off. The PS3 could play Blu-ray movies and the system became the Blu-ray player to get a hold of. Despite needing many updates it has become arguably the best Blu-ray player around. Things began to shift, and Blu-ray began to take the lead, thanks largely to the PS3. Anyone who bought a PS3 got a Blu ray player whether they wanted it or not.

With HD-DVD effectively dead, Blu-ray has become the high definition media format. What is interesting is I am pretty sure I can remember talk of the Blu-ray format back in 1998 around the time of the 'M2' videogame system that never came to be. With all the development time, Blu-ray was noteworthy for still being higher capacity than HD-DVD. The added storage space no doubt helped bump up the quality of the Blu-ray releases. Not only that but Sony went some distance to at least make an attempt to right some wrongs by re-releasing a messed up Blu-ray disc, 'The Fifth Element'. (The remastered version has a much better picture quality according to a review at that can be seen HERE.)

In the above captures you can see the higher level of detail in the Blu-ray screen grabs on the top. On the bottom are upscaled DVD captures of the same frame or as close as I could make it. The captures don't do the Blu-ray transfers justice but they at least let you see the higher level of detail, even in an older film like Sam Peckinpah's 'The Getaway'. Click the above pictures to see them in full resolution.

With Blu-ray being the high definition format to stay, Sony has also managed to bring the PS3 that much closer to being a profitable venture. The system is still arguably one of the best Blu-ray players around. Sales have steadily climbed as more people have made the inevitable jump to high definition. Just about every movie studio has started to ramp up production of Blu-ray discs. More titles, more choices, and more publicity can only help the format grow. As I said in a recent update on this site, when my computer died, I decided to make the jump to Blu-ray myself. After all, the format war was over and there are a lot of titles coming out on Blu-ray. Being a movie dork, I'm glad I made the jump and if I could do it all over again, I would still make the change.

However, everything did not go as smoothly as you might think. Anyone who was a fairly early adopter of DVDs will find familiar territory if they make the jump to Blu-ray. The problems I had, were mostly related to problems that are symbolic of larger issues with the format and beyond. Ultimately, that is why I am writing this useless babble: if you are thinking about making the switch, you should be aware that it will be a bumpy ride. Get ready for some nagging issues that might get in the way of your Blu-ray enjoyment.

Problem 1: Hardware. Here's the thing: I mentioned a couple of times that the PS3 was one of the best Blu-ray players available. Part of the reason for that is it has had many updates to iron out bugs with playback. If you happen to get a stand alone player that cannot be updated, expect to be out of luck. You can spend a ton of cash on one and then come to find out that it will simply not play some Blu-ray discs because the player needs a hardware or software update that just won’t be happening. I was perusing reviews of Blu-ray discs and noticed that a reviewer HERE was not even able to test some of the features on the disc he was reviewing because his player was not Profile 1.1 compliant.

Whether watching a scene at night or a scene in the day, 'I, Robot' has high levels of detail and just the right amount of grain to make one of the stronger Blu-ray transfers.

That brings me to problem 2: software. Changes have been made to the format that allow Blu-ray discs to have added features. This sounds good in theory but so far in practice it is a bit silly. Look, as I said in an update on this site, I'm sure there will be some cool features down the road but for now, getting a hold of a Blu-ray player that will let you put a photo of yourself into 'Starship Troopers 3' is not going to be a priority. What will be a priority is getting a player that will support Profile 2.0 (the latest Blu-ray software/hardware update.) You probably won't care if you cannot put pictures of yourself into a movie you want to see but you will care if the Blu-ray disc won't work in your player at all because it is not Profile 2.0 compliant. (This whole thing about putting pictures of yourself in 'Starship Troopers 3' is real, it comes from an article about a Blu-ray press conference at DVDtimes HERE.) Compatibility and ease of use are the keys. The best thing you can do is read reviews about the player that you are thinking about buying or get a PC with Blu-ray, like I did.

If you do go the PC route, be ready for some fun compatibility issues of your own. Profile 2.0 support comes into play on the PCs just as it does on the stand alone players. Fortunately, most PCs can be updated and playback software like 'PowerDVD' (reviewed HERE) and 'TotalMedia Theatre' (reviewed HERE) have updates that help with compatibility. Unfortunately, some system manufacturers like HP have been slow in offering firmware updates for the Blu-ray drives in their systems. No firmware update results in users not being able to play some films. (I had to find a work around to get 'Street Kings' to play on my computer. If you are thinking about getting an HP for Blu-ray, as of this article, they still have not released a firmware update to make the drives in their systems Profile 2.0 compliant. (By the way if you are wondering what the hell I am blathering about with all this “profile” talk, High-Def Digest has a good breakdown HERE and Cnet has a good one as well, right HERE.)

What problems 1 and 2 boil down to is compatibility. In fact, that is probably the largest problem with the Blu-ray format. People spending a lot of money on a brand new player or system should be able to actually play Blu-ray discs. End of story. Right now that is just not the case. (See my comments above about a gentleman who could not access all the features of his disc when writing a review because his player was not compatible.) From what I have read, the only player that will play every Blu-ray disc is still the PS3. (The system also gets a boost since some Blu-ray discs actually have updates for the PS3 on them.) Now, there are probably others out there that will play everything but there are also a lot that will not. If you go the PC route like I did, expect to have to struggle with at least a couple of movies and programs before you can get everything to work in a satisfactory manor. (030909 A sleight correction I've been remiss in posting sooner. Most of the players can be updated one way or another. If you do not have one with Internet access, you can download updates on a computer, burn it to DVD and then put the disc in Blu-ray player. Doing this will not change a profile 1.1 player to profile 2.0 but it would offer updates that my allow Blu-ray discs to play that previously would not.)

Problem 3: Price. Not only are the Blu-ray players expensive but so are TVs and/ or displays that support full 1080p resolution. (1080p is the resolution that Blu-ray movies are encoded in, allowing for a lot of on screen detail in the films.) Even with recent price drops, all of the equipment is still plenty pricey. Not only is the equipment expensive, the Blu-ray movies often are as well. Many times the releases have the exact same features as the standard DVDs but the price is jacked up. I know the technology is new but it almost seems as if the prices for Blu-ray movies have actually gone up. Studios want people to buy more movies? Try picking a pricing structure and sticking to it.

'Face / Off' was the first problematic Blu-ray transfer that I saw. From the looks of the transfer, I would guess that an excess amount of Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) was used to try and make the film look sharp, grain free, and modern. I don't know if that is the cause for sure but the result is a transfer that makes actors faces look waxy and drained of fine details. This may not sound bad but when I first saw the film on Blu-ray it was more distracting than you might expect. While the transfer does still look better than the DVD it looks nowhere near as good as it should.

Problem 4: The perception of the high definition look. Most films look stunning on Blu-ray. Once you start watching films in the full 1080p resolution it is easy to get hooked on the format. Unfortunately, a few films have not faired well on Blu-ray. In the early days of DVD I seem to remember ‘The Exorcist’ getting such an awful transfer that some had said it was worse than VHS. That is certainly not the case here but there are some poor high definition transfers that can be downright distracting. The only film I have gotten to see with my own eyes, that has some transfer problems is ‘Face/Off’.

I think studios want their high definition releases to have a certain look; they want the image clean and sharp. The problem comes in when one realizes that sometimes movies have grain that is a part of the image and is supposed to be there. In the past, the grain was less noticeable because the resolution of DVDs was much lower than Blu-rays. The ‘Face/Off’ transfer seems to wipe out the grain in the image but some details with it. In particular, faces look somewhat waxy with the detail pulled out. The result is more distracting than you would think it would be and looks all the worse because it is blown up in high resolution. Studios need to remember that sometimes grain is good and trying to make films have a certain high definition, grain free, appearance can ruin a transfer. Even with the distraction, the Blu-ray ‘Face/Off’ disc, is still a step up from the standard DVD. (As a side note, I would like to point out, no matter what the transfer of a movie looks like on Blu-ray, the company logos always look flawless.)

Finally, problem 5: missing or no features. Studios release movies on Blu-ray but sometimes either a.) don’t bring over all the features from previous releases or b.) don’t put any real features on the discs at all. This one is just annoying. While some movies, like say ‘Under Siege’, never really had any special features to speak of. Others like ‘Lord of War’ had several features that were not brought over to the Blu-ray release. So we have to pay more for the Blu-ray disc and on top of that it doesn’t have any of the special features that the regular DVD has? Great.
There you have it:

1) hardware and
2) software compatibility,
3) price,
4) cheating the high definition “look”, and
5) missing or no features.

Those are some of the obstacles to be aware of when making the jump to Blu-ray. All that being said, it is still worth it. The films look amazing and once you start watching movies in 1080p it makes everything else look soft somehow. The format has much potential but the nagging problems will no doubt hurt early adopters. If you are spending the cash to get a Blu-ray player and you want a new video game system as well, you are probably going to be best off with a PS3. From most accounts I have seen, it is still one of the best available players out there. Don’t take my word for it, check out some reviews and see what you think.

Arguably Sam Peckinpah's most well know feature, 'The Wild Bunch', gets a strong transfer on Blu-ray. Although there is some minor print damage and at times the image looks a bit soft, the transfer of 'The Wild Bunch' is a good one. The film looks better than it ever has on home video. To see just how much of a bump up the Blu-ray is from the past two DVD releases, check out the excellent comparison review of 'The Wild Bunch' over at the best review site around DVDBeaver, HERE.

I have watched many films on Blu-ray and the thing is, even older films look outstanding on the format. One of the first films I got was Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Getaway’ (see the full review HERE.) (It just seemed right to start off a high definition collection of movies with Peckinpah.) The film looks outstanding on Blu-ray. Does it look as good as a modern film? Well no not exactly but it is not a modern film. ‘The Getaway’ is a 70s crime drama and it should look like a 70s film. Guess what? It does. The film looks the best it ever has on a home video format. Even having seen the film countless times, details that I had missed prior to having watched it on Blu-ray were now visible. The movie looks great and once I started watching I was practically sold on the format.

I am a movie dork first so I looked for some of my favorite films on Blu-ray and went from there. I was fortunate that Warner Brothers did a good job with the first Blu-ray discs I picked up. If you want to start out with some titles that simply have outstanding transfers on the format, I would think something like 'Iron Man' or 'I, Robot' might be good to check out. Here's hoping that the companies behind the format are aware of the problems and work to address them. That will only help them sell more movies on Blu-ray in the end. They want more sales? Try not screwing the customer. There you have it. Blu-ray is the way to watch movies at home. Even with all the problems, I'm still happy I made the jump. If nothing I hope this may make someone who is thinking about trying Blu-ray more aware of what they are in for. Below are some links for more info and reviews.


Blu-ray Links:

My review of the Blu-ray of Sam Peckinpah's 'The Getaway'.

My review of the PC Blu-ray software 'PowerDVD'.

My review of the PC Blu-ray software 'TotalMedia Theatre'.

DVDBeaver Easily the best DVD/ Blu-ray review website there is. DVDBeaver methodical reviews often compare different transfers to show just how good or bad a new release is.

DVDBeaver's review of 'The Wild Bunch' which does a far better job than I can of showing the quality of the Blu-ray.

High-Def Digest's page on Blu-ray profiles.

Cnet's page on Blu-ray profiles.

The Wikipedia Blu-ray page.

The Wikipedia Talk Blu-ray page. a good source of reviews and general Blu-ray news and information. A good source for reviews. Another good source for reviews.

A page on DVDTimes that covers the IFA 2008: Blu-ray Disc Association Press Conference.



Copyright 2005 - 2012 Nate Bundy. All rights reserved.