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When we started planning this article the intention was to launch into a comparison of Blu-ray and HD-DVD, in order to help people make a decision as to which format to support (if any). Even towards the end of 2007 HD-DVD looked to be in trouble and, mere months later, Toshiba have now announced that they are abandoning the format that they helped create.
It still leaves movie buyers with a dilemma though, namely: Is high definition worth it at all? While Blu-ray has become king of the hi-def formats, a question still lingers over how necessary it is at all, given that most people are still perfectly happy with standard DVD. We thought we’d take a look at the Blu-ray format to see what it offers.
What is blu-ray?
If you’ve been living under a rock for the last year you may not have heard of Blu-ray. Designed as a replacement for DVD, Blu-ray offers high definition video, a silly name and much larger storage capacity on a disc that is the same size and shape as a normal CD or DVD. Practically speaking, the increased storage means that you'll be able to watch your Lord of the Rings extended editions without having to swap the disc halfway through.
Another important difference is that the menus are now all powered by Java, a technology you might have encountered while browsing the Internet. Whereas DVD uses an archaic system of pre-rendered background movies and low quality overlaid titles, Blu-ray can have properly interactive, high quality elements. Don’t be surprised when silly games start appearing on Disney releases.
The negative side to all this new technology is that you’ll need a new piece of kit to actually be able to use it. While there are stand-alone Blu-ray players, the most logical route is to simply purchase a PlayStation 3 – which will give you Blu-ray playback as well as ‘next-gen’ games. The PS3’s increasing popularity is cited as the primary factor in the downfall of HD-DVD, introducing Blu-ray to a market outside of the AV hardcore.
The big question, of course, is whether it’s all worth it. Does Blu-ray offer a significant advantage over standard DVD? Unlike the shift from VHS to DVD, the answer isn’t an unqualified ‘yes’. DVD offered benefits irrespective of the quality and size of your television, helped in no small part by VHS being almost entirely rubbish.
With HD content you really need an HDTV, with sizes of 32 inches or above showing a definite improvement. Anything smaller than that and the difference between Blu-ray and a decently HDMI-upscaled DVD is minimal, especially when viewed at a ‘normal’ viewing distance.
At 32 inches or above the new format is definitely worth considering, though. On our 46 inch screen there’s an astonishing clarity to Blu-ray video, highlighted particularly well in slick, modern productions such as Sunshine, with it’s bold cinematography and unusual lighting. There’s a fine detail, retaining all the definition of full cinema projection, minus the projection errors and annoying children. Animation is served even better, with colours leaping off the screen in stunning fashion. The intricate computer interfaces found in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within can finally be seen in all their sci-fi glory, with each individual button and read-out fully identifiable. We can’t wait to see something like The Incredibles at this quality.
The flipside of increased fidelity is that it also shows up any flaws in the source material. If you’re watching old TV shows, particularly those shot on video during the 80s and 90s, or anything shot on 16mm or below, then Blu-ray isn’t going to be particularly kind. It’s only really films shot on extremely high quality stock, or which have been seriously remastered, which truly show the benefits of the HD resolution.
The increased storage capacity of the format also enables lossless audio to be included, although you’ll need some serious audio equipment to truly tell the difference between that and the traditional standards of DTS and Dolby Digital. Given that audio has always been a few steps ahead of visuals, it’s no surprise that there isn’t anything especially impressive in this arena – there’s no need to re-invent the wheel.
It's in no way as revolutionary as the VHS to DVD switch, which took home cinema onto an entirely new level after twenty years of tape-based torture. HD is more of an evolution, embracing the latest technologies but also discovering something of a financial divide. While DVD improved quality for everyone on all set-ups and budgets, Blu-ray runs a risk of being segregated into an elitist position in which it is only truly appreciated by real technophiles. It depends entirely on pricing, not only of Blu-ray discs and players but also on the large HDTVs that form an essential part of the experience. The real question is this: Will the demise of HD-DVD enable Blu-ray to thrive and become a mass market format, or will the lack of true competition and high tech requirements limit it to a niche position, much like the fate of Laserdisc in the 80s and 90s?
Disappointingly, most Blu-rays are simply recycling the bonus content from their DVD equivalents, although this will hopefully change as the format becomes more established. Particularly disappointing are the uninspired and often extremely fiddly menus, most of which seem to have derived from the exact same source template. It tarnishes the Blu-ray experience, with navigation often being a chore.
Blu-Ray designers also seem to be stuck in a DVD mindset, designing features and menus that could sit quite happily on a DVD and which don’t take advantage of the format’s increased interactivity. DVDs suffered from a similar lack of imagination and understanding of the format’s capabilities in its early days, so with luck this will be corrected with future releases.
Several discs already released have fantastic extras, such as the Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix – all conveniently available on a single disc, with a slightly more inspired menu system. Close Encounters of the Third Kind gets a particularly deluxe treatment, with disc 1 containing all three versions of the film and the extras saved for disc 2, while the pack also includes a surprisingly thick photo book and poster.
Yes or No?
The question of whether to embrace Blu-ray remains somewhat unanswered – let alone whether you should consider replacing your existing DVD collection. Currently it remains something of a toy for collectors and those with large amounts of disposable income, due not to the direct costs of Blu-ray but to all the surrounding equipment that is required to fully appreciate it – mainstream audiences may not want their living space obliterated by a monolithic home cinema set-up.
For the movie fans, technophiles and hardcore collectors that can afford to indulge in their hobby, Blu-ray offers an experience rivalled only by the cinema itself. With HD-DVD’s failure there is no longer any fear of investing in the ‘wrong’ format. The level of Blu-ray’s ultimate success will depend on the public’s appetite for high definition visuals in general and their level of fatigue with the DVD format but, with the continued support of the PS3, Blu-ray is no longer a risky proposition.