The State of Blu-ray

Blu-ray_Penguins.jpgThe war between Blu-ray and HD DVD takes centre stage, but now we're starting to see rumbles within the vast Blu-ray coalition. How long did you think a truce between longtime rivals Sony and Panasonic could last, anyhow? To be sure, everyone is being perfectly civil to one another, but while Panasonic, Samsung and Denon are blazing the way with "standard" Blu-ray players, Pioneer and Sony still remain hung-up on the "initial" Blu-ray spec. After talking to top brass at all of these companies, we have pieced together a sense of where Blu-ray hardware is headed, and why it's taking so long.Blu-ray_Profile_Chart_2.jpgThe root of the problem is that Blu-ray did not have a finished specification when devices went into production. Instead, there were two or three "profiles," outlined in the chart above. After November 1, any Blu-ray player had to meet 1.1, sometimes called "final standard profile". Panasonic planned a mid-November launch of its 1.1 player, and a production delay caused Samsung to update its player to the spec. Denon always planned to ship its first Blu-ray player in December, so it planned for 1.1 all along. Meanwhile, Sony, Pioneer and others introduced Blu-ray players in the fall that shipped just before the November 1 deadline, thereby ensuring that they did not have to be "final standard." Instead, they met the requirements of the simpler "initial profile.

What the hell is BD Profile 1.1 anyway? All that's required for a player to meet the "final standard profile" (aka 1.1) is internal memory of at least 256MB, secondary video decoding and audio mixing, plus virtual file management, presumably to read and decode content streams from different places on the disc simultaneously. "Standard" doesn't even mean Ethernet. The hallmark of 1.1 is picture-in-picture, and before you groan, rest assured, many in the industry groaned too, at first.

"Picture-in-picture... God, we're talking about that again after 20 years?" said Jeff Talmadge, director of product development at Denon. "I don't think anyone ever used it then. But it could mean some pretty cool stuff."

Cool stuff indeed, like what Warner did with the 300 HD DVD: you could watch the finished movie on the big screen, while watching the actors jump around in front of a green screen in the smaller on-screen box. Surely if 1.1 players had been released, Warner would have put that feature on the Blu-ray of 300. In the end, it did not.

At the moment, there aren't any 1.1 Blu-ray discs at all. Sony's Stan Glasgow argued that the software wasn't here yet, and that picture quality from "initial" spec to "standard" spec doesn't change. "The important thing is what features you get," Glasgow told us. "Performance doesn't improve with 1.1. What are studios going to add?"

Well, studios are finally going to add something. Fox has announced that the sci-fi drama Sunshine will ship January 8. I saw footage of it in a demo, and while I wasn't bowled over, I like the implications. Just like HD DVD, the picture-in-picture capability will come in handy with "box set" movie editions, like Lord of the Rings, where the movie and the "making of" would benefit from juxtaposition.

The bottom line is, today's players need to be 1.1 so that buyers don't get screwed out of good content when movie companies start bringing it out next year. The worst case scenario is that studios start releasing movies that don't even play on older machines. It's a possibility, though one that hardware manufacturers say they won't let happen.

"You know the software is coming," says Reid Sullivan, VP of marketing for Samsung's A/V products group. Samsung's higher-end BD-UP5000 Duo isn't just 1.1 but also a full-featured HD DVD player. "It behooves us to try and make the product as future-proof as possible, even if the content isn't available yet. When it is available, consumers can enjoy all of it." Sullivan told us that the Duo is on track for end of December in-store availability at a price of $US999, but that pricing may be "updated" to reflect the market. That is, we might see this sucker for less.

Remember, though: while Samsung did drop its deluxe Blu-ray only, non-1.1 player, it is selling the BD-P1400, a cheaper Blu-ray player that only meets the "initial" specifications. We're not nearly as excited about that, though its announced $US549 sticker price will very likely plummet by Christmas as well.

You will remember that we reported that the Duo will only get to the 1.1 profile with a free firmware update scheduled for late January. Ironically, because the Duo has an Ethernet port mandated by its HD DVD half, it will be able to get the update via network, without any fancy download-and-burn requirement.

Speaking of firmware, we had our hopes pegged on the PS3's 2.00 software update for adding 1.1 capability, but just this AM, we were sorely disappointed. Nevertheless, word on the street is that the PS3 still just needs a software update to activate 1.1. The current lineup of Sony Blu-ray players, on the other hand, can never reach it, with or without firmware update.

Denon will offer the third 1.1 player of 2007, also available in December. While it's nice to see that Denon skipped "initial" profile and jumped right into "standard," it's even more encouraging to hear Talmadge say that a universal player is in the works:

"In our heart and soul, we are looking at a true universal player, if that's what the market dictates. And it won't just play all video discs, but it will play SACD and DVD-Audio as well." Hell, a player like that might even be worth Denon's unarguably high-end price.

For those squarely in the Blu-ray camp, the best is, apparently, yet to come. A "full" spec—sometimes called BD Profile 2.0—will increase capability to include BD Live, an online component with trailer downloads, online shopping and other features that may or may not actually be compelling. Blu-ray Disc Association spokesman and Pioneer SVP Andy Parsons says the 2.0 is a misnomer, since the BD Live specifications were codified in January 2006. "A company could have released BD Live players the next day if they had wished." It didn't happen, but partly because of the chicken-and-egg argument that emerges between players and movie titles.

Daewoo is closest to the mark right now, with the 2.0 player it showed off in September. (It is conceivable that Daewoo could roll out its 2.0 player before Sony launches a 1.1 player.) Meanwhile, Disney is talking about releasing BD Live content next year including Finding Nemo and The Chronicles of Narnia. There is a chance the PS3 will be compatible with the online interactive portion.

What's in it for you? If you love your Blu-ray, try and buy one of the players that meet the 1.1 spec, or at least hang onto that PS3. Although this isn't a piece about the format war, your best bet may be to shop for the a Duo. As Samsung's Sullivan told us, "We believe Blu-ray has the best chance in the long run, but in the short term, Duo is the best for consumers. You just pick a movie, play it and enjoy." While the jury's still out on that first part, the second bit sounds just right to me.

Note: I did not discuss HD DVD at length in this piece, but will save it for a piece entitled "The State of HD DVD." Let's try and keep the discussion around Blu-ray itself, if just for today. From the looks of things, there will still plenty of opportunities to bitch about the format war later.

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