The Players: Panasonic DMP-BD30 ($US500) and Sony PlayStation 3 with 2.1 firmware ($US400 to $US500)
The Movies: Fox's Sunshine and Sony Pictures' Resident Evil: Extinction
The Challenge: To find out what's so special about Blu-ray's BD Profile 1.1, also known as Full Standard Profile or just simply "Picture-In-Picture Enabled"
Every new phase of technology has its first few tentative steps. Not only is Blu-ray in its earliest stage, but that stage seems to be subdivided into a few mini-stages. As we talked about in The State of Blu-ray, most Blu-ray players today are Profile 1.0, which means they play Blu-ray movies (usually).
The two above are currently available with Profile 1.1, with several more, such as Samsung's BD-UP5000 and Denon's DVD 3800BDCI, on the way. This profile is characterised by dual-tuner picture-in-picture—and at the moment nothing else.
The final profile is often referred to as 2.0, though the requirement is simply BD Live, that is, an Ethernet port that allows internet connectivity for downloading bonus content. There are currently no players that fit this description on the market.
This week, we decided to take a pre-CES look at Blu-ray 1.1. The movies are cool enough—who doesn't like a sci-fi thriller by the guy who made 28 Days Later? And can you even be on Gizmodo if you don't think Milla Jovovich is some kind of supreme being? But the movies' status as the next phase in Blu-ray evolution seems to be an embarrassment for the studios. Rather than champion the 1.1 players and the discs' new capabilities, they celebrate them in the finest of print sizes: For first attempts, the "enhanced viewing" is not bad: In the 1980s, picture-in-picture was a lame concept created to convince wives that the football games could go on in the corner while the soap opera took up 85% of the screen, but that never actually happened. Now picture-in-picture has been reborn as something far more useful, where you can watch a movie while seeing the shots the director saw before special effects came into play, or the sketches that became the sets, or the faces of the commenters as they goof on their faulty stunts.
The Sunshine disc handles PIP with a shiny golden console screen that pops up to contain the standard-def bonus commentary. There aren't many segments, but what is shown, such as walkthroughs of the sets and shooting in zero-gravity, is cool to see juxtaposed with the final film.
Sweet Resident Evil home screen:
Resident Evil shows PIP videos sans fancy frames, but tips the viewer off in a different way. If the shot is on the bottom right, it's actor or director commentary; if the shot appears on the top right, it's a storyboard sketch; and if it's on the bottom left, it's a behind the scenes making-of view.
I will admit, I am not so in love with either title as to spend several more hours coming through each, but functionally it's great, and there are probably many Boyle-heads or fans of "the other" Paul Anderson who would gladly set aside a Saturday for this. I can see how a simulcast of Star Wars with Lucas' ugly mug would make a ton of sense, and all of those bonus Lord of the Rings DVDs might get watched if the making-of footage was embedded into the original high-def films.
The players themselves behaved well. I have recently been on record angry that too many CE products act like PCs, but in both cases the players performed admirably. The PS3's update was easy, and it took the BD Profile 1.1 discs without a hitch. The Panasonic shipped with all the right firmware, and never once rejected a disc. We ran some tests using the HD HQV Benchmark from Silicon Optix as well as the FPD Benchmark Software, and both came out in good shape, though when it came to processing motion, we agreed that the PS3 edged out the Panasonic by a nose.
Everybody knows that precision video testing requires footage of hot Asian women swinging on things: Of course, the Panasonic beat the PS3 in the role of traditional disc player. Sometimes when you hit a button on the PS3 remote, you jump back to the main menu and have to boot up the Blu-ray disc all over again; not so with the Panny. Speaking of remotes, the Panasonic's had a very handy pair of buttons to turn PIP on and off, and to toggle the audio between the two.In the end, we were glad that Blu-ray could now do what we've already seen in Warner HD DVDs such as 300 and the latest Harry Potter. PIP may yet be a wondrous tool. But we're a little puzzled by two things:
1) It's hard to believe that $1,000+ players from Pioneer and Sony Electronics can't do what these were able to do so easily.
2) If this is all possible, why does it take so long to just complete the damn profile and make all players capable of both picture-in-picture interactivity and online connectivity?
If I had to lay money down on one Blu-ray-only player at this minute, I'd have to choose the PS3. The jury is still out on the dual-format players we want to love best, but the early rumblings suggest they may need some work. And any standalone Blu-ray player without an Ethernet jack may be in danger of obsolescence in a few years, if not a matter of months.
We'll personally be looking into all of that... right after CES. In the meantime, stay tuned for big Blu-ray and HD DVD announcements at the show!
This feature would not have been possible without the excellent assistance and admirable photography of Mr. Benny Goldman. Thanks BG!