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Blu-ray Still No Bargain

Toshiba just embraced the Blu-ray standard. I’ve often been accused of being an agent for Toshiba, even though I’ve never had any financial connection to the side of Toshiba that made the drives, and initially supported Blu-ray. (I switched to HD-DVD when I saw how much the Blu-ray technology cost, and how it destroyed the price structure of the PS3). Sony bought the market, and if you look at their financials you can likely see why that still looks, in hindsight, like it was a really bad idea. The current rumor is they’re rushing the PlayStation 4 to market because the PS3 did so badly.

Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray playerOne of the interesting parts about revisiting this every few months is what changes, and how little the changes actually have to do with making Blu-ray more attractive. I currently own two LG Blu-ray players, four desktop computers with Blu-ray drives, two laptops with Blu-ray drives, a PlayStation 3, and I still can’t recommend this format for most people. The problem isn’t that Blu-ray doesn’t look better. It clearly does, and for the money, the Oppo’s newest Blu-ray player is a technological marvel. But for once, even I’m not tempted to buy it. (This is because I can get the same scaler this product has for less from Oppo, and Oppo doesn’t yet support streaming or Web-based content.) I still agree with Steve Jobs that Blu-ray is a bag of hurt.

Let’s revisit why Blu-ray remains a bad value.

Blu-ray is Still Not Done

One of the things I find really annoying about Blu-ray technology is that from the moment it was brought out, it hasn’t been complete, and that wasn’t adequately disclosed. I’m kind of surprised there weren’t more large class-action lawsuits (there was at least one, but maybe there were some quiet settlements). The first Blu-ray drives weren’t network connected, and couldn’t be effectively updated.

BD LiveThe latest tacked-on wonder is the BDLive feature – the only one so far that I think has real value – which allows you to look up an actor’s background while watching a movie. This often drives me nuts, because I can’t seem to remember where I’ve seen him or her before. However, this wonderful feature won’t work on any discs shipped before October of this year, effectively obsolescing my entire existing library of Blu-ray discs.

Before watching a movie, I constantly have to flash my player, because the AnyDVD folks have broken the security, and the Blu-ray folks have had to update it to counter so new discs can’t be copied for another week. Of course, then they can be, and goodie goodie, I have to do another five to 10 minute software update before a movie will work. I tried just watching a Blu-ray movie without doing the update last weekend, and sound didn’t work. I can actually watch a streamed HD s movie more quickly most of the time. A Blu-ray disc already takes friggin’ forever to load, so the update process adds insult to injury.

NetflixContent

If you do get Blu-ray, you’d be smart to subscribe to Netflix, because buying Blu-ray discs is just, well stupid. They tend to get updated over time, making the ones you bought potentially obsolete.

I currently have 44 movies in my active queue on Netflix, only one of which, Green Lantern (and given it is tagged “very long wait” I’ll likely get it after I die of old age) is in the Blu-ray format. Forty three are only available in DVD format. To be fair, two out of the four movies I either have at home now or have in the mail are on Blu-ray, and new movies are increasingly coming in this format. But the massive majority of existing content is still only on DVD, and there is more of the old stuff being offered steamed from Netflix (17 movies) that I want to watch, than on Blu-ray format at the moment.

You should likely check this out yourself, though as my taste in movies runs decidedly towards action, sci-fi and comedy, while your tastes may be different.

DMP-B15Portability

There is now one $800 portable Blu-ray player (this is the Panasonic DMP-B15, and it is currently discounted down to $672 on Amazon) on the market, and you can get a large number of laptops with Blu-ray drives in them. However, I have yet to test a laptop with a Blu-ray drive that will make it through a movie on battery power. They tend to die at between 75 and 90 percent of the movie played, which is really kind of annoying. My laptops with DVD drives can generally now make it through two movies with a few minutes left for e-mail at the end.

Now, it is kind of cool to bring one of these laptops and an HDMI cable to your hotel room and watch a Blu-ray movie. But I’ve only once been able to do it, because getting all of the components together at the same time has proven vastly more problematic than I thought. Most laptops also lack remote control options, making using the result kind of annoying. The laptop sits across the room, and you get to experience what it was like when TVs didn’t have remotes again. (I think every laptop that ships with a Blu-ray drive should have a remote control option.)

Blu-ray discs still don’t work in any car media systems. Panasonic showed one in 2007, but apparently it never shipped and would have been a pain to update. Finding one built into a TV is also difficult, (Sharp and Magnavox make them), and not smart either, given that the technology could change again, requiring you to connect the damn TV to a network to make it work again.

TivoStreaming

There are players with streaming capability, and I do have two LG Blu-ray players that will connect to Netflix. However, I also have four Tivo boxes with this same capability, and the Tivo does a vastly better job. Try fast forwarding and you’ll see what I mean. The Tivo does a smooth fast forward, but the Blu-ray does an annoying key-frame fast forward, which is similar to how it fast forwards Blu-ray discs. It makes it really hard to find a specific scene, because what you’re looking for may fall between key frames.

There is a new scaler technology from Marvell called Qdeo which should significantly improve the streaming capability of these players, and even significantly improve the overall quality of the Blu-ray movie-watching experience, but it is only available in a few very expensive players at the moment.

DRMDRM

If there were ever a company that should say no to DRM, it would be Sony. Sony had an MP3 player that looked better than an iPod, and entered the market before Apple did. However, it was so wrapped with DRM, not only was it incredibly difficult to get music on to the damn thing, if you lost your hard drive on your PC or got a new PC, you had to re-purchase all your music. Needless to say, they didn’t sell well.

Sony was also so concerned about music theft that it put a rootkit installer on its audio CDs, which lead a number of us to drive an effort to boycott the company because of the massive amount of damage that could have done to every person who unwittingly installed it. The resulting litigation and liability could have put Sony out of business.

With Blu-ray, Sony’s rabid concern about people copying discs means that most people can actually play a DVD more places than the more expensive Blu-ray disc. In effect, thanks to DRM, you generally can do less with a Blu-ray disc you pay more for (because it will play in fewer places) than a discount DVD you buy used. In fact, if you have a first-generation Blu-ray player, it likely will only play new DVDs now, and is no longer able to play new Blu-ray discs properly, if at all. That is just insane to me.

This furthers the insanity of a movie industry which continues to make pirated media more valuable than media you legitimately bought, and then complains because people buy pirated media.

Wrapping Up: Still Not a Good Value

Don’t get me wrong, a Blu-ray movie looks great on a HDTV, it just doesn’t look enough better than a regular DVD on a good upscaling DVD player to justify the extra price in the movies and players yet. If you do go Blu-ray, get a Netflix subscription so that company can deal with the disc obsolescence risk. And really, how often do you watch a movie enough to justify buying a Blu-ray movie? Once is generally enough for me anyway.

Now, when a more affordable player shows up with this new Marvell Qdeo technology in it, the combination of a next-generation scaler that could work on regular DVDs, YouTube content, and streamed video content would be very attractive. My best guess is that it won’t show up until next year, though, and even then I’ll likely buy it more for the cutting-edge scaler than the Blu-ray capability.

Oppo DV-980HTo net this all out, look at two top-of-the-line players. The Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player sells for $500, but has the same strong scaler (unfortunately not the Marvell ) as the $169 Oppo DV-980H upscaling DVD player. You could buy three of those players for slightly more than the price of one BDP-83, and you’d enjoy your existing DVD collection and the majority of Netflix movies, which are still mostly standard DVDs, and do it more rooms.

If I’m insanely rich, maybe I buy Blu-ray to impress my friends. But then again, if I want to impress them with how I save my money, I’d still buy the regular DVD with a scaler and talk about the money I saved. In these times, few can afford to not be smart with their money. Even with Toshiba entering, I’d wait until this makes more sense than it currently does.

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