Clear Blu

December 13, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

Consider this to be my initial first-hand report on Blu-Ray, and its nature may surprise a few people. To start, it's necessary to note that for many videophiles, the fervor that accompanies adherence to a new technology or format borders on zealotry. Some who bow at the altar of Blu-Ray will declare a jihad on anyone with the temerity to compliment HD-DVD. The opposite is equally true. So I know that by making what could be considered a pejorative statement against one of those formats could constitute a reason to go into hiding. How much more will I be at risk if I say something mildly negative about both of them? That's precisely what I'm going to do...

This isn't about Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD. Instead, it's about standard def versus high-def. Quite frankly, 1080p isn't all it's cracked up to be. There's a fair amount of hype involved when selling either high-def DVD format. That's to be expected since companies are going to do whatever they can to sell their products, even if it means practically giving away hardware.

The common in-store sales pitch goes like this: A salesperson shows you two identical TV sets showing the same movie. It's usually a recent title but not one that's too recent. On the left, you have a standard DVD of the movie. On the right, you have a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD version. The image on the right looks crisp, clear, and astoundingly better than the one on the left. There's no comparison. Time to buy the high-def player. There are a couple of details you're not being told. First, the movie chosen for the A/B comparison is usually one for which the standard DVD transfer is known to be sub-par (possibly one that has since been re-released with better video), so you're not getting the best DVD performance possible. Secondly, the DVD player is likely an old model: one that doesn't do progressive scanning (the procedure by which 480i signals are converted to 480p signals) and for which there is certainly no 1080p upconverting available. Some stores also tinker with the TV settings so that the set showing the standard DVD image may be improperly calibrated. All these things combine to degrade the standard DVD image and, by comparison, make the high-def one look so much better. Somehow, however, when you get it home, it doesn't look the same.

My experience is that the Blu-Ray image does indeed look clean, crisp, and clear. It's a beauty to behold. That wasn't a surprise. What was a little unexpected was how good many of those upconverted standard DVD images appear. Some were almost as clean, crisp, and clear as the Blu-Ray ones. When I first started watching DVDs in 1997, it took less than a month before I had boxed up all my VHS cassettes and put away my laser discs. The quality of DVD made its predecessors look shabby. That's not the case here. I can happily switch between standard and high-def without feeling that I'm missing much. Yes, the high def image is better (and given a strict choice between a Blu-Ray and a standard copy of the same title, there's no question which one I'd watch), but the delta is not world altering. A colleague mentioned he had read that the improvement is about 20% and that seems as reasonable a figure as any. As far as the audio goes... That's not my area of expertise but I can't notice much difference. (Then again, I am usually as happy with Dolby Digital as with DTS, so what do I know?)

It goes without saying that videophiles will desire a high-def player or two with all of their souls, and they will be happy with the hardware when they get it. But what about the average viewer who rents a few DVDs each month and has a small collection of movies to call his or her own? Blu-Ray/HD-DVD isn't likely to stir them to dole out the money. It lacks the "wow" factor that DVD provided. And there are those who, having been bowled over by the in-store demo, will feel cheated when things don't look that way in their living rooms. If the movie looked twice as good in the store, why does it only look 20% better now?

This is not a rant against high-def DVDs. I have my Blu-Ray player and am buying the occasional disc for it. The deal on Toshiba's HD-A30 ($240 with the discount plus 10 free HD-DVD discs) is almost too good to pass up. This is a 1080p player (unlike the cheap 720p/1080i version that Wal-Mart dumped a few weeks ago) with an effective price of about $40. If someone doesn't get me this for Christmas, I may order it from on the 26th. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. So I like high-def DVD, but I wonder – PS3 notwithstanding – whether it has mass appeal.

There are three problems. The first is the format war, which sows confusion and even a little disgust. The second is the lack of sexy titles, which limits interest. And the third is that the difference between standard DVD and high def DVD isn't going to blow many people away.