Blu-ray Disks: Singin’ the Blues
Last night, my wife and I began to watch a rental movie on DVD. The opening screen said (I’m paraphrasing) “This DVD contains only the movie. If you want the best picture and sound plus many bonus features, you should buy this movie on Blu-ray.”
I checked and found out that the audio on the Blu-ray disk is 5.1 surround, the same audio provided on the DVD. It is true that Blu-ray can provide “lossless” 6.1 or 7.1 surround sound which adds an additional back channel like you might encounter in a movie theater. However, a competing 6.1/7.1 technology, Dolby Digital EX or THX EX can also provide 6.1 or 7.1 sound on DVDs. Maybe if you have 15-year old ears you can hear the difference, but most people won’t notice. In either case the argument is virtually moot, since the number of movie disks that have either Blu-ray or EX 6.1/7.1 sound is miniscule and the numbre of people set up for 6.1/7.1 sound reproduction is even smaller. Strike 1 for Blu-ray.
Now let’s examine the issue of picture quality. Most TV sets sold in the past 5 years are capable of handling HD (High Definition) images with up to 1080p resolution. That means 1080 scan lines, non-interlaced (“p” stands for “progressive”, which means exactly the same thing as non-interlaced). Blu-ray provides 1080p natively, while DVDs offer only 480p resolution. Thus it would seem that Blu-ray has a huge advantage in picture quality. While Blu-ray images are superior, they are not that superior, because the clever folks who design DVD players have provide a feature called “video upscaling” that takes a 480p signal and converts it to a 1080p signal! It used to be that this technology cost $20,000, but today it is reduced to a chip that costs less than $5. Therefore, if your DVD player has upscaling (and almost all of them built in the past five years do), your picture will be almost as good as Blu-ray. Strike 2 for Blu-ray. In fact, 90% of people over the age of 50 can’t tell the difference.
So far, I’ve shown that Blu-ray’s advantages in picture and sound quality are there, but meaningless to the average TV viewer. That leaves bonus features as the last significant DVD/Blu-ray differentiator. As it turns out, very few Blu-ray disks have whiz-bang bonus features. Why? It turns out that the great majority of Viewers have very little interest in bonus features. Not only that, whiz-bang bonus features are expensive to produce, and, as a result, are not common. Strike 3 for Blu-ray.
Streaming Video Competition
Finally, we have the issue of streaming Internet video which virtually every pundit has declared is the future of TV or at least will be a major part of it. It will be a long time, if ever, that streaming video will be able to accommodate Blu-ray. There simply isn’t enough network bandwidth. This is especially true in the US, which is practically a third-world country when it comes to providing its citizens with broadband Internet service. In any event, streaming video is not Blu-ray’s friend.
Not Going Away Soon
I don’t mean to say that Blu-Ray is dead. Disney, for example which has the highest ratio of disk to box office sales in the industry, says it will continue to push Blu-ray until it no longer is no longer a viable medium for movies. I also want to emphasize that this discussion is limited to movies. As a data medium, Blu-ray has a lot to offer – unparalleled storage density in a portable format, for example. If you have a lot of data, a Blu-ray disk player/recorder is just the thing for your PC or Mac. Blu-ray is also an important technological piece of the gaming market.
Back to the movie I saw last night (“Dolphin Tale“, excellent family movie by the way). Amazon sells the DVD version for $15 and the Blu-ray version for $24, a 60% premium. I think that price differential is very difficult for Joe Couch Potato to justify. Don’t you?
If you are interested in learning more about TV audio and video, I recommend the following websites:
- For an excellent layman’s description of the various audio options,go to the Crutchfield website.
- Wikipedia has several entries re TV video technology. Try 480p and 1080p for starters.