Low definition


— 10:51 AM on July 10, 2009

Sony and some market analysts are wondering why Blu-ray uptake isn't skyrocketing like they'd hoped. I have a few ideas.

About a year ago, I decided that, since I had a high-definition television and had it on good authority that movies looked better in high def, I might as well take the plunge. At the time, the best deal for a Blu-ray player was still the Sony PlayStation 3, and I had a problem with that: I just didn't want one. As many of the more PC-inclined gamers reading this know, most of the more interesting and desirable games these days go multi-platform. They often take a while to hit the PC, but it's usually worth the wait—they tend to be cheaper and sometimes even much improved, like Mass Effect and Assassin's Creed. As PC gamers, we even just got an incredibly solid port of Street Fighter IV, but that's a blog post for another day. Suffice it to say, buying a $400 PlayStation 3 just for Blu-ray seemed silly to me. So I did what any sensible geek would do: I built a media-center PC.

One of my biggest reasons was the availability of LG's HD-DVD and Blu-ray combo drive. This optical drive was selling for around $130 when I bought it, but the frugal shopper can grab it for as little as $100 now, if they know where to look. Amusingly enough, despite the death of HD-DVD, the drive seems to play those discs just fine. Better still, HD DVDs are dirt cheap and typically include the exact same transfer you'd get on the pricier Blu-ray. Of course, inexpensive drive and media aside, AMD has been aggressive about making a media center easy to build, with dirt-cheap processors and its 780G chipset. For maybe a little more than I would've spent on a PlayStation 3, I was able to build a full on computer capable of streaming Netflix and other online video, well before that capability started showing up in consoles (and now even televisions). Also, by popping in a cheap Radeon HD 3650, I created a box friends could come over and game on. Between that, my desktop, and my laptop, I'm pretty set for hosting my own small LAN party.

But I digress—let's get back to griping about HD movies. My biggest problem here is the prohibitively high cost of the media itself. While HD-DVD's death has produced a wealth of discs that are often even cheaper than their DVD counterparts, Blu-rays still command an absurd $10 premium over standard-definition media. I and multiple friends now buy movies much less often because we won't buy a DVD movie if it's available on Blu-ray, but we also won't pay the exorbitant price for the Blu-ray itself. As a result, we just don't buy either one. I'd have a hard time believing more people aren't running into the same issue.

Second is the software compatibility nightmare. Between the three versions of Blu-ray and the draconian digital rights management schemes for both Blu-ray and, to a lesser extent, HD-DVD, you can expect all kinds of cheerful software problems to plague your viewing experience. I actually keep both PowerDVD 7 and WinDVD 9 on my media center because, every so often, a disc comes out that just won't play on one of them. First, it was The Matrix on HD-DVD. I've since had the privilege of dropping $80 on two different import copies of Brotherhood of the Wolf on HD-DVD, only to discover that StudioCanal did such a dismal job mastering these discs that I'd have to buy a dedicated HD-DVD player to even dream about subtitles. I love the movie and have seen it multiple times, but I still don't speak French.

Third, and probably most irritating, is how often the improvement just feels incremental at best and unnoticeable at worst. High-def movies are woefully inconsistent in terms of quality, far worse than DVD has ever been. At worst, DVD looked like a clearer VHS; the worst-looking DVD I ever had was an old Canadian copy of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, which looked like it was mastered off a VHS tape and had a jumpy quality to the picture. Meanwhile, HD movies often have nothing but better color contrast and saturation to go for them. I remain skeptical about how much of this is artificial tweaking, the same way retail televisions have their contrast and saturation jacked up to make them more eye-popping for consumers.

If you could explain why my HD-DVD of Clerks II looks better and sharper than my Blu-ray of Iron Man, I'd really appreciate it, because this problem has really sucked the wind out of my interest in high-definition. There's just no way of knowing if a high-definition disc is going to be an appreciable improvement over the DVD except for checking reviews online, and about the only safe bets are CG movies (TMNT looks stunning in HD). Video quality has become such a crapshoot on HD that it prevents me from impulse-buying discs. I just watched the DVD of Splinter last night, which had stunning upsampled quality easily rivaling some of my high-definition discs. Meanwhile, my HD-DVD of Army of Darkness looks awful. Movies from the 1980s like The Thing often wipe the floor with more recent releases. (By the way, The Thing does make a fantastic case for high definition.)

The unfortunate reality is that, the vast majority of the time, high-definition media just isn't compelling enough to warrant the absurd cost of entry and the price of the discs, let alone the DRM headaches. If you're a movie buff, I'd strongly encourage you to think twice before making this leap.

   
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