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Blu-ray of hope

2008 has been Blu-ray's best year, yet questions persist over software availability and format viability. This year marks Blu-ray's best year yet. Blu-ray Disc, primarily backed by Sony, finally won the "format war" against HD DVD that had Toshiba's support. And now, all major Hollywood studios plan titles in the format.

The Sony BDP-S300 plays back Blu-ray discs and also the standard DVD-Video, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RW discs. In addition, via HDMI outputs, standard DVDs can be upscaled to match the 720p, 1080i, or 1080p native resolution of HDTV's, providing an enhanced viewing experience from standard DVDs.

The picture quality is stunning. Every Blu-ray movie that was watched during this review looked sharper and more detailed than standard DVDs. There's a 3D-feel to the picture. The menu from some discs like Pirates of the Caribbean and Happy Feet was written using a Java version higher than the version the player is shipped with. The solution is a firmware upgrade. This upgrade must be done through downloading a CD image from Sony's website, burning this image to a CD or DVD and then loading the disc into the player. Start-up and load times averaged around 10-15 seconds that is much slower than a standard DVD player. The Sony player also didn't respond to remote commands as quickly as one is accustomed with typical DVD players.

As against this, Sharp's Blu-ray Disc player, the BD-HP20U is up and ready to receive a disc in less than 6 seconds. Aside from a great picture, great sound, and a fast response time, the Sharp's BD-HP20U doesn't offer much. It lacks an ethernet port, Divx support (common on competing Blu-ray Disc players), and picture-in-picture BonusView support. Even the included USB port is limited — it can be used only for firmware updates, not for running images or media files.

The Sony BDP's remote too, leaves a lot to be desired. It's not bad per se but the smallish buttons combined with the fact it's not back-lit doesn't exactly make for an intuitive user experience in a darkened room.

Sharp's downside — lose the remote and you are in trouble. The sole buttons on the front panel are Power and Open/Close. While questions, such as software availability and format viability over the long term, are still a concern, most Blu-ray players are compatible with the standard DVD formats as well as most recordable DVD formats.

Blu-ray uptake shows promising future

The Blu-ray disc format saw faster uptake during its first few years than DVD, according to analysts. Researchers at Futuresource said that, in the first three years of availability, Blu-ray players posted higher numbers than DVD managed during its infancy in the late 1990s.

The analyst firm predicts Blu-ray players to chalk up some 10.48 million unit sales in 2008, the player's third year of availability. By contrast, just 1.58 million DVD players were sold in that format's third year on the market in 1999.

"Focusing on like-for-like coverage in Western Europe, and comparing the first few years of uptake, the early indications are that Blu-ray disc player sales are running way ahead of DVD after the same time period," said Jim Bottoms, managing director of corporate development at Futuresource.

Blu-ray has had to fend off a challenge from rival format HD-DVD, a war which ended earlier this year when movie studios and hardware manufacturers sided en masse with Sony's standard. As more of the recent adopters begin to churn out their first Blu-ray players, analysts expect to see a late-year rally in sales.

"This is continuing to encourage player prices downwards and is keeping the product in the public eye," explained Bottoms. "As we move towards Q4 we expect this to intensify."

One of the main reasons for Blu-ray's sharp ascent in comparison to its predecessor was Sony's decision to use Blu-ray as the basis for its PlayStation 3 gaming console. The addition helped Blu-ray infiltrate not only the home cinema market, but the gaming world as well.

"The timing of the PS3 launch has clearly provided a big boost to the initial uptake of Blu-ray disc," said Bottoms.

"With a number of hot games titles now starting to emerge, and console prices continuing to fall, we can expect to see continued strong uptake.

"Installations are projected to continue to run significantly ahead of DVD."

Microsoft Downplays Blu-Ray Demand Increases

Representatives from German optical disc factory equipment manufacturer Singulus claim that orders for Blu-ray dual-layer mastering/creation machines have reached a total of twenty-one in the first quarter of this year, outpacing adoption of the DVD format at the same time eleven years ago. The company has also received additional orders for Blu-ray dual-layer manufacturing equipment in the second quarter, including a key customer in the U.S. Singulus, now the only Blu-ray manufacturer in Europe, also forecasts a further significant increase in sales during the second half of the year.

The company predicts that the selling price for Blu-ray hardware will substantially decrease in the future, with chief financial officer Stefan Baustert commenting, “Orders for Blu-ray in the first year of the dual layer technology already by far exceeded the volume at the start of the DVD eleven years ago with seventeen machines”.

Sony’s inclusion of a Blu-ray drive in the PlayStation 3 has seen an increase in significance once the format overcame competition from the competing HD-DVD disc format. However, rivals Microsoft have kept their distance from the format, with Xbox president Robbie Bach recently downplaying the success of the Blu-ray player market. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, he commented: “You have to look at how fundamentally compelling the difference is between a progressive scan DVD player and the picture that it can produce and what you get on a high-definition player. The reality is there is some difference, but most people look at it and say, ‘I am not going to pay extra for that’."

When asked whether a next generation Xbox console would feature a Blu-ray drive Bach replied: “No. There is nothing to even talk about right now with regard to the next generation. That is so far out that there isn't anything to talk about.”

Blu-meh: US HDTV owners aren't interested in new high definition disc players

A recently published NPD survey reveals that less than ten percent of US HDTV owners are planning on buying a Blu-ray disc player in the next six months. A word of caution: the survey was carried out back in March and though this was on the back of the HD DVD demise, perceptions could have changed considerably in the meantime. Or not, of course.

The NPD figures reveal that just 9% of those that have already bought an HDTV intend on buying a BD player. Around 40 million US homes are now equipped with HDTVs, so that translates to a meagre 3.6m consumers planning on upgrading from DVD.

It also didn't mention exactly how many of those surveyed already had a Blu-ray player, which could potentially make a difference, but whichever way you look at it, people aren't about to jump ship from DVD en masse. Their reasons for staying with the older tech are interesting too. Many say that they are still happy with DVD quality and that new DVD upscalers are keeping them competitive. Most concerning of all, 45% of those HDTV owners (some 22 million) hadn't even heard of Blu-ray. It's down from the 2007 results, but clearly the Blu-ray group is having trouble getting the message out.

I still believe that the major stumbling block is the price of discs. I'd happily challenge anyone to compare a Blu-ray disc with an upscaled DVD even on a shit HDTV and tell me they can't see a difference. They'd also be equally welcome to challenge me to explain why that difference is worth is worth £10 or more (I think the difference is more like $15 in the US).

Until disc prices get a lot more competitive with DVD, then I think the majority of sales will continue to be with DVD, even among Blu-ray owners. Watching a brand new Hollywood action adventure on in glorious high definition is one thing, but when it comes to older films and TV series, again, the price difference just isn't justified. Nevertheless, those who have bought into the new disc format appear to be satisfied as Blu-ray is showing some reasonably encouraging sales figures.

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