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Latest Blu-ray with net connection falls short

It's happened to us all. We go to the cinema to see some long-awaited blockbuster, only to stagger out two hours later feeling irritable and disappointed.  It's been the same with me as I've tried out the latest in Blu-ray disc technology. It's called BD Live, and promises to combine high-definition movies with extras downloaded from the Internet.

It sounded like a grand idea until I switched it on. First, a bit of background. Blu-ray, the successor to the venerable DVD movie disc, is designed for use with the high-definition TV sets now found in about one-third of U.S. homes. DVDs, good as they are, aren't capable of displaying true high-definition video; they can't hold enough data. Blu-ray players can easily handle the job.

Early Blu-ray players used a hardware and software standard called Profile 1.0. Those were entry-level players, designed to show a movie and nothing else. These machines are no longer being made; the industry has moved to Profile 1.1 players, which have extra video decoding hardware and can show two movies at once. Now Blu-ray discs can include video commentaries that play in a small window, while the main feature takes up the rest of the screen.

Last year saw the introduction of Profile 2, a player architecture that adds an Internet connection and a gigabyte of memory for storing downloaded data. You've got to have a Profile 2 player to take advantage of the BD Live features you'll find on a number of Blu-ray movie releases. But Profile 2 isn't mandatory.

I tried out a couple of BD Live-compatible Blu-ray players, both from Sony. I've also been running BD Live discs on a 2-year-old PlayStation 3 video game console, featuring a software upgrade that brought it up to Profile 2 standards.

So what good are Internet-enabled movies? It's clear that Sony's film studio has no idea. I loaded up a couple of Sony releases "Hancock" and "Pineapple Express" only to be offered previews of other movies and downloadable ringtones. The "Pineapple Express" disc does offer one modestly amusing interactive feature: an old-school Nintendo-type game where you lead one of the film's characters in dodging pineapples and climbing ladders.

Universal Studios seems a bit more ambitious. The BD Live-enabled version of the recent film "Wanted" includes tools for setting up online chat sessions with other movie fans. It also lets viewers identify favorite clips from the movie and send them to buddies. But to use the features, your friends must each have a $25 Blu-ray copy of "Wanted." And instead of watching the film together, you must all watch separately, while texting back and forth about how cool it all is.

I've seen just one promising BD Live application: scheduled online chats with movie people. The directors of "The Dark Knight" and "Hellboy II" held live chat sessions last year with Blu-ray movie owners. But even this was done with typed-in questions and answers. To really make a go of it, there needs to be a way for fans and film folk to talk through a voice-over-Internet service.

As for the other BD Live features, there's nothing you can't get cheaper and better through a computer or game console. That's not to say that connecting Blu-ray players to the Internet is a bad idea. Samsung makes a $350 player that also delivers streaming video from movie rental company Netflix and music from the Pandora personalized music service. The same player also offers BD Live, and a few users might even give it a try. But probably not more than once.

Blu-ray Discs Becoming the Norm?

Congratulations America: you've been upgraded. Blu-ray Disc media are becoming the norm in the United States, and that pattern is set to extend across western Europe and Japan this year, according to Futuresource consulting (PDF). The firm also says the Blu-ray Disc players are on track for explosive growth in 2009, and could sell in excess of 100 million units worldwide by year's end.

Why Blu-ray Will Grow

Futuresource attributes Blu-ray's projected expansion due to the popularity of HDTVs, as well as steadily dropping prices of Blu-ray players. This is why--despite the economic downturn--Futuresource is betting that Blu-ray discs will have a good year.
2008: A Rough Start for Blu-ray

But if 2009 is going to be the year of Blu-ray, then 2008 could rightly be called the year of the Blu-ray naysayers. Despite Sony Blu-ray's decisive win over Toshiba's HD-DVD, many critics were not ready to give Blu-ray the high-def crown. In September, the consensus was that Blu-ray Disc prices were not going to drop any time soon, then in November Blu-ray's holiday season did not look good. Blu-ray chugged along, though, and it turned out that Sony's format had a breakout Christmas season after all. Then in January, the first portable Blu-ray player hit the market, and just a few days ago Blu-ray disc prices started to drop.

Now it's not as though last year's assumptions about Blu-ray products were unfounded. As Futuresource points out, consumer interest in Blu-ray was not exactly compelling. According to their numbers, Blu-ray Disc makers churned out 200 million units in 2008, but only sold around 36 million of them. Some of that shortfall can be accounted for by multi-disc sets and promotional giveaways, but that still left a lot of discs sitting on store shelves.
Will Blu-ray Be Defunct Before Its Time?

However, turning over from 2008 to 2009 seems to be making all the difference, and the momentum should just keep building. By 2012, Futuresource predicts that 50 percent of U.S. homes and 35 percent of western European households will go Blu-ray. That seems like a relatively fast jump, considering that a Blu-ray conversion requires both a new TV and a new DVD player for some. There's also the question of where movie downloads will be over the next few years. Do people still want to own an actual disc they can hold in their hands, or is a set-top box that you can use to download movies a preferred alternative?

I know what my answer would be, but let's put the question to you: Are you part of the early Blu-ray majority, or do you plan on keeping your DVD player as long as possible? Are you forgoing discs entirely in favor of digital downloads?

Blu-ray Price Drop: Studios Slash Movie Prices

Could Hollywood finally be getting the message and lowering the prices of Blu-ray movie titles? We hope so. An insightful report by Josh Dreuth at Blu-ray.com discusses the sudden price drop for Blu-ray titles, which critics have long griped were too steep for the high-def format to gain mainstream acceptance. In some cases, Blu-ray titles are now only $10 to $20, a few dollars more than their DVD counterparts. Amazon, for instance, is selling the unrated version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin for $15, and Iron Man for $19. The DVD versions of these titles are just $5 less. And Blu-ray editions of older flicks from the studio vaults, including Stargate, Total Recall, and the first three Rambo movies, are now $10.

Will the lower prices help? It's no secret that consumers haven't exactly warmed up to Blu-ray, although disc and player sales did pick up during the 2008 holiday season, particularly in Europe. The Blu-ray edition of The Dark Knight did particularly well, selling well over a million copies in the U.S. alone. Currently there are nearly 11 million Blu-ray players in the United States, according to the Digital Entertainment Group.

The lower disc prices, combined with Blu-ray players that now start at under $200, may finally get consumers to upgrade to the high-def format, although naysayers remain skeptical. Critics point out that Blu-ray's picture quality really isn't dramatically better than DVD's, even on large-screen HDTVs. Another issue is that pay-per-view movie services from cable providers and Internet sites may prove more attractive to consumers in the long run. And you don't have to buy new hardware.

Blu-ray Price Drop: Studios Slash Movie Prices

Could Hollywood finally be getting the message and lowering the prices of Blu-ray movie titles? We hope so. An insightful report by Josh Dreuth at Blu-ray.com discusses the sudden price drop for Blu-ray titles, which critics have long griped were too steep for the high-def format to gain mainstream acceptance. In some cases, Blu-ray titles are now only $10 to $20, a few dollars more than their DVD counterparts. Amazon, for instance, is selling the unrated version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin for $15, and Iron Man for $19. The DVD versions of these titles are just $5 less. And Blu-ray editions of older flicks from the studio vaults, including Stargate, Total Recall, and the first three Rambo movies, are now $10.

Will the lower prices help? It's no secret that consumers haven't exactly warmed up to Blu-ray, although disc and player sales did pick up during the 2008 holiday season, particularly in Europe. The Blu-ray edition of The Dark Knight did particularly well, selling well over a million copies in the U.S. alone. Currently there are nearly 11 million Blu-ray players in the United States, according to the Digital Entertainment Group. The lower disc prices, combined with Blu-ray players that now start at under $200, may finally get consumers to upgrade to the high-def format, although naysayers remain skeptical. Critics point out that Blu-ray's picture quality really isn't dramatically better than DVD's, even on large-screen HDTVs. Another issue is that pay-per-view movie services from cable providers and Internet sites may prove more attractive to consumers in the long run. And you don't have to buy new hardware. Then again, who wouldn't be willing to drop $12 bucks for the Blu-ray edition of National Lampoon's Van Wilder?

Streaming of movies grows dramatically

We may have less money, but we're no less impatient. Flying in the face of the struggling economy, movies-by-mail service Netflix announced Tuesday that business was booming. And the service gave most of the credit to the appeal of near-instant delivery of films streamed to subscribers' TV sets via Xbox 360 game systems, some Blu-ray Disc players, Net-enabled TV sets and set-top boxes.

Growing availability of video content at home, work and on the go via YouTube, Hulu, Fancast and other video sites is making us a nation of multitasking video consumers, says analyst James McQuivey of Forrester Research. "What is happening, overall, is people are spending more time with the TV and PC screen because of all these easily accessible video sources," McQuivey says. "Netflix is one of the many enablers of this new addiction."

Its subscriber base jumped to nearly 9.4 million at the end of the year, compared with 8.7 million in September, and revenue and profits followed. Next year, Netflix expects to reach about 11 million subscribers. "The precise impact of the recession is unclear, but it's clear that streaming is energizing our growth," says company co-founder Reed Hastings. Home viewing isn't at the expense of movie box office: Hollywood took in more than $9.5 billion in 2008, nearly matching 2007's record $9.6 billion, though DVD sales dropped by 9%.

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