Monday, December 13, 2010

That blu-ray thingy

Having acquired a blu-ray disc (BD) drive and watching stuff on it for the past week or so, I'm just giving off a few of my collected impressions of the format and what I feel it's worth.

First off, I'm not one of those people that want “the latest and the greatest” as soon as it's available, so my reason to go BD was not simply because “it's there”. But to be frank it was also not because I felt that there was some unbridgeable gap in visual quality between DVD and BD. Depending wholly on the type of film, available source material and the quality of the transfer that is made, the difference can sometimes be quite fine. An indispensible guide for me in this regard has been DVD Beaver, which gives you not only erudite “not-muddled-in-jargon” opinion but also provides actual screencaps through which you can make your own opinion.

My first inclinations towards blu-ray came when the major studios in a bid to push the blu-ray format on to a reluctant public started piling their “extras” aka bonus features onto the blu-ray versions of their releases; Star Trek and Up are prime examples of such favoritism. Also, while initially there was a significant price difference between BD and DVD, that difference has come down to the point where unless you buy everything at launch, you're paying the same price for BD as you did for DVD some years back.

But a major sticking point for me was still the player. I did not want to invest Rs. 10,000 (>200USD) in a new blu-ray player, not especially after I had just set up my own decent DVD-based home viewing setup. The other aspect here is that, unlike the mature DVD, blu-ray as a format is still evolving, a point on which I will elaborate later in this update. Then came my PC upgrade and the building of a system that had the horsepower to, among other things, effortlessly play high-definition media. This neatly coincided with the arrival of low-priced blu-ray drives for PC. Since I'm not looking to write blu-rays anytime soon, I went in for a cheap ASUS drive that essentially serves to only read disc media, be it BD/DVD/CD.

So having gotten a player and a half dozen films on the BD format (Adventures of Robin Hood, Avatar, Star Trek, Terminator 2, Up, Wings of Desire), what are my impressions so far regarding the benefits of blu-ray?

In the case of new films shot on High-Definition (HD) video or featuring significant amounts of computer generated imagery, the shift to blu-ray is a no-brainer. Having seen the BD version of James Cameron's Avatar on my home system, I can attest to that from personal experience: the gob-smacking clarity and level of detail, rock-steady stability of the image in motion and ability to handle strong color contrasts without any noticeable flicker/graphic artifacts is beyond what I have seen on DVD thus far (granted I have not seen Avatar itself on DVD but IMO the DVD versions of Pixar films (The Incredibles, Wall-E, Up) form a sufficient benchmark to hold against). This sort of film is what will act as the game-changer in swaying the minds of the public at large towards adoption of the blu-ray format.

But is blu-ray only good for the latest sci-fi action blockbuster with heavy CGI use? Not necessarily. A shift to higher resolutions and bitrates will benefit almost any sort of film. But in the case of older classics, the benefits are of a different sort. It's not so much in terms of giving a pop-out shiny quality to the visuals. That would be a wrong thing to aim for too; these classics were shot on film, some under low-budget conditions or using soft lighting schemes, and the transfer should faithfully reflect the source. With a skilled blu-ray transfer of an older classic, there will be an incremental (ranging from just noticeable to significant) increase of detail but the main benefit will be in terms of stability of the image, lesser need to manipulate the contrast to show detail and the accurate reproduction of the color tones of the original film to the highest extent. Check out DVD Beaver's screencap comparisons of the Criterion DVD and BD versions of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha here. This is a very relevant comparison given that both these versions come from the same HD master, but the BD is able to depict the detail without the contrast boost and unnatural hue seen on the DVD transfer. If your aim is to see the masterpieces of cinema with the highest possible fidelity to the original source (and after all, isn't this why studios like Criterion enjoy their premium prices and their dedicated fanbase?) there is a tangible benefit to making the BD shift. Also unless you're the sort that feels some value-addition to having stuff spread out over multiple DVD's instead of being contained in a single BD, it's a damned sight more convenient.

But there are also reasons to hold back right now, especially if you want to be the pop-in-and-play user. As of now there is no widespread availability of region-free BD players, at least at reasonable cost; if you want to mix and match BD's from different regions based on content or availability, you're out of luck. Also, while DVD is a mature standard, BD technology is still evolving: Player firmware may require to be upgraded to support new copy protection measures if you want to keep playing the latest discs. With successive generations players will improve in speed of access to content. Since my BD's are played on an internet-connected PC drive using readily upgradeable software (to play the media and allow multi-region access) I have a greater flexibility than a conventional BD player owner would. If you're not comfortable with this kind of software upgrading, one suggestion would be to hold off buying loads of new content for maybe a couple of years now and then plunge whichever way you are suited.

Am I committed to buying only blu-rays from now on? Absolutely not. For me it's a wait and watch game. I intend to look through trusted review websites to give me their viewpoint (and yes, actual screen comparisons, more of them should do that). Remember that BD cannot give you a good experience if the source material or digital mastering is not of a high caliber. I certainly wouldn't want to upgrade my existing DVD's unless I see a massive level up in video quality or a boatload of new extras on the blu-ray version (So no Superman The Movie BD for me, unless someone is feeling generous :D). For new purchases, price will be an important factor. I would go for a cheaper DVD version if I thought the blu-ray didn't give me a significantly higher wow factor on the visuals / bonus content.

So that's my take on the far.

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