Should you buy Blu-ray?

The Baltimore Sun

Remember the first time you watched a movie on DVD? You were probably instantly blown away by how much better it was than VHS. The quality of the video and audio was superior, it came in a smaller package, and you could quickly move from the beginning to the end of a movie without having to fast forward through everything in between.

The difference between DVD and Blu-ray is nowhere near as striking, despite what the consumer electronics retailers and manufacturers might have told you this holiday season. Sure, Blu-ray vs. DVD is equivalent to standard-definition vs. high-definition programming on your TV, but it's not so good that you should go out and buy a Blu-ray player and replace your DVDs.

Especially if you own an "upconverting" DVD player, which enhances the quality of DVDs so drastically, it's hard to tell it's not Blu-ray.

And with the growth of digital movie downloads through services such as iTunes and Netflix as well as the popularity of on-demand movie rentals through your cable or satellite-TV provider, you may not want to fill your shelves with discs that typically cost between $25 and $30.

Blu-ray has been around for a few years, but it still hasn't taken off - primarily because the next generation DVD format war between Blu-ray and rival HD DVD didn't end until earlier this year. Now that the war is over, manufacturers have been ramping up production of Blu-ray players and slashing prices.

Blu-ray prices have dropped drastically, especially over the holiday season.

If you are looking to replace a DVD player and can spend the money, buying a Blu-ray player makes sense, primarily because Blu-ray players can play and upconvert DVDs, so your current movie collection won't become obsolete.

Another bonus is that many Blu-ray players have a slot for a USB drive or SD card, so you can use your Blu-ray player to view photos or listen to music on your TV. And if a PlayStation 3 is on your horizon, you'll be killing two birds with one stone because the video-game console is a Blu-ray player.

I recently tested two Blu-ray players, the Sony BDP-S350 ($250) and the LG Network Blu-ray Disc Player ($350). Besides the price, the main difference is that the LG player lets you instantly watch thousands of movies and TV shows from Netflix. To do this, you must connect your Blu-ray player to the Internet and be a Netflix member.

When you pop in a Blu-ray disc, you immediately notice the increase in quality, just like you do when you tune from a standard-definition channel to a high-definition one on your HDTV. Blu-ray offers some nice new features, such as the ability to enable closed captioning and access other settings and menus without having to exit the movie, the ability to bookmark favorite scenes and a timeline that shows you where you are in the movie as you fast forward and rewind.

One thing I didn't like is that all of the Blu-ray movies I watched were widescreen, so there were black bars above and below the picture on my HDTV until I stretched it or zoomed in.

For another perspective on Blu-ray, I lent the Sony player to Roger Moore, the Sentinel's movie critic. He watched the Blu-ray version of the first Planet of the Apes movie on a 42-inch 1080p TV and compared the experience with his usual disc player, a $40 model from RCA with HDMI connection.

"The blacks were superb, the colors clear and precise, the striations of the canyon walls in the desert locations of Apes were brilliant," Moore said. "But the ugly truth of the matter is that once you've got the 1080 HDTV, once you've bought a DVD player with HDMI cable connections, Blu-ray is superfluous. The features are fancier, but the picture? No improvement. Investing in a player (unless you already have a Blu-ray-ready PlayStation) is a needless expense. Downloads are the future, not discs in a cute blue box."

I agree that movie downloads are the future, but buying a Blu-ray player is not a needless expense if you are able to use it for more than just playing Blu-ray movies, such as playing DVDs, watching Netflix movies instantly, viewing photos and accessing Internet content.

If you are planning on buying a Blu-ray player, try to get one with BD-Live, which is sometimes referred to as Blu-ray 2.0. A BD-Live-capable player can connect to the Internet for software updates and to unlock special features available on many Blu-ray movies. The BD-Live-enabled features that come on some Blu-ray movies are disappointing and mostly limited to interactive games. But there are companies working on products that will use the BD-Live connection to pull in movies and services from the Internet, potentially expanding the benefits of owning a Blu-ray player.

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