Friday, August 28, 2009

Stepping into the Blu

I've written extensively about next-generation video, particularly the battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD for supremacy. That war was decided more than 18 months ago, with Blu-ray the clear victor, but until now I've resisted adopting the format myself.

For awhile, the top reason was self-protection: I've been burned before as an early adopter of new technology. Just ask me about Commodore and Amiga computers, or the thousands of dollars I spent on laserdiscs. I was not about to be left with a library of films I could not watch anymore because my laserdisc player had broke, and you can't buy a replacement.

In the early going, Blu-ray players were not backward compatible with regular DVDs, unlike HD DVDs. But the Sony folks quickly realized that most people have at least a couple dozen DVDs sitting on their shelf, and don't like the idea of them becoming paperweights. So all the Blu-ray machines that have come out in the last couple of years can play DVDs. In fact, when I was looking at them in the store recently, I noticed the signage labels them as "Blu-ray and DVD players."

The other issue delaying purchase was price. Blu-ray players initially cost $500 and up, but have steadily come down in price. Just a few months ago, they still cost $300 or more. But the price has finally broken the $200 threshold, which is where I think you'll see a lot of people ready to make the jump. I've seen basic players for as little as $150, and even decent name-brand ones go for between $200-250.

Then Dylan, one of my two best and oldest friends, suggested I get a Sony PlayStation 3 instead. Now, I have not owned a game console literally since the Atari 2600. I still actively play games, but prefer the slower, more intellectually-bent kind that appeal to PC users like myself. I gave up World of Warcraft a few months ago, and have been piddling around with Left 4 Dead and Fallout 3 since then.

The appeal of the PS3 is that it includes a built-in Blu-ray player. So I ended up doing lot of research to see if I really could hook one up to my home theater system and essentially replace my DVD player, while adding the gaming feature as a bonus.

Short version: Absolutely.

In the end, I ended up getting the PS3 Slim, the newest generation of the PlayStation that just came out, with the help of some birthday money from Dylan. It costs $300, so basically for a premium of $50 or $75, you're buying a Blu-ray player and getting gaming on top.

I'm pretty impressed with the Slim. It has built-in Wi-Fi, so I can connect to the online gaming network, browse the Internet, etc. I also really liked that it has a digital optical output, which is necessary to get Dolby Digital DTS sound. I put in a DVD last night, cranked up my system, and it sounded great. (I love seeing the little orange "DTS" symbol light up on my receiver.)

The one wrinkle in hooking it up was my television, which is about six years old now. It does not have HDMI inputs (the new highest standard), but the older YPR component jacks. I did have to shell out an extra 20 backs for a PlayStation adapter that would connect to my TV.

I'm still testing the unit out -- I did buy one cheap collection of games, the Orange Box, but haven't even had a chance to try it out yet.

I will confess that I feel like a Jurassic-era gamer handling these new game controllers, with their strange, ergonomic shape and assortment of buttons and thumb controls. My idea of a controller is a black rubber joystick and one rubber button. I feel like a cave man confronted with a steam engine.

Perhaps later today I'll go rent a Blu-ray movie, maybe one I already have on DVD, so I can test out the quality difference. I don't think it'll be as stark an improvement as people say, but for now I'm pretty happy with my step into Blu.

UPDATE: I went out and rented "Iron Man" on BR, since I have the DVD in my library and could pop one in after another to compare. As expected, it looks better, but it's not mind-blowing. Although I should point out that my older set is only capable of 1080i resolution, not 1080p. (If you'd don't know the difference, you can find out here.)

Blu-ray discs do seem to come with a lot more features; for example, a digital copy of the film to put on your iPod or other mobile device is almost standard on BR, although more DVDs are including it, too.

I didn't rent any games, although there was a decent selection at the local Blockbuster. They do want quite a lot to rent them though -- something like 15 percent of the purchase price. I guess it's a good way to check out a game before plunking down upwards of $60 to own it.

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