My Two Cents

The Blu-ray Disc format celebrates its 10th Anniversary!

June 20, 2016 - 12:26 am   |   by
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All right, folks… today’s column here at The Digital Bits is going to be a long one, filled with no small amount of nostalgia.

The reason is this: Today marks the official 10th Anniversary of the Blu-ray Disc format. The first seven Blu-ray titles (from Sony, MGM, and Lionsgate) appeared in stores on this day back in 2006 (as it happens, 6/20/06 was a Tuesday). They included 50 First Dates, The Fifth Element, Hitch, House of Flying Daggers, xXx, Underworld: Evolution, and The Terminator. The first set-top Blu-ray player – Samsung’s BD-P1000 (SRP $999) – had been expected to street on 6/25, but actually arrived in stores on 6/19, just in time for the Tuesday software debut. Here at The Bits, I got my hands on the player and four titles that day – The Fifth Element, The Terminator, Lord of War, and Crash (those last two officially went on sale the following week).  [Read on here…]

Given this auspicious occasion, I thought it might be fascinating to go back and have a look at my first comments on the Blu-ray format on that day all those years ago. Obviously, we’d been reporting on Blu-ray and its high-definition format war with HD-DVD (which arrived in stores a full two months earlier, on April 17, 2006 to be exact) for several months by that point. But here’s what I had to say in the wee early hours of that Tuesday morning...

(EARLY UPDATE – 6/20/06 – 12:01 AM PDT)

Well... it’s Day One for Sony’s Blu-ray Disc at last. The discs are here, the players should be here, and we’ve finally got something to compare Toshiba’s HD-DVD image quality to. How will the two formats stack up against one another? We’ve gotten our hands on Samsung’s BD-P1000, and we’ll be looking at our first discs over the next few days, so we’ll start to let you know soon.

Samsung BDP-1000 Blu-ray Disc player

And that was it initially. It was just a little over 24 hours later that I finally chimed in with my first substantial impressions thusly...

(EARLY UPDATE – 6/21/06 – 3 AM PDT)

Well... I’ve had my first experience with Blu-ray Disc, and Samsung’s BD-P1000 Blu-ray Disc player. For the record, I have four titles on hand... The Fifth Element and The Terminator (from Sony and MGM) and Lord of War and Crash (from Lionsgate).

You know how I keep saying that these formats are being rushed to market about a year before they’re ready? And you recall how hard I was on the HD-DVD camp for their klutzy launch and buggy hardware? And you know how I said that Blu-ray Disc looked like the superior format, at least on paper? Well... unfortunately, the Blu-ray camp has dropped a dud with their big launch too. Every bit as klutzy as HD-DVD. Think Clark Kent klutzy, or Gerald Ford klutzy, or Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford klutzy.

Let’s start with the Samsung player. Nice box, nice packaging. You pull the BD-P1000 out of said packaging and it looks pretty badass. Love the lines. It’s a much nicer looking player than Toshiba’s HD-A1, though it’s lighter and feels a little less solid. The BD-P1000’s remote is nicer too... not backlit unfortunately, but it feels better in your hand and the buttons are laid out more conveniently.

Connection via HDMI is pretty easy. You fire the BD-P1000 up and the first thing you notice is a sexy blue glow from the various openings on the player. Nice... except I have yet to find a dimmer. And it’s just a little too bright, you know? Anyway... the player fires up very quickly. You get a welcome screen within about 5 seconds of power-on. BIG improvement over the Tosh HD-DVD player. You can load a disc after less than 30 seconds, also an improvement over the Tosh. I also like that when it’s loading or thinking, you get a little onscreen icon to let you know, rather than just nothing. At least you feel like the thing is doing something. For whatever reason, the player defaults to 720p output via HDMI... you have to go into the setup menu to select 1080. Okay, so that’s what I did.

Now it’s time to look at my first Blu-ray Disc. Naturally, my hand swerved towards The Fifth Element. The title was an amazing bit of reference work on standard DVD, and that Superbit version was awesome. Obvious choice, right? Should look amazing in HD. Yeah... it should. But it doesn’t. In fact... I’m not going to come out and say it looks like crap, but it is easily the worst looking high-definition title I’ve seen yet, and I’ve seen 30+ titles now. The image is muddy looking, lacking in crisp, clean detail. The colors don’t quite pop off the screen like they should. Just a mess. Okay... I will say it. It looks like crap. Sony should never have released this title like this. In fact, they should be embarrassed about this disc. Seriously, if you compare the upscaled Superbit standard-definition DVD to this, the Blu-ray Disc looks only marginally better. This should have been a reference title in high-def and it’s not even in the ball park. My brow furrowed in troubled surprise at this point. Wow... and not the good kind.

Next, I tried The Terminator. A big improvement. This is easily the best quality I’ve ever seen The Terminator looking before. Still... it’s a little bit soft and gritty, but then it’s an older film and that’s the nature of the film stock used. The disc is very good looking, but not blow-you-away good. In any case, this is probably not the best title to test the video quality of Blu-ray Disc, so let’s move on.

Now these two Lionsgate titles... they’re much better looking. Crash and Lord of War have significantly improved clarity, crisp yet clean detail, vibrant color... they’re much more like what I expected Blu-ray Disc would look like. Both have a more film-like image. And yet...

There are some problems I’m seeing right away with all of the Blu-ray Disc titles on the BD-P1000. First, when I switch to 1080i, I’m noticing some very obvious scaling issues that I don’t see when the player is set to 720p. I also don’t see anything like this on the Toshiba HD-A1 at any resolution, so this is specific to THIS player, which may be why Samsung ships it with 720p set by default. Second, I’m noticing a very slight “studdering” problem. About once a second, or maybe once every few seconds, the video seems to hesitate for just a instant – a tiny fraction of a second. You notice it most when the images on screen are moving quickly, or when the camera is panning. It may be that this issue is related to the first. Still trying to figure out what I’m seeing here. Lionsgate’s Lord of War was the title where I noticed it first, and I’ll have to check them all before knowing whether it’s just this title or all of the discs. Again, it’s not something I’ve seen on any HD-DVD titles thus far.

By the way, I haven’t tested the Samsung’s standard DVD upconversion capability to any real degree yet. Just FYI.

If I had to compare my initial impressions of Blu-ray Disc to those of HD-DVD... well, I certainly need to see more Blu-ray titles and spend more time with the player. I’m really just giving you my initial, off-the-cuff comments, based on less than 10 hours of viewing time with the Samsung. It’s worth noting that we’ve only seen one player for each format, so it’s hard to say what issues are specifically related to the players, and what are format related. But right now... I think I may end up giving Round One of this format war to HD-DVD, and that surprises the hell out of me. Sure, that Tosh HD-DVD player was a lemon until the firmware upgrade, but it’s worked like a charm since. And the first 25 or so HD-DVD discs I’ve viewed just look better overall than the first 4 Blu-ray Discs I’ve seen. The HD-DVDs also have a LOT more extra features than the Blu-ray Discs (even if you consider that most of the extras are recycled from standard DVD). For the record, Terminator on Blu-ray has 7 deleted scenes and 2 featurettes, recycled from standard DVD. Fifth Element has a pop-up trivia track, again from the standard DVD. The Lionsgate titles have nothing. I keep hearing these comments (both official and unofficial) from Blu-ray execs saying that they’re leaving off the extras so they can give all the extra disc space over to the best video quality possible. Which tells me that Blu-ray is having major disc space problems. I’ve heard from more than a few industry sources that Blu-ray is having trouble getting the dual-layered BD media to work, which means that discs with lots of extras and good video quality aren’t an option now. It also means that longer movies aren’t an option now either. Both are problems for this format that don’t seem to be troubling HD-DVD at the moment – at least not at first glance, based on the initial title offering.

What all of this goes to prove, of course, is just what I’ve been saying all along: These formats are being rushed to market before they’re ready. And it also proves that the best option for the vast majority of you out there is just to save your money. Don’t even bother with Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD for at least a year, because there are significant bugs to be worked out yet. Wait until better hardware and software is available at a better price, and the early adopter types have dealt with the problems and getting the manufacturers and studios to fix them. Anyway, I’ll have more to say about Blu-ray Disc and the Samsung player in the next few days, as I spend a little more time with it. But so far, I’m less than impressed.

Remember these?

So that was it for my first experience of Blu-ray Disc. Fascinating, yes? It was not a very good debut for the format by any means, and it had been preceded by a lackluster debut for HD-DVD too. But my how things changed. That format war with HD-DVD raged on for another 20 months. Though it wasn’t the official doomsday for HD-DVD, the high-definition format war essentially ended on January 4, 2008, with Warner’s announcement, on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), that they would be switching exclusively to the Blu-ray Disc format. (Before that time, the studio had been hedging their bets by releasing titles on both formats, sometimes via combo packs of both like the one you see above.) But here is the text of that announcement...

WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT TO RELEASE ITS HIGH-DEFINITION DVD TITLES EXCLUSIVELY IN THE BLU-RAY DISC FORMAT BEGINNING LATER THIS YEAR

Decision Made in Response to Strong Consumer Preference for Format

(January 4, 2008 – Burbank, CA) – In response to consumer demand, Warner Bros. Entertainment will release its high-definition DVD titles exclusively in the Blu-ray disc format beginning later this year, it was announced today by Barry Meyer, Chairman & CEO, Warner Bros. and Kevin Tsujihara, President, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group.

“Warner Bros.’ move to exclusively release in the Blu-ray disc format is a strategic decision focused on the long term and the most direct way to give consumers what they want,” said Meyer. “The window of opportunity for high-definition DVD could be missed if format confusion continues to linger. We believe that exclusively distributing in Blu-ray will further the potential for mass market success and ultimately benefit retailers, producers, and most importantly, consumers.”

Warner Home Video will continue to release its titles in standard DVD format and Blu-ray. After a short window following their standard DVD and Blu-ray releases, all new titles will continue to be released in HD DVD until the end of May 2008.

“Warner Bros. has produced in both high-definition formats in an effort to provide consumer choice, foster mainstream adoption and drive down hardware prices,” said Jeff Bewkes, President and Chief Executive Officer, Time Warner Inc., the parent company of Warner Bros. Entertainment. “Today’s decision by Warner Bros. to distribute in a single format comes at the right time and is the best decision both for consumers and Time Warner.”

“A two-format landscape has led to consumer confusion and indifference toward high definition, which has kept the technology from reaching mass adoption and becoming the important revenue stream that it can be for the industry,” said Tsujihara. “Consumers have clearly chosen Blu-ray, and we believe that recognizing this preference is the right step in making this great home entertainment experience accessible to the widest possible audience. Warner Bros. has worked very closely with the Toshiba Corporation in promoting high definition media and we have enormous respect for their efforts. We look forward to working with them on other projects in the future.”

Toshiba quickly responded with this statement...

“TOKYO, Jan. 4 /PRNewswire/ -- Toshiba is quite surprised by Warner Bros.’ decision to abandon HD-DVD in favor of Blu-ray, despite the fact that there are various contracts in place between our companies concerning the support of HD-DVD. As central members of the DVD Forum, we have long maintained a close partnership with Warner Bros. We worked closely together to help standardize the first-generation DVD format as well as to define and shape HD-DVD as its next-generation successor.

We were particularly disappointed that this decision was made in spite of the significant momentum HD-DVD has gained in the US market as well as other regions in 2007. HD-DVD players and PCs have outsold Blu-ray in the US market in 2007.

We will assess the potential impact of this announcement with the other HD-DVD partner companies and evaluate potential next steps. We remain firm in our belief that HD-DVD is the format best suited to the wants and needs of the consumer.”

Xbox HD-DVD drive

Toshiba’s belief aside, the writing was clearly on the wall. All that remained was for Microsoft to decide whether or not it was going to continue backing HD-DVD along with Toshiba. All eyes were thus on Bill Gates, who was set to give the keynote address at CES a couple of days later in Las Vegas. I was in the audience that day, and it was rumored then (and in fact I later confirmed) that Gates had been set to double down on support for HD-DVD. As much as 30 percent of his presentation was originally devoted to HD-DVD developments connected to the Xbox, and it was thought that one of his announcements would be that Microsoft planned to produce an Xbox 360 with a built-in HD-DVD drive (rather than the add-on drive that had been available up to that point, which you can see above). But such was not the case. At the last minute, all mention of HD-DVD was excised from his presentation.

HD player market share before and after Warner's announcement

Circuit City clearance on HD-DVD players

The dominos fell quickly at that point for HD-DVD. Retailers all over America began clearing out their HD-DVD hardware and software at fire sale prices. Best Buy officially recommended Blu-ray over HD-DVD to its customers on February 11. Then sources within the North American HD-DVD Promotional Group began hinting that Toshiba was soon to make a major announcement. On February 15, Walmart announced they would no longer carry HD-DVD. And sure enough – after 609 grueling, ugly, and nasty days for home theater enthusiasts – on February 19, 2008, the format war officially came to an end with this announcement by Toshiba...

Toshiba Announces Discontinuation of HD-DVD Businesses

Company Remains Focused on Championing Consumer Access to High Definition Content

TOKYO--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Toshiba Corporation today announced that it has undertaken a thorough review of its overall strategy for HD-DVD and has decided it will no longer develop, manufacture and market HD-DVD players and recorders. This decision has been made following recent major changes in the market. Toshiba will continue, however, to provide full product support and after-sales service for all owners of Toshiba HD-DVD products.

HD-DVD was developed to offer consumers access at an affordable price to high-quality, high definition content and prepare them for the digital convergence of tomorrow where the fusion of consumer electronics and IT will continue to progress.

“We carefully assessed the long-term impact of continuing the so-called ’next-generation format war’ and concluded that a swift decision will best help the market develop,” said Atsutoshi Nishida, President and CEO of Toshiba Corporation. “While we are disappointed for the company and more importantly, for the consumer, the real mass market opportunity for high definition content remains untapped and Toshiba is both able and determined to use our talent, technology and intellectual property to make digital convergence a reality.”

Toshiba will continue to lead innovation, in a wide range of technologies that will drive mass market access to high definition content. These include high capacity NAND flash memory, small form factor hard disk drives, next generation CPUs, visual processing, and wireless and encryption technologies. The company expects to make forthcoming announcements around strategic progress in these convergence technologies.

Toshiba will begin to reduce shipments of HD-DVD players and recorders to retail channels, aiming for cessation of these businesses by the end of March 2008. Toshiba also plans to end volume production of HD-DVD disk drives for such applications as PCs and games in the same timeframe, yet will continue to make efforts to meet customer requirements. The company will continue to assess the position of notebook PCs with integrated HD-DVD drives within the overall PC business relative to future market demand.

This decision will not impact on Toshiba’s commitment to standard DVD, and the company will continue to market conventional DVD players and recorders. Toshiba intends to continue to contribute to the development of the DVD industry, as a member of the DVD Forum, an international organization with some 200 member companies, committed to the discussion and defining of optimum optical disc formats for the consumer and the related industries.

Toshiba also intends to maintain collaborative relations with the companies who joined with Toshiba in working to build up the HD-DVD market, including Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, and DreamWorks Animation and major Japanese and European content providers on the entertainment side, as well as leaders in the IT industry, including Microsoft, Intel, and HP. Toshiba will study possible collaboration with these companies for future business opportunities, utilizing the many assets generated through the development of HD-DVD.

And of course, having been right in the thick of things throughout that dreaded format war, we celebrated here at The Bits thusly...

A kiss to end a format war.

Honestly, it was about time. Long past due, in fact. Consumers had been confused, enthusiasts had been very deeply frustrated. This was a format war that never should have happened in the first place, and it very nearly killed the market for high-definition discs.

Of course, you all know the rest of the story. All the studios finally jumped in, including Universal, which had been the last holdout. The Blu-ray format soon got functionally better, with much improved hardware and software. Dual-layered media replication was eventually sorted out and ultimately worked just fine. BD-Java issues were sorted out too... more or less. BD discs actually proved more scratch resistant then DVD before it. BD-Live was eventually abandoned on most releases, which was fine because hardly anyone was using it anyway. Most importantly, the mastering quality of HD movies on the format got dramatically better, especially when the studio stopped recycling old DVD transfers and began scanning their films in 2K or higher.

HD Format War!

It’s fair to say that by the time the format war was over, the home theater enthusiast community had been divided deeply, tempers were frayed, and the industry had created a serious mess. Some of those divisions and animosities within the enthusiast community never fully healed. Instead, the most angry individuals just found other reasons to stay angry. Fortunately, mainstream consumers were more forgiving. While Blu-ray was never quite as successful as DVD before it, Blu-ray playback devices (including set-tops and game consoles) are now in more than 84 million U.S. households (per the DEG as of 4/29/16). The total number of U.S. TV households is about 116.4 million, so that means Blu-ray is currently installed in about 72% of U.S. households. That’s actually much better than I predicted at the time the format war ended, which was that Blu-ray penetration into the consumer market would probably top out around 40% of U.S. households.

4K Ultra HD Blu-ray DiscThat brings us to today. While digital sales are certainly growing, and will overtake physical media eventually, Blu-ray is still doing fairly well. Disc sales are certainly on a slow decline, but for the first time digital revenues are starting to make up for that decline. But all the major studios still support Blu-ray, and in fact still support regular DVD too. And we’re now three months into the format’s latest iteration... 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.

Where will we be ten years from now? Well... personally, I think discs will still be around. For enthusiast consumers and collectors, they’ll still be hard to beat in terms of quality, though I do suspect that discs will be the niche market by then. Digital downloads and streaming are absolutely going to be the way the vast majority of consumers watch their movie content. But who knows? Ten years from now, we’ll probably be talking about 8K discs, autostereoscopic 3D, and maybe even VR (virtual reality) viewing of movies at home. I have a feeling that VR is going to sneak up on us in ways we don’t yet fully realize or appreciate.

But... thinking back to those early days of high-definition discs, I’m certainly proud of the fact that, from the very beginning, we cautioned our readers here at The Digital Bits to wait the format war out before committing to either Blu-ray or HD-DVD. We said very early on here, in fact prior to either format’s launch, that the Blu-ray format probably had the edge and would be the safer bet, as it was more likely to win in the long run. Nevertheless, we offered what I still believe is sound advice to our readers back then, and I believe that those who listened to us benefited from it. So as we celebrate a full decade with Blu-ray Disc today, I’d like to leave you with this post here on The Bits from all the way back on April 14, 2006, three days before the format war officially began...

4/14/06

And with that... another week’s come to a close. But with the long anticipated debut, this coming Tuesday, of the HD-DVD format (including the first four titles and... possibly... the first players from Toshiba), we stand here at a bit of a crossroads. So we wanted to take a moment to offer a few words to help put it all into perspective for you. As you can imagine, a lot of readers have been asking us in recent days if they should consider HD-DVD, or wait for Blu-ray Disc instead, or just sit the format war out entirely. A lot of people have even wondered if this means that DVD is going to be obsolete soon.

First things first... while we’ve seen both HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc in multiple demonstrations now, we haven’t had the chance yet to get our hands on final product for either format, to really evaluate the hardware and software and give the tires a good kick. We hope to be able to do that with HD-DVD very soon. We expect to have software in hand in the next couple days, although Toshiba isn’t able to confirm yet if they’ll have players in stores next week for sure, much less when the media will get to test drive them. So at this point, it’s very hard to give you a fully-informed opinion about either format.

That said, the most reasonable advice we can give you is just to wait on buying HD-DVD (and Blu-ray Disc as well) for the time being. The bottom line is that unless you really have to try out all the latest technology, you have a lot of money to blow, and/or you don’t mind buying hardware and software today that could become worthless in a year or two... you should just sit tight. The longer you wait, the more we’ll know about how well these formats work and how well they’ll be supported with software. The longer you wait, the clearer the picture should become in terms of which format has the edge in the high-def format war. The longer you wait, the cheaper the hardware and software will get. Even more importantly, the longer you wait, the better the hardware and software will be in terms of quality and features. Let the early adopters deal with all the technical problems that are inevitably going to crop up – that’s what we do. By this time next year, all of those issues should be worked out. Plus, good old regular DVD looks and sounds just great and it’s going to be around for a long time yet.

DVD is currently the single biggest source of income for the Hollywood studios, bringing in far more profit than even theatrical presentations. There are currently more than 100 million DVD players in homes in the U.S. alone, not to mention many millions more computers equipped with DVD-ROM drives and videogame systems that can play DVD discs too. Just as VHS has been around since the 1980s (that’s more than 20 years – many of you still have VHS players in your houses and lots of old home movies on videotape), DVD is going to be around and supported by the Hollywood movie studios for many more years to come. Our guess is at least 10 years, and maybe even 15 or more.

Soon enough, we here at The Digital Bits (and lots of other respected and knowledgeable reviewers too) will have the chance to test drive the hardware and software. You can bet we’ll have plenty to say about HD-DVD (and eventually Blu-ray Disc) – we’ll give you our informed opinions and call things like we see them. If you absolutely must have HD-DVD immediately, then more power to you. As for the rest of you... relax. Enjoy your current DVDs, and don’t worry about it. We’ll straighten all this stuff out for you in time.

Actually, if you’ve really got an extra couple $1000 burning a hole in your wallet, and you think you might be interested in HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc down the line, then the best thing you can buy today is a new high-definition TV (widescreen, of course, and one equipped with an HDMI input). Your existing anamorphic widescreen DVDs will all look better than ever on it, and there’s lots of great content you can watch in high-definition now, available via over-the-air broadcast or from your digital cable or satellite provider. And when the dust does finally settle in the HD-DVD/Blu-ray Disc scuffle, you’ll be all set to take advantage of whichever format should happen to survive it.

So there you go.

HD Format War!

There you go indeed. Not bad, I think. Not too bad at all. I’d say we did okay by you guys back then here at The Bits. So... here’s to the next ten years. 2026, here we come.

Stay tuned…!

- Bill Hunt (@BillHuntBits)

 

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