Feb. 19, 2008, was supposed to be a watershed day in the history of home entertainment.
That was the day consumers could finally march into stores and buy the next generation of DVD player with confidence that they hadn’t just blown $400 on the digital equivalent of the Betamax machine.
It was the day Toshiba announced it was throwing in the towel on its HD-DVD format, one of two competing standards for encoding discs for high-definition video. After two years of rivalry, HD-DVD had lost the format wars to Blu-ray, a standard backed by Sony.
Named for the bluish laser used to etch the data, Blu-ray had a disc capacity five times greater than its predecessor, enough to hold the mass of information needed to play super-sharp HD video with state-of-the-art sound.
Toshiba’s surrender freed the tens of millions of us with HDTV sets to jump off the fence and go get that high-def DVD experience we’d been waiting for.
Funny thing: Here it is nearly nine months later, and almost everybody is still sitting on that fence.
One reason there hasn’t been a run on Blu-ray players is that not that many titles are out on Blu-ray discs. Tens of thousands of movies and TV shows have been released on DVD, but the number of Blu-ray titles available hasn’t even cracked the 1,000 mark (though it will by Christmas).
“It’s important to remember that it’s still a very new technology,” said Shawn DuBravac, an economist with the Consumer Electronics Association. “And not every product is meant to have the adoption rate of DVD players. You probably won’t see that with Blu-ray.”
So why invest in one?
From personal experience, I can say that Blu-ray delivers a top-of-the-line home theater experience.
Online services and cable and satellite TV all compress HD video to make the download times faster. Compressed video is often noticeably less sharp and fluid than uncompressed video. That’s obvious to most people who compare the video quality of Blu-ray to downloads.
It’s worth remembering, though, that most Americans picked the inferior VCR format over Betamax and that laser discs never really caught on, and that when people first bought HDTVs, it was to watch standard-definition movies and TV programs on their big screens. Even when high-def cable was available, many didn’t spring for it. Superior video quality is nice, but price and convenience matter, too.
Indeed, after Blu-ray won the format war, Microsoft raised the white flag. The software and video game giant had supported the losing HD-DVD format in its Xbox consoles but has denied any plans to switch to Blu-ray. Instead, Microsoft says it will support digital downloads.
Even when price isn’t a factor, consumers are balking on Blu-ray.
Robert Bruce, proprietor of SoundFX in Kansas City, said his high-end customers are asking about download services more than they are about Blu-ray.
One such service, which is on display prominently in his showroom, is the Vudu box. This small, Internet-connected appliance can instantly download more than 10,000 movies and TV shows at fees that start at 99 cents. Vudu has more than 1,100 high-definition downloads starting at $4, which means its HD library is larger than the total number of Blu-ray titles.
“We want Blu-ray to succeed, we really do,” Bruce said. “But the feedback we get from our customers is that there aren’t that many titles that grab you. If the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy was out (on Blu-ray), if all the ‘Lord of the Rings’ were out, and were really well done, people would be telling us, ‘I’ve gotta have that.’ ”
That could start to change this holiday season. The animated hit “WALL-E” won’t be offered in HD on Vudu, but it will be available on Blu-ray discs. If studios start favoring Blu-ray in that fashion, it would probably have an effect similar to when Tower Records stopped carrying records.
And the CEA’s DuBravac argues that Hollywood hasn’t begun to exploit Blu-ray. With its massive storage, “you can actually have the director’s picture superimposed over the movie, pointing things out” — a video commentary track. (Or perhaps even a hologram — what “Star Wars” nut wouldn’t like to see the image of George Lucas beamed into his own film?)
A lot of grumbling about Blu-ray would go away if the price fell dramatically — $149, anyone? With retailers desperate to avoid the holiday blues, it still may be a Blu-ray Christmas after all.