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The Blu-Ray Way
Member Name: Nibelung
Date: 29/01/09, updated on 29/01/09 (258 review reads)
Advantages: Reasonably priced for such a good spec picture
Disadvantages: Less connectivity than I was expecting
Blu-Ray is the winner in a recent 'format war', its main rival having been HD-DVD, a mainly Toshiba-promoted system. However, it would seem that thanks to an awful lot of hype, wining-and-dining and cash from Sony, presumably to get the major studios on board, Blu-Ray emerged as the winner, despite not actually being the final version at that point*.
It all starts to smack of VHS versus Betamax. Yes, VHS won, but in reality, Betamax was widely thought to be technically superior.
Still at least this time Sony is on the winning side!
(*Early adopters will no doubt be licking their financial wounds, feeling a little like beta-version testers and finding that they can't access all the Blu-Ray disc content now potentially being enjoyed by those that hung back for 'Profile 2' machines to appear. At least HD-DVD was more or less a ready-to-roll system).
By the way, the 'Blu' refers to the blue laser light used. Blue is a higher wavelength than the normal red used for reading CDs and the like, and can therefore read finer detail off the disk, meaning that disks can now be crammed with much more information, i.e. that needed by movies with a lot more lines of definition.
Anyway, be that as it may, Blu-Ray has now matured, and more to the point, many players are now 'sub 200 hundred quid' which came as a pleasant surprise to me, considering I paid £350 for my first DVD player.
Initially, I'd thought of buying the cheapest branded one I could find, for example, the Samsung BD-P 1500, but it gets such mixed reviews (good here and bad on Ciao) that I discounted it. Anyway, my TV is a Panasonic, and there are certain advantages to sticking with the same make - less fumbling for yet another bloody remote control being the main one since the TV remote will handle basic 'transport' functions on the Blu-Ray player.
As luck would have it, the Panasonic BD35 gets rave reviews and only costs about 15 quid more than the Samsung. Having a 'Dooyoo voucher' credited to Amazon, where the machine costs £185, helped too!
The machine is the usual 'hi-fi width' but extremely slim, height wise. Apart from almost flush on/off and open/close switch, there are no visible controls, although a drop-down flap conceals some basic transport buttons (stop, start, pause etc. and more significantly, a slot to read SD digital camera cards). However, if your hi-fi stack now resembles a club sandwich, these top mounted buttons could preclude the BD35's use as anything other than the upper slice of toast!
The remote seems a well-built enough affair with LOTS of buttons, admittedly some of which can be used to control not only a Panasonic 'Viera' TV quite comprehensively, but, and this is a first for me, the volume of my Yamaha home cinema amplifier. Woo-hoo, even less time off the sofa!
For anyone with a home cinema set up, there's very little to making the connections. The so-called HDMI (Hi-Definition Multimedia Interface) output goes to the new telly, and the digital sound connection (optical-only) is fed to the amplifier. Apart from three phono connections that can be used for progressive scan output, there are no other audio-visual connectors. The next version up, the BD55 also contains a 7.1 digital decoder for those that prefer to feed up to 7 phono sockets to a 'dumb amplifier' but not the BD35.
There's an initial puzzlement in so much that there's also an Ethernet connection, but perusal of the instruction manual only uncovers two potential uses for this. One is to update the current firmware version of the machine, but there's no urgency in doing this if your machine hasn't been in stock at the shop too long since it's highly likely to have a recent firmware version anyway, this being one use for this port.
I'll come on to the second use later.
I was lucky - the default settings once plugged into my router confirmed that a suitable internet connection existed. I really didn't want to get involved in finding out how to fill the various boxes in - MAC numbers, DND servers, IP address. I mean to say, I might have had to get off the couch!
After accessing the Firmware Update page, it did indeed use the new connection to the outside world to ascertain that I had firmware version 1.1, whereas 1.2 was available, so within minutes my machine was bang up to date. I don't suppose this will need doing very often.
If you really can't make an internet connection to it, you can access the Panasonic web site to download the latest firmware version, and then burn it onto a CD-ROM so it can be uploaded to the player manually (or in other words, once a year).
As for the rest of the set-up menu, I stuck mainly to default values, except that I knew my home cinema set up was strictly 5.1 channels, not 7.1 channels, and that I knew my video output was going to be HDMI-only.
The manual, it has to be said is quite complicated, and is somewhat frustrating as it tells you what all the options are, but fails to tell you why you might want to choose one over the other. It also seems to be full of double negatives. My advice would be to stick to basics for the disk types you're likely to play. There's no point in agonising over DivX options if you don't even know what a DivX disk is (I don't , he admitted). All I know is that it's taken everything I've thrown at it so far:-
CD-ROMs full of .jpeg files, CD-ROMs full of mp3 files, audio CDs, movies copied to DVD-R, movies copied to DVD+R (dual layer), digital camera pics via the SD card slot, oh yes........ and it plays Blu-Ray disks!
I bought a copy of the BBC's superb Planet Earth series from www.play.com for £25 (5 disks) just to 'show-case' my new purchase, and it's breathtaking. This does however raise one concern.
Will I now start buying rubbish movies just because they're technically superior?
Actually, I don't think there's much risk of that, given the current price of Blu-Ray disks, and given that the new telly/player combination plays my existing DVDs so well that it'll be some time before I've finished re-viewing them all in a new light, which brings me to.......
THE ALL-IMPORTANT PLAYBACK QUALITY
Well of course the limiting factor for me now is actually the new TV, which is not 'Full HD Ready', only 'HD Ready'. This means that it can only handle 1080 lines in their 'interlaced' mode (hence 1080i), rather than in the progressive scan mode (1080p). The highest progressive-scan rate it will stand is 720p. To me there are a few reasons why this doesn't matter much.
a) A lot of Blu-Ray disks are only of the 1080i/720p standard anyway and,
b) At 37" screen size, seated 10 feet from the TV, I'm doubtful if I'd know the difference.
c) If I weaken and get Sky HD (not likely) or maybe Freesat HD (more likely), these only transmit HD as 1080i/720p anyway at the moment.
d) There is no (d), on account of the fact that no-one's holding their breath for any HD output from Freeview any year soon!
Being a 'Profile 2' player, means that the Panasonic will interact with Blu-Ray discs having 'BD-Live' content; just as long as an internet connection is present (there's that second use I mentioned).
How 'exciting' a prospect this is depends on you and whether the disc concerned has any such thing. Personally, I've never had much time for DVD 'extras' so BD-Live is dead in the water as far as I'm concerned - I'm certainly not going to go upstairs to turn the router on to find out what I'm missing (well maybe the once to confirm I'd rather watch the movie). The manual does at this stage make ominous mention of distant servers logging your disk collection, and the even more ominous possibility of money changing hands!
Strangely enough, my TV reports that an HD 1080p connection has been established, despite not being rated for this height of definition (Maybe it is for Blu Ray players, or does it downscale this to 720p or 1080i? Thinks: Why am I asking you?).
What is equally important when viewing movie-based material is the ability to output movies in their native 24 frames per second, and have the TV accept them as they are. This obviates the need for a cumbersome conversion to 60 fps (24s into 60 goes...errrr....2½ times)
Between them, the BD 35 and the Panasonic TV can do this, resulting in smoother action especially on 'panned' shots which under normal viewing frequently baulk at intervals as if the camera tripod was jamming a bit.
As I said before, my one Blu-Ray purchase, at time of writing, looks truly wonderful with vibrant colours that don't 'bleed' around the edges and with almost jerk- and flicker-free motion. Better than a back-seat at the movies, and no annoying paper-rustling or tortilla-chip-and-chilli smells.
THAT 'UP-SCALING' THING
You hear a lot about how Blu-Ray players can enhance an ordinary DVD by 'up-scaling' it, in my case to the 720 lines of my new TV. As it happens, any HD TV will up-scale any input that isn't already up to its maximum number of lines anyway, merely because a stripe of 576 lines (that's the viewable bit of a 625-line picture) would look silly in a screen of 720 or 1080 lines. All the Blu-Ray player does above and beyond this is to keep the signal 'digital' via its HDMI output all the way till your body's audio-visual receptors (that's yer lug'oles and mince-pies) demand otherwise, thereby leaving analogue conversion till it's absolutely necessary.
If your existing SCART connections were already set to their very best output quality (usually RGB, not S-Video or Composite), there's little or no perceptible difference except possibly to the colour depth.
Those that claim great things for their newly 'up-scaled' DVD collections possibly haven't been viewing it to its best advantage in the first place. The 'upgrade' to my DVD collection came with the new TV, not the Blu-Ray player although it's becoming ever-more difficult to separate the two especially as they arrived within three weeks of each other. The morale is: If you already have an excellent picture from your DVDs, don't expect up-scaling to do much more.
Having an internet connection to enhance Blu-Ray disc content and to keep the machine up-to-date with firmware enhancements is all very well, but why couldn't it have been a wi-fi one, rather than the more 'industrial' Ethernet hard-wired connection? After all, the Sony PS3 games consoles can do it. This player is far more likely to be finding its way into a lounge rather than an office. For me, I did it using the 'Homeplug' system that allows Ethernet connections over the house mains to my router upstairs but some people are going to have to go to greater lengths to achieve this if they want to screw the last drop of content from their Blu-Ray purchases.
I think it's safe to say that Blu-Ray won't be around as long as the DVD format, which is by no means dead anyway, before something else sweeps it under the carpet. Maybe solid-state memory chips like today's flash drives will be big enough, or maybe we'll all have such fast broadband that no-one bothers storing their own movie collections any more. One thing is for sure - this is probably the last audio/visual format that will involve being spun on a turntable to be read, unless of course you count hard disks. Thus end decades of 'rotating media' or "here endymold rotaty filmydiskloaders - oh, deep folly" as Prof. Stanley Unwin never once put it.
A leading light at Samsung who market their own Blu-Ray products (so these are no sour grapes) is reputed to have said that he 'gives it 5 years'.
Methinks I won't be replacing my DVD collection wholesale and I may just stick to hiring Blu-Ray disks. At current prices, I certainly won't be buying many.
However, whatever happens to Blu-Ray, I'll still have a damned fine DVD player!
Summary: Blu-Ray disk player with internet access
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