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Does Your Family Need Blu-ray?


No doubt you have heard the marketing buzz about the latest way to watch movies. Blu-ray is promising to make your DVD player look like a dusty antique -- but can you believe the hype? And is it worth your money to bring yet another media appliance into your home?


The answers to these questions will depend on what you are currently using for a television, what kind of a sound system you have, and -- of course -- how much money you are willing to spend. You would also be wise to take a close look at Blu-ray next to an "old fashioned" DVD to see if the difference is worth your cash.


Blu-ray disks, unlike DVDs, offer true high definition pictures. When you go to the nearest big store with big screens lining the aisles, ask if you can have a look at a Blu-ray movie and then compare it to DVD. Most of the stores have the latest Disney films on Blu-ray to demonstrate, so bring your DVD copies of Pirates, Cars, or National Treasure with you and have a look at each version on the same screen. (All Blu-ray players will play standard DVDs as well, so you can simply pop your old disc into the same player.)


Another way to see the difference for yourself is to find a cooperative sales clerk and ask him or her to hook a Blu-ray player up so you are watching the standard "composite" or "s-video" output on one screen, and the high definition output on another screen. This will give you a fairly accurate side-by-side comparison of how standard DVD and Blu-ray compare. (When you hook a Blu-ray player to a television using a composite or s-video cable, it "down samples" the video to standard DVD quality.)


Personally, I found the difference in quality to be similar to getting a new prescription for my glasses. Every few years I finally get around to buying new glasses, and suddenly I can see clearly again. Yet, before I made the update to my lenses, I didn't really notice how much I was missing.


Chances are you will see the greatest difference with an animated film, like Cars. The colors, especially the red of Lightning McQueen, are incredibly vivid and pure, and the details in the objects are much more defined.


While my eyes "grew up" watching broadcast quality monitors in television stations, you may complete the Blu-ray challenge and leave thinking, "I don't see much of a difference." Be grateful! You just saved yourself a lot of money. Go home and give you DVD player a hug and know that the two of you still have many years of watching movies together in your future.


However, if the Blu-ray difference is big enough for you to be reaching for your wallet, it's time to do some serious planning before you hand over your credit card.


First consider you current television. If it is more than five years old, ensure it truly is an HDTV capable TV. The best way to check is to dig out the owner's manual. Note that simply assuming it's HDTV capable because it is a flat panel plasma or LCD display may be a mistake. Some of the earlier flat screens were "EDTVs" or Extended Definition. They offered slightly better resolution than a standard TV, and improved the image of a DVD player, but they are not HDTV capable and that means you won't get much of an improvement from a Blu-ray player.


Likewise, don't assume your older style tube television isn't HDTV capable. If you purchased it in the last couple of years prior to the onset of flat panel TVs, you may be in luck. Look for three input jacks on the back marked R, G and B and also check your owner's manual to see if it mentions HDTV.


The same applies if you have a video projector, however most can display some level of HDTV through the "VGA" computer input along with some adapter cables.


That "some level" restriction is also important. HDTV comes in three major ranges -- kind of like gas for your car. The lowest is 480i or 480p. The number designates how many horizontal lines are in the picture. 480i is equivalent to standard broadcast TV.  480p has slightly better resolution, and is the top end of what standard DVDs can produce.


The next step up is 720p (there is no "i" at this level). Many of the first flat panel TVs -- especially plasma screens -- fall into this category. Even today, plasmas often are only 720p capable.


Finally, at the top end are the 1080i and 1080p resolutions. Most LCD displays, many plasmas, and some projectors and even a few high-end tube televisions can produce this level of definition.


Blu-ray is capable of adjusting to any of these resolutions, but -- obviously -- if you want to see the very best picture your player is capable of producing, you need a 1080p television.


To make matters more complex, the Blu-ray movie itself may be mastered in any of these resolutions. If you put in a lower resolution movie, or a standard DVD, the player simply "up converts" the lower resolution picture. (Many DVD players also offer this capability. They can output 1080i signals, but in reality you are still watching a movie with 480 lines of resolution.)


By now if you are totally confused, and the numbers are rolling around in your head, I've got bad news: There are two more items to consider.


First is your receiver. That's the box that has the big volume knob on the front and is responsible for sending sound from your DVD or Blu-ray player to your speakers. If it was purchased in the past while, it also "switches" the various video sources you may have (DVD, cable, satellite) to send the signal you want to watch to your TV.


Virtually all receivers made in the past decade can decode Dolby Digital sound -- the standard for all DVD players. Some receivers can also do more sophisticated sound schemes, like DTS. Blu-ray players all output Dolby Digital, but many discs now offer superior ways of encoding sound. If you want to take advantage of those new systems, you will need to buy a newer receiver. Once again, it's like getting a new pair of glasses -- you may not hear a noticeable difference. Also, you can always start with what you have and then upgrade the receiver later.


Finally, you need wires to hook all your new paraphernalia together. If you think they are the cheap part of the equation, think again. Some exotic cables run well over $100. Are they better? In my view, there often is no difference. When it comes to digital signals, either it's going to work or it's not. For the most part, buy a cable that is constructed well, but don't get too stressed over strange metals and oxygen starved insulation. And it's usually far more expensive to buy your cables at the big box store where you bought your player and TV. Instead go to a "real" electronics store or look for cable suppliers on the Internet.


Also, one last tip about cables: The newest standard is HDMI, a multi-pin digital cable. However many of the "HDTV Ready" televisions sold in the earlier part of this decade don't have HDMI, but you can still use them to view HDTV using what is called "component" inputs. These are cables that look much like standard audio connections, but they have three wires labeled red, green and blue. Don't let some salesperson talk you into a new HDTV because your current set doesn't have HDMI. Assuming your TV with component inputs is HDTV ready, just buy component cables.


With the mandated change to digital TV in 2009, you may be planning on tossing your old TV. If you are thinking about buying or have bought a quality HDTV, a Blu-ray player may be a nice addition, but just make sure the clearer picture is worth the added cost. With the advent of downloadable movies and countless other ways to add to your overloaded credit card debt, you may want to simply enjoy what you have and let the marketplace grind away at the prices.


Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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