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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
and the Media by Rod Gustafson
Television Council -
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