Mon 10 Jan
It’s been about a decade now since DVDs first became the default delivery medium for movies and I’ve been trying to remember exactly how buggy or inconsistent the earliest DVD players were. I remember vaguely that some discs wouldn’t work with some players (especially DVD-ROM drives built into computers), but as best as I can recollect, I never had a problem playing a single disc. Or if I did, it was just one out of countless discs I’ve owned, rented or borrowed. For me, DVDs have always just worked.
Not so with Blu-Ray, the would-be successor to the DVD format. I was lucky enough to get a Blu-Ray player for Christmas a year ago and when it works, it works great. I can pop in a Blu-Ray disc and watch a movie in beautiful, luxurious high-definition, revealing all sorts of details in my favorite movies that I’d never been able to see before. But it has not been a painless experience. The player has been frustratingly, consistently buggy, making the act of watching a disc needlessly difficult.
None of the four or five DVD players I’ve owned ever required firmware updates, but this Blu-Ray player seems to survive on a monthly diet of them. Each firmware update is labeled with a long and confusing version number (e.g., BEv1.03_090528_BDP3600_XAA) and provides virtually no clue as to what improvements it holds or problems it corrects. In fact, some of the updates have seemed to make the hardware perform worse, and the user forums are littered with complaints from people whose players have stopped working altogether after firmware patches. After applying one such update, my player stopped working with my receiver altogether, forcing me to connect it with a different set of cables.
Speed is also a general problem with Blu-Ray. Network-connected features slow down the disc loading experience so much that I’ve resorted to disabling some of these ostensibly value-added features. Even without the network issues, a disc takes longer to load and menus take longer to navigate than on a stock DVD player. This is doubly frustrating because one of the early promises of the format was that users could pop in a disc and the movie would begin playing immediately, doing away with the interminable trailers that have opened DVDs for the past decade. Not only has that promise been essentially broken, but trailers are an even worse problem on Blu-Ray. Often the way a Blu-Ray disc is formatted, it’s harder to fast-forward through a bundle of trailers than it used to be on a DVD.
In fact, aside from the fact that Blu-Ray’s high definition picture is so ridiculously gorgeous, the whole format is demonstrably worse than what came before it. I suffered through a year of my own Blu-Ray player’s problems without protesting too loudly (and without blogging about it) because I felt like the technology was still relatively young, but this past Christmas I set up a brand new Blu-Ray player for my girlfriend’s parents and encountered many of the same problems — and even some new ones. Even though it was a newer model from a different manufacturer, things seemed little improved.
To even casual technology observers, it’s always been obvious that Blu-Ray is a format designed more for content producers than for consumers, but it’s hard to understand how hostile the Blu-Ray ecosystem is to consumers until you actually own one and try to use it regularly. Turning on my Blu-Ray player is just not as fun as streaming movies via Netflix, or renting them from iTunes. And I say this as one of a dwindling number of consumers who would prefer, on the whole, to own my media on discs rather than as digital files.
What’s amazing about this situation is that the leap from DVD to Blu-Ray shouldn’t have been this complex. The newer format bundles in all sorts of features like bookmarking, inline menu availability and BD Live, which accesses supplemental content over the Internet, that frankly I couldn’t care less about. What I wanted, and what I would be willing to guess most consumers want out of Blu-Ray, is simply better looking home video. That shouldn’t have been hard to do at all, but the business agenda of the entertainment and technology industries stepped in and subverted that simple equation until it became a complex mess. If you haven’t yet made the switch to Blu-Ray, I would urge you to consider carefully before you do.