Blu-Ray Blues

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.

This Just In

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.

Steps Backwards

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.

  1. I have a 120GB PS3 Slim. It is by far the best DVD player I have ever owned, and I have owned quite a few. It’s also a pretty good gaming console, as well as from what I’ve read one of the best Blu-Ray players around.

    Which is understandable since it is a gaming console and meant to have decent graphics. I have never had a problem with it!

    Which Blu-Ray player do you have?

  2. Agreed. The PS3 is the best Blu-Ray player on the market simply because it is internet-connected and the firmware updates are handled with a user-friendliness that obviously comes from a design team.

    I would not want to know how painful this process would be with a dedicated Blu-Ray player from a hardware manufacturer where customer experience and design are an afterthought at best.

  3. I did a little post about this a few months ago:

    And I don’t think it’s just BD (who doesn’t love that the industry abbreviation for Blue-Ray Disk Player is “BD”?) but Consumer Electronics in general.

    We use the other features on our player, like Netflix, a lot more than the disks. And it sounds a lot better than any of yours, with not regular updates, etc. But its still an order of magnitude more stupid and clunky than it has any right to be in this day and age.

    I think maybe the dedicated CE device market might dry up from game system (etc.) poaching before they get their act together.

  4. The worst thing about blu-ray is that most discs won’t let me JUST PLAY THE DAMNED MOVIE. Unskippable trailers, ads, stupid menus (that, like DVD menus, often contain spoiler-ridden video clips from the movie!)—all of this crap between me and watching the actual movie! Infuriating! It sometimes takes several minutes of fighting with the machine before I can start watching anything.

    I use a PS3 as my blu-ray player, which has its own firmware update issues. Its fan is also loud. But the format itself is the real problem here. “Operation not allowed here” my ass! GrrrЁ

  5. Bought my Blu-Ray player about six months ago, mainly because I upgraded TVs. What’s pathetic is that I’ve used it exactly once. What’s about 100x more pathetic than that is it was to show photos on the TV with family. 😐

  6. I hate hearing people talk about Sony and how the Betamax vs. VHS battle was lost and Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD was won.

    The difference is that Betaxmax was a superior format, from form factor (smaller cassette) to picture quality. Blu-ray was never superior to HD-DVD other than storage capcity. I suspect it’s directly related to Blu-ray’s mandatory use of Java to implement interactive menus.

    Guess what HD-DVD’s Advanced Content used for interactive content? I dare you to guess HTML, CSS and JavaScript. I can’t even imagine how much better the performance was on HD-DVD.

    Grrrrr is right!

  7. Sadly, as Trevin points out, HD-DVD was a better format for consumers. Due to the cost of BR discs I still regularly buy DVD if I don’t think the picture quality benefit is equal to the price difference. I do, however, receive all my Netflix rentals as BR whenever possible.

    I would just like to thank the studios for making me sit through (a) a trailer telling me how superior the BR disc I am playing is compred to my DVD, (b) another trailer telling me to pay extra to use digital copy rather than buy multiple DVD editions for less than the cost of the BR, and (c) making me sit through a lecture on the evils of piracy, after I’ve paid for the damn disc, since pirates never remove the copyright warnings, do they?

    Don’t get me started on disclaimers that not everything on your $40 purchase will necessarily work on your new, $300 player…

    At least Warners tend to have the movie auto-start on their BDs. Some studios get it.

  8. Having lived through the “Great HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray War”, I really was disappointed when Blu-Ray won. I had an HD-DVD player (through my XBox 360) and the comparison with my Sony Blu-Ray player wasn’t even close. You almost never ever see a “loading animation” on HD-DVD, whereas Blu-Ray that seems to be the norm.

    Do they think it’s acceptable to stick in a Blu-Ray and wait for the main menu to load for 2 minutes?

  9. It wasn’t that long ago that Blu-Ray won the format war over HD DVD. That experience alone was enough to convince me to keep my DVD player until the NEW next big thing came along. (downloads? streaming?)

  10. About DVDs: My first DVD player was one of the first discount ones here in Germany. (400 DM back in the year 2000) It was pretty good, but had some minor bugs, like while playing the title menu of the “Austin Powers” DVD, it looked like an NES during a game with too many sprites. But apart from that, no problem.
    A few years later, the more sophisticated and stuffed the DVDs became, I had more problems. Especially the huge Columbia titles (“Spider-Man”) had the habit to suddenly switch the language track within the movie. The DVD of “Snatch” refused to start the main menu and pretty much every DVD from the now non-existing company VCL wasn’t playing at all!
    My next player (69ђ) had no problem with any of those and till today I can say that whenever a DVD refuses to play or acts buggy, it’s most likely the fault of the disc and not the player.
    About Blu-Ray: Don’t have a player and don’t care. I’ll wait for whatever comes after Blu-Ray. (Although I do admit that I might get a Blu-Ray burner for my computer, as soon as blanks become cheaper. It seems to be a seriously good medium to save your files!)

  11. To me, the only real benefit of Blu-Ray is being able to watch films at a natural aspect ratio on my wide-screen TV. In all honesty, up-converting DVD players handled the definition issues pretty well. With these problems with Blu-Ray and even just digital television (that you get either 100% signal or blackness), let’s be thankful that 3D television is a long way off.

  12. I agree about all the extras, I don’t care about them. However, my blu-ray player hasn’t given me any trouble, ever. It’s a PS3, the one my kids use heavily for games, and also the media server we use to stream Netflix and various media from our Mac Mini. In other words, it’s a workhorse, getting at least 6 hours of use daily. We’ve had it for over a year and not a single problem yet (knock on wood). I can’t recommend it enough.

  13. And to make matters worse, Blu-Ray is a dead format. The next format for HD media is streaming.
    I’m probably not even going to get a Blu-Ray player. I use Netflix on Roku and have a Mac Mini hooked up. Some combined interface device accessing multiple sources of media via the internet will win this game in about 10 years. It will probably be built into the HD screen and be a “brand”. Since that would be a license thing with manufactures, it won’t be Apple.
    But TV just seems worse and worse and movies are also at a low point of quality (over all, many exceptions). An internet based “network” of content just might produce many new innovators in the moving image.

  14. I have experienced the same with my Blu-ray player. Me and my wife both comment on my almost 10 year old DVD player that is an APEX that has been the most dependable DVD player we own to this day.

    The only benefit to the Blu-ray player is the ability to watch instant Netflix shows and movies.

  15. I worked in a video store years ago and, believe me, you were very lucky to find a reliable DVD player. We had a lot of complaints about dodgy discs and 9 times out of 10 the problem was the customer’s DVD player.

    I’ll join the chorus of praise for the PS3’s Blu-ray. It’s very reliable and playback looks great, but you need to buy a remote if you expect non-gamers to be able to use it.

  16. Actually I find the image from Blu-ray very “plastic” like. It has something odd that I dislike. Unnatural.
    The object (the standard case) is also less than stellar (as the standard DVD case). This could be all much better.

  17. I always thought this image sums up perfectly how content providers have absolute contempt for honest movie watchers and why they are their own worst enemy when it comes to encouraging piracy!

    It was bad enough on DVD discs, but Blu-ray discs are soooo much slower the aggravation is much worse.

  18. Like many others here I own a PS 3. I only watch Blu-ray discs rented from Netflix on it but not nearly as much as I use Netflix streaming. Leave it to Sony to make their products as user hostile as possible. On top of that they don’t want to give Netflix newer movies for streaming or even disc because instead they want you to buy the movie from them. I’m sure they have made a lot of profit from this scheme but they have also lost a lot due to increased piracy. I collected DVD movies but I’m not about to invest in a Blu-ray collection.

  19. Completely agree. It’s a disappointing and frustrating experience EVERY single time I use the Panasonic model that I have. The ONLY reason I continue to use it is the fact that it offers the highest picture quality currently available.

  20. The PlayStation 3 is clearly the most well-liked Blu-Ray player; I’ve heard the same sentiments expressed elsewhere many times, not just here on this blog post. It’s interesting though that the most well-regarded implementation of the Blu-Ray spec has to come from the originator of the spec — Sony — itself, and then only from what is arguably its most nimble division. The Blu-Ray player that I mentioned setting up over the holidays just passed was actually also from Sony, but it was riddled with bugs nevertheless. All of this tells me that the Blu-Ray format is needlessly complex and difficult to implement.

    Also, if you haven’t seen the image that Peter P linked to in his comment above, it’s really worth a look: link.

  21. Couldn’t agree more with the article. And to all the people praising the PS3 (especially the one saying it was the best DVD player): have you ever encountered a DVD player with a fan? A very loud fan at that? You must either not watch movies or only ones with non-stop explosions.

    Blu-ray in it’s current form is a joke. Like the article author, I never encountered a DVD that didn’t play (and I own a 2000+ DVD collection). Blu-rays on the other hand seem to have a 30% problem rate of one sort or another. I am tired of player firmware upgrades, unskipable junk and badly authored menus.

    To anyone who hasn’t yet jumped on the Blu-ray bandwagon, don’t do it.

  22. It’s the same syndrome as DVD releases being delayed because the extra content isn’t ready. I think the executives responsible for these releases genuinely believe that people only buy the discs because of the extra features.

  23. The one thing that to me is totally inexcusable is: with my Panasonic player off, press the eject button. Wait something like 10 seconds just to get the stupid drawer to open!!! I could ignore a lot of more minor issues but this makes me crazy EVERY time I use the thing.

  24. I’m fairly certain that like 7 minutes elapse between the time I insert the Toy Story 3 disc and the movie begins playing on my Sony Blu-Ray player. This is particularly noticeable when a fussy toddler is waiting to for his film to start.

  25. Had a Sony DVD player that I purchased back in 1998. Had it until I “upgraded” to a Samsung Blu-ray (BD-P1590) player last February. In all my years with the Sony, I never had one issue with DVD playback or a mandatory firmware update. I ended up donating it Goodwill when I got my Blu-ray, and I’d like to hope that someone is still enjoying it to this day.

    While I haven’t had any playback issues with my Samsung, the frequent (and lengthy) firmware updates and the “fluff” the studios stuff on the Blu-ray is damn frustrating. I guess it’s all about sacrifice…

  26. I have a SAMSUNG (BD-C5500C 2010 and it works great & all ways updates & u can go on line with it so u don’t need a ps3 at all i love SONY but Samsung is good as well!!!!!!!!

  27. “…but the business agenda of the entertainment and technology industries stepped in and subverted that simple equation until it became a complex mess.”

    Amen. This is and has always been the crux of the problem.

    I’d encourage you to explore an alternate high-def experience — one that involves keeping a library of MKV/H.264/Xvid files and using VideoLAN’s VLC software or hardware media players like Popcorn Hour or TViX. These products make no concessions to the media industry, and you’ll find they are a delight to use.

    When thinking of all the collusion between media and technology companies, it’s hard not to be a conspiracy theorist:

    * Why is it difficult and illegal to move a DVD to your iPad/iPod? Well, just think of who benefits when you buy the same content, again and again…

    * How come there are no car stereos with AM/FM time-shifting? It’s certainly not because of technology or consumer demand…

    * Devices with HDMI and component video ports sometimes support high-def only on the HDMI ports. This isn’t for any technical reason. It’s only because media companies prefer HDMI’s copy protection…

    * Netflix streaming is incredible — a service that is good for consumers and priced well. How long do you think the media companies will let it operate with the same content at the same prices?

  28. Mr. Sooklayak has it right, he PS3 is terrific and bug-free. The manufacturer however has lots of control over the experience, with wildly different results: Criterion gets the experience note-perfect, focusing on minimal menus and quick access to content, while on the other hand Universal’s disks are obnoxious, noisy and ugly experiences full of endless unskippable trailers (sometimes downloaded from the internet for some reason!), hideous menu and navigation design that belongs on ESPN, and something really useless called blu-ray live. Wretched. That’s the problem with Blu-Ray, the studios think there’s something beyond the feature and extras that people give a rip about. There isn’t.

  29. I personally own a Panasonic blu-ray player and haven’t experienced a single issue reported by you folk. Setup was a breeze, every DVD, CD, SD card and Blu-ray disc I’ve received or rent has worked without a hitch. And, blaming the Blu-ray format for the junk the studios put on the disc is specious at best. We live in a Capitalistic society – everyone is out to extract the last $ they can out of you the consumer.

  30. I’m w/Manoj in that I haven’t had any issues and really like blu-ray. I have a “last year model” Sony and the performance is spectacular.

    BD Live is worthless, but other than that, I don’t agree w/anything written here.

  31. Until recently, I wouldn’t’ve understood this. I guess I’ve got lucky. The Blu-Ray player I bought (a PS3) is trouble-free, and I need the firmware updates to play games so I’ve never noticed needing them for a disc.

    But then I bought Despicable Me earlier this month.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s a brilliant movie. But the Blu-Ray is an entire sack of pain, dedicated to keeping you from actually watching the movie in a reasonable amount of time.

    If this is the future, well, I want to go back.

  32. Blu-ray is more than capable of DVD-like operation, speed, and features — basically, exactly what you want. That mode is rarely used though, in favor of the Java-based mode found on most discs.

    That’s primarily because of the studios. You can achieve basically everything except “games” and the BD-Live stuff in the DVD-style mode, and the performance is crazy-fast, basically an instant-on experience.

    That “progress bar” you see at the beginning of most discs? Yeah, that’s Java crap being loaded. It completely goes away in the DVD-style mode.

    So, good news is that the format is in fact well designed. The bad news is that studios are refusing to use the part of it that works well.

  33. most blu-ray players are running some variant of linux, booting off flash, and in many cases the flash memory chosen and the interface from the cpu chipset to the flash is low-performance/slow in a effort to save costs. So the low startup time in many cases is linux booting, and these manufacturers by and large did not do a good job in choosing the right linux variant or stripping out what they did not need in order to boot the system faster. The firmware updates are sometimes codec firmware updates, but more likely they are HDMI compatibility updates — HDMI is a mess.

    as far as being forced to watch ads, I see streaming video getting worse and worse in this regard. Just take a look at youtube. In order to watch a 1:30 clip, you usually have to endure a 15 second ad before hand plus a popup banner during the playback of the actual content.

    At least with blu-ray, you do not have to dismiss pop-ups during the movie and the ratio of ads to content is not all that terrible.

  34. I find it difficult to understand how people get manipulated into these marketing schemes or should I say “rip-off”. I remember VHS winning over BETA, although it was definitely a worse quality of image (sound was pretty much the same), and we used it for what? 25 years? Laserdiscs were available before, took the same space (volume wise) as a VHS box, but it was too expensive, not worth that much money for quality… Now, all of a sudden, and while it’s financially difficult for most, the price does not matter, the image does, and now bring it on 3D please, I got dollars burning my pocket just for those glasses!!! The fact is that even though the image is slightly better, when the movie is playing, you don’t have time to “watch” those details, unless you pause all the time. The human eye and brain can “capture” so much information in such few time. It took me 14 years to replace my VHS collection, while some titles are still unaccounted for, what? I’ll have to just do it all over again because I’m told it is better? Who do they work for? George Lucas? I have a high def TV, and I’m perfectly happy with the quality my DVDs provide!!! I will not be a puppet to these over-capitalist idiots. My conclusion is that for us, there is nothing, really. But for the studios, the manufacturers, the big money goes there ways. And while we watch the “fireworks” we don’t notice how crappy the movies (I mean the stories here) became. We’re too obsessed with the image; the one on our screen and the one with projecting to the cost of our debt. Oh yes! More space on BD, yet, most of the time, they use the same amount of discs for a series. Well, being green and allЁ R.I.P. HD-DVD, you were it!

  35. ERRATUM : It should read “the big money goes THEIR ways” and “the one WE’RE projecting”. Sorry for that, I have an “autocorrect” with a mind of its own…

  36. Agree with you completely. When it’s “movie night”, we put the Blu Ray disc into the player then go and get dinner ready, hoping that the loading, previews, etc. will be done with by the time we’re ready to sit down to enjoy the film.

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