Has Blu-Ray’s Moment Arrived?

Have you made the jump to Blu-Ray?  The next generation disc format, the “successor” to DVD, has now been on the market for three years, promising High Definition visuals and improved audio quality, along with networked capabilities for increased viewer interactivity.  The initial launch was rather lackluster, hampered as it was by initial competition from HD-DVD and relatively high prices for Blu-Ray players, usually over $300.  Clunky standalone players with long load times, and a relative dearth of exciting titles only made things worse.  The format received a strong boost in penetration from Sony’s decision to include it in every PlayStation3 device, but as long as non-gaming players remained so pricey, Blu-Ray remained somewhat still-born.

Things look quite a bit different right now, at least according to the New York Times.  New data suggests that Blu-Ray is taking off, with large growth numbers for non-PS3 players, as the standalone devices replace older DVD players particularly for new owners of 1080p capable TV’s.  To the surprise of almost no one, however, overwhelming credit for Blu-Ray’s new success has been the dramatic lowering of the price of new players.  Many well-reviewed devices can be obtained for less than $150, with some even going below the “magic” $100 price point when impulse buying is thought to become more prevalent.  While not seen as nearly as important, Blu-Ray devices have received a palapable boost from the growing presence of net-enabled services being offered via the machines, including Netflix streaming, YouTube videos, Amazon VOD, even CinemaNow.  The much more powerful chips necessary to decode HD 1080p video streams also allow for these kind of processing tasks in a way that previous generation DVD players could never dream of doing.

Nonetheless, I remain somewhat skeptical of the longer term viability of the format, and certainly doubt it will ever become as ubiquitous as the DVD.  There are still many, many households in the US that do not have HDTV’s just yet, nor plan to in the near future as long as their currently working model survives.  Regular DVD is good enough for most viewers, even if they do have an HDTV, particularly as the cost of Blu-Ray media remains consistently much higher than DVD.  More importantly, however, the growing use of net-based video services to sell Blu-Ray players clearly demonstrates the growing appetite among viewers for content, even high quality content, to be delivered via the Internet, and not physical media.  And there are a number of ways to do that besides Blu-Ray, particularly as TV manufacturers begin to build connectivity directly into their monitors.  Not to mention the appeal of the much more flexible HTPC, that can play back anything from the online world, and can play Blu-Ray discs as well if a BR drive is installed.  Blu-Ray players may be currently a semi-cheaper way to get Netflix streaming in the living room, but any advantages they may have right now in price and convenience will likely disappear very quickly as other technologies catch up.

Even more, for members of the downloading community, Blu-Ray players offer very little.  As we all know, the much touted next generation DRM scheme designed for Blu-Ray, called AACS, proved to be as vulnerable as every other DRM scheme, and was cracked almost instantly.  Other content protection schemes tried with Blu-Ray, including the notorious BD+, have also done nothing to prevent wide-scale pirating of Blu-Ray content.  Unlike DivX Certified DVD players from the past, hardly any standalone Blu-Ray players offer much support for compelling online formats like Matroska.  Blu-Ray burning drives in PCs also continue to be both expensive and rare.

Ironically, for anybody with a decent broadband connection, the user experience is probably better watching Blu-Ray content using an HTPC than a standalone player.  First, the content becomes available faster, as most Blu-Ray rips appear weeks, sometimes months before their commercial release.  Second, the extra content so often touted by the movie studios has very little actual appeal, and its absence from a downloaded .mkv file actually speeds up load time.  Finally, the lack of any physical media means that collections of movies can be stored on hard drives or remote servers, preventing the need to store discs around the house, as anyone with even a moderate DVD collections is well aware.

But that is just one viewpoint.  Have any of you made the switch fully to Blu-Ray?  Tried out standalone players?  Or used your PlayStation3 for Blu-Ray playback?  Do you buy or rent Blu-Ray discs?  Or do downloaded Matroska files fill your need for HD content?  Do you have a different opinion on the future of Blu-Ray?

-Bruce