Stop! Why It Still Isn't Safe to Buy Blu-rayS

Click to viewBy now you know waaaaay too much about Toshiba's format-war surrender, the death of HD DVD at the hands of the larger Blu-ray armada. You may even be eying the Blu-ray players mounted proudly in point-of-sale displays at Best Buy or Wal-Mart. Pricing hasn't come down to HD DVD player levels—and with those sinking even further, it's unlikely they ever will—but the need to get in on the action might provoke you to spend some extra dimes. All we're saying is DON'T! Not yet. If you don't know why, let us explain.

We're not going to tell you that HD DVD will somehow come back from the grave to eat Blu-ray's brains or anything Romero-esque like that. Even China's CH-DVD—an easily mass-produced sibling to HD DVD—once a looming HD DVD mercenary force on the horizon, now seems to serve the opposite purpose. By keeping Chinese firms busy with something other than Blu-ray, Hollywood's movie content may be kept safe from piracy, and big electronics brands may be able to hold onto their profit margins—at least for a short while.

No, the earth is Blu, and we are at least grateful for having a winner. Now begins a different kind of shakeup, where once friendly compadres like Sony, Pioneer and Panasonic start to lock horns with one another. This will bring multiple benefits, but here's what all parties involved need to accomplish:

1. Get the Spec In Order

Now that Blu-ray is fully in the spotlight, it's got to get its act together spec-wise. You may recall that we lambasted many Blu-ray supporters for only building 1.0 spec players, including the $1000+ home-theater flagships from Sony and Pioneer. Except for Panasonic's DMP-BD30 and the PlayStation 3 with up-to-date firmware, no current Blu-ray player can even handle the 1.1 spec with picture-in-picture, already appearing in certain Blu-ray discs (and quite the handful of HD DVD titles—but we'll get to that).

The place to be is spec 2.0, referred to as "full profile." Suddenly, it's Sony who is looking the best here, with not only the amazingly upgradable PS3 but two new players announced this week, the BDP-S350 and S550. For $400 and $500 respectively, they are set to deliver all of the features promised in the Blu-ray palette, including both picture-in-picture and BD-Live internet connectivity (with USB storage for downloaded content). Nobody else, with the possible exception of Daewoo, has even muttered about a 2.0 spec player.

Samsung's BD-UP5000 dual-format player is purportedly compatible with 1.1, but besides the fact that it's pricey even at $550 and requires a firmware update for full compatibility, it'll soon be discontinued. Given our initial experience with it, we say that it's best to wait and see what its successor, the BD-UP5500, can do. Heck, dual-format playback may not be all that necessary for long. But that brings us to another reason why you should wait...

2. Finalize the Video Library

We only need dual-format players as long as the library is split down HD DVD and Blu-ray lines. We are waiting for Universal, Paramount and DreamWorks to jump to Blu, and even once they do, it's not a certainty that they can simply re-release everything currently out on HD DVD. Universal claims 150 titles—surely the Bournes will go Blu as soon as Uni does, but how long do I have to wait for a Blu-ray of The Big Lebowski? Hell, it's almost worth scooping up an ultracheap HD DVD player now just to enjoy that one movie alone, 47 or 48 times in a row. At any rate, some speculation suggests that the remaining HD DVD studios may not even come around until summer or fall, depending on weird smoke-filled-backroom negotiations with Toshiba.

Even when all the studios are on the Blu-ray tip, though, a new problem begins to surface: second-edition releases of movies already on Blu-ray. Think about it: a handful of big Warner titles like 300 and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out with more deluxe HD DVD versions which include picture-in-picture and certain online capabilities. Who's to say Warner won't re-release their 300 and Harry Potter Blu-ray discs with the same compelling extras, now that it's feasible on the Blu-ray platform? Warner is easy to single out because we have that comparison, but who's to say that half of the blockbuster movies out on Blu-ray now won't get a re-release with more interactive content when the spec 2.0 players saturate the market?

3. Bring On the Old-Fashioned Electronics Store Competition

Sony's more affordable new Blu-ray player will hit the market this summer for $400. Nothing built by Sony or anyone else should be considered before then, the one exception being the PS3. But even the Sony standalone at $400 is expensive, especially for a player whose capabilities are more or less the same as Toshiba's HD-A30 HD DVD player, now (in a price nose dive) selling for around $130. Only when Panasonic, Samsung and LG announce their own Blu-ray 2.0 players, will true competition finally exist. (Pioneer will launch a 2.0 player too, but it probably won't get involved in a price war.) It surely wouldn't be long after that that we see a full-spec Blu-ray player for $200 or maybe even less. Our bet is Christmas, since Sony doesn't seem like it will have anything on the market until "summer" and no one else is talking about their next Blu play.

There you have it, the three big reasons why you need to hold off on buying a standalone Blu-ray player, and amassing a library of Blu-ray to rival your intimidating DVD collection. Don't worry though. Your patience will have its rewards. And Christmas will be here again before you know it.

[Blu-ray on Giz; image source for "halt" parody graphic]