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Lo-def in hi-def
Is the move to high definition all it's cracked up to be and worth the considerable expense to get it right? Slarek ponders on the experience, the pleasures and the pitfalls, and looks forward to DVD Outsider's first Blu-ray reviews.

Have you gone high definition yet? I have. Eventually, expensively and a little reluctantly. Believe it or not, I have a perfectly good 32" CRT television and a boffo multi-region DVD player, two objects whose combined electronics make even weakly coded DVDs look rather good and made the decently coded ones shine like diamonds. Over the years I've built a DVD collection that dominates the entire wall of one room and three cabinets in another and have disposed of countless VHS tapes of the same material that have been superseded by their digital replacements. Lovely though the discs are, every tape that went into the bin represented not just the money it cost to buy the damned thing, but the hours I had to work to earn that money. Now it seems I'm being asked to buy them all a third time, this time in high def.

There's little doubt that the appeal of a stonking big TV and super-crisp pictures is an appealing one for any cineaste. When visiting Japan a few years ago I was directed to the Yodobashi Umeda electronics store in Osaka, a small city of a building with an entire floor dedicated to video and television products. In a spectacularly impressive example of product positioning, the store had placed a 65 inch Plasma TV at the top of the escalator leading up to TV and video department that acted as a "don't you just love me?" greeter to every electronics hungry visitor. Worked for me. Feature films are designed to be seen on a big screen and so the bigger the better when it comes to TVs, right? Well, yes and no.

At Outsider we've been slower in making the HD move than many other sites, but our reasons are sound enough. Frankly, until now it's just not been worth cost and effort. It's not that we didn't want to watch movies in high definition, it's just that in the early days of the home HD there was precious little on disc worth watching. And the expense...

Going HD in its early days as a home format was a pursuit for the dedicated and wealthy mainstream movie fan only. The discouragements for the rest of us were persuasive and plentiful. Big, fuck-off TVs cost as much as a small car and precious few of them were full HD anyway, while high definition players were few in number and similarly exorbitant. The range of available titles reflected the early days of DVD, a handful of uninspiring and occasionally wretched big-budget Hollywood studio productions, usually with a fraction of the extras of their DVD equivalent. And, of course, there were two rival formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray, and the studios were split on which one they were prepared to support, which meant that you'd need two players if you wanted to have access to every hi-def release. Sod that for a lark. I quickly realised that it was something I neither needed nor could afford, despite the lingering lure of that Osaka electronics store tease.

Slowly things began to change. Big flat-screen TVs became the norm rather than the exception and prices of so-called HD-Ready TVs (i.e., ones without 1080p displays) began to fall rapidly as the full HD models hit the market en masse. Sony put a Blu-ray player inside its long-delayed Playstation 3, which made the console considerably more expensive that its Microsoft rival but for a considerable time it was the cheapest Blu-ray player you could buy, and you got a hi-def games console thrown in.

My interest in the format was revived when three of the bigger independent distributors – Anchor Bay, Blue Underground and Tartan – announced that they were going hi-def and had selected Blu-ray as their format of choice, a "no brainer" according to the Tartan press release. They weren't the only ones. As early as June 2007, movie rental giant Blockbuster surprised just about everyone by announcing they'd be prioritising Blu-ray over HD-DVD in their stores. This prompted an understandably negative response from HD-DVD's more high-profile supporters, with the North American HD-DVD Promotional Group described the move as "short sighted."

Crunch time for the format war came last Christmas, when Warner, who until then had been the only major studio releasing titles on both formats, announced that in the new year they would be selecting one and sticking with it, based on which of the two sold better over the Christmas period. Want to guess which one did? Warner switched to Blu-ray only, and on 19th February 2008 Toshiba, the driving force behind the HD-DVD format, threw in the towel. The format war was over, and Blu-ray had won. A number of reasons why it did so have been suggested, but my favourite was always that as a format name, HD-DVD simply had too many syllables.

Given Blu-ray's increased capacity over HD-DVD you think we'd all be celebrating it's victory as a good thing, but there's also a down side, and it's one all DVD enthusiasts will be wearily familiar. HD-DVD discs had no regional coding, but on Blu-ray the option is there to once again encode the discs so that they can only be played in a specific region, an option that some distributors were already electing to use.

DVD regional coding was a pain in the rectum, but was at least easily cured with a multiregion player and even, in some cases, with a simple handset hack. Region modified Blu-ray players, on the other hand, have been a long time coming, are restricted to specific makes and models, and are expensive, at least for the moment. They have also yet to be time-tested against the firmware updates that most if not all Blu-ray players will intermittently require if they are to continue to play new titles. Thus the only future-proof way for a UK viewer to be able to play region A discs (those coded for North America and the Far East) is to buy an imported player, doubling the cost of that particular component in an already expensive system. And even then this future proofing will depend on whether the model you've selected is Profile 1.0, 1.1 or 1.2, and you'd better check what it's audio output capabilities are or you'll be left behind on that too in a couple of years. Mind you, if you want to take full advantage of all those lovely HD audio options then you're probably going to need an expensive new home cinema amplifier as well. Ay Carumba.

These considerations aside, my own decision to delay the HD upgrade was largely determined by the fact that I already had a large and bloody good TV and an excellent DVD player, both of which cost me plenty when I bought them and both of which delivered excellent results. It's well known that standard definition discs and TV signals do not look as good on large HD TVs as they do on decent CRT equivalents, and thus if you're going to accurately review the picture quality of a standard DVD then you'll probably need to hang on to that old TV anyway (mind you, just try selling the bugger now). Buying an upscaling DVD player helps a bit but adds further expense, and unless you go for that second Blu-ray player for the region A discs, you'll need to make sure the new DVD player is a multi-region one so that you can continue to play all those region 1 DVDs in your collection. That CRT double-check is doubly important given the notorious picture quality idiosyncrasies you'll find on HD TVs. If the black levels aren't as solid as they should be then is it down the transfer or the LCD panel you're watching it on? LCD TVs have for a long time struggled to get those blacks perfect – they're getting there now, but if you're commenting on this aspect of a disc then you need to be sure. The same goes for motion blurring, another early LCD glitch that's still present on some models but could also be indicative of a standards conversion issue. And if some scenes are looking a little dark, is the transfer to blame or is it because I'm watching it in bright daylight on a plasma TV? And am I looking at the picture as it was meant to be seen or what Panasonic's Vierra processing thinks it should look like?

In the end, is all this expense and faffing about it worth it? Well, probably, yes, definitely if you've already got some of the gear or are a dedicated gamer. I like my old TV (also a Panasonic) and I like the quality if its picture even on mediocre DVDs. When I first got the new plasma I was convinced it was too big for my living room, but I've been amazed how quickly I've got used to it and how small my old TV now feels, at least in screen size – the slimness of the plasma makes the CRT feel like an elephant, which is coincidentally about what it weighs. Upscaling DVDs produces decidedly variable results, sometimes on the same disc. The region 1 DVD of Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness is a great example – the daylight scenes look genuinely superb, but some of the darker night scenes are a mess of blocky artefacts and digital squares. Blu-ray discs do indeed look impressive, but not to the degree that my jaw will hit the floor every time I put one on. For me, sitting in the front row of a cinema just a few yards from a huge screen is true high definition and everything else is just playing at it. But I'll still admit to letting rip a wide-eyed "Ooooo!" at the sheer clarity and detail of the Tyrell building on the Blu-ray Blade Runner and the daytime exteriors of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. This was tempered by the feeling that Blu-ray on a 42-inch plasma seems – and note the word seems here – only as sharp and clear as DVD did on a 28-inch CRT when I first clapped eyes on it. Is the upgrade really providing us with a new viewing experience, or just a bigger one?

While the quality of DVD transfers can vary, this is doubly true for Blu-Ray, whose increased resolution can more readily highlight imperfections, and where viewer expectations are raised beyond what the film can sometimes deliver. Thomas Vinterberg's Festen is a bloody marvellous movie, but it was shot by available light on mini-DV, so what possible reason could there be for putting it on Blu-ray or buying it in that format? And even on mainstream releases there have already been problems. I myself was somewhat surprised to see black levels turning blue in places on Optimum's Blu-ray release of The Orphanage, while that same company's Blu-ray disc of Escape From New York has come in for a major slamming for featuring a heavily edge–enhanced low-def transfer. I've even read a review that suggests that the picture quality of the US HD-DVD release of Spartacus is noticeably inferior to the Criterion DVD of the same.

The timing of my own move to HD has been determined not so much by the titles that are available on Blu-ray as the ones that are destined to appear in the not-too-distant future. Some time ago I had a tick-box of distributors whose collective move to HD would prompt me to do likewise. At the top of the tree were the Criterion, Eureka's Masters of Cinema label, and the BFI, and all three have now announced their first Blu-ray releases. As a DVD review site we can either ignore HD or make moves to accommodate it, and logic dictates the latter. Price is still an issue, with HD discs often selling for a good £5 more than their SD equivalent, but the practice of stripping the Blu-ray of extras appears to be fading, and Criterion look like setting the bar by pricing their HD releases the same as their SD ones with no loss of extra features (mind you, their DVDs have never been cheap). Of course the real downer for UK viewers is Criterion's decision to encode their Blu-ray discs to region A. The supplied explanation is familiar, with the company's own press release stating that "Criterion is licensed to sell most of its editions only in North America." Given that region A coding can also be played in the Far East, this doesn't hold too much water and seems more likely a ploy to drum up trade from non-American distributors looking to licence the transfers for their own releases. While the lack of NTSC/PAL standards issues with HD makes this a plus for any such ported transfer, it offers scant compensation when the UK disc turns up looking and sounding great but lacking all of those delicious extra features that Criterion so specialise in.

And so we at Outsider are now, finally, geared up to cover Blu-ray discs as well as DVDs. Such coverage is likely to be initially sparse, and there's a strong likelihood that the Masters of Cinema release of Johnny To and Wai Ka Fai's Mad Detective will be the first. My own technological advance has not been across the board, as I have yet to install a Blu-ray drive in my desktop computer or lay my hands on the software needed to do the screen grabs that are a traditional aspect of our reviews. Mind you, such grabs would be for decorative effect only – a full sized 1080p frame would have to be squeezed to fit on even a large monitor, and by the time it's been reduced to web page size it'll look pretty much identical to its DVD equivalent.

So does this mean we'll eventually be changing our name to Blu-ray Outsider? Hardly. Despite the promised Christmas push for the hi-def format, I can't see DVD falling by the wayside just yet, if at all. Upscaled DVDs can still look pretty damned good, and given the number of crap quality TVs my local superstores seem to be shifting there seem to be plenty of people out there not too bothered by trivial things like picture quality. DVDs are still considerably cheaper than their HD equivalent and sometimes, as with the aforementioned Festen, seem well suited for the job – just last week I bought Persepolis on DVD rather than Blu-ray, not just because it was half the price (well, that did help), but also because the film's hand-drawn graphical style in no way cried out for that extra resolution. And before you get too carried away with those Blu-ray purchases, you might like to ponder on a comment made by Samsung's Andy Griffith, who just this week claimed that Blu-ray will have a life span of no more than five years before something new comes along to make the best of OLED, the next phase in TV technology. We shall see.

Five persuasive reasons to go hi-def (possibly)

2001: A Space Odyssey
Kubrick's visionary masterpiece was shot in Super Panavision 70 and if you saw the re-released 70mm print in the cinema you'll know just how gorgeous that version can look. This is a film that's been waiting for hi-def and a big TV to come even close to doing it justice. I'm still waiting for my copy to arrive, so I'm going out on a limb here, but my hopes are high.

Grand Theft Auto IV
A violent, amoral game that's as nonetheless appallingly addictive, its hi-def recommendation comes from the startlingly plausible artificial world in which the game takes place, made possible by the graphical power that the latest generation of games consoles. People move realistically (even when they're hit by vehicles) and cars actually look like real cars – catch a queue of traffic when the sun is low in the (artificial) sky and you'll do a serious double-take. If GTA's not your thing then there's plenty of other eye-widening games out there to impress friends and family with.

The Last Emperor (Criterion)
An odd choice given that for me this is the least exciting of the first wave of Criterion Blu-ray releases, at least as a movie in its own right (it is, after all, up against Bottle Rocket and Chungking Express). But given that this is a Criterion remastering, can you imagine what it's going to look and sound like? A disc to show off your system to friends if ever there was one. Of course, you'll need a region A player to do it.

Masters of Cinema and the BFI
Some of the best DVDs released in this country over the past few years have been from these two distributors and both have announced their first Blu-ray release. We don't know what they've got lined up next, but you can pretty much guarantee that some time in the next six months there's going to be an announcement from one or both that is going to make you want to rush out and get that Blu-ray player you previously weren't to bothered about. Oh, the anticipation.

SD card readers

If your spanking new 42 inch TV has a built-in SD card reader or a USB port that allows it, try popping some digital photos through it and see how much sharper and clearer and more detailed they look than on your 15 inch laptop. My camera's getting on a bit, but my eyes genuinely popped when I saw the photos on the plasma, while a slide show of a friends photos recently had a whole room of people going "Wooow!" at the images.

article posted
9 September 2008