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The Latest Blu Review

Back when the HD format war was raging, I wrote a few columns about the technical pitfalls that you might encounter when configuring early-generation players. Now that Blu-ray has emerged victorious, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the state of Blu-ray players, focusing on the features that are essential to their performance. While I wouldnt go so far as to say these features are mandatory for every Blu-ray player you install, youd have a hard time convincing me theyre not. Here are the top three, not necessarily in order.

1. BD-Live (Blu-ray Profile 2)
As of this writing, Blu-ray is just now getting online. The PlayStation 3 became the first BD-Live player just two days ago. While Live functionality, which includes access to web-enabled special features, is not required to enjoy feature presentations, the Blu-ray experience is not complete without it. Your forward-thinking clients will undoubtedly miss it when they attempt to surf the web-enabled features on upcoming Blu-ray releases. The big three Blu-ray studios (FOX, Disney, and Sony) have already announced their first Live-enabled titles, and more are sure to follow.

Unfortunately, your options for Live players are currently limited to the PS3 (software version 2.20 or higher). If the PS3 absolutely will not do, youll just have to wait. Panasonic has announced the DMP-BD50 (release date TBA), and Sony will be offering the BDP-S350 (Summer 2008) and BDP-S550 (Fall 2008). Now would be a good time to pick up a dealership for these lines, if you dont have one already.

As a side note for anyone who is curious, BD-Live includes all the features supported by the other Blu-ray profiles: Grace Period Profile and Final Standard Profile (a.k.a. BonusView). These features include Picture-in-Picture, Audio Mixing, Local/Persistent Storage, and Virtual File System. In addition, BD-Live mandates greater local storage capacity and a network connection for Internet access. BD-Live players have it all.

2. True 1080p Video Output
Without naming names, I must say that early Blu-ray players were subtly misleading in their declarations of 1080p video output. While they would technically do it, the way they did it left something to be desired. The native 1080p content on the disc was actually decoded as 1080i and then de-interlaced back into 1080p. This relied on the player to accurately reconstruct the contents original frames, which some models did not do correctly. As a result, common practice was to output 1080i from these players and let an external video processor perform the conversion back to 1080p.

There are two right ways to output 1080p. The first is to decode the 1080p content on the disc in native form (no interlaced conversion) and send it at its native frame rate. For nearly every movie released on Blu-ray, the native frame rate will be 24 frames per second (a.k.a 24 fps, 24p, or 24 Hz). This obviously requires that the display and downstream electronics be able to handle 24 fps, which some do not. The second way is similar to the first, except the native frame rate is multiplied out to 60 fps. In the case of native 24 fps material, the original frames are repeated in a 2:3 pattern. The primary reason for doing this is to make the signal compatible with displays that accept 60 fps, but not 24 fps.

I could provide a list of players with proper 1080p video output, but it would be largely academic, because none of them, except the PS3, are Live. When the Panasonic and Sony players hit the market later this year, find out how they output 1080p before installing them.

3. Proper Primary and Secondary Audio Output
Support for primary and secondary audio streams is mandated for BD-Live players. Think of primary audio as the feature soundtrack and secondary audio as commentary from the director, etc., talking about the movie while it plays. By definition, primary and secondary audio require the player to decode both streams internally (if necessary), mix them, and output the composite as uncompressed PCM or a re-compressed bitstream.

While this may seem simple in theory, it gets complicated in practice. Purists usually choose native bitstream output for the primary audio track, which automatically disables secondary audio, and vice versa. As a custom integrator, you want the player to operate in the simplest manner possible, which is undeniably for it to decode everything internally and never output native bitstream. That way, it doesnt matter if secondary audio is being mixed in or not. Your client doesnt have to navigate through any player menus or push any special buttons to get secondary audio to work. As tempting as it is to use bitstream for primary audio, resist the urge. You arent sacrificing muchif anythingin terms of sound quality to have the player decode the signal. The trick in todays market is finding a Blu-ray player with all the necessary audio decoding on board.

The pickings are really slim. Aside from the PS3 (which is scheduled to receive software version 2.30 enabling DTS-HD Master Audio decoding on April 15, 2008) your first shot at a Live player that will decode the lossless audio formats from both Dolby and DTS will be the aforementioned Panasonic DMP-BD50 or the Sony BDP-S550, whichever makes it to market first.

PS3 or Bust?
It is a little hard to believe that the PS3 is the only Blu-ray player on the market today that supports all three important features. So whats a custom integrator to do for clients who wouldnt have a gaming console if you gave it to them? Do you install a player thats lacking important features, or do you deprive your clients of the Blu-ray experience until a fully featured player is released? The decision is ultimately yours, but I would have to think long and hard about installing anything but a PS3 at this point in the game.

Chase Walton contributed to this article.