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TECHNOPOLIS

Glory of Blu-ray Is Seen Only on Big Screens

Images in the high-def format are richer, more detailed. But the step up will be subtle for most.

July 06, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Bill Hunt is a self-admitted "early adopter," a polite term for a geek who has to be the first guy on the block with the latest and greatest gadgets.

Walk through his front door in Irvine, and you come into a home theater that is a shrine to DVDs. An LCD projector on the ceiling beams movies onto his 110-inch screen.

So it comes as no surprise that Hunt, 38, was one of the first to dive into Blu-ray, a long-awaited, high-definition step up from DVDs.

A Blu-ray disc, which debuted in stores last week, is like a DVD on steroids.

You may have not realized it, given that DVDs look so good when shown on an HDTV set, but digital videodiscs don't show movies in true high definition. Blu-ray discs do, provided you also have a Blu-ray player.

The first such player, the Samsung BD-P1000, also came out last week, and it carries a price tag of about $1,000. That's a big commitment, given that a good DVD player can be had for about $50.

The difference is readily apparent at Hunt's home theater. He puts a Blu-ray disc of "Terminator 2" into the player, and the image is glorious: brighter, richer colors and more detailed.

But is it $950 better?

No way. Especially not when shown on the typical HDTV systems found in homes today. And Hunt is the first to admit it.

"This is really for early adopters at this point," he says. "The average Joe is not going to jump in when it's $1,000 or even maybe $300."

I agree. After hours spent watching demonstrations of Blu-ray, I am dubious it will take off anytime soon, if ever.

I felt the same about its rival disc format, HD DVD, which came out in April with a player costing about $500. That system is being championed mainly by Toshiba Corp. and Microsoft Corp. while Blu-ray has Sony Corp., Panasonic and Apple Computer Inc. in its corner.

Hunt, who, of course, also got a rival HD DVD player when it first came out, says both formats produced high-quality images beyond the reach of DVD.

To make the point, he freezes the Blu-ray image from "Terminator 2" on a scene in which the boy, played by Edward Furlong, is being chased by a truck.

"You can see the pores, the individual hairs, the texture of the skin," Hunt says. Switching to the same scene on a DVD, the image is softer, flatter. It looks a bit washed out in comparison.

Blu-ray even enhances the grain present in film, making the image more movie-like.

Sitting on a comfy sofa in Hunt's house with heavy red draperies to keep out light, I can easily imagine I'm in a private screening room.

But how big of a screen is needed to make these enhancements readily apparent? Huge.

I've looked at Blu-ray and HD DVD on 42-inch and 50-inch screens, which are now popular sizes for home use. The upgrade in image quality from DVDs was subtle -- nothing close to the kind of leap we saw when switching from VHS tape to DVDs in the late 1990s.

Hunt says that in his experience, 65 inches is the screen-size threshold that has to be reached for the improvements to become dramatic. And few of us have that, let alone the luxury of watching a flick digitally projected on a screen at home.

It's hard to begrudge Hunt, however, because unlike some early adopters, he doesn't look upon those of us with far lesser equipment as lower life forms.

He traces his obsession with entertainment technology back to buying a CD player just after the devices hit the home market in 1985. Likewise, he went DVD in 1997.

With Blu-ray, he couldn't even wait for the official release date of June 25. He persuaded the sales staff at his local Best Buy, where he is well known, to sell him one when they arrived a couple of days before the official debut.

Hunt also had a business reason to get the player quickly. In 1997 he turned his obsession into a business by starting the advertising-supported website Digital Bits, which provides news on DVD releases and new formats.

He worries that the benefits of the high-definition disc formats are too incremental to catch the imagination of the buying public. And it doesn't help that there are two warring formats.

Hunt has been there before. Like most early adopters, he has bought into technologies that never got widely accepted even though they offered better quality. Among those on his list: Super Audio CDs and Laser Discs.

He hopes the same fate will not befall Blu-ray and HD DVD. "The shame," he says, "that this could end up a niche product."

David Colker can be reached at technopolis@latimes.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Into the Blu

The first video player capable of handling high-definition Blu-ray discs has arrived in stores along with a handful of movies in the new format. A rival high-def format, HD DVD, came out in April.

Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray disc player

* Price: $999.98

* Pro: Unlike DVD players, it shows movies in true high definition.

* Con: High price. Significant improvement of image quality is apparent only on larger HDTV screens.

Source: Times research

Los Angeles Times

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