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May 2, 2009

Blu-ray blues…

Filed under: Death,Film,Usability — see @ 12:20 pm

I do like watching movies. I used to go to the cinema very frequently (there was a time in which I went more than 200 times in a single year). I totally passed on Video as the quality never was good enough (and I also never had the money to buy a decent TV and VHS at the time ;) . And VHS just was not anywhere near cinema quality.

When DVD came out (and became affordable) I got a player and also a projector with which a cinema like experience at home was almost possible. I did not get any high-end player nor projector but still the experience has been worth it and it is affordable. Also starting at that time I like watching movies in their native language which is a real problem in Germany as most films are dubbed and not just subtitled. This is the main reason I do not go to the cinema very often these days. At home I can see movies in their native language (it takes a while until films are released on DVD etc but this time has been getting less and less recently and I think almost bearable now). See also An Epic Fail which is very interesting.

So naturally after HD came about I was thrilled. Even better quality! No way to afford a full HD projector yet but 720p projectors have been quite affordable for some time now and even on these HD makes a difference (depending on the quality of the film of course ;) .

I watched the dreadful battle between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray which is one of those needless but self-destructing things in modern technology it seems. In the end HD-DVD (being the better technology it seemed) lost. But as BD-players were still much too expensive and I did not want to get a noisy power-hungry monster like the PS I waited. HD-DVD players were in sale and the price was as low as a middle class DVD player and so I got one of the last ones. The player was good enough or even better than my old DVD player so it replaced it.

Films on HD-DVD were quite cheap as well (at least not as outrageously priced as BD still sometimes is today – a movie for 30€?!) and near normally priced DVDs (which is somewhere a movie ticket for 2). I got about 5 or 6 movies which I sometimes already had on DVD but all of them were worth the (now sometimes doubled) investment. Very crisp and clear image, films like 2001 are just made for HD. Also the menu system was nice. Nothing too fancy but menus popped up quick and just on top of the film (so a quick change in e.g. subtitles etc was easy). Also for most films each extra showed its duration which sometimes is very interesting. A making-of has a range between maybe 5 and 200 minutes and knowing that beforehand is nice. Of course the player had some drawbacks. It was dead slow until a disc was finally running, sometimes upto a full minute. But all in all the experience was enjoyable. The main stuff – the movie – in good quality, extras were good and easy accessible.

Of course I knew HD-DVD was a dead technology but as the price I paid was hardly more than what I would have paid for the same stuff on DVD it was totally worth it.

Then, I think this year, BD-player prices finally came down to affordable ranges and also movie prices finally came down. Also the range of movies available on BD is high enough that not only last years blockbusters are available now but also classics like Kubrick films, the Bond movies, and generally movies which are not in their kindergarten age but like Planet of the Apes are from the sixties and older. Even some Hitchcock movies are at least announced.

So when a very nice offer came along I finally got a BD-Player. New generation but very decently priced and a player which had good reviews in every magazine and online review.
I don’t think the player is bad and I also don’t think that my player does anything very different than other players on the market (ignoring high-end ones for now). I guess any player from any brand is at least similar. Sometimes a bit slower, sometimes a slightly better image but all in all exchangeable. So my problems with BD are not with my specific player. (One point: My player does not have a subtitle button which I would like to have as I need about 5 clicks to change this. Very annoying).

But I think BD has problems…

First, reading a BD is as slow as reading a HD-DVD. This will improve with new models but it is painful. During the player reading a disc for the initial time it flickers between funny images like a complete blue screen, a wobbly black and green one and other stuff. This is the same when I start up my PC but I want a home consumer technology to hide this.
It seems handling the HDMI HDCP handshake and handling the BD copy protection the player is so busy that it simply is unable to show anything decent.
Also the “Reading” message is shown as frequently as the typical “LOADING” on any PC-game or modern Flash based websites…

So the player is slow but the real problem is that EVERY TIME I press the button to go to the main menu it takes time. It seems the menu has to be read from scratch every time. HD-DVD was much better there, menu popup was almost instantly there.

Generally the menu system is really strange. I guess any publisher does his own menu so there are no best practices yet. So any publisher makes his own mistakes how to structure and navigate the menu. (BTW, no BD I have seen until now had duration information on any extra feature which HD-DVD discs had and which I liked – maybe it is just coincidence). The possibilities in designing a menu for BD are much higher than for e.g. DVDs but with this power also comes a higher responsiblity (sorry for this overused quote ;) . It seems hardly anyone tests if a menu is usable at all.

Two examples:

On X-Men 1 the extras have lists of parts or subfeatures. These are “scrollable” with a click but they do not rotate which is annoying in a list of 12 items and you are at the bottom but want to the top of the list which then takes 12 clicks. Also going back to the menu takes about 3-5 second every time I am finished watching 1 extra which is most tiring when I have like 30-40 extras all in all…

The Zodiac BD menu is much simpler (basically a one screen menu like a sitemap which is actually good) but navigating this menu is not self explaining. The Menu has 3 columns which you navigate up/down by using the cursor up/down keys on the remote. I would expect the highlight cursor on the screen to move to the top of the next column if I am at the bottom of the column before. But that does not work. I have to use the cursor right and left keys to move between columns. Ok, let it be so. But I also have to be on the proper height in a column to move to the left or right! If I am at the bottom on col 2 I cannot use cursor right as the right column has no selectable items at this point… (BTW my player locked up totally once while navigating the menu which is really strange given such a simple menu with no animation or any other fancy stuff. I had to shut the player down completely which took about 30 seconds as it did not wanted to shut down. I am patient so I did not pull the power cable but I wonder what would have happened…)

Another problem is the handling of buttons in the menus. It seems most menus just use the cursor and ok buttons on the remote. The remote also has a “Return” button which is used in the player setup menus. So I expected to be able to use it in disc menus too. Returning from a deeper level of the menu to a higher would be a reasonable function of this key I think. But all I get is a player message “This function is not available at this time”. This seems to be a standard message if a key press it not supported (Also e.g. when trying to get to the menu during the dreadful legal message screens after some movies which are shown in 10-30 languages. But this is a DVD problem too…). But I get this message on almost any second press of a button which is just strange. I simply do not feel comfortable with such a control. And I guess people not familiar with technology generally just think the disc is broken…

These are all minor annoyances. But should a new technology not be better than an older one? Watching a DVD is quite simple, menus are basic but simple to use, menus are generally quick and also loading of a disc is quick. BD is generally slow, sometimes unbearable. And why? One reason is the copy protection which makes the player so busy it cannot even respond at times. And it is known no copy protection is safe forever (not even years) so a IRONY:”feature” I don’t want and does not help anyway does even annoy me?
I don’t copy movies, I do buy them. But I have to live with a handicapped technology. I did not even mention region codes…
The usability problem of dics I guess will not be solved as it would force publishers to test any new menu. Website usability has improved over the years (still not perfect of course) but I think BD menu usability is not even recognized as a problem yet.

In former times products were developed for a need and to help the customer (at least that is what I think). BD just seems to cause problems and being able to watch a movie in good quality is just a side effect. The greatest fear I have is that it will even get worse in the future (BD+ copy protection is on the way but what madness will the next technology after BD have)…

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