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March 20, 2008

High-def DVD goes to next level with Blu-ray

Marc Saltzman, Special for USA TODAY

The Sony PlayStation 3 video game system, which also has Blu-ray playback functionality, offers a future-proof solution. by Sony

The high-definition-video war may be over now that Toshiba has conceded defeat for its ailing HD DVD format, but those interested in buying a high-def Blu-ray Disc player still might want to wait for new features coming in the fall.

Sure, existing Blu-ray machines can play the nearly 500 Blu-ray titles available. They can deliver gorgeous, top-of-the-line 1080p resolution on compatible high-def televisions. But the next crop of Blu-ray players will be compliant with the upcoming Profile 2.0 standard, which adds Internet connectivity to the machines via a feature called BD-Live.

"Imagine being able to download high-definition trailers to current theatrical releases right to your TV, or selecting additional language tracks or other online bonus materials," says Josh Martin, a senior analyst at consulting firm Yankee Group.

Depending on the disc, BD-Live will also let people chat in real time during films, type in their mobile phone numbers for free movie-related ringtones, play online multiplayer games or upload custom-made audio commentary.

Sony has announced two upcoming Blu-ray machines with Profile 2.0 support: the BDP-S350, available this summer for $399, which can be updated to the latest profile over the Internet when it's available; and the BDP-S550 ($499), which will ship with Profile 2.0 in the fall.

"Technology always evolves, and new features are added to platforms continually, whether it's a Blu-ray machine or other consumer electronics products," says Chris Fawcett, vice president of home video at Sony Electronics.

The new Sony players will include extras such as built-in or expandable memory and multiple audio technologies, including Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio or DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, depending on the model.

The Sony PlayStation 3 ($399) video game system, which also has Blu-ray playback functionality, offers a future-proof solution. Sony says the Internet-connected console can download an update for the Profile 2.0 standard.

For now, the most up-to-date Blu-ray players offer picture-in-picture functionality, also known as BonusView. That allows simultaneous video and audio streams so that you could, for instance, have a small window with video commentary while watching the feature film. Unlike regular DVD players, Blu-ray machines also let viewers turn on some bonus features, such as director commentary, with one button on the remote, as opposed to leaving the film to visit the disc's main menu.

Not for everyone

Many people who decide to wait to buy a BD-Live-capable Blu-ray machine probably won't even use that feature, notes Martin. "These upcoming players aren't for everyone, especially for those who just want to watch the movie," he says.

The BD-Live players connect to the Internet via an Ethernet plug in the back of the unit. But "not everyone has a broadband connection in their family room," notes Sandra Benedetto, spokeswoman for the Blu-ray Disc Association trade group.

Will BD-Live-enhanced discs work with current-generation Blu-ray players? Generally, yes, Benedetto says. "The BD-Live feature just won't be available."

The death of HD DVD will not mean automatic victory for Blu-ray, says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at JupiterResearch, the New York-based IT research firm. "With high-quality and cheap 'upscaling' DVD players at one end and HD downloads more common, the Blu-ray folks will need to work hard to win the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers to adopt."

All kinds of features

Consumers who buy the newer Blu-ray machines should keep in mind that the Blu-ray Discs themselves must also support advanced features such as BD-Live and BonusView.

Lionsgate's horror sequel "Saw IV" is heralded as the first BD-Live-ready Blu-ray Disc. It contains an interactive feature called MoLog (short for movie blog), where viewers can share their own audio or video content or join an online discussion using an onscreen keyboard. While the disc came out in January, the online BD-Live features will have to wait until the Profile 2.0 standard is here.

Fox's "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," available on Blu-ray on April 15, will include a BonusView picture-in-picture reference guide called Weyland-Yutani Archives, letting viewers hack into the movie-based corporation's secret computer to read about "all things 'Alien' and 'Predator,'" says Fox. The franchise's first BD-Live content won't be available until later this year when Fox reissues the original "Alien vs. Predator" on Blu-ray with a multiplayer online game called "Alien vs. Predator vs. You," demonstrated at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Disney's first BD-Live title will be a Blu-ray Platinum Edition of "Sleeping Beauty," scheduled for October release.

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