DVD vs Blu-ray

I was a fairly early adopter of the DVD format, buying my first DVD player (a Toshiba 2109) back in 1998 for a bit more than $700.  That player is still going strong and doing duty at my sister in-laws place, replacing their Sony player that stopped working reliably.   I’ve got more than 250 DVDs in my collection, and friends and family regularly borrow and watch them.

It took me a while to make the leap to Blu-ray.  Initially the format war gave me a good reason to stall.  My previous projector being a CRT didn’t have HDMI inputs and was not capable of a full 1080p display (1080i  worked fine).  Moving the Blu-ray also means fewer people are able to borrow the media and enjoy it.

Eventually my will power crumbled, I think what tipped me over the edge was the pack-rat in me.  The sheer volume of data that the Blu-ray format represents is just so cool, so many bits – in such a neat package.

The first Blu-ray movie we watched was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  The menu system and intro to the disc look really sharp, much more crisp than any DVD menu.  I did find that the special effects (groundhogs) tended to look a little unreal.  I was very pleased at the detail visible in long shots, it never felt constrained like DVD can at times.  In general terms the amount of detail helped make the picture much more engaging, things just looked “wow” all of the time.   Any time there was a limitation in detail, it seemed to be specifically the directors intention (ie: depth of field) vs. a limitation of the format.

I did have a chance to compare directly to the DVD version, switching between my PS3 (for Blu-ray) and the Oppo 980 (for DVD).  For Indian Jones, the special effects seemed to blend better into the overall image – they were more convincing on the DVD.  On the flip side, you could tell in the direct A/B comparison which was the Blu-ray and which was the DVD – there was clearly more fine detail in the image.  However, in isolation – both looked really good.   Similarly Wall E on DVD vs the Blu-ray version had similar observations – in side by side A/B comparison it was easy to see the extra details in the image, but if you switched to the DVD for a minute or two you quickly forgot and didn’t feel that you were missing anything.

It is probably important to note here that to see the difference you may need to have a fairly high end system, and a pretty big screen.  I’m using the Epson 1080UB and a 80″x45″ screen (more than 6 feet wide).  The first row of seating is about 11 feet away, so its a big sharp image that helps make the difference more obvious.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the challenges for Blu-ray.  Today the cost of the media is generally more expensive.  Large displays are certainly getting more common, but considering that DVD will look really good – without a direct A/B comparison Blu-ray may be a tough sell at the increased price point.  The Blu-ray players are also more expensive, and they are relatively slow compared to a DVD player (for menu operations and start-up).

I still intend to buy movies on DVD, but I suspect that the majority of my future purchases will be Blu-ray.  While DVD does look awesome with my setup, Blu-ray is awesomer.

IR4PS3 Review

Until recently, the PS3 was one of the cheaper options for Blu-ray playback and it has high quality playback.  Today there are stand alone players which will match the quality of playback, but not the boot / menu speed the PS3.  Still, the PS3 goes beyond movies by providing game play and media center duties.

One of the drawbacks to the PS3 is integration with standard universal remote controls, not having an IR control story.  The official Sony PS3 remote uses the same bluetooth connectivity as the wireless game controllers.  To work around this there are several 3rd party solutions exist such as IR2BT, ps3toothfairy, Schmart and IR4PS3, I chose to go with the latter.

I first found out about the IR4PS3 option via remotecentral.com, a site I’ve often referenced ever since I invested in a Phillips Pronto TSU2000.  Having a complex audio/video setup is one thing, but it becomes a much bigger problem if my wife can’t make use of it – a fully programmable remote such as the Pronto makes the whole setup easy to use.  After reading the AVSForum thread on IR4PS3, I felt confident that it would be a good match for my setup.

The short version of the review is that ordering it was easy, it was shipped quickly, and works exactly as I would expect.  You do need to provide your own power supply, but the manual lists several low cost and easy to find options.  As it uses the bluetooth module from the Sony remote, compatibility with the PS3 firmware upgrades should be a non-issue.  I now can use my IR based universal remote control with the PS3.  Response time feel good, exactly as if the PS3 actually had IR support built in.  I would not hesitate to recommend it to others.

Read on for a full review with pictures..

Continue reading “IR4PS3 Review”

Plasma vs. LCD

I’ve been a home theater nut for about a decade now.  I can be blamed (or credited?) for getting a few of my friends hooked as well.  While I’ve invested a lot of time reading about audio and video, and I love to talk about the subject – it is only a hobby.

A fair number of my friends ask me for my opinion when they are considering a new television.  This usually boils down to deciding between which flat panel display.  There are still a few rear projection sets (RPTVs) being sold, but they are on the decline which is a shame since the quality/value balance was generally very good.

Today there are really only 2 mass market options for flat panel displays: Plasma or LCD.  Sure there are OLED sets, but the size/cost rule them out for most situations. Looking forward we see SED and FED technologies on the way, but I wouldn’t hold off on a purchase as there will always be something better coming soon.

Panasonic has a relatively good comparison of Plasma and LCD as they sell both.  I’m not sure I agree entirely with the conclusions they draw, but the data is basically sound.  If we look at the Plasma cross section diagram from Panasonic:

So typical of almost all video display devices, the colour image is made up of red, green and blue.  With Plasma we’ve got effectively one electron gun per colour cell, and 3 of those cells make up one pixel.  If you remember CRTs, we had a single electron gun that scanned the visible surface and excited the phosphor to leave an image.

The LCD cross section from the same source shows how different things are here.  The light source is not an electron gun, but some form of back light.  The same red, green, blue triad is used to represent a single pixel.

Let me now try to focus on some more practical shopping advice.  One key thing to keep in mind is that both technologies are continuing to change (and improve), so what was true a few years ago may not be now.  If we go back a few years, large LCD panels were very expensive – so generally Plasmas had the larger displays locked up.  This has been changing, and LCDs seem to be the more popular display at this point no matter what size.

In terms of resolution – you probably want a native 1920×1080.  I say native, because some displays advertise that they “accept” or are “compatible with” a wide range of resolutions, but actually have some odd ball native panel resolution.  Both technologies were guilty of this, Plasma being more so with 1080p displays which did have 1080 lines but were not 1920 pixels wide.  The only time I’d consider a 1280×720 display was if gaming was your #1 activity, as many games are natively 720p and scaling up to the larger resolution may introduce image artifacts.

You want at least 2 HDMI inputs, and possibly more.  You would like those inputs to be HDMI 1.3a, but there really isn’t an easy way to determine that in some situations – if you are buying a relatively recent model you can safely assume the HDMI level is a non-issue.  Please don’t get fooled into buying expensive HDMI cables – check out the prices at tartancable.com (a 6foot 28AWG cable is $5).

Many LCD displays now have a 120Hz update “feature”.  This is in part to try to address some of the refresh rate issue, but it has also become a way to provide smoother motion.  One caution here is that this is video processing magic – they are interpolating additional frames.  If you watch a lot of live sports (football), this might be a good feature.  If you watch movies, the frame rate you care about is the ability to accept 24fps input and display it without too much conversion.

If you’ve done some comparison shopping already, you may have come across the Pioneer KURO (a Plasma).  It is one of the best flat panel displays out there now.  While the black level is one of the key elements that they push as its benefit (generally Plasmas have better black detail than LCD) the KURO also has very nice colour.  While Plasma doesn’t have the refresh rate issues of LCDs, they do have some image retention issues but most of the current generation are relatively resistant to this.  Plasma panels tend to run a bit hotter than LCDs and many have (quiet) cooling fans.  Also due to details of their construction, they may not be suitable at higher altitudes.

Looking at LCDs, they have Plasma beat for thickness – LCDs will generally have a thinner profile if this matters to you.  LCD panels of the same size, tend to be lighter than the equivalent Plasma.  The black level of an LCD will not match best Plasma panels, but many of you sit in front of LCD monitors all day and are used to this limitation.  Except in extreme cases, LCD will not suffer from burn in issues, as well LCDs run relatively cool and don’t need fans for cooling.

Which one would I buy?  If money were no object, I’d be looking at the KURO.  Of course there are drawbacks to the KURO due to the screen surface being a little delicate.  I’d probably be fairly attracted in general to Plasma displays due to the better black level (having a CRT projector background).  There are some pretty nice LCD displays out there too, I’d consider the Sharp Aquos or Sony Bravia lines.  With either technology there will be an element of “you get what you pay for”, so if you go too cheap you may regret it.  In a similar light, be careful of buying last years model – the technology is changing rapidly and a year does make a difference.

Which one is right for you?  That is something you’ll need to puzzle out for yourself, but I’m happy to field comments and try to help guide people to useful data.