This chapter will present some buying tips, and some things to look out for, when buying into Blu-ray. For general information about Blu-ray, please refer to our High Definition DVD FAQ.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, Blu-ray, unlike HD DVD, still maintains support for region control. Just to make things a little bit more complicated (or simpler, depending on your point of view), Blu-ray's regions are different to that of DVD's. Blu-ray only has three regions, A, B and C. Here's a rough breakdown of the regions:
A: US, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong
B: Europe, Australia, South Africa
C: China, Russia and other countries
Note that not all studios use the region system. Warner Bros., for example, has not released a single disc that is region protected. On the other end of the spectrum, Fox has never released a single disc that is not region-locked. Other Blu-ray studios, like the Sony owned studios, vary in their decision to include region-locking, but the trend is for new releases to be region-locked, while catalogue releases remain region-free.
Then there are times when a movie is locked say in Region A, but the same movie is region-free when it is eventually released in Region B. One such example is Eight Below by Disney, released by Buena Vista in Australia, it is region-free, but the US release is region-locked.
For people in Region A, region control is not a huge issue since most movies are release in Region A first and for lower prices. The only time people in Region A might want to buy a Region B or C movie is for foreign films or for editions of movies that are not available on Blu-ray in the US (some HD DVD exclusives in the US are released as region-locked Blu-rays in Europe due to different distributors). But for people in Region B or C, having a Region A player has many advantages. For example, here in Australia (Region B), Blu-ray movie prices are an average of $USD 35 per movie. Whereas in Region A, the average price is only $USD 25, and as low as $USD 15 when on sale (and there are many more sales in Region A then in Region B countries). As a Region B Blu-ray owner, I would seriously consider getting another Region A player if money and home theatre rack space is not an issue.
And also note that the DVD playback functionality in the players will be region-locked too, using the old DVD region system. However, many Blu-ray standalones can have their DVD region unlocked or is out of the box region-free, but you will have to check individual with retailers for more details.
For an updated list of which Blu-ray movies are region-locked, for both Region A and B, please have a look at this very useful forum thread.
Blu-ray has three hardware profiles. These profiles determine what features the Blu-ray player will support. To sum up, Blu-ray Profile 1.0 is the most basic profile. Profile 1.1 (AKA "Bonus View") adds dual audio and video decoders to allow picture-in-picture type special features. Profile 2.0 adds to 1.1 by including an Ethernet port for network and Internet based interactivity, such as Internet downloads of new extra feature content.
While neither 1.1 or 2.0 are essential if you only wish to enjoy your movies, 1.1 is now the mandatory standard for all new Blu-ray players, meaning 1.0 players will no longer be manufactured from November 2007 onwards. And when 1.1 and 2.0 Blu-ray movies are released, they are to be compatible with 1.0 players (apart from the features that require 1.1 and 2.0 functions), but there is no iron clad guarantee that this will be the case (certainly not without firmware updates for your player).
As of November 2007, there is only one Blu-ray 1.1 standalone available for sale from Panasonic. As of March 2008, there is only one Profile 2.0 player available for sale, and it's the PS3 (thanks to a firmware version 2.20). There has been several standalones, particularly from Sony, that will introduce Profile 2.0 compatibility and Profile 2.0 movies are starting to be produced, with a few available as of March 2008 and some more coming in April 2008. Two new dual-format players (plays both Blu-rays and HD DVDs) from LG and Samsung will also be Profile 1.1. compatible.
Therefore, to future-proof your purchase, it is recommended that you buy a Profile 2.0 player, and as such, the PS3 is the current recommendation (althought it has a few shortcomings ... see "game consoles" section below), even if you have no interest in gaming. Otherwise if you feel that Internet connectivity is not of interest to you (especially if your home is not Ethernet networked), then buying a Profile 1.1 player is the recommendation. Do not buy 1.0 players, even if the price seem attractive, unless you only care about movies, not the extra features (even then, why save a hundred bucks only to risk disappointment in the future?).
Standalones are available from quite a few different manufacturers, including (but not limited to) Panasonic, Samsung, LG, Sharp and of course, Sony. Sony's standalones are the most popular, while Panasonic is the first to introduce a Profile 1.1 compatible player. The advantages of using a standalone over the PS3 is that these are usually quieter (near silent). Standalones may also offer analog 6 channel output, and may also offer decoding and bitstreaming (see Chapter 7: HD Audio for more information on what "bitstreaming" means) of high definition audio formats such as Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio (whereas the older "fat" PS3 will only decode Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD MA, and will not bitstream either of these formats - the newer "slim" PS3 can). But the disadvantages are numerous, such as the lack of ability to upgrade from Profile 1.0 to 1.1 (and from 1.1 to 2.0), and slower loading speeds due to the less power computing power of standalones as compared against the supercomputer powers of the PS3. Standalone that you might want to look at are the Pioneer BDP-LX70 and the Panasonic DMP-BD30K (as of February 2008).
For the dual format market, both LG and Samsung have models out. You might want to skip the first generation LG model, as it does not have proper HD DVD support (lack of HDi interactivity). The second generation LG does add full HD DVD support and along with the second generation Samsung dual-format player, the BD-UP5000, both have Blu-ray profile 1.1 compatibility. The Samsung also features the excellent Reon VX HQV video processing chip for the ultimate DVD upscaler quality. The problem with dual-format players is that they are far too expensive, often more expensive than buying two separate standalones. The problem with the BD-UP5000 is numerous though (see the last few pages of this forum thread for example).
The Sony PS3 comes with Blu-ray playback out of the box, and sometimes with a free Blu-ray movie as well. As you've read above, it is my current recommended Blu-ray player due to its versatility and its potential to be upgraded to Profile 2.0 compatible. It is also an excellent Blu-ray player in it's own right, much quicker loading compared to the less powerful standalone players, and the operation is fairly quiet too. The DVD upscaler is also of excellent quality as well, although not quite comparable to high end scalers that use the Reon VX chipset. Make sure you also buy the PS3 Blu-ray remote (the official one, not one of the knock-offs that don't support all the features) - this will make your Blu-ray and DVD viewing experience much nicer compared to using the wireless controller. The remote uses Bluetooth, so it is not an universal remote, but is not affected by line of sight problems. And there's no front LCD/LED display on the PS3, so you cannot see what's being played unless you turn on the TV (but that's more of an issue for CD playback, rather than DVD/Blu-ray playback, which necessitates the TV being on).
If HD audio bitstreaming to your AV receiver (through HDMI) is not important to you, then PS3 is the recommended Blu-ray player as of February 2008. If DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD bitstreaming is important, then you will need to look away from the PS3 and look towards a standalone. There's a lot of confusing information, but it looks like the PS3 hardware is just not capable of bitstreaming high bitrate audio formats such as TrueHD and DTS-HD MA (September 2009 Update: The PS3 Slim now does support bitstreaming) - to get high bitrate audio, the PS3 needs to decode these formats into PCM and send that through HDMI to your receiver. A recently announced (April 2008) update for the PS3 will finally add DTS-HD MA decoding. Issues outlined on this page such as profiles and loading speed are also important, so see which of these criteria are more important to you before deciding to go with the PS3 or a standalone.
Computer Based Players
You can also playback Blu-ray movies on your computer or notebook. For notebooks, look for Sony banded Vaio and Dell XPS branded notebooks that carry Blu-ray drives. Several big computer manufacturers also now allow you to add a Blu-ray (or even a Blu-ray/HD DVD dual reader drive) to computer systems. You can also build your own by buying your own Blu-ray drive. Drives from Asus/Lite-on/Pioneer/Sony are available, as well as dual format drives from LG.
Please note that computer based playback has quite strict hardware requirements, including HDCP enable graphics card and monitor, fast CPU and plenty of RAM. Currently, PowerDVD Ultra from Cyberlink, WinDVD 9 Plus Blu-ray from Corel (read review) and Arcsoft Totalmedia Theatre are the players of choice (the only choices!) available for PC platforms (and none for Macs, yet). There are ongoing projects to get Blu-ray and HD DVD playback going on Linux with some moderate success as well. Also note that PC playback has limitations as to audio output, with currently (as of December 2007) no hardware/software combination capable of outputting high bitrate audio bitstreamed through HDMI, so analogue 5.1/7.1 audio output at best, with perhaps PCM audio output for the immediate future.
Saving the best bit till last, when you buy a Blu-ray player, you will most likely get yourself some free Blu-ray movies included. In the US and Australia, qualifying players used to get 5 free Blu-ray movies (usually out of a choice of two dozen movies). These offers expire and re-appear from time to time, so check out the links below to see if there is currently an offer available in your area. In the UK, a current offer (valid until end of March 2008) is available where if you purchase a Sony Blu-ray player, you get both the Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies (so 6 movies) for free. These offers are updated all the time, and some might have expired by the time you read this. Always check with the retailers (eg. Amazon.com) as well to see if they have some special offer in addition to manufacturer offers. Links on where you can find out more below: