Buying Blu-ray? Check out player's 'profile'

You sat patiently on the sidelines, waiting for the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD format war to play out — wise move.

Now that Blu-ray has won, you’re ready to take the plunge and buy a player. It should be a simple matter; just compare some prices and features.

After all, a Blu-ray player is a Blu-ray player, right? Well, not exactly.

Blu-ray is a work in progress; players have different “profiles” that determine the playback features that are available.

If you bought a machine in 2006 when Blu-Ray first came out, it will be what is known as a Profile 1.0 player.

Profile 1.1 hardware, a.k.a “Bonus View,” is now available, allowing for picture-in-picture special features. “BD-Live” 2.0 players, equipped to access online content, hit store shelves later this year.

Confused yet? You’re not alone.

“I find the notion of hardware profiles to be needlessly confusing for consumers,” said Josh Zyber, contributor to High-Def Digest and Home Theater Magazine’s Web site.

“Whether intentionally designed that way or not, these tiered profiles leave the impression that the manufacturers are trying to force Blu-ray owners into continually upgrading their equipment.”

With Blu-ray player prices currently averaging around $500, nobody wants to get stuck with a crippled box a year or two down the road.

Understanding what the different profiles offer, and defining your viewing habits, are both necessary steps in avoiding high-def buyer’s remorse and providing reassurance that what you bought is reasonably future-proof.

Blu-ray profile basics
Profile 1.0 players are the basic Blu-ray machines that were released from launch until Nov. 1, 2007, when Profile 1.1 features became mandatory on any new player manufactured.

Players with either profile can play back Blu-ray movies and extra features with the same high-def audio and video quality.

The only difference between 1.0 and 1.1 players is the addition of memory and hardware required to view picture-in-picture content — think “making-of” scenes and storyboard art —while the feature film is running.

Profile 1.1 players have at least 256 megabytes of local storage, and secondary audio and video decoders to enable the picture-in-picture window.

To date, very few Blu-ray discs have been released with 1.1 content, dubbed “Bonus View.” Among them: Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” and “Resident Evil: Extinction.”

Older Profile 1.0 players are still being sold alongside 1.1 Bonus View models, such as Panasonic’s $499 DMP-BD30, although any new players manufactured must meet at least 1.1 standards.

At least, you say? To further spice up the Blu-ray scene, the Blu-ray Disc Association has seen fit to implement Profile 2.0 this year.

2.0, also known BD-Live in market speak, adds more memory (from 256MB in Profile 1.1 to 1 gigabyte) to a player and requires Internet connectivity via an Ethernet port. BD-Live also translates to online content, such as games and movie merchandise shopping.

Both Bonus View and BD-Live players will be available to consumers by fall.

“BD-Live will add features only available through a network connection,” said Don Eklund, executive vice president of Advanced Technologies at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

“We expect this to be an important element for some customers, but not everyone. For those not interested in network-based features, non-BD-Live players are a logical purchase decision."

What features do you want?
If you’re set on going Blu-ray, first figure out what features are important.

“BD-Live will greatly expand the online capabilities available to Blu-ray movies,” explains Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis, consumer technology at NPD research firm.

“There will be more ways to interact with characters and stories from the movie and access additional content. However, the core movie experience will not dramatically change.”

Blu-ray discs and regular special features will still play in all their high-definition glory on any Blu-ray player, regardless of its profile. If pop-up features sound attractive, a Bonus View player might be worth the $50-$150 premium over a Profile 1.0 player.

Very few BD-Live discs, including “Walk Hard — The Dewey Cox Story” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The 6th Day” out on April 8, have been released, so it’s too early to judge the merits of the exclusive online content.

BD-Live may not be for everyone
If you weren’t taking advantage of Web content already available on regular DVDs, or don’t relish the idea of snaking a network cable through your living room, BD-Live may not be for you.

BD-Live players are expected from Sony, Panasonic and others starting this summer, and will gain more retail shelf space in time for the holiday season.

The Sony BDP-S550 will be priced at around $500, and Panasonic’s DMP-BD50 will be between $500 and $650. Both should be available this fall.

Sony’s ace-in-the-hole
Consumers who won’t have to worry about updating are those who own Sony’s ace-in-the-hole, the PlayStation 3, which plays Blu-ray discs and connects to the Internet.

Sony's BDP-S550 Blu-ray player, available this fall, will include the BD-Live feature, which adds more memory and the capability for online content. It will cost about $500.

The March automatic update of the software, version 2.20, brings full BD-Live capabilities to the console. And, the PS3’s hard drive and wireless networking are already more than ample for cover the BD-Live hardware specifications.

The $399 PS3, with continual online updates to its firmware, is the most future-proof Blu-ray player on the market.

In theory, any other Blu-ray player with an Ethernet port can benefit from downloaded firmware updates, usually to tweak video or audio performance.

And, some Blu-ray players can run updates downloaded with a PC and burned onto a disc.

It’s worth checking with the manufacturer. You won’t be able to transform a Profile 1.0 player into a BD-Live unit, but limited upgrade options are better than none.

Panasonic's DMP-BD30 Blu-ray player ($499) includes the newer 1.1 Bonus View standard, which allows for picture-in-picture viewing.Unknown

Most consumers are still buying regular or upconverting DVD players, which can cost around $100. Upconverting players don’t offer a true HD experience, but do offer an improved picture.

Although industry analysts at DisplaySearch estimated U.S. sales of approximately 3 million Blu-ray players, including PS3s, by the end of 2007, that’s still doesn’t come close to the 132 million DVD players sold in the U.S. by Dec. 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

“The battle against HD-DVD was barely a minor skirmish in comparison to the fight ahead, which will be convincing apathetic consumers of the need for something better than plain DVD,” said Zyber of High-Def Digest. “That's the real format war, and it's only just started.”