Will it be a blue season for Blu-ray? Retailers and movie studios aren’t sure yet, even though prices on some players are expected to plummet from several hundred dollars to as low as $125 to $150 on Black Friday, and perhaps stay at bargain levels during the holiday season.
Even before the economic downturn, consumers weren’t flocking to buy Blu-ray. The price drops on some models may help. But at a time of scrimping for many, Blu-ray is not a must-have.
You’ll get the most benefit from a Blu-ray player if you have a high-definition TV. Blu-ray will give you dynamic sound and vibrant video, taking advantage of your television’s capabilities.
“The only people who are going to buy Blu-ray players are the ones who already have high-def TVs,” said Steven J. Wilson, ABI Research’s principal analyst for consumer video technologies. “It’s quite different from the transition from VHS to DVD, because you didn’t have to buy a new TV to take advantage of DVD players.”
However, not everyone who has high-definition TV is opting for Blu-ray so far. And, if you’re sticking with a standard-definition TV, or are happy with the quality you have from your existing DVD player, and are not an obsessive videophile, you may not feel compelled to buy a player this year.
“A lot of people can’t really tell the difference between DVD quality and Blu-ray,” Wilson said. “However, he adds, “If you’ve been on the sidelines about Blu-ray, now is a good time to get your feet wet.”
Off-brand models cheaper
Earlier this year, players hovered in the $500 range. At that time, technology consultant Rob Enderle noted that for Blu-ray to succeed, players would need to land in the $200-price range, or as he called it, the “I-don’t-have-to-ask-my-wife’s-permission” number.
Prices have come down to the $250 to $400 range. The newest models have what is called a "2.0 profile." Many of the $200-or-less specials in the days and weeks ahead will be players with a slightly older “profile,” 1.1 , which came out in November 2007. Players with the first Blu-ray profile, 1.0, went on the market in 2006.)
Some of the less expensive players will be lesser-known brands, players made by companies like Funai, of Japan, Wilson said. Funai also makes players for well-known companies such as Magnavox and Sylvania, and even Best Buy’s own brand, known as Insignia, he said,
“A lot of these products are exactly the same on the inside, but the look of the player could be different,” he said.
There’s also nothing wrong with 1.1 players. The big difference between them and the 2.0 profile players, new to the market, is that 1.1 and 1.0 players don’t have a built-in Ethernet port for a high-speed Internet connection.
That’s the important feature part of the 2.0 profile, also referred to as “BD-Live.”
The Internet connection means you can download movie trailers or other studio-related features. More importantly, movies themselves can be downloaded to the player.
It’s that kind of use of an Internet connection on Blu-ray players that should help sell them. But it isn’t pervasive right now.
BD-Live “is still just being introduced into players,” Wilson said. “And it will probably take another 12 months it to make its way solidly into players.”
An Internet connection on a Blu-ray player, he said, is “the real differentiator between standard DVD players and Blu-ray players.”
Movie streaming starting to appeal
The notion of streaming movies or videos from the Internet onto devices — be they Blu-ray players, game consoles, computers or DVD recorders — is starting to take off.
LG Electronics recently released its BD300 Network Blu-ray Disc Player, which streams movie and TV episodes from Netflix at no extra charge. You have to be a Netflix subscriber in order to use the service, and there’s a $1 a month Netflix add-on charge for unlimited access to Blu-ray movies.
The player itself retails for around $400, but can be found online for about $300.
Samsung recently announced it will make two Blu-ray players that allow Netflix streaming.
Netflix is also partnering with TiVo for streaming movies to its latest generation of digital video recorders, as well as with Microsoft on its Xbox 360. The program is called the “New Xbox Experience,” and costs $7.99 a month. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Sony PS3 also has Blu-ray
Sony’s PlayStation 3 game console, which comes with Blu-ray and an Internet connection, is “still one of the best Blu-Ray players on the market, and in fact, makes up 80 to 90 percent of the units out there,” said Wilson.
There are two models of the PS3, and the least expensive is $400. It’s certainly a smart purchase as a two-fer if you’re a PlayStation fan and you want Blu-Ray.
“We’re also seeing TVs with more connectivity capabilities,” said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group market research firm. “Sharp and Samsung offer televisions that can receive information over the Internet.”
Blu-ray players may offer more cinematic richness on the screen than DVDs, but be prepared to deal with computer-like “firmware” fixes, software updates to the player itself, that may need to be made.
“These are very complicated devices from a software perspective,” said Wilson. “Obviously, over time, the machines are getting better and better. But it’s very different from the DVD player.
“With DVDs, every disc you put into your player, for the most part, will play without a problem. It’s very rare you get a disc that won’t play. With Blu-ray, that’s not the case.”
If you have an extensive library of DVDs, they can be used on Blu-ray players. Blu-ray discs themselves are more expensive than regular DVDs.
The average selling price of Blu-ray discs in October was $25.38, compared to $15.81 for standard DVDs, according to Lee Graham, spokesman for The NPD Group.
To help spur holiday sales, expect to see some bundling of players along with Blu-ray discs. Other retailers are offering a combo deal if you buy both a TV set and Blu-ray player by the same manufacturer.
Check for HDMI cable
No matter which player you consider, find out in advance whether it comes with an HDMI cable in the box. If it doesn’t, you’re looking at spending another $50 or so for this cable, needed so you can connect the player to your high-definition TV.
One Idaho man, writing on a major retailer’s blog, said he drove an hour-and-a-half to the store to buy a discounted Blu-ray player, only to get home and discover there was no HDMI cable in the box. He said was assured otherwise by a store representative.
“I just thought this was the biggest skimp ever,” he wrote. “They give you batteries for the remote, but not the cord that on the instructions says, ‘Use this for optimized performance.’ ”
So far, only 7 percent of American households have Blu-ray players, compared to 85 percent with DVD players, according to The NPD Group’s 2008 Household Penetration Study.
Manufacturers and studio heads aren’t panicking yet, although they’re nervous.
Blu-ray is still relatively new, and it was only earlier this year that the Sony-backed, high-definition format “won” over Toshiba’s lesser-selling HD DVD format when Toshiba announced it would abandon HD DVD.
Most in the industry expect it will be at least another year before Blu-ray sales increase significantly.