DVD has served us well for a decade but Blu-ray is an even better format, and the latest generation players prove how it has come of age. Thomas Bartlett reviews five of the best.

Occasionally I get worried that Blu-ray will end up becoming just another wannabe format. DVD was sure to be a success since it offered so many advantages over VHS. It offered a huge quality boost, of course, but it also offered convenience (random access, no need to rewind after watching), additional features (multiple languages and subtitles, plus special extras) and robustness (unlike VHS, each viewing episode didn’t add to wear and tear).

By contrast, the chief advantage of Blu-ray over DVD is quality.

With a modern high resolution display panel, and even more so with a front projector or a very large plasma or LCD, the quality improvement is marked. Nonetheless, if you stop someone in the street at random, chances are they will claim that they would not even be able to notice the difference.

Historically, too, quality alone hasn’t been enough to ignite mainstream interest. Take DVD-Audio and SACD, for example. The quality improvements they offer over CD are significant, though not enough, it has proved, to compel consumers to buy them.

But Blu-ray seems to be accelerating. As I write, a major Australian online DVD retailer has over 550 Blu-ray titles either available now or coming soon. In the US many more are available. The range of titles encompasses music concerts, blockbuster movies of the last decade, dramas, new releases and some high quality back catalogue items going right back to the 1950s.

At the same time, as you will see over the coming few pages, a whole bunch of affordable Blu-ray players are becoming available. With each new generation of player, the prices take a decided leap downwards, and the feature set an equally decided leap upwards.

Going cheap

So now sub-$500 is the new norm for Blu-ray players. Oh, there are more expensive models with a greater emphasis on solid physical construction and the use of premium components, but there were also plenty of premium DVD-Audio and SACD players. It is the widespread availability and affordability of both player and media that makes for success.

In addition to the low prices, the new batch of players has finally bridged the remaining gap with the features offered by the now defunct HD DVD: internet connectivity. This was called ‘web-enabled content’ for HD DVD, and is called ‘BD Live’ for Blu-ray. Recent Sony Pictures Entertainment releases have almost routinely included a BD-Live section, but this has basically been to allow you to download trailers for other movies, and similar inane activities.

Paramount Home Entertainment has offered more interesting downloadable extras, such as an interactive trivia quiz for Iron Man and a tracking, location and information tool for Transformers. In fact, with the latter, the new Blu-ray release of Transformers is effectively identical to last year’s HD DVD version.

Blu-ray player makers are still in the process of creating the complete Blu-ray player. For example, decoding to their maximum quality all the different audio formats permitted on Blu-ray apparently remains daunting, although at least one of the players we look at here does itsatisfactorily.

Nonetheless, it is now looking like Blu-ray is a format which is here to stay, providing that true-cinema-like quality so many of us have been hankering after for years.