Product Review: Sony Blu-ray player

22 Apr 2008

If anyone remembers the old battle between the video standards VHS and Betamax, they will recall that when the porn industry rowed in on the side of VHS, the prime backer of the Betamax standard, Sony, was vanquished.

A spokesman for the company recalled that VHS’ prime backer in the Eighties, Philips, had made a point of opening rights to VHS to everyone who wanted it, whereas Sony had been more proprietary.

Sony knew it had a better technology but failed to make it as available as possible. It is a small, bittersweet consolation that the Betamax format continued to be used by the media and advertising industries right up until last year.

Roll on 2008 and Sony, having learned this valuable lesson, is now the one doing the victory dance. Its more affordable Blu-ray standard won the war over rival Toshiba’s HD-DVD standard, having received the backing of Warner Bros.

The holy grail of high-definition (HD) video to complement the rollout of HDTV means typical video discs can contain the same amount of data as 10 traditional DVDs, promising more vivid, realistic and intense visuals.

It’s still early days for HD in Ireland, and even more so for Blu-ray, but Sony reckons it’s at an interesting starting point. Over 340,000 homes now have HD television sets and some 110,000 Sony PlayStation 3 devices come with Blu-ray playing capabilities.

Expect the technology to start appearing in digital video cameras, laptop computers and desktop computers in the coming months.

If you’re not fortunate to own a PlayStation 3, your other option in the market right now is to buy specific Blu-ray players. Sony has two of these players on the market, the BDP-S300 and the BDP-S500, which retail for €399 and €899 respectively.

The BDP-S300 (pictured), which I review this week, showed just how compelling the HD movie business can be, as well as some of the limitations it will face.

My initial impression of the device was its large size and unremarkable appearance. Setting the machine up, however, was quick and easy and within minutes I was ready to play a movie. Another observation and a warning to potential buyers is these machines don’t come with the latest HDMI cables. You need to buy these separately and unless you do, you won’t be able to unleash the full value of what HD is all about.

Each lead retails for about €30 to €40, so be warned. Luckily, I already owned a HDMI cable and was able to get going.

Another impression of the device is that perhaps due to the large amount of data on each Blu-ray disc, they are slow to load up.

The first film I tried, Spiderman III was a startling affair of smashing glass and vivid colours. It certainly imbued a certain 3D-effect. There is a definite difference in the quality between standard DVD and Blu-ray – for one thing, colours took on a new meaning.

“This is better than the cinema,” my partner pointed out and when you consider not being surrounded by oversized teenage brats spilling Coke on you, I had to agree.

A nice new innovation on Blu-ray discs is the use of pop-up menus, which means you don’t have to go back to the main menu if you want to skip to new scenes.

If you already own an extensive DVD collection and are wondering what all this HD stuff will mean for your efforts, the good news is that Blu-ray players already come with a digital enhancement feature that actually enhances the quality of your DVDs to near-Blu-ray quality.

There is no doubt about it that Blu-ray is a game-changing technology. Provided Sony works to bring prices lower, however. Then it can enjoy its victory dance.

Pros: Vivid images, gives colour a new meaning
Cons: HDMI cable has to be bought separately
Price: €399

By John Kennedy