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The Blu-Ray Road Test

22 Jun, 2006 By: Jessica Wolf

I got my hands on the remote and took a little test drive of Samsung's new Blu-Ray player.

It officially isn't on sale until July 25, but no one in the Blu-ray camp seemed overly ruffled at the fact that over the last few days, retailers were selling the hardware to go along with the first six Blu-ray discs, which streeted Tuesday.

Samsung's player is sleek and black and was hooked up to one of the manufacturer's slick 56-inch DLP flat screen HDTV sets.

I heard that some retailers were having problems with picture quality when hooking up this, the only Blu-ray player thus far, for in store demos.

But this screen looked, as expected, gorgeous. I took a gander at scenes from action film XXX, mindbender Memento and comedy 50 First Dates. All were popping with the whiz-bang visuals we've been teased with and that studios have touted to death over the last two years.

Watching Memento, Samsung PR rep Jeff Newlet kept pointing out Guy Pearce's rugged unshaved features.

“Look at the stubble,” he said.

Certainly, the stubble does not lie. That was a damn clear picture, and I couldn't help thinking how frightening this new era of high-def could potentially be for Hollywood actresses.

Heaven help them if they have a blemish. (Let's be honest here — average women are going to have a field day with those oh-so-clear high-def close-ups, picking apart every wrinkle line or evidence of cosmetic tampering on ageing starlets' faces.)

Still, Samsung totally delivered on the high-definition picture quality front, at least for me.

But some other tidbits were anticlimactic.

The remote was great, thin, easy to handle, not confusing — that's important. I've been to a lot of demos during which studio talking heads gleefully whipped through the Blu-ray menus without stopping the movie.

It was nice to see how this will work practically when you are sitting on the couch at home. Samsung's player remote had two different menu buttons, one clearly labeled. “Disc pop up menu” and the other labeled “Disc main menu.”

The pop up menu, as you might expect, is the one that whips up during the movie-playback. The main menu button goes all the way back to the beginning to the funky and animated intro disc menu.

There is a certain amount of loading time as you flip between options — but none more than 35 seconds or so. A little hourglass like the one on many computers pops up on the screen as you wait for the disc to load selected options.

And it's clear that Sony's DVD producers are already having some fun with the new Blu-ray format.

The pop-up menu options on the Memento-disc were shaped like Polaroid photos — just like the lead character uses to restore his memories daily. As I clicked on them, they flipped over to reveal writing on the back, just like in the movie; there was even a little pencil-scratching sound effect to go along. Cute.

But that was it. There are no special features, not even ones duplicated from the original DVD release. Not in this first batch of Sony titles anyway. The only thing I was able to do with the nifty interactive menus on the discs I demoed was jump to a different scene, fiddle with subtitles and language options, or, in the case of XXX, check out some previews of other movies.

I did this, selecting the preview for Into the Blue, during which I became far more familiar with the texture of Jessica Alba's rear end than I ever thought I would. Once the preview was over, the disc automatically returned to where the movie was when I popped out of it, after a few seconds of loading time.

In the long run it was a little anticlimactic. Sure I like these movies and I like seeing them all big and pretty, but I don't think that's going to be enough for long.

To be fair, I'm sure Sony knows that too and is evolving toward more and better special features that take use of Blu-ray, especially when the 50GB disc is ready.

And I liked the fact that the Samsung player is an HD-upconverting player. It will take a standard definition DVD and upconvert the image to the highest possible playback quality. I know that a lot of early adopter and technophile types have been using upconverting players already, as they wait for the high-def formats to hit the market.

To me, this says that Blu-ray backers understand that the high-def revolution, beautiful as it is, is not going to mirror the shift from VHS to DVD. I've never bought into the idea that consumers will replace their entire DVD libraries on high-def discs.

And, according to the Samsung spokesperson guiding me through the demo, all the manufacturer's TVs and systems are able to hook up to Samsung's quite affordable (some around $300) home-theater-in a box kits, which will allow users to easily enhance their home audio systems without gigantic additional expenditures.

Meanwhile, my experience with the first Blu-ray player this week doesn't seem to be mirrored at retail, from what I've heard from other industry watchers this week.

There's a real disconnect the studios and retailers need to team up and solve in order to get shoppers on board.

And it's got to be more than showing off some amazing stubble on a hot leading man, I think.

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