Is the Day of the Disc Done?

The other day I bought a new Sony BDP-S5100 Blu-ray player to replace the old LG player that was having a lot of trouble playing Blu-ray discs.  Strangely, two of my friends separately asked me the same thing, “Why did you do that, isn’t Blu-ray dead?”  Then my friend Mike wondered if it was possible to give up his Netflix disc account to just live with Netflix streaming.  My wife has already given up her disc account, and so have many of my friends.

I’ve wondered about cancelling my Netflix disc subscription, but there are still plenty of movies, television shows and documentaries that aren’t available on streaming.  In fact, I recently joined ClassicFlix to get old movies Netflix doesn’t offer on disc or streaming.  And often I recommend films and TV shows to friends and they often report back they aren’t  on streaming, like Project Nim.

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Yet, I’ve got to wonder if the writing is on the wall, and if the disc isn’t under Hospice care.  I hardly ever play my CDs anymore, preferring to stream music.  And my DVD/BD collection sits ignored in a dark closet because I stream or rent.  Since the quality of streaming is constantly improving, I feel less and less need to buy Blu-ray discs.  I dropped my Blu-ray option on Netflix because the LG players was giving me so much trouble, but at ClassicFlix, Blu-ray discs are not extra, so I started getting them again.  They are wonderful, but some some HD streamed movies are nearly as good.  Movies like The Big Trail and The Apartment were just stunning in Blu-ray, so I want that quality if I can get it.

If I dropped Netflix discs and ClassicFlix discs, a whole world of video would be cut off from me.  I have added Warner Instant Archive streaming, which is like Turner Classic Movies.  I also get Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime.  I have years of streaming content waiting to be watched, and by the time I finished them all, years more of viewing would be added, maybe even the stuff I now get on discs.  If I was patient, everything will eventually come to streaming.

And then there’s the question:  Won’t canceling disc rentals and not buying discs speed up the move to everything being streamed?  Isn’t it a kind of protest against discs and a vote for streaming if people shun discs?

Blu-ray isn’t quite dead because if you want the best possible picture, Blu-ray is it, but streaming technology is nipping on its heels.  Netflix is even working on 4k streaming.  I probably shouldn’t have bought that Sony BDP-S5100 player, but hell, it was a good deal at $79.  It’s a marvel of technology, and about 1/3rd, or even 1/4th the size of the BD player.  Plus it plays BD discs MUCH faster, and it plays the discs the BG player wouldn’t.   And it also plays CDs and SACDs, and it has Gracenote built in, making CD playing more visual.  There’s even more, it has a host of smart TV features with many channels that I don’t even plan to use, because I own a Roku 3, but if I didn’t they would be very cool.

Yeah, I think, the writing is on the wall.  This will probably be my last disc player.

Back in the 1960s I often wondered what life would be like in the 21st century.  I never imagined living without LPs, or even conceived of the CD or DVD.  Yet, many science fiction books and movies imagined a future where we’d be less materialistic.  I guess that’s coming true.

JWH – 1/28/14

The Big Trail (1930)

Yesterday I got in a Blu-ray copy of The Big Trail, an early widescreen movie from 1930.  The Big Trail has quite a fascinating history behind it.  Starting in the late 1920s Hollywood began experimenting with widescreen and Technicolor, but the depression killed off interest in these technologies, especially widescreen because it required special theaters, screens and projectors.   The Big Trail was filmed from April to August in 1930 in black and white using both 70mm and 35mm cameras, creating two unique versions from different camera angles.  The whole production was also shot in five languages using different lineup of actors for each language.

Epic production doesn’t begin to describe the making of The Big Trail.  Seven different states were used for film locations, covering 4,300 miles, traveling in 123 baggage cars, with 93 principle actors, 2,000 extras at all the locations, 725 Indians from five tribes, 12 Indian guides, 22 cameramen, 1,800 cattle, 1,400 horses, 500 buffalo, 185 wagons and a production staff of 200.  And they had the wagon train do everything wagon trains did back in those pioneering days, cross rivers, get lowered down cliffs, blaze trails through timbered lands, cross deserts, climb mountains, survive snow storms.  All other wagon train movies since have been puny in scale.  The Big Trail was a very gigantic production, but it’s not as famous as Gone With the Wind from 1939.  That’s too bad, it should be better remembered.

I had to watch The Big Trail alone last night because none of my movie friends like old black and white films and I couldn’t convince them to give The Big Trail a try.  What a loss for them.  It’s a shame because as soon as I started up The Big Trail I was stunned by it’s beauty.  Old movies are in a square format and seeing this movie in widescreen format on my 56” HDTV made my heart ache.  If only this 70mm widescreen format had caught on in 1930.  All my favorite old films from the 1930s and 1940s would have been so much more grandeur looking.  And that’s what Fox called their experimental format, the “Fox Grandeur” process.  What if Grand Hotel had been widescreen, or The Maltese Falcon, or The Wizard of Oz, just imagine how more magnificent they would have been.

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[This screenshot is from Blu-ray.com – click for full size version]

Modern movie goers are used to high tech visual productions and when they see old movies, especially silent films and films from the 1930s, they think of them as primitive and crude, and often assume people of those days saw what we see today.  Their technology was older and less sophisticated, but the prints we have are old and in bad shape compared to the original pristine prints audiences viewed in their day.  Silent movie film goers didn’t see jerky prints with faded splotches and lines running through them.  They were sharp and vivid with wonderful contrast and the motion was as natural as modern films.  Sure the acting style is strange to us, but the acting style was normal to them.  It was great acting by the way they judged acting.

Old movies are being restored all the time now, especially for the Turner Classic Movie crowd and Blu-ray movie fans.  The restoration of The Big Trail is far from perfect, but I found it impressive to watch visually.  I expect someday that digital processing will clean up even more of these film defects, and created a print closer to the 1930 original.  For the most part the defects weren’t distracting.  A couple of times I thought it was raining because of the tiny scratches.

The Big Trail was an experiment in many ways, not only for the widescreen filming.  It was an early epic western about settlers crossing the country in a huge wagon train.  The Big Trail was the first starring role for John Wayne, but many of the actors were from Broadway, because it was an early talky and they needed actors that could project their voices to outdoor microphones.  Much of the dialog is stagey, and the cinematography is reminiscent of great silent films.  Yet, the sets and costumes look very realistic.  It would take another 60 years before citizens of the pioneering west looked so realistically dirty and grungy.  Plus the Indians were real.  Often the wagons were drawn by oxen and cattle rather than horses.

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The-Big-Trail-wide

[Click for full size versions.  From Blu-Ray.com]

Westerns weren’t this good for a long time, not until Stagecoach, ten years later.  Most westerns of that era were B movies, shot full of action, produced from very small budgets.  As I watched The Big Trail, I wondered how many people living in 1930 had once traveled across the country in a wagon train.  The heyday of the wagon train was from the 1840 to the 1860s, when the continental railroad was built.  It was possible that some of these pioneers were still alive to verify the realism of the film.  I wonder if any of them wrote about it?

Westerns today, 80 years later, often work hard to appear realistic and historical.  It seems like every decade has a different view on how the old west looked.  Just compare the two versions of True Grit.  There’s also a difference in how violence was portrayed.  In The Big Trail, John Wayne only kills one of the bad guys, and with a knife.  And the bad guys were on the hesitant and cowardly side, only willing to kill when no one was looking.  Nobody was a great shot either.  Today’s westerns have heroes that kill as many people as a mass murderer.

The Big Trail was an innocent portrayal of pioneers.  At one point the John Wayne character was telling a bunch of boys what all he learned from living with the Indians and one of the kids asked, “Did they teach you were papooses come from?”  That’s about as risqué as this movie got.  But it was realistic enough to show a woman nursing a baby.  And I thought the love conflict was reasonably sophisticated for a movie of its time.  The plot of The Big Trail was gentile and slow.  I’m not sure people only used to modern films would like it.  Modern audiences are addicted to fast action, fast dialog, and lots of plot twists.  I’ve seen The Big Trail three times now and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.  It’s a classic western, and a classic 1930s film, my two favorite genres.

JWH – 12/29/12

Sony BDP-S570 3D Blu-ray Disc Player

I bought my wife the Sony BDP-S570 3D Blu-ray Disc Player for Christmas to keep at her apartment where she works out of town.  My wife has never been fanatical about video quality but slowly came to appreciate Blu-ray beauty from my watching 1080p shows on my LG BD390 Blu-ray player.  Last year I had bought her a Roku box so she could stream Netflix and the Sony BDP-S570 now replaces it, because not only does the Sony play BD discs, it streams Netflix, Amazon Videos on Demand, Pandora, Youtube, and many other internet video services.   Plus it supports DLNA networking to fetch photos, music and movies off our computers.

I was reading this weekend a review comparing the Roku, Apple TV and Boxee Box devices and it made me wonder if these gadgets had much a future if televisions and Blu-ray players are going to build in the same functionality?  Then today I was helping a friend who has an older MacBook find a cable that would allow her to output Netflix streaming to her television set and we discovered the cable that would handle video and audio was $99.  I told her for $79 she could get a Roku box for streaming Internet video, or spend $20-50 more and get a Blu-ray player that also streamed Internet video.

Of course, if I was helping a friend buy a new TV, I’d recommend they pick a set that had Netflix streaming built into the television.  Many sets offer various levels of Internet support.  It doesn’t take a science fiction writer to predict the future here.  If technology can eventually stream content with Blu-ray quality – why have any external boxes at all.

The El Dorado of cable subscribers is to have a la carte channels.  As the television becomes a node on the Internet it’s easy to envision this happening.  Right now you can get several paid channels this way, Netflix, Amazon on Demand, Hulu Plus, MLB, etc.  Of course TCP/IP and the Internet isn’t structured for this, but that doesn’t mean it won’t adapt.

So the question:  What to buy now?  Last year I bought my wife the Roku for $99.  A few months later the Wii started streaming Netflix.  If we had waited we could have skipped the Roku.  Then, this year, Susan wanted a Blu-ray player, which doesn’t replace the Wii.  But if the Wii played Blu-ray discs like the Playstation, we wouldn’t have needed it.  I love Blu-ray video quality, and right now Netflix HD is very nice, but not Blu-ray 1080p.

What I’d recommend is buying the cheapest device that streams Netflix at Netflix’s HD quality, and that’s the $79 Roku XD box.  However, if you really love movies and want to enjoy Blu-ray now, I’d recommend spending $20-70 more and getting a Blu-ray player that does both.  I got the BDP-S570 for $138 before Christmas on sale.  Right now it’s commonly sold for $149.  There are Ethernet wired only BD players for under a $100 that can do this.  Units with Wi-Fi built in are about $50 more. 

The BD disc players won’t have as many Internet channels as a Roku or Boxee device, but most people will be happy with Netflix.  Look for Amazon Video on Demand and Hulu Plus if you’re willing to rent movies individually, or pay for a bunch of TV shows.  The Netflix all you can eat pay model is a much better deal though.  However, when I saw True Grit at the movies recently and wanted to see the old John Wayne version, the quickest way was to pay Amazon $2.99 to stream it, which I did and it worked great.

The lesson in all of this is the television is becoming a major Internet appliance.  The trend might even kill off the cable and satellite business, and I expect eventually people will prefer to stream content rather than buy discs.  All too often I let my Netflix discs sit for days because it’s easier to stream.

The beauty of the Roku and Boxee devices is they can be upgraded to handle more Internet channels.  Blu-ray players can too, but my LG390 only added a couple of paid services.  LG did add more services to later models, which really irked me.  I hope newer Blu-ray players will be designed like the Roku and Boxee machines to be expandable.  The first time I upgraded the Sony BDP-S570 it added several channels, and it has an expanding menu, so that’s a good sign.

JWH – 1/11/11

LG BD390 Blu-Ray Player

I woke up this morning, got the newspaper, and opened the ads to discover that the 40th Anniversary Edition of Woodstock the music documentary is to be released on Tuesday.  Hot-damn.  Not only that, but a special edition with even more un-shown acts was coming out on the Blu-Ray version.  I’ve been wanting a Blu-Ray player for years, but have been waiting for the price to come down.  I got on Amazon and found out if I ordered my copy of Woodstock from them they’d include a bonus disc with even more un-shown acts from that famous three days of love, happiness and mud, so I ended up buying my first Blu-Ray content before I actually owned a player.

I jumped on Google and started researching players.  I figured I’d want to be at Best Buy by 11am to get one, no use wasting any more time.  But which Blu-Ray player to buy?  I assumed I’d get a Samsung, since I’ve been a Samsung kind of guy for awhile now, but after reading many reviews I decided to give the LG BD390 a try.  It was $150 more than what I wanted to pay for my first Blu-Ray player, but it had wireless draft-N built in, whereas the Samsung used a USB plug-in wireless-G dongle.  The reviews and specs were more favorable to the LG.  Samsung had one thing I really wanted, Pandora streaming, but because of the funky wireless and more complaints, I was pushed to try out LG for the first time in my life.

I decided to pay the extra $150 for the nicer machine because it had wireless-N built in, so I wouldn’t have to run an Ethernet cable across my attic and down two walls.  Because the BD390 had 1gb of flash memory built in, so I didn’t have to buy a USB flash drive that stuck out the back of the player to store configuration data and other digital junk within the Blu-Ray unit.  Because it had a Netflix decoder, so I could stop wanting the $99 Roku Netflix player.  And finally, because it had media player support so I it might replace my SoundBridge 1001 and have a visual interface for looking up music to play on my stereo in the den.

I was at Best Buy by 11:07, and out by 11:27.  I grabbed the BD390 and gazed at the Blu-Ray movie selection, settling on the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Matrix as my test disc.  I got home and detached my Samsung up-converting DVD player/recorder, and attached the BD390 and put in The Matrix.  Total breeze.  Set the player to 1080p – the first time I saw media in this mode on my Samsung HDTV, which had been a buying point two years earlier.

Then I used the menu to tell the BD390 about my wireless system, which worked immediately.  I had remembered my secret security code okay, which made me feel good, since I’m forgetting so much now-a-days.  I then told the new LG player to update itself, which it did.  Again, a breeze.

After the update, I click over to the Netflix menu and the LG told me a 4 digit code to go enter at the Netflix web site.  I went back to my computer room, brought up Netflix, told them I was willing to spend $3 a month extra to add Blu-Ray discs to my queue, put in the code at /activate, added a few Blu-Ray titles to my growing queue and went back to the den to check on the BD390.  All the Play Now movies that were in my queue were now listed on my HDTV screen.  So I played the second episode from Star Trek, the original series, called “Charlie X.”  It was beautiful.  I’m thinking the Netflix streaming episode might have been from the newly re-mastered Blu-Ray episodes, but I don’t know for sure.  Netflix streamed perfectly and the video quality was excellent.

Many reviewers of the BD390 complained of having trouble setting up the media server.  I checked the menu and my Windows Media server was showing up, but it wouldn’t let me access it.  I took the computer install disc that came with the BD390 for Nero MediaHome 4 back to my computer room and installed it on my desktop with all my media files.  After a quick install the program scanned my computer for photos, videos and songs.  I went back to the den and found several folders of media, including 18,000  MP3 songs.  This was under the Nero MediaHome 4 server.  Still couldn’t get into Windows Media server that was also listed – I had two media servers in the menu now.

Went back to my computer room and installed the update to Nero MediaHome 4, which messed up the original setup.  I ran the update again and got the program running for the second time, but had to re-scan the folders for my media again.  Damn, it takes awhile.  Went back to the den.  This time I could see into both media servers, but the Windows Media files loaded far slower, and had interruptions when playing, whereas the Nero MediaHome 4 folders opened faster and played files flawlessly.

Now for my first complaints.  Nero MediaHome 4 is simple, but not elegant, although it plays the files perfectly so far.  But with 629 artists and 18,000 songs, jumping to a particular cut involves a lot of menu clicking.  I quickly discovered that I could search by artist by displaying 5 large folder icons, or 14 medium-sized folder icons, or 40 small folder icons at a time, by cycling through the Display button.  Page down, page down, page down… through 629 artists even at 40 at a time takes awhile.  LG needs to add a A-Z selector.  The media librarian is spartan, but works.  I’d like to see LG add a lot of polish to it, and I hope it can be done through firmware updates.

When you get to an artist’s folder, you’d think you’d see photos of all the albums, and the LG might eventually load them all and show them, but not while I waited.  The album covers get displayed when you open an album folder and then the album art is repeated for each song, so it looks stupid.  There are 14 tiny photos of Blonde on Blonde covers listing the songs to my favorite Dylan album.  Why not show the album covers to each album once in the artist folder?  And then just list the tracks by track number within the album folder?

Selecting music through the LG Blu-Ray menu is far nicer than looking up albums on the tiny LED readout of the SoundBridge 1001, but it’s not as fast.  Using an iPhone app on my touch is even faster managing the SoundBridge, and using a software program on my laptop is even faster still, but keeping those two machines on and charged in the den is a pain.  So is using 4 remotes to get everything turned on and ready for watching a movie or listening to a song. (Cable, TV, LG, Receiver).

The Nero MediaHome 4 also found my the movies I had bought and downloaded from Amazon Unbox, but it wouldn’t play them.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if LG worked with Amazon like it does with Netflix?  The BD390 does show CinemaNow rental movies and free YouTube clips as part of its menu.  The is so much technical potential out there, but it all needs to work together.  One player should be able to be a front-end for many online stores.  Who wants to own a device for all the different online movie outlets, much less all the online music stores.

I’m hoping LG will add Pandora, and even Rhapsody to their firmware via an upgrade, but this is probably wishful thinking.  Maybe ten years into the future I’ll have one TV, one box and one remote, and life will be simple.  I wish my Comcast DVR/cable box had everything built into it, so I didn’t need anything extra.  I fantasize about having a DRV with 2gb of storage, a Blu-Ray player and burner, a built in Surround Sound receiver/amp, a media extender for my computer files, all working perfectly integrated and controlled by a single elegant remote.  Ha-ha, dream on kid, what a fanciful fantasy.

I suppose someday 1080p video will be streamed, and Netflix will offer absolutely everything in streaming mode.  And Rhapsody Music will also stream through the same box.  And I wouldn’t have to worry about owning movies, TV shows or songs.  Just rent everything and select it from a menu.

I decided I couldn’t wait for Netflix to ship me  more Blu-Ray movies, so I went to Target this afternoon and bought Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp for $15, the only movie that I’d wanted to keep that was cheap enough to consider.  Both films look beautiful at 1080p, but not stunning like I’ve seen some Blu-Ray movies look at Best Buy.  I’m used to 1080i and 720p high definition and to be honest I could probably live with that quality of video for the rest of my life.  Blu-Ray is much better than up-scaled DVDs though, and now that special content is coming out for Blu-Ray, I’m happy that I bought a player.  I’m looking forward to re-watching Battlestar Galactica on Blu-Ray, and if Netflix offers that new Neil Young retrospective box set on Blu-Ray, I’m anxious to see it, but I wouldn’t spend the money to own it.  I was happy to spend $48 for Woodstock though, or at least I hope it will live up to my expectations of having a nostalgia summer, because it’s the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, my high school graduation, and Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.  Maybe NASA will offer a Blu-Ray retrospective this summer too.

Part 2 of my review…

JWH -6/7/9