The Trouble With Blu-ray

As a consumer, I love Blu-ray. It’s pretty much the best thing a media packrat like me could ever have. The video quality is so good, any further improvement requires a wall-sized screen to even be visible. The audio formats, DTS-Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, are literally capable of quality beyond the limits of human hearing. I will never need to upgrade most of the movies I buy on Blu-ray ever again, as the technology has officially reached the point of diminishing returns.

However, as a professional, I freaking hate Blu-ray. It’s the worst-implemented, most poorly thought-out, unnecessarily confusing professional video specification ever invented, clearly the product of being rushed out the door in order to compete with HD-DVD. The format was designed to be as future-proof as possible, featuring layers of interactivity and flexibility, almost none of which even work.

Here are just a few things that bother me:

  • Java-based menus – When the formats were just being unveiled, Java sounded pretty damn good. Unlike DVD menus (and HD-DVD menus, which weren’t much different), Java offered the promise of full interactivity and even gaming. Java (not to be confused with the web language Javascript) is a C-based programming language that was once really exciting because it’s never compiled into machine language. It stays human-readable, and is interpreted into computer commands as it’s being run. This has the benefit of being platform-agnostic; you can switch processors, architectures, or even generations of technology and still expect pretty much the same result. And because it was a full programming language (rather than a limited menu mark-up language), you could make it do almost anything. At least, in theory.

    The first problem with Java is that it’s SLOW AS BALLS. The second problem is that it’s an actual programming language, and if you really want to take advantage of it you need to hire an actual programmer. This is well outside the wheelhouse of most home video companies, and in terms of what most discs need to do, ridiculous overkill. Most discs require a fairly standard, similarly structured menu and little else. Well, in order to make these, an authoring program has to give you a design interface to map out the disc and its interface, and then attempt to approximate what you did in Java. The whole process is horrifyingly buggy, and the result is, frankly, not great. Meanwhile, on the high-end studio side of things, only a few discs have managed to scrape together barely-usable and dog-slow games and interactive features. Java sure seemed like a great idea at the time, but in retrospect it was a gigantic mistake.

  • It Can’t Render Text – This one is a pisser, because it’s actually part of the Blu-ray spec, and one of the most basic things a “real programming language” like Java can do. Technically, a menu can render text on-the-fly, or text can be overlaid onto video. This would’ve enabled live on-screen chats, additional subtitle tracks and annotation, and potentially much more. Unfortunately, no fonts are included in the player specification, so in order to get the disc to draw text, you’d need to license and bundle a font on the disc itself — subjecting the publisher to an additional licensing fee. Beyond that, the players themselves are simply bad at it! Text looks sloppy, jaggy, poorly spaced and kerned. It’s simply not acceptable looking, and changes from player to player. For subtitles and other text-heavy features, Blu-ray authors are forced to render everything as graphics. Just like with DVD.
  • It Can’t Stream Video – Perhaps the most galling part about this is that they actually updated the spec and pushed this as a new player feature called BDLive. And perhaps the funniest thing about this is that some of the major Hollywood studios are still trying to pretend it works. Rather than use any of the now-ubiquitous technology now being used by YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and everyone else to flawlessly beam HD video around the net, the Blu-ray guys had to reinvent the wheel by jamming together their oddly incompatible video format specs with an outdated internet transmission format, and then not giving the players enough RAM to smooth out the playback of streamed HD video. The result is so choppy and terrible looking that it’s unplayable. Don’t believe me? Unlock one of the “free streaming movies” that came with the Scott Pilgrim BD and see if the glitch every 5 seconds doesn’t make you want to put an axe through the TV. But hey, at least you had to spend 15 minutes downloading an update before you could play the disc, right?
  • It Can’t Make Managed Copies – One of the early promises of BD was that you could easily pop it into a “Managed Copy”-ready set-top box or piece of software, and after a few minutes of grinding, it would spit out your movie in any number of different compatible formats, for portable devices or even as a standard DVD. The problem was, not only was this feature never finished, it was never even developed. Nobody could decide on a method to maintain copy protection for the transcoded content, Apple (maker of the world’s most popular media players) refused to play along with the insanity that is Blu-ray, and so the project languished. That didn’t stop the Blu-ray committee from making authors buy a uniquely generated ID code for every BD they made (which had to be bought from a single company in the USA), and add them to the disc itself, as well as a URL to your “managed copy server” that you were responsible for building and maintaining. There was even a point last year where they simply refused to replicate the discs if you didn’t go to all that trouble.

    Never mind that there isn’t, and never has been, any such thing as a “managed copy server” — they were never invented. Nor was any player that would talk to one, or read the ID code. But if you were a BD publisher, no matter how small, you had to play ball and buy the stupid ID code, in the belief that SOMEDAY managed copy might exist. The committee finally dropped the whole asinine idea when the one company that issued the numbers in North America filed for bankruptcy and closed their doors. Last I heard, the whole “managed copy” thing is now dead, and everyone’s just including a regular DVD with their Blu-rays, which is a lot easier for everyone.

  • And those are just the published features that don’t work. How about all the little quirks and bugs we have to work around? Or the fact that, even 3 years into the format’s maturity we still don’t have a BD authoring program with a decent interface? Or its half-assed support of standard-def extra features? I love the performance and storage of Blu-ray, but my god, this format is just BROKEN.

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    One response to “The Trouble With Blu-ray

    1. Any software programmer could have told the BD people that Java is slow. Even Java gurus will admit that Java is slow. The only reason we can run OpenOffice is because machines have so much power that they have over come Java’s inherent slowness. Glad I found you site, thanks.

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