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Home Entertainment Blog Archive

Brought to you by your friendly, opinionated, Home Entertainment and Technology writer, Stephen Dawson

Here I report, discuss, whinge or argue on matters related to high fidelity, home entertainment equipment and the discs and signals that feed them. Since this Blog is hand-coded (I like TextPad), there are no comments facilities. But feel free to email me at scdawson [at] hifi-writer.com. I will try to respond, either personally or by posting here emails I consider of interest. I shall assume that emails sent to me here can be freely posted by me unless you state otherwise.

This archive is for an uncertain period commencing Thursday, 31 July 2008

DVD Dominance - Tuesday, 26 August 2008, 2:44 pm

'Batman Begins' Blu-ray boxYesterday Warner Bros sent me the three Dirty Harry sequels on Blu-ray, along with the 'Limited Edition Giftset' Blu-ray for Batman Begins. I watched the latter last night and it was glorious. Great movie to begin with, and superb picture quality on the disc. I shall do a proper review for publication in due course. But one thing I ought to mention is that it will not shelve well with your other Blu-ray discs.

The reason for this is that two of the extras are booklets with comic book and script elements. Pretty decent productions in their own rights, they are clearly sized for packaging with a DVD. So the stylish Blu-ray cardboad outer box is also sized for the DVD. Since Blu-ray disc boxes are shorter than those for DVDs and cardboard spacer sits underneath the plastic disc box.

This kind of thing will change once Blu-ray gains a sufficiently large market, I suppose.

3DTV - Tuesday, 26 August 2008, 9:00 am

Back in the early 1970s I entered a $100 bet with a school friend to the effect that before we died some form of effective, commercial 3D TV would be available. A hundred dollars seemed like a lot in those days.

On the face of it, his bet (against the proposition) was safer than mine (for it). Our TVs were all CRTs. The only programming was free to air analogue: VHS had not yet arrived, let alone DVD or Blu-ray. He was more technologically knowledgeable. I had no idea at all how the technology might work. But I bet on this advance on general principles.

If we assumed that we had, say, fifty more years to live then we had a timescale by which to judge likely technological progress. Casting back fifty years would have taken us to the first half of the 1920s. Say, around the time that Philo Farnsworth was inventing the idea of using scan lines as a system for television. Certainly well before magnetic tape was invented. As far as I could see, if things moved that far and fast in the previous five decades, they could move just as far and fast in the next five.

So here we are 35 years later. Late last month Samsung announced that the 'World's first 3-D Plasma Is Here!' (Link to come). Basically, this is a eye-glasses based system, I think with polarising shutter filters. What's special about the TV is that it incorporates picture processing technology from Perth-based DDD (Dynamic Digital Depth) that allegedly turns 2D into 3D. I'm supposed to be looking at this TV in a few days. It also seems to support dedicated 3D material delivered via computer.

Today I received a press release from Philips indicating that it is demonstrating its 3D system at the Berlin IFA consumer electronics show. What's interesting here is that in addition to various displays, the company will have a demonstration Blu-ray product. Its approach is called '2D plus depth', which is different to the more common stereoscopic approach. The Philips system uses a regular image, but there's a second depth map delivered as well which can be applied or ignored, depending on the capabilities of the equipment. It's analogous to the introduction of colour to TV, where the black and white image remained the same for backwards compatibility, and the colour overlay could be ignored by black and white TVs.

Presumably we will need a HDMI v1.4 to support this signal.

I'm certainly not claiming (yet) to have won that schoolboy bet, but things are moving in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how well this stuff works. Is it realistic? Does it work for a number of people in the room? At different viewing angles?

And if this technology becomes available, will 3D movie production become as ubiquitous as colour?

VHS Weirdness - Independence Day VHS detail showing combingFriday, 22 August 2008, 6:12 pm

Well, there you go. It looks like I don't have too many readers after all! Or none, anyway, that have any spare VHS tapes. Happily charity came to the rescue. More to the point, I went to the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul's op shops today and found some prerecorded VHS tapes. Brilliant! What I found were Independence Day and Entrapment. I have the first on Blu-ray already and am seeking the latter. These cost me the princely sum of $5 in total. I also purchased The Untouchables because I thought this also was available on Blu-ray, but I was in error.

So I plugged the output of the VCR into the composite video input of my video capture card (no point trying to do this with a DVD recorder because it's almost certain that the VHS tapes are macrovision encoded) and started recording. I did a little test, first, on a random section of video just to make sure it was all working okay. It was, sort of, but there was heavy interlacing. There was no good reason for that. Except that I remembered that the first DVD release of Independence Day had exactly the same problem. For confirmation I recorded on my computer snippets from each of the other two tapes I purchased, and neither had this problem.

That's going to slow things up. I am not aiming to compare any specific VHS with DVD and Blu-ray, but rather to do a more general format comparison. That's why I am also seeking Entrapment on Blu-ray. That means I need to present VHS at its best. So I have to extract the opposite fields from adjacent VHS frames and weave them together myself. Damn.

Even then, as you can see from the weave I've done here, there's still a slight misalignment, that being the nature of VHS. Interframe stability isn't very high. I tried sliding the two fields a little left and right, but it generally made things worse. That picture has a detail from an original VHS frame to the left, the same section from the next VHS frame in the middle, followed by my manual weaving together of the matching two fields from those frames.

What is amusing is that at the start of this tape is a boast contained in the following two frames:

THX logo on Independence Day VHS

UPDATE (Friday, 22 August 2008, 9:56 pm): The plot thickens. If you read closely my coverage of the interlacing problems with the Independence Day DVD, you will see the following:

Interestingly, unlike the next two movies we shall look at, Independence Day does not have this problem all the way through. It appears in perhaps half of the movie, but there are plenty of scenes recorded properly. For example, most of the airfight scenes look okay. And the scenes featuring Will Smith at his girlfriend's house before he notices the spaceship are magnificently recorded.
So I get to the section of the movie on VHS featuring Will Smith at his girlfriend's house, and what do you know? No interlacing! What does this tell us? Well, nothing for certain, but it does seem very likely indeed that the original PAL DVD and the PAL VHS were derived from the same telecine of the film. The masking for the different aspect ratios of presentation (the VHS is in 1.33:1 while the DVD is 2.35:1) must have been conducted after whatever it was that caused the field reversal for large chunks of the movie.
VHS Help!!! - Thursday, 21 August 2008, 6:34 pm

Independently of each other, my brother and my daughter have both suggested that I should do a pictorial comparison of VHS to DVD to Blu-ray. I think it's a smashing idea and I've got the technical capabilities to do it. Except for one problem: I've only got a few VHS tapes, and none of them match Blu-rays, nor are they likely to do so in the near future.

So, on the wild assumption that I actually have readers out there, especially Australian ones, do any of you have a pre-recorded VHS tape of any movie that is available on Blu-ray? That you could allow me to have, or at least borrow for a few days? The ideal tape would be of a fairly recent movie (eg. from the 1990s), and one that hasn't been played to death, thereby allowing a reasonable representation of VHS quality (such as it was). For example, something like 'The Fifth Element' would be ideal.

I am in the process of assembling a full list of Blu-ray discs available in Australia, along with a list of forthcoming releases. It is still quite incomplete, but such as it is, it is here.

In the meantime, I've done further Blu-ray comparisons on Robocop, Phantom of the Opera and Pan's Labyrinth. From the last one here is an intriguing comparison, which reveals quite clearly the lower resolution of the colour components in DVD video:

Detail from Pan's Labyrinth: Blu-ray vs DVD
And another BD/DVD comparison - Tuesday, 19 August 2008, 4:48 pm

I've added six comparison shots to my review of Independence Day. Here's the first one:

Independence Day: Blu-ray vs DVD
Audio calculations - Monday, 18 August 2008, 2:59 pm

The editor of Australian HI-FI, for which I write, has just emailed me a link to the most incredible and useful set of calculators I've ever seen at Sound Studio and Audio Calculations Online - Acoustics Conversion Engines. Okay, they're useful if you're into technical stuff. But if you can't quite remember what a dBu is, then this is the place to go.

Two more Blu-ray/DVD comparisons - Monday, 18 August 2008, 2:45 pm

I've now done comparison shots between the Australian DVDs and Blu-rays of The Fifth Element and Full Metal Jacket. By coincidence, these are somewhat related. The first Blu-ray release of each of these in the United States was heavily criticised. Both have since been remastered and released. In Australia, we only ever had the re-released version of TFE, and the original, low quality, version of FMJ.

No Country for Old Men ... whoops! - Thursday, 14 August 2008, 11:50 am

Back of 'No Country for Old Men' Blu-rayLook at the top left hand corner of the graphic. What do you see? Would that be an 'A' in a hexagon? That's a region code marking for Blu-ray discs.

Look at the two primarily red boxes on that graphic. What do you see? They are the Australian Film Classification ratings.

Cognitive dissonance!

Australia is Region B for Blu-ray. The Region A marking on the back of the box is for North America.

This graphic is a scan of a portion of the back of the Australian Blu-ray release of No Country for Old Men. As it happens, the Australian release is region free. If you are wandering through an Australian shop that sells Blu-ray discs and stumble across this one, do yourself a favour. Ignore the Region A marking, and buy it. It will work and it will be worth it.

UPDATE (Friday, 15 August 2008, 1:35 pm): For some unknown reason I had the title of the movie in the heading to this post, and only there, as Old Country for Old Men. Now corrected.

Another BD-Live title - Thursday, 14 August 2008, 11:50 am

Paramount Pictures will be releasing Iron Man on a twin-disc Blu-ray (and also, ho hum, on DVD) on 9 October 2008. Lots of special features, most of them in HD. Most interestingly, there will be a BD Live extra called 'Iron Man IQ'. That'll make it, I think, the second BD-Live title on the Australian market after Men In Black.

UPDATE (Friday, 15 August 2008, 1:48 pm): Okay, I take that back. It looks like that movie is going to be, perhaps, the fourth BD-Live title on the Australian market. Yesterday Sony Picture Home Entertainment sent me three BDs, at least two of which feature BD-Live extras. One is Starship Troopers 3: Marauder and the other is Maximum Risk.

UPDATE (Friday, 15 August 2008, 2:34 pm): I know I should have held back. The third disc SPHE sent me is also BD Live! That one is xXx: State of the Union

The Sixth Sense out on Blu-ray - Thursday, 7 August 2008, 8:39 am

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has released The Sixth Sense on Blu-ray. Details and Blu-ray vs DVD comparison shots here.

Close Encounters comparison - Wednesday, 6 August 2008, 4:34 pm

I've done a few BD vs DVD comparison shots for Close Encounters of the Third Kind now. Have a look. That, with Almost Famous, makes two comparisons unmediated by having to take photos from a screen. So far, the DVD looks dreadful by comparison.

It could have looked worse. For these comparisons I have been using Media Player Classic, an open source product suggested by Simon, to grab the Blu-ray shots. It's a bit hit or miss, at least on my computer, but the end pictures are rather nice. I also tried to use it for DVDs, but unfortunately in grabbing the shots it seemed to rely on the progressive/interlace flag recorded in the video stream, and performed some deinterlacing of its own which reduced picture resolution. So I have been using Cyberlink PowerDVD Ultra 8 for the DVDs.

Blu-ray screenshots commence! - Tuesday, 5 August 2008, 11:04 pm

A couple of weeks ago I issued a cry for help because I couldn't work out how to grab screen shots from Blu-ray discs. I'm thankful to the four people who emailed me with various suggestions.

Two of these involved running software directly on the relevant video file on the disc. Only problem was, my computer wouldn't open a Blu-ray disc or a HD DVD. As far as it was concerned, there were no discs there.

PowerDVD Ultra worked with them all right (7.3 for HD DVD, 8 for Blu-ray), but Explorer and other tools on the computer wouldn't. What was odd was that I clearly remember that when I had a Pioneer Blu-ray burner installed a while back, Explorer would readily display the contents of the Blu-ray disc.

I spent a bit of time googling around and discovered that you need to have a UDF 2.5 driver installed to allow normal operating system access to these new format discs. Today I confirmed with Pioneer that its drives do indeed come with such a driver. (In addition, I'm told, they also comes with hooks that allow them, uniquely, to work with Windows Media Center.)

The LG drive doesn't come with this, which strikes me as bit peculiar. Anyway, there was a workaround (the first post in this thread says how to do it, the seventh contains the link to the required driver).

So with this done, and the suggestions listened to, I now present my first direct comparison between Blu-ray and DVD quality, for the disc Almost Famous. I expect to add many more as time goes by.

Australian Roadshow Blu-ray releases - Tuesday, 5 August 2008, 4:28 pm

Roadshow has sent me a list of its forthcoming Blu-ray releases. Good interesting range of titles there:

The MistN/A2 October 2008
1408N/A2 October 2008
Sex & The City: The Movie$49.9516 October 2008
Music and Lyrics$34.952 November 2008
March of the PenguinsN/A6 November 2008
Halloween 2-discN/A6 November 2008
Oceans 11$34.952 6 November 2008
Oceans 12$34.952 6 November 2008
Swordfish$34.952 6 November 2008
Training Day$34.952 6 November 2008
Get Smart$39.9513 November 2008
The Wrong Man (aka Lucky Number Slevin)N/A4 December 2008
Death ProofN/A4 December 2008
Planet TerrorN/A4 December 2008
Austin Powers GoldmemberN/A4 December 2008
ConstantineN/A4 December 2008
The MatrixN/A4 December 2008
Matrix ReloadedN/A4 December 2008
Matrix RevolutionsN/A4 December 2008
The Ultimate Matrix Collection Blu Ray 7- Discs$199.954 December 2008
The Wedding CrashersN/A4 December 2008
Speed Racer$49.9510 December 2008

The Matrix was the title that became an early best seller DVD. In fact, I seem to recall that for quite a while it was the biggest selling DVD. Its release on Blu-ray has got to be welcome. I thought it was only going to be part of the massive collection, but it now seems that it (and the sequels) are going to be available separately as well.

But if you are a big fan of the movie, you may want to go for the Ultimate pack. From the blurb:

Loaded with over 35 hours of Bonus Features from the 10-disc standard definition release of the Ultimate Collection, exclusive In Movie Experience (IME) and the three films newly presented in hi-def clarity. And now for the first time ever see The Animatrix on Blu-Ray!
This looks remarkably like the Warner Bros release scheduled for October in the US (Roadshow has distribution rights for this movie here). If it's based on the same encode as the Warner release, and the Warner encode is similar to, or better than, that used on its earlier HD DVD release, it ought to be excellent quality.

It may even be better since Warner could actually provide more encoding space for the movie, given the greater capacity of Blu-ray over HD DVD. Not that they necessarily will.

UPDATE (Tuesday, 5 August 2008, 6:38 pm): The release schedule has changed already, it seems. I've updated the above: overscores are deletions, red marks the additions.

Halloween appears to be the Rod Zombie remake, not the John Carpenter original. Pity. But the original is available from the US on a region free Blu-ray. It looks pretty good to me, but it has attracted some criticism for incorrect colours.

The Mist looks interesting. It's based on a Stephen King short story I read in a volume of his, oh, twenty or twenty five years ago. It's an odd one because, if I recall correctly, there is no setup for what happens. It just does. Yet, of the dozen or more stories in that volume, this is the only one I can specifically recall because this is the one that my mind has returned to from time to time over the years.

The movie is directed by Frank Darapont who has experience with Stephen King stories (he directed The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), and it does score 7.5 on IMDB, so I reckon it might be pretty good.

Hah, turns out that 1408 is also a Stephen King movie!

Death Proof (written and directed by Quentin Tarantino) and Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez) were a matched pair originally released as Grindhouse, complete with pretend trailers for other movies. I hope these releases include some of those extras.

Cuil pride - Thursday, 31 July 2008, 10:27 am

A month or so ago I sent an email to prominent conservative newspaper blogger Andrew Bolt, expressing my pride in my son, who had recently graduated as an Officer in the Australia Army from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Canberra.

Andrew kindly published the letter ('Proud Reader Writes'), and there were many lovely comments from his readers. I've been meaning ever since to link to that here, but haven't got around to it until now.

In order to provide that link I needed to find it, so I thought I would Google it. But on the radio this morning there was mention of a new search engine, Cuil.com (pronounced 'Cool'), founded by former Google staff. I thought I was try it out, so I searched Cuil.com for 'Stephen Dawson andrew bolt rmc'. No results. Googling on the same text gave me the entry I was after at the top of the page. I think I'll be sticking with Google for the time being.

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