Ten minutes into watching Ultraviolet, a bad 90-minute music video trying to pass itself off as a good 90-minute movie, I had had enough. Some would argue the plot synopsis should have been a warning: "A beautiful vampire in a futuristic world has to protect a boy, who is in fact a secret weapon: the cure for all the humans transformed into vampires."
Why didn't I just walk out? Because I was sitting comfortably on my couch at the time, preparing to write a review of the snazzy new DVD machine that was playing the movie. Samsung's BD-P1000 Blu-ray player is the first in a new category of high-definition DVD gear. Nearly every consumer-electronics company soon will be producing Blu-ray equipment, with the notable exception of Toshiba (TOSBF) and RCA. They belong to a competing camp with a format called HD-DVD (Technology & You, July 24).
Priced at $999, the Samsung player costs about $400 more than rival HD-DVD machines, which went on sale in May. Realizing that it would occupy the high end of this niche, at least for now, Samsung seems to have put a lot of thought into design and usability.
The unit is a svelte 9.3 pounds, with a glossy black finish and silver accents on the front panel. The onboard display window and single control button for play/pause, fast forward, rewind, and stop light up in blue. Another nice touch: The front panel hides the slots for plugging in memory cards that contain your personal pictures. In addition to playing high-definition Blu-ray movies -- just a handful of titles, at this moment -- the Samsung will play anything in your old DVD collection. (Some of these movies may look slightly better than they would on a regular DVD player, but only true Blu-ray discs can take advantage of the machine's power.) My one quibble with the Samsung was the flimsy-looking remote, which did not include a backlit display for use in darkened rooms.
SAMSUNG BUNDLES AN ALL-IMPORTANT cable known as HDMI, which runs from a connector on the back of the player to your TV set. I hooked the player to a Sharp (SHCAY) HDTV with a 65-in. liquid-crystal display and also to a Samsung 56-in. HDTV that uses digital light processing chips. Both these TVs deliver the sharpest possible HD images -- what the technorati like to call 1080p. With this level of screen size and picture resolution, you feel as if you've just undergone Lasik eye surgery. Blurred backgrounds come into focus, colors look more vivid, and you generally see more details in the picture than ever before. It can actually be distracting. Watching the 2005 comedy Hitch, I found myself scrutinizing the individual hairs on Will Smith's goatee. In addition, some movies let you take advantage of Blu-ray's special features, such as changing the camera angles. The format also offers subtitles in many more languages than current systems, including Thai and Russian.
Not everyone has a high-end, 1080p HDTV on hand. In fact, most of the sets in stores right now display pictures at a somewhat less breathtaking 720p. But don't get too hung up on the technicalities. Surveys show that many viewers watching at a distance of 10-15 feet can't distinguish between these two technical specs. Screen size, on the other hand, does seem to matter. People watching on TVs smaller than 50 inches may not grasp why Blu-ray movies are superior to ordinary DVDs.
I admire almost everything about the Samsung player: the Apple-like packaging and design, the amazing picture and sound quality. But it's hard to overlook the backward thinking that has marred both Blu-ray and HD-DVD offerings. I'm talking about content. XXX: State of the Union, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Kung Fu Hustle don't make my list of the top 10 movies of all time. There are a few A-list titles such as Crash and Terminator 2, but for now, the studios seem intent on unloading their stinkers on a captive audience. Come fall, it looks like they will have more interesting titles available.
The main purpose of the players should be to showcase great, high-definition content, and thus spur sales of hardware, movies, and TV shows. Until the entertainment industry gets this piece of the puzzle right, I'll be just as happy to watch birds flying in high definition on Discovery's HD channel.
Steve Wildstrom is on vacation. For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/. For Cliff Edwards' video report about Blu-ray on BusinessWeek Weekend, go to businessweek.com/go/tv/blu
By Cliff Edwards