The frustrating reality of technology is that the moment you invest, the tech becomes obsolete and drops in price by a third. Those who camped on the cold sidewalk of Best Buy for two or more days, to be the first to buy an iPhone, felt this acutely. Within weeks, the iPod shed half its sticker. "That's technology," said Apple's unrepentant Steve Jobs.
A smart consumer will investigate a technological change, evaluate whether it's an iteration or a leap, and whether it's a leap he finds truly meaningful. Then he'll wait for the "sweet spot" when the technology is widespread enough to reach a mass-market price.
It is this person for whom I am writing this column, not geeks like me. But if you are a serious movie-lover, and you are watching your films on DVD or (horrors!) VHS, on a standard-definition 4:3 television - and you can scrape together just under $1,000 - Blu-ray, hi-def TV, and surround sound ARE a leap, not an iteration, and yes, it's time to jump.
I'm going to spare you all but the basics of the tech. You can find a fantastic primer on the technology itself at ign.com, in the Blu-ray section. But beware, the more you know, the more you'll obsess about plasma vs. LCD vs. DLP, and esoteric, borderline nonsense that I care about, like contrast ratio and edge enhancement. Not only will you end up paying double for tech you might not need, but you'll be green when Tru-Color comes out in a few years, let alone home 3-D.
Blu-ray is NOT the leap that DVD was. DVD finally eliminated the smeariness of VHS, a horrible tech from the get-go. DVDs are cheap to manufacture, 17 cents, which eventually led to the greatest boon to the movie-lover in history. You can now, through a service like NetFlix, have access to tens of thousands of titles, some deliciously obscure. And through the Internet, with a region-free DVD player, you can see what the whole world is creating.
But why Blu-ray? Why now? The answer, for me, is two parts: the opening of "Blade Runner" and Ingrid Bergman's face. For the first time, at home, you can relatively cheaply approximate the experience of watching FILM. Film, glorious film. You can recapture the EXPERIENCE of our 100 year cinema heritage.
Blu-ray, on a 1080p hi-def TV (sorry about the number, but buy no TV that doesn't have it) has about five times the resolution of a conventional DVD. This is still less than half of film's approximated resolution. But the truth is, film is not pixels. It is an analog, chemical process. And no TV will ever quite duplicate it.
But oh, it's getting close. "Blade Runner" is a film I remember from my youth, almost thirty years ago. I remember being overwhelmed. Watching "Blade Runner" on a Blu-ray disc, on a 50" LCD TV, with high-wattage surround sound, almost made me weep. It was there, that feeling.
And for lovers of old movies, when I brought home "Casablanca," hands almost shaking from anticipation as I tore off the plastic, and fast-forwarded to a close-up of Ingrid - again, my knees went weak. Black-and-white, on Blu-ray and hi-def, reminds you why it was the aesthetic default of so many great directors, even when color was available.
Some caveats. There is a vast difference between some Blu-rays. In some ways, it's not the format that's special, but the quality of the print from which the disc is struck. That is, "The Godfather" and "Sleeping Beauty", meticulously restored frame-by-frame, will blow away sloppy transfers such as "The Deer Hunter". Also, probably nothing will make more of an impact on your experience than how you set your television. Learn about all the options, and experiment until it looks like a movie theater.
Finally, remember that all spinning media, within ten to twenty years, are thing of the past. As soon as the Internet reaches the proper bandwidth, downloading will do to movies what it has done to the music industry. But that's going to take quite a while; and for now, there's no reason to wait on experiencing film -at home as it's meant to be seen.