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DVD and Blu-ray Holiday Gifts

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Jen Chaney, washingtonpost.com DVD columnist, shows consumers some of the features they might find on Blu-ray discs if they decide to go high-def this holiday season. Video by James Hale/washingtonpost.com

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Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com DVD Columnist
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; 11:00 AM

Trying to decide whether to leap into the world of Blu-ray? Or just trying to come up with a cool DVD to give your couch potato brother for the holiday?

Send your questions to Jen Chaney, washingtonpost.com DVD columnist, during an online discussion on Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 11 a.m. ET. She'll recommend great DVD and Blu-ray gifts and answer any other questions you may have about what's happening in the home video realm.

Chaney has been writing her DVD column, "Bonus Points," for washingtonpost.com since 2003. Her DVD reviews also appear every Friday in the Post's Weekend section.

A transcript follows.

Related Content: DVD Holiday Gift Guide

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Jen Chaney: Hello, all. Looks a lot of you have Blu-ray-related questions, which is great. I am also happy to talk about good standard DVD options as well, so don't be afraid to ask those questions, too.

I'll also throw out a question of my own for the group: What's the worst DVD you ever received as a gift? As in, why the heck did this person purchase this for me? In my case, it was a very primitive copy of "Grease." Understood why the person thought I would want it, it was more that the DVD didn't have much content on it and the menu screens looked like they had been designed by someone with no technical skills whatsoever. Fortunately, there is a much nicer version of "Grease" available now, so that little Rydell High nightmare is behind me.

OK, let's chat...

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Alexandria, Va.: I have been shopping around for Blu-ray players and am confused. My research has led me to Best Buy and their house brand INSIGNIA as one of the better values dollar per dollar.......what do you think? What is the best comparison of these players?

Jen Chaney: I'll tell you, I spent a ludicrous amount of time researching this and changed my mind on which player to buy approximately 50 times.

I have heard the Insignia brand in general (can't speak to that particular player) is not bad. Personally, I checked out reviews on sites like CNET to get a real sense of which players were the best for the money. But I also considered which qualities were most crucial for my specific situation.

Since part of my job involves watching extras, I wanted a player that would load quickly, not require firmware upgrades and had a wireless (as opposed to an Ethernet) connection so I could easily get online and dig into BD-Live content. I ended up going with a PS3 for that reason.

If those issues are not prohibitive for you, there are definitely options you can find for $300 or less right now. Off the top of my head, there was a Panasonic and a Sony that I strongly considered before going with the PS3.

Best thing I can tell you to do is read up on some of the home entertainment sites, talk to friends who have Blu-ray, then bite the bullet and make a decision. Because if you're like me, you could spend months debating about the whole thing. Ultimately, you need to take the data you've gathered and just make the best decision based on budget, functionality, etc.

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Reston, Va.: I am a big fan of Blu-ray, but have a question about Blu-Ray players: Do they all take forever to go from standby mode to "operational"?

Or am I -- and my boss who has a different player -- just unlucky?

Jen Chaney: Blu-ray discs in general tend to load more slowly because they contain much more data. This is an issue with a lot of players, but some have much slower load times than others.

With the PS3, I haven't found the load times too outrageous. But I have heard and read that complaint from others, so for those who are looking to buy, definitely take that into consideration.

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Washington, D.C.: The lack of features and/or commentary on the "Dark Knight" DVD is exactly why I have not made the leap into Blu-ray. Or one of the reasons, most importantly being the price. I cannot for the life of me justify paying $300 for a Blu-ray player whose only real advantage is clearer picture.

Jen Chaney: You're not alone in that sentiment. For many people, given where the economy is, it simply doesn't make sense to invest money in a Blu-ray player at the moment. And I completely understand why.

That said, I think Blu-ray offers more than just clearer picture and better sound. The menu screens are much more dynamic and useful, especially for someone like me who is constantly clicking to see how much time has elapsed or how many other features I can cram in before, oh, say my son wakes up from his nap.

I think things like picture-in-picture commentary are great. I remember suggesting that DVD should have this years ago, and Blu-ray finally makes that possible. And there are other little features too -- I know I'm a geek, but I'm a fan of bookmarking -- that make Blu-ray a better experience.

But, as

I said in this video

, you have to know how you are. Some people really geek out on this stuff and spend hours watching extra features on DVD. (Um, hand raised!) Other people don't care about that content at all and just want to watch the movie a couple of times and that's it. For the latter group, Blu-ray probably doesn't make sense because they'll rarely utilize the functionality that makes it worthwhile.

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Washington, D.C.: Jen - I was thinking of picking up "Mamma Mia!" for my mom this Christmas. Will the joy it brings to her outweigh the looks of death from my dad? We went to the theater to see it and she loved it, this way she can sing along and not annoy the person next to her.

Jen Chaney: Well, she can sing along and not annoy the person next to her, as long as that person is not your dad.

I think you should buy it for your mom if she loved it that much. The DVD actually has a sing-along option that puts the lyrics on the screen during the movie, so she can even sing along ACCURATELY.

Just get your dad tickets to a game or a movie or something so he can get out of the house during your mom's Abba-fests. That seems fair, right?

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Blu-Ray slowness: Yes, slow, slow slow.

When I first got mine I could hardly use it since I'd hit the remote on and wait and hit it again thinking I hadn't aimed it right and of course I turned it on then off.

Finally got used to the leisurely pace.

Jen Chaney: Oh, that stinks. That would drive me nuts.

I suppose you can adjust to anything, but a technological upgrade -- especially one that costs more money -- should not make for a less convenient experience than you had before.

If/when you have the cash or motivation, you may want to look into getting a different player. I think many of the companies have tried to work on the load time issue. And like I said, for me it's really not an issue at all. And I have no patience whatsoever. (Man, aren't I done answering this question yet? God, Chaney, you're taking too long!)

See what I mean?

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Gotham City: Got "The Dark Knight" on Blu-ray at 12:01 am this morning and watched it as soon as I got home and I gotta say, even though the IMAX version was incredible, the amount of detail you can see on the Blu-ray is nothing short of STUNNING. The makeup on The Joker's face has incredible texture, the colors POP, and you can actually see everything going on during the chase sequences!! Have you seen it yet? What do you think?

Jen Chaney: It is stunning, which is why I mostly recommended it. The featurettes on the stunts and technical effects are really interesting, too.

My quibble was with the BD-Live bugs, which Warner Bros. assured me over the weekend have been fixed. I haven't tried to re-register yet, but I will. Even if the registering is working now, I still think that's not the best experience. I shouldn't have to register on their Web site to get their content. I should be able to jump into that seamlessly while watching the Blu-ray disc. Maybe others disagree with me on that, but that's my opinion and I am sticking to it!

My other issue was that I really wanted to see some extras that talk about Heath Ledger's performance or his career. It's really hard to watch that movie and not think about how tragic it is that he's gone. I felt like the studio needed to acknowledge that somehow.

Anyhoo, I'm rambling. You can read

my whole review here

.

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Wilmington, N.C.: How does a 42" 1080i resolution plasma television perform playing blu-ray? Is it closer to 720p or 1080p in picture quality?

Jen Chaney: The best answer I can give is based on my own experience. My TV is a DLP with 720p, but I got an HDMI cable that (at least allegedly) upgrades the quality to 10801.

Personally, I noticed a definite difference in the picture quality. On a set like yours', you should see even more striking visuals. You will want an HDMI cable, though, to get the best image quality.

And by the way, don't fall for this notion that you have to spend $100 at a big box store to get the "proper" cable. You can find decent HDMI cables online that will do the job just fine and cost well under $50.

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The Caribbean: Am I alone in thinking that Blu-ray is kind of a scam? The technology isn't getting smaller, or cheaper, or more efficient than DVD. You're going from buying a disc and something to play it on ... to a disc and something to play it on.

Yes, picture and sound are likely better, but the picture and sound I get with DVD are already good enough for me (I can see all the wires in my old Jet Li movies that I couldn't see before). Call me when there's a REAL technological advance.

Jen Chaney: You totally aren't alone. Plenty of people think it's a scam and I understand where they're coming from.

I think more people will be willing to explore it if the prices drop. I also think the way content is presented on Blu-ray discs will influence the approach to disseminating content in general, even if we eventually download it all directly without using hard DVDs or discs at all. In other words, picture-in-picture commentary or BD-Live-style features may be here to stay, but may be delivered to us in different ways.

If you're happy with your Jet Li wires, then hey. Who am I to argue with that?

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Worst DVD: I bought myself a compilation of the Beverly Hillbillies for about $7 since the store was in bankruptcy.

But when I went to watch it, I found out that apparently there must have been some copyright battle over the theme song since each episode began and ended with some little musical ditty that was annoying beyond belief. I found it hard to watch the shows it was so bad.

Jen Chaney: Nice. Or rather, not nice.

Music rights are incredibly expensive, which is why this sort of thing happens occasionally. Although this seems particularly egregious. Not even playing the theme song to your own show? That's the best part of the "Beverly Hillbillies," for God's sake.

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Washington, D.C.: I rarely rent or watch/listen to CDs and DVDs and being techno-challenged, am looking for a simple, easy to install, inexpensive DVD recorder/player. One which will not be obsolete in a month or two. If it helps, I have an analog TV. Thanks for your help.

Jen Chaney: Question for you: Do you plan to upgrade to digital TV? (The big changeover to digital TV happens in February, as we've all been told ceaselessly for the past year.)

If you just want something basic, look at Consumer Reports or CNET and see what they recommend as the best value for a standard DVD player. Adding the recording element will raise the price, so ponder whether you really need to have recordability or not.

Consumer Reports may be a better resource for you since CNET can get a little techy and overwhelming. I can't tell you a specific make and model off the top of my head, but I've had a standard Toshiba player for a while that works just fine.

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Ellicott City, Md.: We got a PS3 a few months ago as a Blu-ray player. Blu-ray discs do look terrific, but regular DVDs on this machine look pretty good too! Upscaling DVD players might be a good option for people who don't want to buy Blu-ray yet. Also, I've noticed many Blu-ray discs have a lot of annoying previews at the beginning that can't be skipped. Is this more prevalent among Blu-rays than DVDs?

Jen Chaney: That's a great point. For some folks, just getting an HDMI cable and a better quality standard player will be a marked improvement, and one that costs a lot less.

As far as previews, so far, I haven't noticed that this is more prevalent. I find that sometimes on standard DVDs, but I usually find a way to get around them. If the menu bottom won't zip me away from them, I usually fast forward at x30 speed and that does the trick. It is annoying though.

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HDMI Cable: I bought an HDMI cable on Amazon for under $2. With shipping the cost was about $4.50. I borrowed my friends "Monster" cables and saw no difference. How "Monster" is still in business is beyond me. Isn't a digital signal a digital signal? Is there -any- difference?

Jen Chaney: I am not an ultra-tech expert, so please bear that in mind. But from what I have read and heard, there isn't enough of a difference to justify the mark-up.

Of course, I went to a certain store (two words, both start with B) and was all ready to buy my PS3. Then I saw the prices on the cables and got all confused because I swore they shouldn't cost that much. The staff member I talked to insisted that I needed a cable that cost at least $75 for Blu-ray and that I must have been mistaken. I said I thought my husband had seen some online that didn't cost that much.

Of course, he asked if I wanted to call my husband to make sure I knew what to buy. Which was so condescending. A lot of these clerks assume that if you're a woman, you don't have a clue about technology.

Bottom line, the whole thing does seem like kind of a scam.

_______________________

Fairfax, Va.: I have a 720P HDTV. Would I benefit from a blu-ray player, or is an upconverting DVD player adequate? I don't believe there's any way I can exceed 720P resolution on my set.

Jen Chaney: If you can't exceed that resolution and the image quality is your primary motivator, then it might make sense to upconvert and wait until you decide to get a new TV with 1080p, then go Blu-ray at that point.

But that's just my two cents.

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Music on DVDs: Music rights killed WKRP In Cincinnati - it kept it from being released on DVD for ages. And now that it has been released, all of the music played by the DJs has been replaced. For shame!

Jen Chaney: Hear, hear! I love me some "WKRP."

On the plus side, at least they kept the theme song on there. Otherwise, that would be a crime against humanity.

"Baby you and me were never meant to be, just maybe think of me once in a while ... I'm at WKRP in Cincinaaaatiiiii."

_______________________

Salt Lake City, Utah: 720p vs. 1080i

Just to clarify for you--if your set is 720p, that's the most resolution you can see on it. Sending over a 1080p or 1080i signal shouldn't make any difference versus a 720p signal: your tv only has so many pixels (720 vertical to be exact), so that's what you'll see. If you want more detail, you'll need to upgrade to a 1080p set, which is what most of them are nowadays.

Jen Chaney: Thanks for this, Salt Lake. I could swear that in the booklet for my TV, it said that an HDMI signal would give me the equivalent of a 1080i signal. Perhaps not a true signal, but an equivalent. Does this make sense to anyone else? By all means, tell me if I'm being a moron.

My husband is grasping onto this fact because the idea of buying a new set gives him the hives. But of course, when I realized that there was no way we could get 1080p, I was like, "Oh my God, we need a new TV!" Yeah, probably not going to happen right now.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Hello,

Thanks for the chat. I need this! I recently purchased a blue-ray disc player. I have NO Blue-ray CDs. I was told I can install a regular CD in this player and the movie quality would be great! Will it ruin my cd eventually? Do I need a special cord to took it up?

Jen Chaney: Are you asking whether you can play a standard DVD in a Blu-ray player? Yes, you can, but the quality will vary depending on your player. Not all Blu-ray players upconvert as well as others.

Regarding your other questions, as far as I know, you should not need a special cord and it should not have an adverse impact on your DVDs. Hope that helps!

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Washington, D.C.: Why are stores charging close to $30 for the "3-disc set"? And I put that in quotes because its 2 disc plus the digital copy. Complete rip-off.

Jen Chaney: Are you talking about "The Dark Knight" here? Digital copies have become increasingly common lately. It's great for people who know they'll always want every movie on their iPod or mobile device. But if you don't fall in that category, yeah, that extra disc is pretty much useless to you.

One sneaky thing I have noticed -- and I need to do further investigating here -- is that some of the studios are pricing their collector's editions really close to the cost of the Blu-rays. My theory is that this makes the Blu-ray look less cost prohibitive even though the standard retail hasn't changed much.

All I can say is, shop around. Online and in stores, I have come across DVDs that are priced at half of what the SRP is. So there are deals out there if you can track them down.

Okay, going to try to take a few more before I sign off. You guys have lots of great questions!

_______________________

Maryland: Regarding cables, everyone should bookmark monoprice.com

As long as it is in business I will never again by any cables or cable-related devices anywhere else. Very, very cheap and just as good as the rip-offs sold by BB.

Jen Chaney: Bingo, bongo, my friend. I looked at that site, too, and you're totally right.

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Washington, D.C.: How good are the features on the Wanted and Mummy 3 deluxe editions compared to the 1-disc? I've seen movies, like the Hulk where the 1-disc has the majority of the features the 2 disc set has, and for $7 cheaper.

Jen Chaney: I haven't had a chance to review those two yet. I am not sure either of those movies falls in the "keeper" category (obviously, that's a subjective thing) so I would think that going the cheaper route, especially if you haven't seen them, might be sensible.

But I stand eager to be corrected, as always.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Worst DVD gift was Moulin Rouge. How uplifting to watch a movie about someone dying from TB during the holidays.

Jen Chaney: Are you messing with me? I love "Moulin Rouge"! Love it!

Bring on Nicole Kidman and her raspy cough, that's what I say!

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Fremont, CA: I'm confused! Last week's chat w/Rob Pegoraro, the DVD v Blu-ray question was asked and he recommended DVD. Then this week-end a Don Lindich in a local newspaper pushed Blu-ray. Who is right about the future of these players?

Jen Chaney: Rob definitely doesn't think Blu-ray is worth it, as those of you who listened to last week's tech podcast may have heard him say during the segment I did on Blu-ray.

I have no idea what the future of these things are. I think we're still a little ways away from being a pure download culture. Some of us still like to hold tangible items, like DVDs and Blu-rays, in our hands. As I said before, I think the approach to creating Blu-ray content will influence the way "extra" content around movies and TV shows is created in the future. So in that sense I think it's important, regardless of its shelf life.

And to repeat myself again, I think your interest in what Blu-ray offers depends largely on your appetite for watching movies, TV shows, etc. Some people live for that stuff. And they are the ones who will enjoy it most.

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Grand Rapids, Michigan: Is there an obvious difference between 1080i vs. 1080p? In other words, does the naked eye really notice a difference? Do you really need a full HD TV (1080p) to "take full advantage" of the Blu-Ray picture quality?

Thanks much...

Jen Chaney: Well, being the rube that I am with a 780p TV, I even noticed a difference. So while diehards would say, no, you really need 1080 p to get the max benefit, I think most people would have a hard time discerning the difference between 1080i and 1080p.

But that's me. And I have notoriously bad vision.

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Reston, Va.: I just purchased a Blu-ray disc player. Other than "The Dark Knight," which was recommended in the Holiday Gift Guide, what are some other titles that show off Blu-ray's high-definition audio and video capabilities?

Jen Chaney: You know, I am just digging into Blu-ray myself, having just gotten my player six weeks ago or so.

I do recommend some other titles in the holiday guide, including "The Godfather" Collection, which is just gorgeous (especially I and II). I thought Disney did a very nice job with "Wall-E." I've also heard fab things about "Band of Brothers," which I mention in the guide as well. Also of note: The Criterion Collection is putting out its first series of Blu-rays next week, including classics like "The Third Man." If you're into classic films, those definitely may be worth your while.

I am sure there are other older Blu-ray titles worth exploring, too. I'm still playing with all this stuff myself. Fun, isn't it?

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DC: What are you hearing about title availability and price going forward? If every movie going forward, and preferably a ton of the DVD library, was available for, say, $5 to buy/$1/rent, I would be much more likely to take the plunge. I know the scale isn't quite there yet, but if the industry folks would price more aggressively, there would be a greater response than they think. Even folks with older TVs that can't possibly get a better picture will swear that the new format looks great.

Jen Chaney: The scale is definitely not there yet. But if this recession continues, the studios may have to get more and more aggressive about all this. Supposedly entertainment is a somewhat recession-proof industry, but given all the options out there, that's not necessarily the case anymore.

If the studios want to sell their products (and movies and TV shows are products, as well as art), then they may need to cut prices. $5 may be pushing it, but they should look at all options, for sure.

Unfortunately, I must head out now. Thanks so, so much for all your questions, and my apologies to those of you I could not answer. Maybe we can do this again sometime. Best of luck with your DVD and Blu-ray shopping, everyone!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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