The Best Blu-ray Disc Players: From Blu-Plate to Blu-Chip

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The State of Special Features

With the jump to Blu-ray, people expect more extras with their movies than gag reels and deleted scenes. That means taking advantage of the medium in new ways--and making BD-Live live up to the hype.

On last year's Blu-ray players, BD-Live was a premium feature. This year, it's still an option, but an increasingly less costly one; in fact, the majority of Blu-ray players coming out in 2009 support BD-Live. To do so, a player must have an ethernet connection for Internet connectivity, and at least 1GB of flash memory, either on board or via a USB flash drive.

Though BD-Live promises more interactivity and online connectivity, so far it has been off to a shaky start. Between the first BD-Live disc, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (released in April 2008), and others issued last fall, the features boiled down to a couple of lame Java games, access to barren message boards, additional downloadable clips that didn't make the cut for the disc, and--wait for it--trailers for other movies. Still awake?

Things started to change in the fall, though, such that BD-Live is maturing to the point that you might want to try it out. Over 20 titles have shipped with BD-Live content. Social networking looks like the studios' magic bullet: Disney and Pixar, for example, are going far to push their interactivity features. With the 50th-anniversary edition of Sleeping Beauty, Disney introduced Movie Chat, in which you text friends while watching the movie, and Movie Mail, in which you record a video message and embed it within a scene. Disney also offers access to an online trivia game, Movie Challenge; here, viewers compete in real time for Disney Movie Rewards points (credits toward discounted Disney gear). Wall-E offers all of those BD-Live features and heaps on even more, including four video games, a digital storybook, and fly-bys of the film's digital sets.

Warner has gotten into the act, too. On top of great additional clips, Batman: The Dark Knight provides user-generated picture-in-picture video commentaries. Just fire up your Webcam, and upload your two cents--and your impressive Bat-knowledge--to share with the world. The community screening feature lets you sync up with your buddies over the Net to watch a flick in tandem. The feature worked great recently for fans of the film who got to watch it with, and ask questions of, director Christopher Nolan (who apparently had to adjourn to the men's room twice during the chat).

Will any of this persuade people to sprint out to the store and buy a Blu-ray player? Probably not, but it might make connected-deck owners feel better about their purchase. (We'd like the ability to re-edit movies the way we see fit and finally make Star Wars: Episode One watchable.) In the meantime, other films offer interesting extras--even if you aren't interested in the film itself.

Some flicks, such as the video-game-inspired Max Payne, incorporate D-Box Motion control code. That's terrific if you happen to own a pricey piece of furniture with hydraulics programmed to lift and lower when synced with a player. Max Payne, along with a couple other recent titles such as Babylon A.D. and Wanted, also experiments with digital graphic novels embedded on the disc.

Many Blu-ray Disc movies offer all sorts of picture-in-picture bonus content. This capability, called Blu-ray Bonus View, is accessible on any player labeled as Blu-ray Profile 1.1 or Bonus View capable (Profile 2.0 models, commonly referred to as BD-Live players, can also handle Bonus View content).

The Bonus View content lets you get behind-the-scenes commentary and special effects breakdowns in a window. But some films offer a deeper look inside a movie's world. In Doomsday, for example, pop-up windows give you greater context, explaining factions and weapons as the movie unfolds. The technothriller Vantage Point combines the perspectives of all the characters in the film and follows their locations with an in-film heads-up display while you watch everything unfold.

It's still early in the life of Blu-ray discs--and the rollout of BD-Live--but one thing is for sure: The pristine picture and dazzling audio aren't the only things that will determine the future of the format. We expect to see more from BD-Live: All Twentieth-Century Fox titles, for example, now ship with a gateway to BD-Live functionality dormant on the disc. Whenever that studio so decides, it can launch extra features, even if they're just trailers for soon-to-be released films.

--Darren Gladstone

At a Glance
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