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Bond Blu-ray Trouble?
A Guest Editorial
by Stuart Galbraith IV

It's Saturday morning and I sit here with a mixture of high anticipation and utter dread about the new James Bond Blu-ray discs. High anticipation because all reports indicate they look absolutely spectacular in high-def -- and dread because there seems to be a very good chance at least some of them won't play properly, and perhaps not at all. Maybe they'll all play just fine, or maybe I'll be stuck with a player incapable of playing some of the very movies that motivated me into high-def in the first place.

I haven't received my copies yet (neither the two I'll be reviewing for DVD Talk, nor the rest which are on order and which were shipped out the same day via a major retailer). In the meantime though, I've been reading post after post on DVD Talk's Forum, over at AVS, HTF and elsewhere, where consumers are reporting the same kind of pervasive technical problems DVD Savant details in his review of Dr. No, and which Adam Tyner discusses in his look at the new Thunderball.

Although the discs have been on store shelves since Tuesday, DVD review sites generally have had little say on the matter thus far. One exception has been The Digitial Bits' post this past Friday, which says in part:

"Problems are being reported so far on Panasonic, Sony and Samsung units, but there's no real pattern emerging yet that we can see. Now, we have Panasonic's BD10, BD30 and BD50 players here at The Bits, and we're not having problems on any of them, however we've been very careful to make sure that the firmware on each is up to date. So the first thing I would suggest, if you're having troubles, is that you update your firmware ... You can also contact your manufacturer for update discs by mail if you're more comfortable with that, and those of you with profile 2.0 players connected to the Internet should be able to update your firmware via your player's menus. That should take care of some of the problems. A few people are still reporting problems even after having updated their firmware, so I suspect that a couple manufacturers are going to have to issue new firmware updates to deal with the issue. Be sure to contact your manufacturer's Blu-ray tech support people right away if you're having a problem, so they can quickly address it for everyone. We'll post updates here as we learn more."

I agree with one colleague's assertion that "this almost sounds like 'blame the victim' -- if these aren't working in your machine it's your own damn fault for not updating your firmware. Or the manufacturer for not making a new firmware update for you to add." Conspicuously absent from The Digital Bits' blame is Fox: Shouldn't they be making discs compatible with existing players?

Just a few weeks ago, many Disney fans were bitterly complaining about having to sign off on more than a hundred pages of legal documents just to access the BD-Live features on Sleeping Beauty. Meanwhile, I had my own problems with Fox's Omen Collection, which required a similar upgrade before it would play three out of the four discs. The problem was further complicated by the fact that I live in Japan, use a Japanese Blu-ray player (a Panasonic DMR-BR100) and my Japanese isn't up to technical jargon needed in phone calls to Panasonic's tech support. Even so it took my (Japanese) wife several tries (and call backs from them) before we were directed to the proper download. We had to burn a CD and then insert it into the player and wait for about 20 minutes for it all to upload into the player. To put it delicately, it was a colossal pain in the ass.

It really boils down to two basic issues:

1. Any Blu-ray disc from a major label should play correctly on any major label player, period. In this case, the problems clearly aren't limited to one brand or one specific problem, but most brands, and major and varied problems -- perhaps irresolvable in some cases. Call me crazy, but I don't think I should have to drive over to my friend's house every time I want to watch Live and Let Die, as appears to be Glenn Erickson's case, all because the disc plays fine on one machine but not at all on the other. I just don't see how this wasn't discovered ahead of approval, replication, and distribution without Fox's Quality Control Department totally screwing up on an epic scale. After all this is going to cost them a lot of money, too. It's not as if these were minor catalog releases, but pretty much the cream of MGM's crop. Based on what I've been reading, had Fox simply tested its discs in a variety of consumer-level players they would have realized there was a problem within ten minutes.

2. Blu-ray consumers shouldn't be expected to take on the role of Blu-ray player repairmen - troubleshooters. When you buy a new car, companies like GM and Toyota don't expect customers to download instructions on how to fix their own carburetors when they, the manufacturers, screw up their design. When I first heard about firmware, I expected it to be, maybe, a one-time thing as the technology improved, a way to give your player a "tune-up" down the road -- not a means for manufacturers/labels to continually dodge culpability because they want to rush product out before it is ready.

This is really about an imperfect technology being rushed into a competitive marketplace while software labels push the technology to the limit with their bells and whistles in an effort to distinguish it from SD DVD. And yet, along the way, the basics are being ignored on an almost comically inept level. In the case of the 007 Three-Packs as well as Fox's The Omen Collection, the badly designed packaging is getting crushed, discs are falling off their cheap rubber hubs and getting scratched, horribly, the menus screens are confusing and badly designed (compare these to Warner Home Video's easy-to-use high-def menus). Now there are reports that even trailers and other material specifically remastered in high-definition for use on the Bond titles were ignored during the authoring stage and, in many cases, older, standard-def masters of the same material were used instead.

But, getting back to the larger issue: What percentage of DVD player owners thinking about upgrading to Blu-ray (like the ubiquitous Joe the Plumber?) will on their own even be able to deal with this kind of nonsense? 10%? It'll never be a mainstream format with compatibility and firmware issues like these.

Blu-ray hard- and software companies are really underestimating a palpable frustration factor. When you insert a disc and it doesn't play and you don't know why, fiddling with technology you're unfamiliar and uncomfortable with -- and uncertain that what you're doing is even going to fix the problem -- this is a HUGE turn-off. It's also incredibly time-consuming and even costly. I doubt Fox is going to pay for your gas when you have to drive back to Best Buy to return the 007 discs, or for my time when I'm on the phone to my retailer.

People started complaining about this problem about a week ago, and Fox probably knew something was wrong before that, yet to date they've made no public statement. No "We're aware of the problem and are looking into it, but promise to fix it at no cost."

I think this is too big an issue for Fox to ignore for very long, but there's also a history of labels telling consumers to Go Fish when they screw up. Remember those unplayable dual-layered, double-sided discs Universal had manufactured in Mexico, used on a number of early TV show and multi-film releases? They never owned up to that problem, and consumers were stuck with DVDs that refused to play in their machines.

20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment and MGM need to address this problem immediately. They should plainly acknowledge that it exists and work with manufacturers to answer player-specific questions from consumers, "walking them through" the firmware process step-by-step if need be, until each case is resolved. If there are irresolvable compatibility issues, they should at no cost to the consumer recall the discs and replace them with ones that will work properly. In every player.

October 25, 2008

Note: Here come the emails from readers, correspondents, and Stuart himself with some names withheld for lack of permission. Please let me know if I can use your names, O generous readers:

Oct 24:

Reader #1: Posted late yesterday on The Digital Bits: "One other quick note: A number of readers have e-mailed us to report that Sony has informed them that a firmware update will be issued some time next week to correct the Bond Blu-ray playback problems reported earlier. We suspect other manufacturers will follow suit, so stay tuned."

Reader #2: That sounds promising but it doesn't defuse the basic problem pointed out by Stuart ... why are these stupid problem fixes happening on our time and our dime, instead of Fox's and Sony's and whoever's?

Reader #1: Because for Fox to fix the problem would cost THEM money. This way the burden of the fix is on YOU! Really, Glenn, in these difficult times you need to be more supportive of corporate America! Do your part by installing your own firmware update, rather than making outrageous demands, like asking companies to make products that work properly right out of the box!

Reader #4: Yeah, Glenn! People derive employment from this stuff! I think it's in McCain's Economic Recovery Plan!

I'm glad to hear that Sony may going to fix it, but I suppose this means I'll have to request a CD again, and wait for it to arrive. Ah, well, I've got nothing better to do, and it's not as if I'm dying to watch these Bond films every hour until that happens. BUT----it's still a nuisance, and think of how many customers this will involve.

Reader #3: If Fox was Kaiser Permanente, they'd have us all doing our own rectal exams!

Reader #1: Don't give them ideas!

Jerry Woodring: I have all three of the new Bond discs on Blu-ray. They ALL play perfectly, features and supplements on my Panasonic BD30.

Lynn Lascaro: Hi Glenn -- I was checking for your Saturday Post since last night and am intrigued, to say the least, by the Blu-ray topic! You're playing my song. Do you know that I call Denon so often about updates on BD issues that I should be on the payroll? I also wander the night like the Whistler through internet BD blogs and I also see many things:

This problem is everywhere. People have issues with all players and discs, new and old. Lack of standardization in BD is the main cause. DVD behaved (with the Forum) and we had a user friendly format. They (techs and Denon) claim that things should smooth out after the studios get tired of making Tricky Discs. You see, in this, the manufacturers of the players blame the manufacturers of the discs and vice-versa; regardless of who owns the company.

Stuart's editorial was excellent and should get more exposure and be sent as an open letter to all who give us the BD blues. Hey, if we didn't like them, we wouldn't care; but remember your old 'hot dog vendor' axiom. Thanks to you both and if I repeated anything you said, I do need to re-read the whole thing. As soon as I saw it, I exploded. -- Lynn Lascaro

PS- I just re-checked Dr. No and had none of the issues you all seem to be having. My Denon seems to tap to a different bummer.

Jerry Woodring: I agree, ALL discs should work RIGHT out of the box. I don't recall any of my 1,663 standard DVDs not playing right out to the box. I personally feel Hi Def was put on the market too soon.

Marc Szeftel: Hi Glenn, Thanks for including the guest editorial by Stuart Galbraith about the Bond BD issues. I think he said it all. I have an older player (a Sony BDP-S1), and of course when I tried to play Dr. No, it wouldn't load. I tried Die Another Day, which loaded but locked up before it got to the menu. I decided that I probably needed another firmware update and ordered it from Sony.

Now that I've heard all the problems that others are having, I'm skeptical that this firmware update will work. If Fox does not address the issue, a lot of people will be stuck with unplayable discs, and this will be a major public relations problem for FOX. (Too bad it won't get people to stop watching FOX News...)

October 26

Dick Dinman: Hey Glenn, Happy to report that I've experienced zero problems with any of the Bond Blu-rays on my firmware updated Panasonic BD-50 though I must admit my first reaction to those menus was similar to Robert Hays' astonished Airplane triple-takes when first confronted with that mile-long cockpit control panel. Of my sixty-plus Blu-rays only one wouldn't play: Starship Troopers.

Malcolm: I'm sure Blue-ray looks absolutely great, but I've learned in the past that pioneers always get scalped.

Jon Lidolt: Hi Glenn, Just picked up my blu-ray version of Dr. No and am having problems playing this disc on my Samsung BD-1200. I'm just glad to read that I'm not alone in this, but it's still annoying. After 4 firmware upgrades I've been able to play every Blu-ray title I own except for this new MGM/Fox release. Fox should replace all of our defective discs without question. If they don't, that'll be the last Fox title (Blu-ray or standard DVD) that I buy. They've obviously goofed big time.

October 27

Reader #5: Glenn, I'm a regular reader, and I was very glad to see the article about the problems with the recent Bond Blu-ray releases. I agree with the point that centers on Fox being the problem. I can't imagine that they author these discs without trying them on numerous consumer Blu-ray players of various ages to make sure they actually play. A central "law" in the Blu-ray format, from the beginning, was/is that the movie should play on all Blu-ray players no matter what features were sunsequently added to the format. Fox has ignored the "always play" clause numerous times (the Die Hard discs and Speed are other examples). It seems that they feel that they can do whatever they wish, and then let the hardware makers solve their own carelessness for them. If I were a hardware maker, I'd tell Fox to fix their own problem, but, alas, the hardware people actually want the format to be successful, so they rush-out and write firmware updates to satisify the people who purchased their respective players. I'd make everyone return the Bond discs to Fox, and make Fox mail back Blu-ray discs that meet specifications and actually play on all players!.

Phil Smoot: As to the James Bond Blu-ray playback/playable troubles, add one more note -- The "free movie cash" ticket (attached to the Bond movie Blu-ray disc cover of the new releases) to see the new Bond movie (Quantum of Solace) was stuck to the cardboard on the Blu-rays at Circuit City stores (and, likely, other stores), and, when you tore off the sticker to get your password on the back (that would allow you to enter the code on the Internet and download/print your movie cash ticket), the number was unreadable.

I tested this in the store (and the sticker was totally destroyed as I tried to remove it from the cardboard cover -- And, attempting to remove the sticker also screwed up the cardboard cover). Before I made a purchase of the Blu-ray of Live and Let Die, the clerk at the store kindly tore a readable sticker from a standard def (Bond) dvd movie so that I could use that one.

To add (and you may print with my name), I have had the first Sony Blu-ray player since its release in December of 2006, and I think the firmware update issue is outrageous. Do you have to be leading edge to make these players work? As far as Blu-ray is concerned, I am about as leading edge as it gets for a consumer, but the general public will not understand nor accept this nonsense. The public does not want to figure out this garbage -- Like me, they just want the movie to play the first time and every time you put it in the machine.

Mike Smith: I read your column about Blu-ray player/disk problems, and the letters responding to the column. Those people saying there were no problems with early DVDs must not have gotten into it soon enough. I remember internet lists of disk and player combinations that would not play properly -- though I had only one troublesome disk (The Big Chill). Anyway, it is unfortunate all this is happening again with Blu-ray, but it has happened before.

Bill Warren: I have a Samsung BD P-1000. There are now many Blu-ray discs it will not play, even after the most recent upgrades. I didn't buy the Bond set, but I did buy the restored Godfather set, movies I really love. I even like III, though, of course, not as much as the first two.

They will not play on my machine.

I called Samsung about this, and talked to a technician who actually seemed to be right here in the U.S.; at least he spoke American English. To my amazement, this was the first call he got about the Godfather problem; he was very regretful, admitting that yes, they were certain to get hundreds, maybe thousands, of complaints about this particular set of movies being unplayable on their machines. I told him I had installed the most recent upgrade; he said that yes, it wouldn't work on the Godfather movies -- and that Samsung didn't plan any further upgrades/updates.

David Valentini: Glenn, Blu-ray players have more in common with PC's than with DVD players of old. PC's require constant attention to make sure the operating system and client software is kept current and this is usually in the form of a software download which is a user requirement. I'm not sure which brand of BR player he has but many of the manufacturer's offer free discs to perform the updates rather than trying to navigate to a tech site and download the update to a blank DVD. This can be a challenging task for those who have never done it before! I have the original Sony BDP-S1 which I purchased in December, 2006 and I have received at least a dozen discs from Sony since then to ensure I have the latest firmware updates (what started out as V1.0 is now V4.8!!). I just pop the disc in, and it updates in about 10 to 15 minutes. I suspect that technical types will see this as just a matter of routine for their players while those less technically inclined will "just want the damn player to work" 100% of the time regardless of the title or studio. Unfortunately, that is just not the case as this technology is still evolving and is infinitely more complex than standard DVD. The game-plan could also all change once downloadable movies become widely available (and they are coming!) that equal or exceed BR capability. The current ones do not hold a candle to Blu-ray.

My other thought on this which you could pass on to Stuart is that there are some of us around (myself included) who DO NOT like all the BD Live, PIP and Java enhanced features which cause the load times to get longer and longer and cause all of these problems in the first place. Original Blu-rays worked right out of the gate for the first year and just loaded and played and still included bonus material and featurettes. I almost wish the studios would just offer the bare bones version of the BR title for those who only want the movie and not all the other features for the ADHD crowd, sort of how like the DVD Superbit versions did against regular DVD a few years back. Thanks.

October 28

Lynn: Glenn! Just reread Galbraith's manifesto and it hits every spot. I mostly want to add that where my Denon 2500 had no problems with the Bond BDs, it does have issues with discs that few complain about. This indicates across-the-board confusion. My problems seem to come from user-friendly WB and New Line, and are audio issues that most users do not notice because they don't have a receiver or an understanding of the sound options that are offered. Disney's Kill Bill Pt1 is their only problem disc that will not play. WB and New Line are my biggest problems; mostly sound issues with WB's TruHD and NewLine's 7.1. Add on the fact that upgrades don't work on Mac. My Denon 2500 player and I have been waiting months for an upgrade that (they feel) can be done properly by a Denon tech only. I wait, because after I get the upgrade, it will be only a week or a few days before I need another one for a new snappy disc. I just bought The Matrix Pricey Set only to find that it will need an upgrade to play the TruHD track, like Batman Begins and other WB transfers from HDDVD. I had a bad feeling about it before I bought it. I'm starting to get a bad feeling about buying more Blu-Ray discs. Grrrrr

Marc S.: Hi Glenn. Just FYI ... Dr. No plays on my BDP-S1. But that's the only one.

For Your Eyes Only and Live and Let Die load the menu, but the movie won't start. Thunderball, From Russia With Love, and Die Another Day can't load the menu.

As far as I know there is no fix for this as yet. I wrote Sony an e-mail including the conversation about Profile 1.0, but they just replied saying it was too complicated to deal with by e-mail and that I should call them.

I'll keep you posted. At least I got to watch Dr. No! And it really does look great!

November 1

Dave Erickson: I found Stuart Galbraith and David Valentini's comments on Bond Blu-ray firmware updates very interesting. The source of this Blu-ray firmware update fiasco is a digital distribution war currently being fought by content providers over how movies and TV are delivered to your home theater and personal computers. All sorts of tech companies are currently trying to scratch and claw a corner in the digital distribution market. While I can sympathize with the difficulty of updating these Blu-ray devices, I think it is worth taking a moment to remember how we got into this strange position.

The reason a Blu-ray player requires constant firmware updates is because the format standard is constantly being changed and the players have to be updated in turn to keep pace. The Blu-ray format is evolving to do the following:

To add features and capabilities to stay competitive.

To enhance the security of the devices and media.

Adding features is necessary because, like almost all software products, Sony let Blu-ray out the door before they were 100% finished, with the plan of improving it as they go. Sony is forced to improve Blu-ray on the fly because of competitive market pressures. Delaying the months it would take to add all the planned features would have given HD-DVD a huge advantage. Additionally Blu-ray will have to add features from competing technologies that consumers respond well to.

Continually enhancing the security of Blu-ray is necessary to combat content piracy. DVD copy protection is essentially the same today as it was at the beginning of the format. The failure of DVD copy protection is that, once broken, DVD producers had no way to release a disc without having it instantly uploaded to the internet by pirates. By constantly changing and a updating the security software, Blu-ray impedes software pirates long enough for Sony to make more money.

Every digital electronic media device we will buy from 2008 onward is not just "like a PC", it is a PC. These things have operating systems, connect to the Internet, and are made from the exact same hardware components as your laptop or desktop computer. These incredibly complex hardware/software products are sold to us at a loss by companies hoping to make back their money by selling us expensive digital content in the form of discs, downloads, and subscription fees. Almost every piece of electronic equipment I touch has a company behind it trying to sell me content on-demand! The iPod wants me to buys songs, TiVo lets me buy movies from Amazon.com, and the X-Box lets me buy video games without going to a store. Don't even get me started with Amazon's electronic book reader, Kindle!

The failure of Blu-ray is that they have not made their firmware updates invisible to the consumer. Other companies with smaller markets and only one brand of hardware have avoided this problem but Sony appears to be stumbling. PC's require constant user installed updates, but your Macintosh does not. Your Mac updates itself from the Internet every two weeks or so. Because Apple controls 100% of your hardware, unlike the "IBM-compatible", the user doesn't even have to get involved. Sony has another device that requires firmware updates called the Playstation Portable (PSP). Even though a PSP can connect to the Internet, firmware updates are delivered on the video game discs themselves. When you start up a game for the first time, it checks to see if your firmware is new enough and updates it if necessary. PSP can do this because there is only one hardware player, unlike Blu-ray players which come in all size and shapes from multiple manufacturers.

Signing up for update discs to be mailed to you sounds like the only workable solution. That there are customers who are not getting these discs automatically sounds like another failure on the part of Sony. The story on your website about having to agree to a hundred-page end-user-license agreement to watch a Disney cartoon was hilarious. It reminds me of your story about Rebeca, at two years of age, being able to turn audio cassettes to their second side. Those days may well be over. -- Dave Erickson

© Copyright 2008 Stuart Galbraith IV
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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