Blu-ray is the current consumer optical media format, the successor to Laserdisc and DVD, developed in the mid-2000s concurrently with the mainstream rise in High Definition content (Laserdisc had several Japan-only experimental HD titles via MUSE in the mid 90's, but it obviously never caught on because HDTV was nowhere near mainstream yet even in Japan and Laserdisc was already an incredibly niche format compared to VHS to begin with). It was introduced by the Blu-ray Disc Association, an industry consortium which includes Sony, Philips, Apple, Panasonic and many others. The discs are the same physical size as a DVD, but have a capacity of 25 gigabytes per layer, large enough for a feature-length film stored at 1080p, with enough leftover space for additional features and extras. The Blu-ray format was used for the games discs for the Playstation 3, and for a time the game console was the cheapest Blu-ray player on the market, a factor that helped overcome some of the objections to its high price point. Blu-Ray eventually won the format war between it and Toshiba's HD-DVD format to become the only consumer-facing high-definition optical disc format.
The format's name comes from the blue-colored laser used to read the optical disc. The blue laser used has a shorter wavelength than the red ones used for DVD players (and infrared for CDs), and which allows for more data across the disc. However, the increase in available storage space comes with a drawback - the read and seek speeds of Blu-ray are sluggish in comparison to DVD, which leads to frustratingly long load times for games. While the load problem is not as noticeable during movies, where the data placement on a disc is more linear, a movie disc still requires a noticeable loading time to generate the navigation menus.
Even 10 years after the format's introduction, due to its lack of adoption in settings outside the home (like in portable devices or car theater systems), many movies are released as a 'combo pack' that contains both a Blu-ray and a DVD. Many also include a code for a digital copy, redeemable either via Apple's iTunes or through systems like UltraViolet and Movies Anywhere, which allow any content purchased on one digital service to be viewable on others.
Blu-rays were expected to replace DVDs as the standard home video format, which Sony happily claimed would be a Curb-Stomp Battle, but the takeover isn't really panning out due to a variety of factors:
- Blu-Rays require a high-definition television, which in turn requires an HDMI cable, both of which are needed to enjoy the improved picture, and during the first few years of Blu-ray, HDTVs weren't very common-place, and many viewers didn't want to replace their existing Standard Def televisions sets in their house with a wider, bigger, and more costly HDTV. While watching a Blu-Ray via a Standard Def TV usually shows a small improvement over DVD and Laserdisc due to the downscaling effect, many consider it not seeing the hassle in upgrading.
- Depending of the quality of the content, HDTVs could also serve to make lower-quality images more obvious, making an image soft and making things like film grain or poor audio mastering more evident to the viewer (To be fair to Blu-Ray, this was also an early complaint of DVDs). You know those comments on heavily pixellated games saying how they look better in lower quality? That runs on the same principle. If a movie wasn't shot in HD, it won't play any better anyway. Older films can transfer to HD well due to the detail level of film stock, but film grain becomes more obvious in products shot on smaller stock like 8mm or 16mm. And many series created for standard-def television don't qualify either, being shot on 480 videotape (this issue is primarily an extra-American one; in the US, most shows produced before the digital cinematography boom were shot on 35mm film). Animation is a particularly prominent example as well: while a proper remaster can greatly benefit cel-animated works (as they're drawn with ink & paint and shot on film), Sturgeon's Law causes others to suffer; digitally animated shows and movies suffer even more, being limited by pixel count without proper upscaling & smoothing. For many consumers, these technical limitations made them feel as if they were being 'pushed' towards Blu-ray, then seeing it as a natural technological improvement. note
- Many consumers feel that Blu-rays are not that significant of a technical upgrade from DVDs, not on the level as CDs were an upgrade from cassettes or LPs, heck, from VHS to DVD. And if a film was shot and subsequently mastered carefully, many DVDs hold up fairly well when "upconverted" by high-definition televisions, especially on smaller-sized televisions that are 42" or below, where the detail to screen size ratio comes into play.
- Many people interested in HDTVs and Blu-ray early on didn't realize the additional accessories they might need to get to see its benefit. Composite cables (the red/white/yellow 'RCA' cables older TV sets, DVD players, Laserdisc players and VCRs used) don't work with High Def content, and so newer Component, Optical, or HDMI cables were required. It's fair to point out, for maximum compatibility, most Blu-Ray players still have analog 'RCA' connectors attached as they still function like DVD players, and for backwards compatibility with older TVs.
- Taking advantage of the newer 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound formats available (an area where Blu-ray really shines in comparison to DVD and Laserdisc, due to its improved data capacity) usually requires upgrading your sound system - and a good receiver during Blu-Ray's early days could cost upwards of US$400-500. The poor timing of the Great Recession in 2008 (just two years after Blu-ray's introduction) didn't help matters either. And lastly, you'd need the physical room for any new equipment, and to take the time to set it up and calibrate it correctly. Taken altogether, it all created a learning curve for many consumers that wasn't worth the hassle.
- DVD was (and still is) easy and cheap to convert a movie to for any studio, even the smaller ones, as well as for shooting on. By the time Blu-Ray showed up, pretty much all films were on DVD, while Blu-Ray's range was far more limited, and everything that was released on Blu-Ray was released on DVD anyway. A DVD could hold a DVD Commentary already, the bonus content that Blu-Ray could hold simply wasn't being taken advantage of and when it was, the average consumer wasn't really looking for ten hours of extra content anyway.
- On an aesthetic level, DVD cases were a huge leap from VHS Tapes - it was a shiny new disc as opposed to a cartridge. You could store twice as many DVDs as videos on a single shelf. Blu-ray didn't have this advantage, as DVDs and Blu-Ray cases looks pretty-much identical to the average joe, and only differ from DVD by their Blue casing and the case being about 1/3rd smaller in height.
- Unlike with DVD, support among computer manufacturers has been much lower. While Blu-ray readers/recorders are available, they tend to be more expensive than DVD drives, if they're offered by computer manufacturers at all. With the abandonment of physical media by consumers in favor of downloads and streaming and USB drives used for OS (re)installation, many computer makers are omitting optical drives altogether.
- Lastly, the rise in popularity of online video sales, as well as video streaming websites such as Netflix, has curtailed much of Blu-ray's potential growth, as many consumers are eschewing physical media altogether, which makes physical media like DVD and Blu-Ray essentially like the best horse-drawn buggy in what's becoming an automobile world. In response to this, and to compete with streaming boxes like Roku or AppleTV, most Blu-ray players have at least some internet television capability to access content providers like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Blip, Crackle and others. Also, Blu-ray discs are still usually anywhere between 25% - 50% higher in cost compared to an equivalent DVD copy, often a turn-off for those who want to switch to the new format (US$13 for a DVD copy, US$20 for a Blu-Ray copy). For these reasons, the appeal of Blu-ray is mostly limited to videophiles and audiophiles for the better picture and sound quality over streaming, collectors who like having physical copies of movies, and people stuck on dial-up who can't access streaming services at all (which is a surprisingly high number, mainly in rural areas).
As time has gone on however, Blu-ray has matured. HDTVs are now very common in households, and pretty much all current media is shot in HD or above. From a distribution standpoint, DVDs are still significantly cheaper to mass-produce, but Blu-Ray isn't that much more expensive, which is why movie studios print both. Many older films (such as the original, non-George Lucas Altered Version cuts of the original Star Wars trilogy) are still only officially available on DVD. However, as quality up-converting of older content becomes easier and cheaper, and creating HD content becomes easier (even most cellphones shoot at a level of HD quality now), and demand for back-catalog films increase, Blu-ray should continue to see improved adoption. note
On the technical side, Blu-ray, like DVD, can use region codes (there are only 3, compared to DVD's 7) but most mainstream titles are mastered region-free, and even if a disc is region-locked, Japan and America are in the same region, Region A, meaning that Japanese discs (like hard-to-find anime titles, and rare high-end boxsets that cater to the Asian market) are fully compatible with US players and vice-versa. Region B is for the EU, and Region C is for Russia and the parts of Asia west of the Far East.
Another unique feature of Blu-Ray is "BD-Live", where discs can be updated via an internet connection to access additional content. Most of the feature's use, however, has been to provide discs with updated trailers from the studio (thus averting one of the major issues with both VHS tapes and DVDs, in that the previews would become quickly outdated).
In 2009, the Blu-Ray 3D extension was introduced, allowing stereoscopic movies to be released on Blu-Ray discs. 3DTVs and Blu-Ray 3D compatible players were introduced into the market after CES 2010, and Sony added Blu-Ray 3D support onto the PlayStation 3 with firmware 3.5 later that year. However, 3DTVs proved to be a gimmick, and sales steadily declined annually. Common complaints include how the active glasses used with most 3DTVs induced eye fatigue due to the rapid flickering caused by the shutters, or how images on "Cinema-3D" TVs look blur and dark, and sometimes had crosstalk. Autostereoscopic LCD TVs that uses lenticular refractions like that of the Nintendo 3DS proved to be too expensive to be produced in large sizes and had too narrow a viewing angle to be practical outside of specialized use note , having the same crosstalk issue as "Cinema-3D" TVs if the viewer sits outside of the optimum viewing angle. As a result, the format sold poorly, and many companies have considered pulling support for the format. Even Disney, an enthusiastic supporter of Blu-Ray 3D in its early years, showed contempt at the format in the later years and scaled back releases considerably. Another notable detractor, Paramount, would go so far as to deny their worst performers anything more than a Vanilla Edition for the format, which included giving such films as the Ben Hur remake and Monster Trucks 2D-only and 1080p-only releases.note
In 2011, LG filed a lawsuit against Sony in a patent war regarding certain patents related to Blu-ray technology, going so far that LG tried to get the PS3 banned outside of Japan. Insiders thought it was an Evil Plan by LG to create an illegal monopoly on the Blu-ray industry, as evidenced by LG choosing not to re-sign a joint licensing agreement and pressing the Sony lawsuit. However, the suit was eventually settled, and as time has gone on, having a monopoly on Blu-ray technology has shown to be less meaningful. note
Unlike DVD where there were only two movies on launch day for the format, Blu-ray launched with seven filmsnote that can all lay claim to being the "first Blu-ray title". However, there are considerably fewer films now out on Blu-ray than there are on DVD, and there is not a single film on Blu-ray that cannot be bought on DVD — Blu-ray only boasts 'special editions'. In an attempt to push the format further, studios have been putting the bulk of their special features on Blu-rays, sometimes even things as basic as commentaries, and have been including DVD copies (such as with Frozen and Doctor Who: The Movie) to give more of an incentive/alternative for those who've considered upgrading, but are still stuck with a DVD player for their own reasons; however, this is still showing limited effectiveness.
As there was with CDs and DVDs, some variants of Blu-ray discs exist. Hybrid discs that contain both a game (playable via a PS3 only) and video (playable by any Blu-ray player) have been released, but only a handful exist (most are related to anime titles like the Macross franchise). Record labels like Universal have created a hybrid Blu-ray disc called PureAudio, using Blu-Ray's higher capacity to create an audio-only disc, that includes both surround and high-bitrate stereo mixes (and some videos), but like its older cousin DVD-Audio, it too has yet to catch on.note
There are also a handful of Blu-Rays that are in standard definition - these are always explicitly pointed out as SD on the box. These are usually done by concert videos to take advantage of the superior audio quality and by television series that cannot be remastered in HD to take advantage of the format's storage capacity and fit every episode on far fewer Blu-Ray discs than DVDs. (For example, Discotek Media released the complete Samurai Pizza Cats - 52 episodes of 25 minutes each - as a DVD boxset of eight discs and as a single Blu-Ray disc.)
Two contenders in The Eighth Generation of Console Video Games, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, use Blu-ray as their physical storage medium and support playback of Blu-ray movies, while the Wii U used a disc format that is essentially Blu-ray with the Serial Numbers Filed Off to save money on licensing fees, much like previous Nintendo consoles did with DVD. All three also have an emphasis on Digital Distribution, however, so whether gamers will prefer to stick with physical copies or embrace downloading games from the Internet will determine the future of the format in the games market.
With the advent of 4K televisions (which can display a resolution of up to 4096×2160, compared to an HD television's max of 1920×1080), a new wave of Blu-ray media and players have begun to see market in the Spring of 2016. Branded 'UltraHD', an initial wave of discs from 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. (including titles such as The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road) and players from Samsung and Panasonic were be the first to use the updated format.note Similarly to how Blu-ray releases of films often include a DVD copy, UltraHD releases typically include a standard Blu-ray copy. One snag of moving to 4K resolution is that a large percentage of film and TV were never mastered in 4K and are merely upscaled, leading to labels like "Real and Fake 4K".