The key component we were keen to test was inevitably the Blu-ray drive, particularly as on Monday 16th October we were able to pick up an actual Region B Blu-ray movie. Spode bought this from HMV in Covent Garden. There were no discs actually on view on the shop floor though - he had to specifically ask for them, then a member of staff had to dig around in the stock room to find one. Not exactly a stallar retail launch one might say! The disc we picked up was S.W.A.T - we're really sorry about that, but it honestly was the best of a bad bunch. Obviously the Blu-ray launch was all about image quality, rather than film quality.
Putting this in the drive and firing it up for the first time was actually quite exciting - the first time that we had all the components for watching Blu-ray together in the lab. I immediately realised though that there was no way of playing this from within Media Center - it just won't recognise the disc. To play a Blu-ray disc you need to use dedicated software that can handle the HDCP part of the AACS encryption standard and Media Center can't do this at present. I contacted Microsoft about this and it confirmed to me that there will be a plug-in for Vista that at the very least will let you launch an external application, such as InterVideo when you try to play a Blu-ray disc from inside MCE. It will then return you to Media Center after you’ve finished. For now though, to play the movie from the sofa you'll have to pick up the keyboard - although at least it's wireless.
The software supplied is InterVideo WinDVD BD for VAIO, a rather convoluted title. On first attempt we got a region code error message. I then went into the software and selected Region B. Restarting the software, the disc then played but with strange graphical corruption. Restarting the PC sorted this and although the problem didn't reappear it was a ratter ignominious start.
At first I attached the Sony to a 1,366 x 768 resolution 32in LCD TV. Though it was not a very good one I could still immediately discern the increased detail and resolution in the picture over DVD. It was as clear as day to me, but actually not everyone in the office could make this out or was impressed by it. In fact many were as under-whelmed as I was when I first saw Blu-ray at the launch of the Samsung player last month. Unfortunately, we didn't have S.W.A.T on DVD to compare to but we did put a DVD in for a reference. While Blu-ray gives more detail in the close ups it’s the increased depth of field that is most marked - you can make out detail in the backgrounds that would just be a mush on DVD.
I then hooked up a Dell 2407 24in screen that let me see the full 1080 lines of resolution. There was again a step up but the overall experience was marred by grain and noise. In terms of immediacy the quality was not as impressive as the lush samples you see demoed in stores with super detailed close ups of flowers. There was also a hint of the system struggling with the frame rate at times. While overall it wasn’t perfect, there was a discernable step up from DVD, so that’s something. It's also worth remembering that this is all first generation stuff, both hardware and software.