Firmware over the rainbow, Blu-rays fly - but why, tell me why can't they play first time?

Having apparently learned nothing from 10+ years of DVD compatibility issues (anyone remember The Matrix DVD debacle?), we’re now starting to see some new Blu-ray discs that won’t spin in every player. Or, rather, they’ll spin, but meaninglessly, while the player’s display sends out a hopeful but ultimately unfulfilled message of ‘Loading’.

We’re hearing reports of new disc problems every day – most recently with the Fox Blu-ray releases of the James Bond back-catalogue and Buena Vista’s Kill Bill Volumes 1&2 boxset (first disc).

Depending on the discs and players involved – and some of these players, it has to be said, are 2008 vintage – the issues can involve anything from interminable load times to freezing menus and total unplayability. ‘Helpful’ on-screen statements such as ‘this disc may take 2-3 minutes to load, during which the screen may go blank’ don’t exactly add to a sense of 21st century plug-and-play excellence.

Warning! Blu-rays may not play...

Buena Vista (aka Disney) have even cheerfully included a leaflet inside the Tarantino twinset – which by now, of course, you’ve bought AND opened - that baldly states the following:

“This Blu-ray Disc is manufactured to the highest quality available. It is possible this Blu-ray Disc was manufactured after your Blu-ray Disc player was released. If that is the case, your player may not support all the features on the disc. In some cases, a firmware or software upgrade to your player may improve playability. To ensure the best possible viewing experience, please consult your hardware manufacturer’s website for the latest firmware or software version and, if an upgrade is available, we suggest that you follow its installation instructions. If you have any questions about this disc or its playability, please contact our consumer enquiries line on…..”

(Cue standard-rate London office phone number of Walt Disney Home Entertainment, obviously shut evenings and weekends - when you’re most likely to want to play your new Blu-ray purchase.)

PlayStation 3 shows how easy it can be

Sure enough, my regularly (and easily) updated Sony PlayStation 3 played both discs fine; though a brand new high-end Blu-ray player without an Ethernet connection (or Profile 2.0 status) struggled with Volume 1. At one stage I realised my receiver was also due a firmware update.

Can you sense my frustration yet? When the Kill Bill Blu-ray curse struck in the Newsome household, I was angrier than The Bride, and if a Hanzo sword had been at hand then there may well have been a frenetic, high-definition bisection of discs and kit. Fortunately, firmware saved the day (and the discs, by the way, look and sound stunning).

However, as someone on the Forums plaintively wrote: “when will hardware and software manufacturers talk to each other?”

An ugly profile

A damn good question, along with why the Blu-ray player ‘Profile’ system is such a complex mess. Manufacturers of Profile 1.1 players have been saying that Profile 2.0 is unnecessary, dubbing BD Live functionality as a gimmick, and that owners of 1.1-spec players wouldn’t be missing out on anything fundamental.

That’s all well and good until Hollywood’s finest pack their wares with so much BD Live frippery that even getting to the disc’s menus is a nightmare, as the Blu-ray’s software repeatedly goes in search of online content it cannot find.

Add Blu-ray without BD Live content (such as some of those Bond discs) that STILL have problems with some players – because they’re running Java software that not every Blu-ray system supports without a firmware update – and it’s enough to make the average consumer stick to cheaper, play-first-time DVDs.

Let us know your discs fumbles and firmware fixes

We're urging both manufacturers and retailers to make Firmware updates easily accessible to all - including clearly flagging up the latest software on websites or providing it via disc on request.

We'll also try and bring you news here on of any 'problem' BDs and their firmware solutions - please keep your own tales coming of dodgy discs and fabulous firmware so we can all keep up to speed. We've set up a dedicated Forum thread here.

Rant over - back to the glorious movie action

As I said at the start, we've been here before with DVD, and i'm sure these Blu-ray teething troubles will be soon forgotten - and once you've got The Dark Knight BD playing in its full high-definition sound and vision glory, you can forgive this stunning format anything.