Ah, Earth Day. Known for bicycling, recycling, and celebrating cycles of life. On Earth Day 2010 the cycle of the year's most anticipated home video release began with the availability of "Avatar" on Blu-ray and DVD, in addition to the major pay-per-view video services. Vudu and Sony's PlayStation Network are the only major streaming/download services to carry the HD version at launch (sorry, Amazon VOD and QRIOCITY), so if you want to watch "Avatar" in HD at home, you'll have to buy one of those two futuristic files or risk being branded a Luddite to actually get the physical Blu-ray.
We scoped all three HD versions of the film in our test lab with an eye toward picture quality. Better yet, since the Blu-ray won't be available in 3D until next year, we thought this would be a good chance to give the 2D-to-3D conversion system on Samsung's 3DTV another shot. Short of creating our own version post-production, it's the closest we'll come for now to seeing Neytiri leap off the screen and onto our laps.
2D: Blu-ray vs. Vudu HDX vs. Sony PS3 download
Buyers interested in picture quality foremost will opt for the Blu-ray version, for which we paid $25 after tax, without a second thought. They won't be disappointed. The detail of the computer-generated material (CGI) comes through beautifully; traditional non-CGI looks as crisp and flawless as we expect from Blu-ray; and there's no shortage of impressive demo material. The complete lack of film grain might even mean that the Blu-ray looks better--in the "closer to what the director intended" sense--than it did in a film-based, 2D commercial theater.
Unlike most blockbusters on home video, there were no letterbox bars above and below the image on our wide-screen TVs--Cameron wanted the Blu-ray to preserve the true 16:9, or 1.78:1 aspect ratio. According to Fox, special features were kept to a minimum on this "bare-bones" version (a multidisc "Ultimate Edition" will ship in November) to devote as many Blu-ray bits as possible to image quality. Well, it worked. We'll leave the nitty gritty to more capable Blu-ray picture quality reviewers, but suffice to say that, to our eyes, "Avatar" on Blu-ray slides with no problem into must-have territory (time for an update, DC).
Other buyers might still want an HD "Avatar" experience, but be tempted by the convenience of disc-less stream or download. For those with access to Vudu, via an Internet TV or an external box, Vudu HDX (for some reason it costs the same as the normal Vudu HD version at $24.99) is the best bet. We streamed it via the Samsung UN55C8000's streaming Vudu service and, display-related differences notwithstanding, the Blu-ray version did look slightly better.
The differences were minor but visible in our side-by-side comparison. We noticed most in non-CGI shots, such as the face of Dr. Augustine as she grumpily meets Jake for the first time, which appeared a bit softer than it did on the Blu-ray. The floor in the background of the lab seemed slightly less detailed. But overall we definitely wouldn't call the Vudu HDX version "soft" in the least, and it surpassed a lot of other "high-def" we've seen, especially on cable or satellite.
Vudu's HDX stream requires a robust Internet connection for the highest quality, and, well, access to Vudu. Millions more potential fans, aka everyone who owns a PS3, have access to the HD version available for download from Sony's PlayStation Store. The file took about 35 minutes for us to download, costs less at $19.99 than either the Blu-ray or the Vudu version, but also exhibited a somewhat softer look than either.
We saw the difference in the planets at the 2:24 mark, for example, where the clouds and continents seemed a bit less sharp; and in other highly-detailed CGI like the rocks of the strip mine. Faces again looked a bit less-distinct on the PS3. On our three screens side-by-side, the ascension in sharpness from PS3 to Vudu to Blu-ray was obvious in the close-up of Jake as he talked into his video journal. We weren't surprised to find that, for what it's worth, the bitrate of the PS3 download--an 8793 MB MNV file, if you're curious--seemed to average about half that of the Blu-ray (Vudu doesn't display bitrates). Again, however, most viewers without the benefit of a side-by-side comparison will have a tough time identifying this version as any lower-quality HD than the other two.
We definitely recommend the Blu-ray version overall--surprise, surprise--which also comes with a DVD, but--unlike many Fox titles--no iPod-friendly "digital copy." The Vudu version gives you five standard-def special features, about 25 minutes in all, yet all but one, "Hardware," are available elsewhere. The PS3 version is fine if you want to save a couple bucks, and both disc-free choices provide some Earth Day cred by saving plastic.
Our first experience with Samsung's 2D-to-3D conversion system, which is designed to let you watch just about any source in 3D (except the TV's own built-in streaming services, which include Vudu), made us somewhat nauseous. We figured that since "Avatar" was famously shot primarily with 3D in mind, with special attention paid to the comfort and impact of the viewing experience, the experience would improve.
Even with material as suitable as "Avatar" on Blu-ray, however, 2D-to-3D on the Samsung needs a lot more work. We used the default Movie mode and default 3D settings in our test, and watched about an hour total. At times we felt that twinge in the stomach again, and after watching we felt disoriented to a much larger extent then we ever did after watching "Monsters vs. Aliens" in native 3D.
Slow scenes with little camera movement were the easiest to watch, and provided the most pleasing 3D effect, but once the action increased, so did our feeling of discomfort. During Chapter 17, for example, when the Na'vi ride the Banshee over the cliff faces and stonework, we paid more attention to the rolling and pitching in our stomachs than to the screen; we had no such issues watching the 2D version (or 3D in the theater, for that matter).
At times, the 3D effect was pronounced, such as when the camera took in the computer screens at the base, or when when Jake and Naytiri examine the skeleton in Chapter 17. We also appreciated the increased depth of field in some long shots, like the hallway in Chapter 3. At other times, the 3D effect was minor or essentially nonexistent, such as when the Jake wheels through the lab to see his avatar on the tank. We also noticed that sometimes the system would pick certain objects to push unnaturally into the foreground, like the edge of a desk in Chapter 4. This inconsistency became annoying, and we found ourselves yearning for the fixed perspective of 2D fairly quickly.
We also noticed that already fake-looking blue-screen effects were made more-so by the simulated 3D effect. On memorable moment came at the 25-minute mark, when the soldier exiting the chopper and walking in the foreground appeared completely divorced from the scene behind him, like a high-tech cardboard cutout.
We also saw some crosstalk, or ghostly outlines around objects, such as around Jake's wheelchair in Chapter 24.
All told we are impressed, as before, that the 2D-to-3D conversion system on the Samsung works at all. But if you're expecting it to come anywhere near the comfort level and "wow" factor of true 3D, you'll be disappointed. In the end, we'll watch "Avatar" with the conversion turned off and wait till next year for the real thing.