Blu-ray, a high-definition variation of the DVD format introduced three years ago, was initially met by a collective shrug from most consumers. Who needed another black box to connect to the TV, the thinking went, even if it did promise to play movie discs in clear, crisp high-definition?
But this year, even as the country moves tentatively out of a recession, consumers are buying the devices at a faster pace than they bought previous generations of movie players like the VCR and the DVD player. Analysts predict that sales of Blu-ray machines will be up 112 percent over last year, one of the true bright spots in retailing this holiday season.
Blu-ray's household penetration is higher than that of DVD for the same period after introduction, according to Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association. Three years after introduction, Blu-ray stand-alone players, which excludes Sony's PlayStation 3 game machines that also play Blu-ray discs, are in 7 percent of American homes.
Amazon.com reports that sales of Blu-ray players are outnumbering those of standard DVD units. Among the top 10 disc players sold, eight were Blu-ray, and five of the top 10 movie titles sold were in the Blu-ray format.
The main reason for the shift in thinking is that prices for high-quality models have dropped below $150, a steep drop from the $300-plus that retailers were charging when Blu-ray debuted.
"The price for an impulse buy is under $100, and we're getting there," said Andy Parsons, president of the Blu-ray Disc Association, a trade group.
Amazon's best-selling Blu-ray model, Panasonic's DMP-BD60, is available for $129, while a no-frills Magnavox Blu-ray player is on sale at Wal-Mart Stores for $78.
It also helps that more Americans now have 1080p HDTV displays, sets with sufficiently high resolution to fully display the clarity of a Blu-ray disc. Forty percent of all TVs sold are 1080p, said Riddhi Patel, an analyst at iSuppli. She says that number should rise to 46 percent next year.
In addition to superior picture quality, Blu-ray also offers features not available on standard DVD players, like pop-up menus during play. Some Blu-ray players can also connect to the Internet; the player can then receive additional information about a movie, offer movie-related games, provide updated trailers, and allow friends to simultaneously watch a film while writing comments on screen.
The newest generation of Blu-ray players lets viewers receive streaming movies and TV shows from online providers like Amazon Video on Demand, CinemaNow, Netflix and YouTube.