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.
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 it to say that, to our eyes, Avatar on Blu-ray slides with no problem into must-have territory (time for an update, DC).
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 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 definitely surpassed a lot of other "high-def" we've seen, especially on cable or satellite.
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 bit rate of the PS3 download--an 8,793 MB MNV file, if you're curious--seemed to average about half that of the Blu-ray (Vudu doesn't display bit rates).
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, but 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.
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 on the screen; we had no such issues watching the 2D version (or 3D in the theater for that matter).