Sunday, February 03, 2008

HD DVD is Dead, Long Live HD DVD

There's been an epic battle going on, one that not many people even cared about, but epic all the same. To read technology columnists and news outlets, everyone was incredibly interested in this, despite the fact that most people have no idea what an HDTV is, much less that there's a high definition DVD format out there to play on it. They know there's a cool flat panel TV on the market sure, I mean, Bobby Joe has one in his trailer, and it plays DVDs really cool on it, but HD DVD sounds like the same as DVD and Blu-Ray is what they call Billy Ray when he's depressed.

The only truly interested parties are those involved in the battle itself, comparing it to the great battle of Beta vs. VHS which though at first may seem like an accurate depiction, upon close inspection, one finds it couldn’t be further from it. Neither format will conquer thanks to the porn industry as everyone already gets their porn on the internet, and unlike during the original battle, everyone already owns a high quality, digitally restored and remastered version of Beastmaster on DVD (sorry TNT, but it was you who said, “Christmas isn’t Christmas without the Beastmaster!"). Back then, the only way you could watch a movie was in a theater or if the networks or HBO played it on TV. Today, not only does Betty Sue have a DVD player in her trailer, but she owns the full Ernest collector’s edition DVDs. Her husband, second cousin Johnny Lee, even owns, not one but three collector’s edition, digitally restored, Star Wars movies. He just loves that “Chew-bacco" character.

The movie studios, who have already had you buying the same movie on VHS, on DVD, on DVD collector’s edition, on DVD director’s cut, on DVD special super duper collector’s director original cut Blade Runner, and if it wasn’t enough (Ridley Scott should stop ripping us off - yes, I fell for it…I love Blade Runner), on DVD Director’s Final Cut (until the next Final Final definite version cut), want you to buy yet another new format. Most of us have fallen for it at least once, but at least the DVD format made sense. You didn’t have to rewind and fast forward. You could just skip and pause as desired without waiting, and the quality was and still is superb.

Now, the latest craze is High Definition which comes in two main flavors: 1. 720 lines of resolution, progressively displayed (720p), and 2. 1080 lines of resolution interlaced (1080i)…but wait, there’s another version of 1080 but progressively displayed (1080p)…hmm. Some TVs support 1080p, some players don’t and what not, but theoretically, if your signal is a high definition source, and if your TV is bigger than 42 inches, and if you’re standing close enough to it, then you’ll see that Ricky Martin has gone to a dermatologist to fix the craters on his face and that the porn actress suffers from shaving rash. The image is really that good and detailed! So they want you to buy the same movie once more but in one of their new and shiny, high definition enabled, and DVD priced, disc based formats. This means you buy new hardware (more on this below), and replace, ahem, throw away those old, “standard" quality DVD discs. In their new context, “standard" means substandard or in layman’s terms, “shit". Of course, we all know this isn’t true, but through clever marketing, HD DVD’s “The Look and Sound of Perfect" and blu-ray’s “Without blu-ray your HDTV is just a TV" the studios will make us feel our current, high quality, digitally restored and super re-mastered DVD is crap and needs to be upgraded.

The two contenders: HD DVD and blu-ray

As you already know at this point, there are two formats competing for the heavyweight title of the world. They both use the same blue laser technology, but with different implementations. HD DVD was meant to be an upgrade to DVD and is in fact approved by the DVD Forum as the true successor to DVD. It can be produced in the same DVD factory, and therefore is cheaper to manufacture, and those economies can be seen in the extremely accessible pricing. This evolution has its downside in that the amount of storage capacity of HD DVD is 30% less than that of blu-ray, though this has no real bearing on the quality of movies in the format as the space is ample enough and then some. It has nonetheless been used by blu-ray in their marketing to pound on HD DVD.

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Blu-ray was meant to be a state of the art storage technology and 21st century successor to DVD. It’s implementation of the blue laser technology allows it to store more data per layer. On paper, it would seem to be the better format, but it’s filled with drawbacks as a mass market medium and crowned inheritor of DVD. First of all, it’s expensive. If it wasn’t for the fact that Sony included a blu-ray player in every PS3 videogame system, something that has caused it to be much more expensive than competing “next generation" gaming consoles from Microsoft and Nintendo and gravely affected their sales and position in this round of the war for game console dominance, blu-ray players would not be affordable for the consumer (if you think 500 dollars/euros is “affordable"). Sony sells their PS3 at a loss, hoping to make up the money in software sales, allowing them to lower prices and therefore push their high definition format into every home that has a PS3. Second, it’s expensive to manufacture and produce. Third, it’s expensive and complicated to program for. So basically, the main drawback is that it’s expensive, but of course, once adopted by the masses, this should change, right? Well, there’s another problem.

These formats are first and foremost meant to replace DVDs for movies not personal storage and this is where the biggest differences happen. Where HD DVD set their standards early and with a solid vision for the future, blu-ray did exactly the opposite, breeding lots of problems both for producers and consumers. HD DVD players have a certain set of features from day one which blu-ray doesn’t, forcing early adopters to have to buy new players in order to utilize newer released movies and their “upgraded" features in accordance to the version of blu-ray they’re compatible with (1.0/1.1/1.2/etc.). This is terribly expensive and confusing for consumers, which is why HD DVD satisfaction amongst consumers has been much higher than with blu-ray. It also has to do with the complexities of programming the interactive features for blu-ray which uses the Java language versus HD DVDs easy to program but full featured, Microsoft created, HDi system. Simply put, HD DVDs offer a stable and consistent experience for the consumer, and blu-ray discs do not, often crashing and having scores of other idiosyncrasies. Also, because the standard continues to evolve, not all blu-ray movies offer the same quality in compression and sound, which is why earlier discs were often considered of inferior quality to HD DVD despite the formats having equal capacities in this regard.

Today though, apart from the blu-ray versioning fiasco which continues to affect blu-ray hardware (except possibly the Sony PS3), both standards offer the same high definition visuals and sound you would expect from a next generation DVD format albeit at very different price points (400 vs 125 and 30 vs 20). HD DVD should win, and yet, with the recent Warner Bros. announcement, it would seem the exact opposite is going to happen.

HD DVD is better

For the consumer HD DVD has the absolute advantage in its lower pricing, but it has some additional features which make it a better value. Because the format is a true evolution of DVD and is actually created on the same DVD disc, it has limitations as to the maximum amount of storage per layer (15GB per layer versus blu-ray’s 25GB per layer). This limitation is also it’s greatest advantage because it allows what is known as Combo discs which have an HD DVD side and a standard DVD side. You can play the HD DVD side on your HD DVD player and enjoy its amazing 1080p quality and sound while the standard DVD side can be enjoyed in the full DVD quality you’re accustomed to on any DVD player. This gives great value to the consumer by giving them the choice to view the movie in the format that’s available. This is simply not possible with blu-ray.

Another thing is the stability of the chosen interface and feature list. Consumers have been extremely satisfied with the quality and reliability of the format. Their investments are minor as the format is so economical, but they are also assured through a stable platform that is easy to understand and works perfectly from day one.

Finally, there is the fact that all HD DVDs are region free which means that no matter where in the world you purchase your disc, you’ll be able to play it on any HD DVD player. DVDs did not allow this and neither do blu-ray discs (blu-ray has simplified the region locking to a lesser number of regions but is locking nonetheless). Region locking is a movie studio tactic to make sure you pay more for your movies, be it by controlling the release of a movie in theaters and DVD or by charging more in locations that can afford it.

This last offers great value to the consumer but not to the movie studios which is why…

Blu-ray is better

Blu-ray has the clear advantage in terms of movie studio support. Not only does it have Sony’s stable of movies and those it owns from MGM and Columbia, but because of region locking and the false perception of greater piracy security, it has garnered full exclusive support from the majority of hollywood studios. Warner had been the biggest neutral holdout until January of this year, when it announced it would be blu-ray exclusive come May. It has been rumored that Warner was considering going HD DVD exclusive and the rumors include a possible half billion dollar sum to go blu-ray. True or not, the fact of the matter is that come May 2008, the only big studios exclusive to HD DVD will be Universal, Paramount, and Dreamworks (excluding Spielberg directed films). This news has caused every news outlet to report their opinion that without Warner, HD DVD is dead and blu-ray has won. It’s certainly given it an almost unfair advantage, but consumers decide wars with their wallets. This one’s not over yet.

The other main reason why blu-ray is better is the storage capacity, allowing for greater features down the line and greater use as a personal storage medium. Again, this is not really an advantage in terms of movies, but has been a main selling point as to the format. In the end, we’re talking about how one might be better for the consumer, and down the line, if adopted in PCs, more storage is better for consumers.

Why both formats suck

Both formats are not without their problems. First, to truly enjoy and see and hear the difference, you really need to invest in a lot of equipment. Perhaps you already have, but then, you have to reinvest in your movie collection as well, which is what the movie studios want. If you haven’t, you need to purchase a high definition television that can at least resolve the 720p resolution, in a size large enough to appreciate that resolution and be close enough to the screen to see the difference. For the sound you need a decent home theater system, and for the format you need the player and movie content.

Another thing is the fact that they are yet another format for you to keep track of. Is the quality over DVD really worth it? With DVD upscaling, is it worth spending the money? Should you really spend on The Beastmaster yet again? With digital distribution, are these formats relevant at all?

This last is the main question a lot of technology columnists have been asking, yet, with bandwidth limits becoming all the rage and astronomical charges for going over the limit established by your service provider, is digital distribution really practical? A lot of companies are betting on the online rental model, but it takes too long to download a movie in high definition and should your limit be exceeded, you may end up paying twice the price of the DVD to rent a film. Ownership is better. You should be able to pay and keep the movies to watch as you wish and when you wish, but again, was DVD really that bad?

DVD upscaling

There’s another development threatening the two new formats: DVD upscaling. What this means is that modern DVD players will take your “standard" definition DVD and through some beautiful hardware and software make your “standard" movie look closer to its high definition equivalent. I mean, it REALLY makes DVD look twice as amazing as it already was.

This is the real killer here as your existing collection can look twice as good with minimal investment. Here again, the price of HD DVD (at a current low of $130.00) is an advantage as the players are so cheap that you can buy them as a DVD upscaler and should the format disappear, it will have cost you pretty much the same as that modern, upscaling DVD player. DVD upscaling has, for many people, made the war irrelevant, and given DVD the life and recognition it deserved.

Has blu-ray won?

Blu-ray has won in the sense that most studios support it, but it hasn’t won in the minds of consumers. The cheapest blu-ray player, the PS3 has not sold anywhere near expectations and is currently running a distant third in the console wars. In high definition gaming, Microsoft is winning with its Xbox 360 and its amazing Xbox Live online gaming service (Nintendo has won the console wars this round overall with the innovative Wii, but its display quality is standard definition and old generation). Microsoft doesn’t include a high definition disc format out of the box so as to make the price more accessible to those who actually want to buy a game machine to play games, but they do have an HD DVD add on for the current price of $179.00 (this price will probably be much lower over the coming months).

The high definition “revolution" is expensive as it is, but blu-ray even more so. It’s not surprising considering Sony’s history. This past holiday season, it was HD DVD players flying off the shelves, not blu-ray. Of course, if there’s no content, there’s no format, which definitely gives blu-ray the advantage, but all this confusion has too many people buying neither. Also, blu-ray has to lower prices and finally standardize on a feature set to gain higher adoption levels. Already you can see scores of people dumping their early and incompatible blu-ray players on craigslist. This needs to be resolved.

HD DVD’s last stand

Toshiba has gotten extremely aggressive with their HD DVD player pricing, particularly after the Warner announcement, so it makes it worth it to pick one up for the free movies and upscaling DVD capabilities if not for the format itself. A number of big releases are still exclusive to HD DVD, including Transformers, American Gangster, The Star Trek movies and series, Shrek, The Bourne Ultimatum and scores of others, so there is still quite a bit of content you can’t get on blu-ray. Also, the region free advantage allows you to buy blu-ray “exclusives" in HD DVD format from Amazon UK and other overseas suppliers and play them in your cheap Toshiba player. This overseas format jumping has been going on from day one, utilizing the different overseas distributors and suppliers to allow release in the competing format. Region free is mandatory in some countries and should be the same across the globe. It really is an advantage for the consumer, and considering this blog is called bNowhere, it is extremely relevant here.

So go out there and celebrate blu-ray’s alleged win by getting your cheap HD DVD player. You’ll be glad you did, and be sure, you’ll come out of the store happy in your thoughts that “HD DVD is dead, long live HD DVD!"

Related links

DVD Forum:
HD DVD: The Look and Sound of Perfect
Blu-ray: Without Blu-ray your HDTV is just a TV
Warner and Blu-ray: The real reason behind the switch
Toshiba’s Super Cheap Player: Amazon changes the price constantly but I have yet to see it over $150.

Keywords: HD DVD, HD-DVD, Blu-ray, DVD, Upscaling, high definition, hdtv, format war

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