I wanted to write an article about where I think HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are and where I think they are going. I am not looking to declare one better than the other or a winner of the latest format war but I will point out differences at times. This article is more to compare DVD to the combination of HD-DVD / Blu-Ray. I want one of these formats to succeed and I now have a player that can play both, however so far it doesn't look good. I will break the article into sections and then have a good and bad portion for each section. In many cases I will say HD disc when referring to both formats, if I am writing a specific format I will mention it. There is quite a bit of technical specs that I will mention but I can't think of a way to describe the differences without it. I have tried to link to further explanation of terms usually at wikipedia. I wish that I had hard statistical data to back some of this up but most of it is sales data that is a highly guarded secret. This post is to some extent a follow-up or update to a post I did in April, unfortunately it hasn't gotten much better in the 8 months since.
GoodHD discs have video data encoded at 1920x1080x24 fps progressive which is even better than the best HDTV signal available via OTA, cable or satellite currently. This compares to DVD which is 720x480x30 fps interlaced (usually seen at 854x480 anamorphically stretched). This works out to a 6x improvement when comparing the 345600 pixels to 2073600 pixels.
Beyond the pure number of pixels the quality of video is better due three reasons. First reason is that DVD uses an much older MPEG-2 encoding standard that is not nearly as efficient as the VC-1 and MPEG-4 encoding used on most HD discs. The second reason is that the HD discs have more space available on them with 15-51 GB compared to DVD 4.7-9 GB. The last reason is that the bit rate allowed by the newer formats is 4.5-6 Megabytes/s as compared to DVD at 1.3 MB/s. Just to add to the last comparison HDTV is broadcast at a maximum of 2.25 MB/s so even HDTV at its best is much lower quality than the HD Disc formats.
BadTo enjoy all these extra pixels people will need a 1080i/p display of at least 37" or larger and ideally one with a HDMI input. Even with a 1080 display if the viewers are sitting far enough away depending on screen size they may not be able to see the difference.
Most people can tell the difference between VHS and DVD or Standard Definition TV and High Definition TV. However due to upconverting DVD players and improving quality of scalers in HDTVs it is harder to tell the difference between DVD and HD discs, especially on smaller or poorly calibrated TVs.
Very few displays can display HD discs at the optimum of a multiple of 24 fps such as 72, 96 or 120 Hz.
GoodHD discs have newer higher quality sound sound formats such as Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD MA and LPCM. The best way I know to describe these formats is to equate them to CD's and various encoding methods. This comparison is not exact and is simply to help in understanding, also this table assumes maximum potential and isn't what is always used on a particular disc.
CD Original Movie Soundtrack 64 Kbs MP3 Dolby Digital 128 Kbs MP3 DTS 256 Kbs MP3 Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD HR Lossless Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD MA WAV LPCM
BadA large percentage of people only use the stereo (virtual surround) speakers built into their TVs. Using this method anything beyond Dolby Surround is wasted.
Anyone using anything less than HDMI for audio connection will not get anything better than Dolby Digital so again the better sound formats would be wasted.
Even those with a HDMI capable stereo may not be able to hear the difference between Dolby Digital and the better sound formats due to speaker quality, room layout and level calibration.
Interactivity and Bonus Features
GoodBoth HD Disc formats have the ability to do very impressive interactive menus, games and more. Current DVD titles (especially Disney ones) have pushed the format beyond what anyone imagined 10 years ago but the newer HD Discs can now take it to the next level. Also as with DVD initially there is much potential left untapped at this point.
Due to the increased space it is easier to add more bonus features such as commentary and making of documentaries. Beyond what is on the disc there is the potential for expanded content to be downloaded from the Internet to add to the experience.
BadThis first bad is exclusive to Blu-Ray players. All players sold up to Jan 1, 2008 are not feature complete. This is no small part due to the fact that the final spec for Blu-Ray still isn't done. There are Blu-Ray 1.0, 1.1 and 2.0 specification players. Many of the advanced interactivity features are not available with 1.0 players and some are not available to the 1.1 players being sold today now 18 months into the life of the format.
Both types of HD Disc players have been plagued by disc incompatibilities due to some of the advanced features. This happened to a small extent with certain DVD players in the first year of existence but since then has pretty much been a non-issue. However it continues to be an on-going issue with HD disc players. Further I have one of the very first DVD players ever made and it has played every disc I have ever tried without issue, no player so far on the HD side can say this yet.
GoodAll HD disc players play DVDs and also upconvert them. Some have higher quality upconverting chips than others and some only do 1080i vs 1080p. All players can only do 480p over non-HDMI with standard commercial DVD.
Many of the HD disc players can play both SACD and DVD-Audio discs.
BadSome HD disc players can't play CDs, I haven't verified this myself but I have read reports that indicate this.
According to reports I have read it seems the current HD disc players are less tolerant of poor quality discs such as rental or Netflix discs.
Disc Pricing, Availability and Rental
GoodHD discs are currently selling for $25-30. Frequently there are sales on the discs either simply lowering the price or extreme deals such as buy one get one free.
Most stores such as Best Buy, Circuit City, Target and Wal-Mart stock both of the HD formats. Amazon of course has the best selection and often by far the best pricing.
Netflix has all titles available in all the possible formats and currently 95% of my queue is available in one of the HD formats.
BadDVDs regularly sell for $15 or less.
The shelf space allotted and as a result the selection for HD discs is much smaller than DVD.
Blockbuster can't seem to make up its mind regarding HD discs, first they did both, then only Blu-Ray and who knows what now. Most smaller rental locations have avoided HD discs altogether at this point.
Players and Upgradability
GoodThe Blu-Ray side has a good selection of players from about five different manufacturers with the PS3 leading the pack. The HD-DVD side is pretty much exclusively Toshiba and Xbox 360, there have been other players but they have for the most part been Toshiba players in a different box. There are now two companies making dual format players, both are very similar and are far from feature complete as they are currently shipping.
All players are firmware upgradable to some degree. All HD-DVD players can be upgraded via the Internet as can newer Blu-Ray players. Older Blu-Ray players can be upgraded via files downloaded from the Internet and burned to a CD. This ability has allowed for features to be added after release such as 1080p24 and advanced audio codec bitstreaming for HD-DVD or Blu-Ray 1.1 compliance. Firmware fixes have also allowed for updates relating to disc compatibility. This type of updating was not available to DVD players until the last few years and even then only on certain players, because of this getting features such as progressive output and DTS decoding meant buying a new DVD player.
The current players available are truly purpose built computers. Most if not all run a version of linux. It is because of this that they can be upgraded. As a result the best Blu-Ray player in many respects is the PS3 since it is the most powerful and versatile of the computers. The Xbox 360 is a good HD-DVD player, but due to some hardware choices necessitated by its release time frame it can't support newer HDMI standards.
BadEven though there are a few companies making players price and feature differentiation is almost non-existant. There are probably close to a hundred companies making dvd players worldwide with prices from $10 to $1000 and features and build quality to match. Also things like portable or in car players aren't even close to being available and it is arguable if they would be worth it anyway.
Due to the fact that manufactures know their players are upgradable one could argue that they don't feel as compelled to finish them totally before putting them on sale. The fact that the standards aren't set doesn't help this.
In the future once the standards have stabilized players will have to be simplified to reduce production costs. Until the majority of players are below $200 there is no chance HD players will become mainstream.
GoodBoth Blu-Ray and HD-DVD can in theory be used for computers. Both have recordable formats that can be used to make discs for video uses or for backup purposes. The initial formats were 15/30 GB per disc for HD-DVD and 25/50 GB for Blu-Ray. HD-DVD has recently released an updated spec that includes 17/34/51 GB per disc, however it is unclear right now if those discs will be 100% backwards compatible with existing players.
BadNeither format has made much of an impact as a standard player to be included with new computers. Until that happens both are essentially irrelevant for computers other than burning discs to play in HD disc players.
Both formats are very expensive for blank media. Currently the blank discs cost about $1.00 / GB. This is in comparison to blank DVD which are about $.05 / GB and hard drives which are about $.25 / GB. It is hard to justify the costs currently for this media.
GoodThere isn't much good to say about sales figures thus far other than they keep increasing.
BadOne of the best selling Blu-Ray titles so far is Ratatouille and the best selling HD-DVD is Transformers. Both however sold no more than 2.5% on HD discs as compared to sales on DVD. For right now these discs are not making any money for the studios. One can only assume they are doing them in hopes of building the format and reaping the rewards later.
The bigger problem is the split between the formats which varies between 50/50 and as much as 75/25 in Blu-Ray's favor. This just makes deciding which way to go a guessing game at best.
GoodI can't in good conscience say there is anything good about the format war for the consumer.
BadAs I mentioned above in the sales figures Blu-Ray is leading but by no means winning. This just continues the mess that started 18 months ago.
Right now the PS3 which is primarily a video game machine is by far the best selling HD disc player and arguably one of the best. The PS3 has outsold all HD-DVD players and all stand alone Blu-Ray players combined. Further Sony can't let Blu-Ray die since it is the format of games on the PS3. Blu-Ray is here to stay for the life of the PS3, just like UMD will exist as long as the PSP does. As a result the format war is likely not to end any time soon.
The only studio releasing discs on both formats is Warner Bros. They also had plans for a disc format to play on both players but those plans seem to have been pushed off or totally canceled. All other studios are only on one format or the other which means consumers may have to choose player based on content, which is just silly.
I wish I could setup two test rooms to test out some of my theories here. Ideally one room would have a upconverting DVD player and anohter room with HD Disc player with both on the same model of calibrated TV. Another set of tests could be done regarding audio; one with Dolby Digital and the other with newer sound formats (any of the lossless ones). I think it would telling to see if average people could pick out which is which. The last test only for video or audio philes would be to set up the two rooms with the only difference being HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs. A dual format player could even be used to make the rooms identical, this way any other differences can be eliminated. This I think would prove that the differences in the core goal of watching a movie between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are academic at best.
I am hopeful that what I have laid out here will improve over the next twelve months and there might be some real progress by 2009. However the only real chance I see of that happening is dual format players that are feature complete for both formats are available at reasonable prices. Until that happens it is difficult for me to recommend anyone get an HD disc player right now unless you want an upconverting DVD player that also happens to play the new formats at a good price.
I found this article at wikipedia that adds a bit more stats to my statements above.
Another quick follow-up it appears that the NT Times has an article out today for the most part agreeing with me as well. You can read the article here.