In case you haven't heard, there are two mutually-incompatible formats competing to be High-Definition the successor to DVD: Blu-ray Disc
, and HD DVD
. I have chosen to buy an HD DVD player and start building a library of HD DVDs, and I am opposed to the Blu-ray format.
Both formats support the ability to play audio-visual content at High-Definition resolutions, up to 1080p. Both formats offer advanced features, such as pop-up menus that don't interrupt the movie playback, and picture-in-picture commentary. Physically, both formats are read from an optical disc by a blue laser, which is able to pick up finer dots than the red lasers used for CDs and DVDs. Both formats support DRM, which (theoretically) prevents consumers from backing up, ripping, and format-shifting the video content. Both formats are backed by a subset, but not all, of the major Hollywood studios.
From the standpoint of someone accustomed to the DVD format, these two competing standards seem to offer the same enhanced viewing experience, but there are several distinctions between the two formats, and for me, the choice was simple, obvious, and straight-forward.
HD movies come in cases similar to DVD cases, but about an inch shorter, and 25% thinner. Blu-ray disc cases are usually blue, and HD DVD cases are usually burgundy-colored. Both types of case are slightly transparent, so that when you open the case, you can see the printing on the back of the cover art insert through the wall of the case.
Physically, both formats are the same size and shape as a CD or DVD. HD DVD bears the most physical resemblance to a DVD, and in fact, there are some discs (called Combo Discs) that contain a layer that is readable on a DVD player, as well as the HD DVD layer(s). Blu-ray data layers are closer to the surface, which allows them to have a higher storage capacity per layer than HD DVD (25 vs 15 GB per layer). since both discs spin at the same rate, Blu-ray has a higher maximum bitrate (48.0 vs. 30.24 Mbps). Higher disc capacity means that potentially more content can fit on a Blu-ray disc than an HD DVD disc. Higher maximum bitrate means that more data options can be packed-in to a given segment of disc playback, such as adding more audio languages and/or more options for high-quality sound tracks and commentary tracks. In this aspect, HD DVD is inferior to Blu-ray. The disc capacity issue can be mitigated by adding more layers to an HD DVD: Blu-ray comes in single-layered 25 GB and double layered 50 GB varieties. HD DVD comes in 15, 30, and 51 GB varieties (however, most releases to date have been on 30 GB HD DVDs and 25 GB Blu-ray discs).
Aside from the physical attributes of the discs, the format standards also set forth a minimal set of features that each player must support, and each disc released in that format must contain at least one of the required audio and video tracks, so that each disc is guaranteed to play on each player (although higher quality features, especially audio tracks, can also be optionally included).
Wikipedia has a very helpful table
and commentary on this subject on their High-Def Format comparison page
. It is interesting to note the differences in the format requirements, and what the results of these differences on the quality of released discs has been in each format. Both formats have identical video codec requirements, so the visual quality of HD and BD releases should be the same, but to date, they have varied. HD DVD has required their players to be able to handle higher quality audio than Blu-ray players, which has led studios to produce higher-quality soundtracks for HD DVDs than for Blu-ray Discs. Wikipedia has an interesting write-up
on this phenomenon (emphasis mine):
Blu-ray has a higher maximum disc capacity than HD DVD (50 GB vs. 30 GB for a single sided disc). In September 2007 the DVD Forum approved preliminary specification the triple-layer 51GB HD DVD (ROM only) disc. It is still unknown if the triple layer HD DVD will work in current players. Toshiba has confirmed that testing still needs to be done. An example of how capacity is put to use is King Kong: the film is over three hours long, has reference-quality video, near-reference quality audio, includes a picture-in-picture bonus track, and fits everything on a single 30Gb HD DVD disc.
The first 50 GB dual-layer Blu-ray Disc release was the movie Click, which was released on October 10, 2006, several months after the Blu-ray Disc format was released. By comparison, the majority of HD DVD titles were released on 30Gb discs from day one (The Last Samurai, for example). As of September 2007 40% of Blu-ray titles use the 50 GB disc and 60% use the 25 GB disc while most HD DVD movies are in the 30 GB dual layer format.
The choice of video compression technology (codec) complicates any comparison of the formats. Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD both support the same three video compression standards: MPEG-2, VC-1 and AVC, each of which exhibits different bitrate/noise-ratio curves, visual impairments/artifacts, and encoder maturity. Initial Blu-ray Disc titles often used MPEG-2 video, which requires the highest average bitrate. and thus the most space, to match the picture quality of the other two video codecs. As of 2007, more and more titles have been authored with the newer compression standards: AVC and VC-1. HD DVD titles have used VC-1 and AVC almost exclusively since the format's introduction. Warner, which releases movies in both formats, often uses the same encode (with VC-1 codec) for both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD, with identical results. In contrast, Paramount, before they went HD DVD exclusive, created separate encodings, VC-1 for HD DVD and usually MPEG-2 for Blu-ray.
Whilst the two formats support similar audio codecs, their usage varies. Most titles released on the Blu-ray format include Dolby Digital tracks for each language in the region, and many also include a Linear PCM track for the primary language. On the other hand, most titles released on the HD DVD format include Dolby Digital Plus tracks for each language in the region, and some also include a Dolby TrueHD track for the primary language.
There is also a rather exhaustive article on HD audio
at High-Def Digest.
So it is apparent that, at least given the quality of current releases, HD DVDs are generally of higher quality (especially when it comes to audio) than their Blu-ray counterparts, despite the fact that Blu-ray has higher storage and bitrate capacity.
What is DRM
? DRM is what stops you from playing "protected" iTunes tracks on anything that has not been 'ble$$ed' by Apple. It is what prevents you from playing a European or Japanese DVD in your North American DVD player. It (until 1999
) prevented you from ripping your DVD movies to your computer to take along on your portable media player, or streamed from your media server to your television without messing with the discs.
Both HD DVD and Blu-ray use the AACS
DRM system, ostensibly to prevent movie pirates from ripping their discs and posting them online. Unfortunately (and not by accident) this also takes away Fair Use
rights that the consumer would otherwise be able to take advantage of, such as the aforementioned ripping for playback on a computer or iPod-like device.
AACS is more advanced than the CSS
DRM used in DVDs. AACS allows a studio to prevent playback of their releases on player models that are known to have been compromised by hackers. This acts like a black-list of players that will be unable to play the disc, until their firmware has been updated (in a way that the studios are satisfied that it prevents further hacking).
Since consumers have come to value the ability to make copies of their movies, and to format-shift them, the creators of AACS have provided a "feature" by which, having taken this ability away, they will sell it back to you in a limited fashion. This feature is called "Managed Copy
", and it's a lot like buying a ringtone of a song that you already own in stead of simply being able to clip the song and add it to your phone.
It so happens that Blu-ray and HD DVD, though they both share the AACS DRM system, implement their DRM in much different ways:
- Region Coding to limit the consumers' rights under the First-Sale Doctrine, which means non-American release discs won't work with American players
- BD+, which attempts to analyze in real-time whether or not the playback is being recorded.
Conclusion: Blu-ray's DRM is much more draconian than HD DVD's. It is much more likely that I will be able to perform Fair Use transformations on my media if they are in the HD DVD format, especially considering that AACS has been cracked
. If I develop taste for Bollywood, Anime, or Film Noir, I will be able to buy foreign discs without having to wait until such a time as the studio deems it worthwhile to release in this region.
You know that really cool sounding picture-in-picture commentary feature that I mentioned earlier, the one where in stead of just hearing the commentary, you get to see the commentator (or the story-board, or the shot without the CGI, or whatever else they want to show you) in a little PIP screen within the main screen as the title is playing? Yeah, well, it turns out that if you bought a Blu-ray player before, um... now, then it doesn't support that feature. It seems that every Blu-ray player until now was under the "Grace Period" Profile 1.0
, and that "Final Standard" Profile 1.1 players will finally be coming out in the future.
Also, no Blu-ray Discs to date support it at all, since there have been no players that implemented it. The first one to be released will be in January of 2008
. Picture-in-picture requires that the player have a secondary video and audio decoder, which none of the Profile 1.0 players have, and so no Profile 1.0 Blu-ray player will be able to play these features on future discs. The only exception to this is the PlayStation 3
, which has enough processing power to decode a secondary audio/video stream in software, and is scheduled to be updated
in order to enable this feature by the end of 2007.
HD DVD players have always been required to meet the same set of features, that Blu-ray is only now catching up to.
Price & Freebies
I got my HD DVD player for $199 at BestBuy.com. It was the HD-A3
, and it came with Bourne Identity
in the box. I also got to pick three free HD DVD movies, and I get five free thanks to a mail-in offer
, for a total of ten HD DVD movies, all included in the price of my player.
The cheapest Blu-ray players are still in the $350 range, which makes them quite pricey. (They also come with a similar mail-in-offer
.) The most tempting Blu-ray player for me would be the PS3, at $400, it's one of the cheapest, and since it's getting upgraded to Profile 1.1 with the new firmware, it is by far the best deal. The PS3 also has some bonus features, such as the ability to play PS3 games. The problem with that is that (especially since I have a Wii
) I'm not all that interested in any of the (comparatively few) games out for the PS3 (with the possible exception of Heavenly Sword
, but even then, the game is pretty short, and if I really can't resist, I can simply rent it--especially considering the price of PS3 games). In fact, the most attractive feature (for me, even more attractive than the fact that it plays BD movies) is the fact that it can boot Linux
. Lately I've been ripping my library of DVDs to my computer. Video transcoding is a very CPU-bound process, and the PS3 has a 3.2 GHz seven-core cell processor, which could shorten the hours-long process to a matter of a few minutes. Whenever I consider the price of upgrading or supplementing my Linux box, the PS3 always comes to mind, but, so far, I resist.
I don't want to support Blu-ray, and one of the main reasons is that I don't like Sony's formats: remember Memory Stick
? For the longest time it was twice the price of the equivalent SD card
, which was directly due to the fact that Sony wanted to lock their digital camera customers into buying them, and charge more because they could. Remember MiniDisc
? The colossal failure that was UMD
? I'm too young to remember BetaMax
, but I have personal experience with the lengths
to which Sony will go at the customer's expense to restrict customers, simply because they think they can get away with it.
Sony has thrown the entire weight of their corporate empire behind the success of the Blu-ray format: they included Blu-ray in every PS3 and sold every console at a considerable loss, hoping to re-cooperate the money in royalties from the sale of Blu-ray movies (and games, but that amount of subsidization won't be made up by game sales) by making their format a success. Essentially, they are taking an enormous loss on their gaming division, hoping to control the DVD industry in the future and cash in on the royalties, not to mention the benefits of selling back to the consumer their fair-use rights in a piecemeal fashion. Do I wish to spite Sony by doing what I can to make sure they fail? Yes. But I also stand, as a consumer, to benefit from HD DVD winning (or at least surviving) the format war. It's a gamble, and one that I may lose, but one that to me is worth it.
One thing that makes this format war unlike the DVD+/-R format war
is studio support. With writable DVD media, you could write whatever data you wanted to your discs using your drive of choice, you only had to make sure that the media you bought at the store matched your burner. With Blu-ray and HD DVD, you still have to make sure that the discs that you buy match your player, but you can't get every disc for your player of choice: most movie studios are on one side or the other, each only publishing in their preferred format:
(Incidentally, while on the topic of burning DVDs, HD DVD has an advantage over Blu-ray in this area: HD DVD supports burning HD-resolution video to regular DVD+/-R media for playback in HD on an HD DVD player. This is particularly attractive for home movies, wedding videos, and amateur movie-makers who make short films. The only difference between using DVD media
and HD-DVD media is that red-laser DVDs can't fit as much data, so it would have to be shorter (about 85 minutes). DVD burners and their media are readily available, high quality, and cheap.)
, the studios aligned with each format:
- Sony Pictures (Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures, MGM)
- Buena Vista (Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Miramax)
- 20th Century Fox
- NBC Universal (Universal Studios, NBC)
- Viacom (Paramount, Dreamworks SGK)
- Dreamworks Animation SGK
- Weinstein Co. (Dimension Films)
Both Blu-ray and HD DVD:
- Time Warner (Warner Brothers, New Line, HBO)
The way in which the DVD+/-R format war was resolved is that after a while, most drives manufactured were able to support both formats. It doesn't matter which format of writable DVD media I buy at the store, it will work the same in my computer's drive, and so for me, the consumer, there is very little difference. This sort of resolution to the format war may end up being what happens, but that is years away. Dual format players exist, but so far, they are more expensive than buying two players, and tend to support the full feature set of a single format, and only basic features of the other.
Another solution that Warner has experimented with is Total HD
, which is nothing more or less than a single disc with HD DVD on one side and Blu-ray on the other. The problem with this is that it costs more to manufacture the disc, as well as to produce and arrange the bonus features and menu systems, which are implemented differently on the two formats. Another huge reason that this solution won't resolve the format war is that most discs would not be available in this format, and so consumers would still have to either pass on a large portion of available HD movies, or buy both players. The only value that a Total HD disc adds for the consumer above individual releases is as a hedge against their favorite format losing: if their format dies, they don't have to re-buy that particular disc in the winning format.
As a consequence of the general pattern of studio support for one format or the other (Warner being the exception), one's choice of format can be greatly influenced by which movies and TV shows will be available for one's High-Def library. While Blu-ray has Pirates of the Caribbean
, Kingdom of Heaven
, Fantastic Four
, Die Hard
, and Pixar movies, HD DVD has Heroes
, Battlestar Galactica
, the Bourne and Riddick series, Transformers
, The Mummy
, and The Last Samurai
. Notable titles that can be had in either format include the BBC's Planet Earth Collection
, Harry Potter
, The Matrix Trilogy
, and Troy
The Blu-ray releases that have me glancing longingly over the fence, tempting me to "go purple" are the action/special effects movies: Pirates of the Caribbean
, Kingdom of Heaven
, Casino Royale
, etc. I care more about High-Def where it counts: spectacular blockbuster hits that dazzle the senses; the kind of movies that you would go see at the theater rather than on DVD because of the quality of the experience.
One asset that Blu-ray definitely has over HD DVD, however, is its Disney/Pixar movies. In fact, I would say that if Blu-ray did not have Disney, HD DVD would be clearly winning the format war. This fact, while I recognize it as a market trend, is rather puzzling to me personally, because computer-animated movies, while they look better in HD, don't look that
much better, because there wasn't much that they lost in being encoded for DVD.
While Monster's, Inc.
has fuzzy monsters, and Ratatouille
has fuzzy rats, rendering their fur at 1080p doesn't add much to the experience of watching the movies. The reason being, while there is a great amount of fine detail retained with the HD release, that detail is "regular" (or "uniform"). The human brain is pretty adept at filling in the visual details
if it knows what to expect, not to mention that HD players (both Blu-ray and HD DVD, as well as "up-converting" red-laser DVD players) do a pretty good job of rendering standard DVDs at HD resolutions on HDTVs. The popularity of HD cartoons might have more to do with the allure of having an immaculate collection than with actual viewing experience (and logic). [The Irony of this statement does not escape me.] Then again, the only High-Def animated cartoon I've seen so far was The Wild
on Blu-ray in a Circuit City, and I was unimpressed. Perhaps other movies have had better results. The kind of computer animation I am interested in seeing in High-Definition is the Lord of the Rings-style battle
, where there are thousands of soldiers, each different from the other, and each behaving in a unique, intelligent way. Then, and only then does it become worthwhile to see the individual details of computer animation. Not that it hurts, mind you, but animated cartoon movies will not be enough to make me get a Blu-ray player.
One of the best features of the High-Def formats is the space for and capability to have unique special features
. That may end up being the most powerful factor that determines whether I will buy in DVD or HD. As an example, Serenity
is one of my favorite movies, and it being just the sort of movie that I would want in HD, I was considering getting the HD DVD version despite the fact that I own it on DVD, but at this point, since the special features are identical to the DVD release
, I don't think I will. Here's hoping they release a collector's edition down the road. Oh, and another season of Firefly
. And a pony. I want a pony.
The format situation is not ideal. I would have preferred it if Sony and Toshiba et al would have worked out their differences back in 2006. That didn't happen, so we're stuck in the middle of two less-than-ideal choices (three, if you count sticking with DVD). I chose HD DVD because I firmly believe that it is the better format for the customer, and this is the way in which I prefer other customers to behave. The worst that could happen is that I be left with a bunch of discs that no one builds players for anymore, but even in that case, I still will have my current player, and I'm sure that there will be enough people in my situation to maintain a niche market. I doubt that this will happen: what I envision is dual-format players, much like what happened with DVD+/-R will become the norm, such that it doesn't matter what kind of discs you buy.
I think that the events of this Christmas shopping season, and the consumer habits that follow, will be a major factor in the format war. Warner will no doubt be gaging the level of interest in its Harry Potter releases in each of the two formats; HD DVD players have reached the critical sub-$200 price point, and there is a potential for a tipping point in the favor of HD DVD within the next year. Then again, with the recent price drop for the PS3, and Wiis in short supply, Sony's Trojan horse Blu-ray players may be what guarantees the format's success.
We shall see.