Unbiased Coverage Of All Things HD: HD-DVD, Blu-Ray and Beyond
High-Def Revolution - Welcome to the Revolution!
Notes from the Next-Generation Video Disc Format War
Welcome to the High-Def Revolution! For this, the first in DVDTalk's (hopefully) recurring column covering the latest and greatest in High Definition video, we'd like to give you an overview of the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray format war and make a case for why High-Def matters. Let's get the revolution started!
Why Sitting Out the Format War Helps No One
Once upon a time, back when the very first HDTVs were introduced in the United States, I read an article in some electronics publication that delivered a profound piece of wisdom: "Everyone who sees High Definition wants High Definition". The source of that quote has long since been lost to the vagaries of memory, but the message stuck with me ever since. Everyone who sees High Definition wants High Definition. And why wouldn't they? High Definition video is the holy grail of home theater, the closest you can get to the quality of a movie's original film source in your own living room. More than that, it's such as obvious improvement in sharpness, clarity, detail, and color over the standard television signals we've been watching for decades that even the least discerning viewers can see the difference in quality and are almost always overwhelmed by it.
For various reasons, both technical and political, adoption of HDTV in the American marketplace has been a slow process. But here we are, finally at a time when sales of High Definition TV sets are about to overtake sales of traditional Standard Definition sets. Even better, all the major Hollywood film studios are committed to releasing their movie catalogs on brand new High Definition video discs that you can own and watch at home with all the convenience of DVD but six times the picture resolution and improved sound quality to boot. Surely, this is a dream come true for movie buffs and home theater enthusiasts.
And yet, in this midst of this technological revolution, pundits are crawling out of the woodwork to warn consumers away from the new High-Def movie players and discs. "It's a niche product. It'll never catch on"; or "There's a format war. Don't get caught in the middle"; or "Regular DVD is good enough," they say. It's perhaps that last one I find the most offensive. Good enough? Video quality is an evolving process. VHS seemed good enough for a while; when you put in a tape you got a picture most of the time and usually sound too. OK, so it looked like mud and widescreen movies were scissored to fit into square TV sets, but it let you watch a movie at home as many times as you wanted (at least until the tape wore out). Was that really good enough? Should we have just stuck with that level of quality forever? Ah, but then DVD came along to show people what decent picture quality might look like, often in widescreen and with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. Guess what happened then? "Good enough" VHS died. That was a big step forward, right? True, but DVD is still just Standard Definition and even at its best is limited to a fraction of the video resolution potential that true HD offers. Time marches on and technology inevitably improves. High Definition is the real deal, the end goal that anyone who cares about home theater has been waiting for. And it's here. Right now.
Oh, but it's slightly more complicated than that, isn't it? There's the evil format war boogeyman to mess things up for everyone. The exact chain of events that led us to two separate but extremely similar High Definition video disc formats being released to market at the same time is too long, complicated, and frustrating a story to tell here. Suffice it to say that the competing Blu-ray and HD DVD products would each be, individually, a great innovation well worth a viewer's time and investment. Unfortunately, it's the rivalry between them that's causing so much consumer confusion, fear, and doubt. What's the difference between the formats? Which one is better? Which one will win? These are the questions that bring us to:
Back in March of this year, Toshiba toured around the country with an HD DVD Product Introduction Event. I was very impressed with the demo they presented, and wrapped up my coverage with the following note: "For the record, I fully expect Blu-Ray players to have near-identical quality to what we've seen of HD DVD." When the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player was released the following month I echoed those remarks and added: "We here at DVDTalk plan to give both formats their fair shake. If Blu-Ray players and software prove to be worthy of their premium prices you'll read about it right here."
What a bumpy ride we've had in the following months! HD DVD made a strong premiere, delivering reasonably-priced players and a consistently high standard of software quality. The main supporting movie studios (Warner, Universal, and Paramount) have also gone out of their way to offer an impressive breadth of releases from their catalogs. While we've gotten some of the expected razzle-dazzle action and sci-fi pictures (The Chronicles of Riddick, Swordfish, Terminator 3), we've also been given a good selection of respected dramas, award winners, and classic movies (Million Dollar Baby, Goodfellas, The Searchers). Look no further than an extraordinary disc like the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood for ample demonstration that High Definition works wonders for movies of all types and ages.
But the specter of Blu-ray loomed. The competing format promised even more advanced technical specifications (50 gb of storage! Uncompressed digital audio! Incredible interactive features!), as well as support from a greater number of movie studios. Blu-ray's amazing quality and features would crush HD DVD, we were told. The player hardware might be more expensive, but it would damn well be worth it. No questions asked. No debate about it. Blu-ray would be, quite simply, the single greatest invention in all of humankind's recorded history, and if you doubted that every last person on the face of the planet would have a Blu-ray player in their home by the end of 2006 you were a deluded fool.
Yeah, so things didn't exactly work out as planned for the Blu-ray camp. The first Blu-ray player, Samsung's BD-P1000, and the first batch of software titles from Sony and Lionsgate launched in late June to waves of disappointment. The player, priced twice as much as the comparable HD DVD model, offered unimpressive quality and features. The initial movie discs ranged in appearance from "looks like an average HD broadcast over cable or a middle-of-the-road HD DVD" to "the worst HD image I've ever seen". And from there it just went to "easily the worst-looking Blu-ray I've seen yet, and that's saying quite a lot". This was not an auspicious debut.
To be fair, not every Blu-ray release in those first few months was awful. Most ranged from merely mediocre to reasonably decent. Still, the format had quite a shaky start, and even at its best hardly rivaled the less expensive, high quality HD DVD. There was little to justify the cost of a $1,000 piece of hardware.
Blu-ray's troubles were speculated to be the result of several factors: its inability to get dual-layer 50 gb discs working, its use of the older and inefficient MPEG2 compression codec, and (on many discs) its insistence on space-hogging PCM audio. In many discussions, MPEG2 tended to take the brunt of the blame, perhaps unfairly. We here at DVDTalk were as guilty as anyone in jumping on the anti-MPEG2 bandwagon. In truth, the compression codec alone wasn't solely responsible for the format's failures. In recent months, both Warner Bros. and Paramount have released some very nice-looking MPEG2 Blu-rays, often nearly indistinguishable from their (VC-1 compressed) counterparts on HD DVD. No, the real fault lay with the combination of factors and, to be perfectly blunt about it, the arrogance, dishonesty, and lack of care from major forces in the Blu-ray camp.
Blu-ray was so certain to win this format war and win it easily that no one bothered to make sure they were actually providing a better product. The lack of proper attention that went into the mastering of shoddy discs such as The Fifth Element or House of Flying Daggers is downright shameful. It was just assumed that if you pick a movie known to have nice photography, slap it on a disc, and call it High Definition that the public would eat it up. Never mind that the film elements used for the transfer are covered in dirt, or that the inadequate digital compression leaves the resulting image soft and filled with noise and pixelation artifacts. Who's going to notice stuff like that? Well, you know who did notice? People who care about High Definition. Early adopters certainly noticed that Blu-ray just wasn't delivering the quality promised but that HD DVD was. And the result? HD DVD software has outsold the competition by a factor of nearly three to one.
You'd think after having its hindquarters handed to it in these first rounds of the format war, the Blu-ray camp might develop some humility and set forth on a course to correct its mistakes. Indeed, in recent weeks Blu-ray quality has made some slow but steady improvements. The first dual-layer BD50 discs have successfully hit the market, some studios are beginning to use the advanced VC-1 and AVC MPEG4 compression codecs, and a little more care seems to be put into even standard MPEG2 BD25 discs. We still get the occasional clunker (Disney's Dinosaur is arguably even softer and less detailed than the DVD edition), but by and large the worst is behind us. At its best, we've gotten some exceptionally nice Blu-rays like Corpse Bride and Mission: Impossible III that are every bit as good as their HD DVD counterparts. But you'll find a rub in that. The very best Blu-rays have mostly come from Warner Bros. and Paramount, the two studios supporting both formats. These top-tier Blu-rays are usually just ported over from the studios' own HD DVD editions of the same movies. To date, it's still quite rare to find a Blu-ray exclusive title universally praised for its picture quality. Where does that leave us? For a player of twice the price, we get a format that is at best of equal quality to HD DVD and frequently inferior. What, exactly, is the incentive to buy?
As for humility, we're still waiting to see some of that. Just recently, our friends at High-Def Digest conducted a thoroughly bizarre interview with Don Eklund, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Executive Vice President of Advanced Technologies, in which the company spokesman continued to blithely insist that there's never been anything wrong with Blu-ray development, that bad picture quality is mostly the fault of the viewer, and that if a movie transfer has dirt or video noise it's because the film's director wanted them. Eklund also defended his studio's attachment to the older MPEG2 compression codec even on low-capacity BD25 discs burdened with PCM audio by criticizing "those funny amoeba-like artifacts that VC-1 can produce, where it looks like there is a jellyfish on the wall that's moving around".
Those what? Where it looks like what? I don't know in what aquarium Eklund watches his movies, but I can assure you that I've never seen any "amoebas" or "jellyfish" in any of the dozens of VC-1 encoded HD DVDs or Blu-rays that I've watched over the last seven months. And trust me, I'm as nit-picky and critical a viewer as you'll ever meet.
Personally, I believe we're moving into a phase where HD DVD and Blu-ray quality will essentially equalize, which is what I originally assumed would have happened at the start of this war. Both formats have the potential to deliver outstanding High Definition video, terrific sound, and exciting new interactive bonus features. Thus far, HD DVD has been meeting those goals but it's taken Blu-ray quite a bit of catching up. In the coming months it will only become more difficult to tell the two apart, other than the tremendous disparity in hardware cost. If they expect to survive, the Blu-ray folks will have to narrow that price gap and start learning from their mistakes. An arrogant attitude like Eklund's serves no good purpose and demonstrates an amazing disconnect from the reality of the situation.
It's expected that early adopters will put up with all manner of quirks, bugs, and quality issues to stay on the leading edge of a new technology, but not every interested consumer has the resources or patience to buy into a new video format right away. Hence the numerous op-ed pieces and blog posts from all over the spectrum instructing their readers to hold tight with plain old DVD. Format wars are too messy, they complain. What if you pick the wrong side? It's best to just wait it out and see which format emerges victorious, then buy in later. The advice sounds reasonable enough, almost like common sense, doesn't it?
Unfortunately, there's a gaping logical deficiency in this argument. Hardware manufacturers and movie studios care only about one thing: money. When you buy their product, they make money and this pleases them. When you don't buy their product, they lose money and this doesn't make them very happy at all. When they lose money on a product, they stop making that product, and then nobody is happy. These companies will employ all sorts of high-priced analysts and surveys to gauge consumer interest, but the fact is that the corporations have absolutely no idea why anyone buys or does not buy their products. All they see is money coming in or money going out, and more often than not fail to accurately judge long-term prospects and market trends. By "waiting out" the format war, the consumer may believe he's sending a message that the corporations should set their differences aside and consolidate efforts into making one superior product to benefit everyone. That would be nice, wouldn't it? It would also be nice if every little girl could have the pony she wants, politicians didn't lie, and clouds were made of cotton candy. That's a fantasy land. The real world doesn't work like that.
Regardless of the intention, sitting out this format war sends one unmistakable message: People don't want High Definition. If they wanted it, they'd buy it. If nobody is buying it, why should the companies continue to make it? Thus, both formats die and nobody gets the High Definition they actually wanted. Everybody loses.
Believe it or not, the format war has had some positive benefits. Imagine what would have happened if there'd been no competition to pressure the manufacturers and studios into driving down prices and improving quality. Do you really think the first HD DVD players would be priced at an affordable $499 if they weren't trying to undercut the more expensive Blu-ray rival? Do you think the Blu-ray partners would have any reason to improve the quality of their recent releases if HD DVD hadn't proven the earlier BD products inadequate? Unchallenged market dominance breeds complacency. Competition drives innovation. These are the cornerstones of a Capitalist market. In the end, both products will prove better in competition than they might have otherwise been individually.
If either is to survive, much less prevail, the HD DVD and Blu-ray camps must continue to improve their products and make them more appealing. Why are Blu-ray's players twice as expensive as HD DVD's? Fix that. Are dual-format players possible? Make them. Movie studios, by choosing exclusivity to just one format you lose every potential sale from owners of the other product. Support both formats equally and let the consumers guide you. You're doing no one any favors by alienating half (or more) of your market pool, not to mention everyone still undecided.
Video hardware manufacturers, here's what you need to do: stop making regular DVD players. Since all of the High-Def players from both formats are backwards compatible with standard DVD, start phasing out your DVD-only products. Do whatever you need to cut the costs for the HD decks and release them at the same pricepoint you currently sell DVD players. Sales of HDTV sets are at an all-time high and only going upwards. People are dying for High Definition content to watch on their new big-screen TVs, but they're afraid of new technology at high prices. Don't give them any reason to not buy an HD player. If they're going to purchase a new DVD player anyway, make sure the one they get has HD DVD and/or Blu-ray capabilities already in it. Once they've got the technology in their home, they will buy High-Def software to play on it. HD will be the video drug of the 21st Century. Give them a taste and they'll gladly come back for more.
Like it or not, the High Definition format war is a fact of life and isn't going away anytime soon. Waiting for it to end will just cause both sides to pull the plug, depriving everyone of a perfectly good product they would otherwise be happy to spend some money on. If you want any form of High Definition video disc to succeed at all, now is the time to vote with your dollar. Afraid to risk the money? How much did you spend on that nice HDTV anyway? Why skimp now by losing out on the best content to watch on it? Research both products and pick the one that offers you the most content, features, quality, and value-for-your-buck. Send the corporations a message they'll listen to. Only by telling them what you want can you ever expect to get it.
Everyone who sees High Definition wants High Definition. And why wouldn't they?
- Joshua Zyber
Welcome New High-Def Reviewers
Reminder - Player Firmware Updates
If you haven't jumped into the High-Def waters yet, brand new players from both formats may tempt you. Panasonic's Blu-ray DMP-BD10 is available now (MSRP $1,299) and is said to be a noticeable improvement over the Samsung model. On the HD DVD side, Toshiba's HD-A2 (MSRP $499) should be hitting retailers in the very near future, and the high-end HD-XA2 ($999) will be released in December. And of course we can't forget that Sony's Playstation 3 will have Blu-ray playback capabilities, and Microsoft will release their XBox360 HD DVD add-on component shortly. We here at DVDTalk would be glad to put these devices through their paces and write up in-depth reviews as we did for the earlier Toshiba and Samsung models, if any of the manufacturers would be so kind as to assist us with loaners for review purposes. (Contact us. Seriously.)
(Click on each link to read the full article.)
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player Review
(Click on each link to read the full article.)
Since this is our first column, rather than list off every single review we've written over the past seven months, our staff has picked a selection of favorite articles to highlight.
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