Old Media/New Media Perspective
Tracking Hi-Def Discs
Now that both HD DVD and Blu-ray are on the market, there’s a lot of press about the formats, the players and what it all means. I think it’s worth tracking on an ongoing basis—but not worth doing anything about unless you’re a very early adopter or your college or university has a film school.
When DVD emerged (in the mid-1990s, but not as a major consumer medium until late 1998 or 1999), I covered it throughout the early years—with periodic suggestions as to when it could be considered serious. I looked for aggressive advertising by September of half a dozen or more DVD players from at least three brands, with price points as low as $350; players at two or more of Target, Sears, Radio Shack, and K-Mart; more than 200 DVDs at typical local stores (including “at least a couple dozen winners”); some heavily discounted discs; and rentals.
For hi-def discs to be considered a serious consumer medium, one libraries should start buying, the same or similar guidelines may apply. But the situation is different: Where DVD was a fundamentally new medium, hi-def discs represent a quality jump that’s probably less significant to most users.
Anyone with a halfway decent TV set and decent eyesight could see the difference in quality between a DVD and a videocassette, quite apart from convenience, compactness, longer life with careful handling, and extras. For hi-def, you need an HDTV—and most observers say you need at least a 42" set to really notice the difference. If you sit far away from your set, you may not really notice the difference even then—and some people won’t notice or won’t care regardless. That’s not snobbery. It’s been demonstrated that a substantial percentage of people who buy HDTVs never actually hook them up to hi-def signals, and aren’t aware that they’re missing out.
By my old standards, hi-def absolutely won’t matter this year: Too few players at too high prices, too little advertising—and way too few discs. There are rentals: Netflix has already integrated hi-def into its system. Why not? The discs are the same size and weight and don’t cost much more.
Will it matter in 2007? I’d be surprised, at least as a mass market medium. But if the format war—and apparent premature release of the first players for each format—don’t sink hi-def discs altogether, it could become a significant niche medium in 2007 or 2008, with a few million players in use. At that point, more affluent libraries in communities with lots of early adopters will want to consider putting a few hundred bucks into small hi-def collections—maybe.
Based on mass-market criteria, I’d ignore the area for a year or two. But given the niche possibilities, I think it’s worth covering in some detail. If you think this is too much detail, skip the rest of the article or go to the last section.
Because the two formats are receiving so much media attention, I’m noting each writeup of an early player or drive. This early coverage is also commentary on the hype machine itself: The ease with which some journalists proclaim huge success under almost any circumstances.
Toshiba produced the first high-density drives to reach the retail market: the $799 HD-XA1 and $500 HD-A1. Both units are Pentium-based computers running Linux; both units are nearly identical in performance. Some observers believe that Toshiba is taking a substantial loss on every HD-A1 sold. Toshiba also produced a Qosmio notebook with an HD DVD player that’s also a CD and DVD burner. As of this writing, no HD DVD recorders have appeared.
Pages 61-64 of the June 2006 issue offer a “special test report” of the HD-XA1. The piece begins with “the three most important things you should know” about the device: It’s a computer; “Like any computer—especially one with a new, unproven operating system—it performs well on some functions, but not others”; “If you can get past the ‘not others,’ then you’re in for one very serious ride.” [Emphasis added: That “new, unproven” operating system is Linux.]
That second point sounds like Big Trouble Ahead. The reviewer says HD DVD is “a giant success,” based on half a dozen movies and one player. HD DVDs “crushed” standard DVDs “every time” and “were better than virtually every HDTV broadcast of film-based content I could find”—and I’d expect both statements to be true. You get lots of details on what HD DVD buys you (recognize grainy film stock in Million Dollar Baby, see more saturated colors, get more detail). Sound is superior. It saves bookmarks—“Awesome!”
It also took 80 seconds from power-on to getting a menu and 50 to 70 seconds to recognize a new disc. Other actions were also sluggish.
If you have the right equipment and all, HD DVD offers much better video and significantly better sound than regular DVD. Will that matter enough?
The October 2006 issue reviews five high-def discs, one of them—Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—available in both formats. Blu-ray doesn’t come off as well as HD DVD (one assumes they were using the corrected Samsung player, see below); it does better in Species and Stealth. The Fugitive comes off well in HD DVD; Van Helsing just fair. All of these are judgments on high-def picture and sound quality, not on the movies themselves. Who expected Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to be the pinnacle of quality cinema?
A 1.5-page July 2006 feature offers a quick comparison of Blu-ray vs. HD DVD and reviews Toshiba’s $499 HD-A1. It’s a 2.5-dot (out of five) review, mediocre by any standards. The Toshiba is “a classic early-adopter product, with its well-hyped bling, clunky feel, technical limitations, minimal software support, and relatively steep price tag.” The HD-A1 is “essentially a large Linux-powered PC with an HD DVD drive.” They call the menu system “outstanding” and the remote control “awkward.” The HD-A1 does a good job of “upscaling” DVDs but there’s a “noticeable difference” between those and true HD DVD. As with other reviews, the biggest problem with the player is “brutal waiting times.” Still, even with a mere 20 movies available, on a set at least 42" or larger, “it could be worth it. Yes, at times the video is just that good.”
The August 8, 2006 issue includes a review of the Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV650, the first notebook PC with a built-in HD DVD drive. The half-page review concludes that the HD DVD drive holds back the unit as a whole. While the 17" LCD has 1900x1200 resolution, a “17-inch screen doesn’t do HD justice.” The drive is a burner—but only for DVDs, not HD DVDs. At three dots, this $3,000 unit is no bargain.
A three-page “news & trends” piece in July 2006 discusses both formats and offers an odd “test” of the Toshiba HD-A1 (not the XA1). The video was “eye-catchingly brilliant” and offered a clear advantage over regular DVD—but the player is bulky, sluggish, and has an awkward remote. The article also includes a quick note on the $3,000 Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV650 notebook—and two early Blu-ray devices, Pioneer’s $1,000 BDR-101A drive and Sony’s $3,500 laptop, both of which will burn as well as playback (although the Pioneer only burns Blu-ray discs). It took about 45 minutes to burn 22GB onto TDK BD-R media—that’s the equivalent of five regular DVD-Rs. “[Y]ou may be best off waiting a bit to take the high-def DVD plunge.”
“High-def DVD: Why you should hit ‘pause’” (August 2006) gives the conclusion away in the title. CR’s tested the Toshiba and found “sharper, more detailed images than regular DVD”—but has seven reasons you should consider this “more a development to track than a technology you should invest in now”: The format war, expensive early players, the likelihood that you’ll only get full hi-def disc performance from a 1080p-capable HDTV, glitches in early players, lack of some promised features, tight availability—and “other sources of HD movies are growing.”
The August 2006 issue features a silly “gearworks” piece in which Geoffrey Morison disassembles a Toshiba HD-XA1 and shows what’s inside. No big surprise: it’s a Linux PC. Morrison feels obliged to say, “If it ran Windows, it would take five minutes to boot and crash all the time.” That’s nonsense—it’s hard to see how a Windows box could take longer to start up than the Toshiba does, and XP rarely crashes—but it’s true that it would be nuts to use Windows for a dedicated system like this. The review itself, of the HD-XA1, is enthusiastic about picture quality and tries to minimize the flaws of the player while acknowledging some of them. (If you touch remote buttons a little too hard, the remote signals twice and the player ignores the command. Keep trying and the player locks up.) This review clarifies what you get for the $300 difference between the HD-A1 and HD-XA1: a backlit remote, a motorized door, and a “better enclosure.” A one-page roundup covers the dozen HD DVD titles available when the issue came out. Other than Serenity (the instant demo disc), one question is how many of these dozen you really want to see again.
The October 2006 issue reviews four HD DVD discs, which may give some idea of the star material that’s coming out: The Dukes of Hazzard and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (the only one that gets a full five-eyeballs for video quality), along with Lethal Weapon and Enter the Dragon (which doesn’t look that much better than the DVD). Incidentally, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a twofer: one side’s DVD, the other’s HD DVD.
The July/August 2006 issue reviews the more expensive Toshiba, again an enthusiastic review despite flaws. “Overall, I’d say that Toshiba’s first foray into the brave new world of HD DVD is a big success.” The summary box includes several of the problems—including one I didn’t notice elsewhere: If you hit Stop instead of Pause, you’re SOL—the disc restarts from the beginning, not from where you left off.
In the September 2006 issue, the “Industry insider” section cites a June Samsung forecast that high-def formats will sell some 620,000 machines this year—400,000 players and 220,000 recorders, 60% Blu-ray, 40% HD DVD. That seems optimistic given the current state of affairs. The forecast goes on to show wild growth, up to around 47 million devices sold in 2010. Anything’s possible, I suppose. The same section notes that Samsung’s not ready (yet) to produce a universal high-def player. LG Electronics does plan such a player.
A comparative review in the September 2006 issue considers laptops with hi-def drives: Toshiba’s $3,000 Qosmio G35-AV650 with an HD DVD player, and Sony’s $3,499 VAIO VGN-AR190G with a Blu-ray burner. Both units have high-gloss 17" screens with 1920x1200 resolution (the Toshiba may be brighter); both have a 2GHz Intel Core Duo T2500 CPU, 1GB RAM and 200GB disk, both are hefty (10.4lb. for the Toshiba, 8.3 for the Sony); and the Toshiba will only output 1080i to an external TV, while the Sony exports 1080p. There are problems with the DVD playback software on the Sony; playback wasn’t as smooth as on the Toshiba. Given that the Toshiba’s less expensive, had much better battery life, and offered smoother playback, it got a higher rating: 86 (very good) to the Sony’s 79 (good)—but only the Sony can write 25GB to a disc.
A “plugged in” note in the same issue discusses Ricoh optics to make universal players easier to build, but the writer also says the whole situation has turned him off: “[D]o me a favor and wake me in a couple of years, when multiformat drivers should be available and possibly even affordable.”
Blu-ray drives took longer but were still apparently rushed to market, as were the discs. On the other hand, Blu-ray recorders—built into Sony VAIO PCs and as internal drives available for sale—were available well before any HD DVD recorders, and Blu-ray was the first to be available from more than one vendor. (There’s an RCA HD DVD player, but it’s just a Toshiba with an RCA label.)
The August 8, 2006 issue reviews the first PC with a built-in Blu-ray burner, Sony’s $2,250 VAIO VCG-RC310G. It’s “fast and attractive” and can burn single and dual-layer Blu-ray discs (the latter holding 50GB), but the process isn’t that fast: 22GB took 44 minutes to burn and another 44 to verify. “The temperamental drive keeps us from recommending this system wholeheartedly.”
In the August 22, 2006 issue, the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player gets a strong four dots despite its $1000 price and complaints about the remote control. The brief review includes this telling phrase: “While most of us await an affordable player that supports both of the HD disc formats…”
Sony’s $3,500 VAIO VGN-AR190G notebook gets 3.5 dots; it includes a Blu-ray burner, but the playback software’s apparently buggy and the drive’s very slow: 90 minutes to burn 22GB on a recordable disc, three hours on a rewritable. The advice: It’s a great laptop. But hold off on taking the HD plunge until Sony hammers out some software issues—and more Blu-ray titles hit the shelves.”
The cover story for September 2006, “Hurray for Blu-ray!” links to a five-page technical discussion of Blu-ray (and comparison with DVD) and mixed review of the $1,000 Samsung BD-P1000. On the plus side, the Samsung does produce 1080p output, is twice as responsive as the Toshiba (47 seconds from power up to first image) and has enough sense to pick up from where you left off if you hit Stop, then Play. It also (unlike the Toshiba) decodes color correctly and yields good 720p output. Unfortunately, the first Samsungs also had noise reduction turned on in a video chip, resulting in softening of the ultrasharp image: It just didn’t look like true high-def. That problem should be fixed in most production players. As with the Toshiba, the favorable review boils down to “it’s gonna be great.”
A sidebar in the technical section describes Sony’s Terre Haute (IN) disc manufacturing facility, which should have a dozen Blu-ray lines in operation by the time you read this. October U.S. capacity is nearly five million discs per month, of which up to 1.5 million can be 50GB dual-layer discs. The most interesting part: Where DVDs are mastered in a 12-step, “environmentally unfriendly, physically distributed routine,” BD mastering is a five-step single-box process—faster, more compact, easier on the environment, and yielding discs that have a tough topcoat right out of the box, “tougher and more scratch-resistant than either CDs or DVDs.” Sony expects Blu-ray costs to be 15% higher than DVD by this fall—does that mean 6.9 cents (see below)?
The August 2006 issue includes a half-page test report of a lesser-known Blu-ray drive: the I-O Data BRD-UM2/U, $999. Unlike the first drive they tested (the Pioneer BDR-101A), this one also burns CD and DVD discs. Otherwise, its performance is similar to the Pioneer for BD-R discs. It’s a lot slower for rewritable BD-RE: almost 98 minutes to format a disk and packet-write 22GB of data, as compared to less than 45 minutes to master 22GB to a BD-R disk. Still, the BRD-UM2/U does everything (except HD DVD): dual-layer multi-format DVD, CD, even DVD-RAM. It comes with a strong software bundle and gets a high 87 rating.
A full-page September 2006 review calls Samsung’s Blu-ray player “well-crafted but pricey,” notes that it’s quieter than the Toshiba and has a better display (as well as having faster navigation and more intelligent choices). Either the noise-reduction problem had been solved by this time or PC World’s reviewer was less critical; she found the two formats comparably stunning.
The September 2006 cover’s upbeat: “Blu-Ray Blasts Off! Exclusive! World’s First Player Tested: Samsung’s $1,000 Beauty. World’s First Discs: 4 Movies Go Head to Head.” You gotta love “Exclusive!,” since other magazines in this genre also reviewed the Samsung player in the September issue and PC reviewed it in an August issue.
The writeup, “Blu Adventure: Unraveling the mysteries of Samsung’s Blu-ray player,” is more subdued. It’s more about the mystery than anything else—why didn’t the picture look a lot better? I’ve noted the apparent answer above; this discussion goes into more detail on the process leading up to the discovery and other aspects of the BD-P1000’s performance. The reviewer found no difference between 1080i and 1080p output (1080p is one edge the Samsung has over the Toshiba)—and it turns out there are good reasons that, for movies at least, there shouldn’t be any difference. On the plus side, the Samsung yielded the best sound quality the reviewers have ever heard from a DVD (via uncompressed high-res PCM), does a great job of upconverting regular DVDs, looks good (it’s a handsome design), and works faster than the Toshiba. On the minus side…well, it gets stranger here, because they were able to review a second player with the noise reduction turned off. The picture was better, but variably so, which may be the fault of the early discs or may mean that more work is needed on the player’s electronics. It’s conceivable that compression techniques are partly to blame: Most early HD DVD discs are dual-layer 30GB discs using VC-1, while almost all early Blu-ray discs are single-layer 25GB discs using MPEG2, which doesn’t compress as much. Right now, HD DVD wins for picture quality.
“4 movies go head to head” is a review of the first four Blu-ray discs they could get their hands on—and since none of the four gets better than a “Good” rating for picture quality, there’s little point in discussing them (sound quality was exceptional in some cases). Except for one thing: Not only didn’t the movies have any new extras, some stripped out some of the extras from the DVD. Pay more, get less: What a concept!
Yes, this October 2006 review of the Samsung BD-P1000 was a little late. But it comes with the same gonzo extra as Home Theater’s Toshiba review: Geoff Morrison disassembling a player to show what it looks like inside. The point? The Samsung’s innards look a lot more like a regular DVD player than the Toshiba Linux box—and the MPEG decoder chip is the same one used in the Toshiba players. The review itself is subtitled “The war begins…with a whimper.” That’s appropriate. The Samsung had better ergonomics than the Toshiba, a better remote, better response time—and the visual problems already mentioned. Morrison believes it’s as much the fault of the DVDs as the player. He says you’ll have to wait and see. “In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying HD DVD.”
“10 reasons why high definition DVD formats have already failed”—posted June 21, 2006 at Audioholics online a/v magazine (www.audioholics.com)—calls the HD DVD/Blu-ray war “the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen in a long time” and offers ten reasons “HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc will never turn into the dominant formats for digital media viewing”—which, I would note, is quite different from “failed.” (As a parallel, I can’t imagine any ebook observer who would call ebooks a “failure” if they had 25% of the book publishing market—even though that wouldn’t make them the dominant format for book reading.)
The ten reasons? There’s a certain amount of condescension for “Billy Bob” and other ordinary consumers, but some reasons seem sound—including the obvious “format wars don’t sell players.” HD DVD and Blu-ray don’t offer the convenience breakthrough that DVD did; “studios are conservative, greedy and unmotivated” to provide the mass release of high-def titles that we need; Sony’s Playstation3 (which will include a Blu-ray player) isn’t going to save the day; and the newfound skepticism of the media certainly doesn’t help. Some seem less significant—e.g., the “false start” of the first Toshiba HD DVD players without support for the highest resolution video or audio.
An August 29, 2006 story in the Los Angeles Times is surprisingly upbeat about high-def, even as it’s a movie-industry story highlighting the importance of continued growth in DVD sales. The sale of nine Samsung Blu-ray players in a West LA Best Buy is “poetry to Hollywood’s ears,” as some sort of indication that high-def DVDs will take off. Why is this important? “The DVD go-go years are over.” Not that DVDs aren’t selling, but sales are no longer growing rapidly—and people won’t buy crappy movies for $20 these days.
The story shows how much studios loved DVDs: They could “make and market one for $5 and then sell it to consumers for more than $17, a tidy profit of at least $12 bucks per disc.” How much cash could that generate? Finding Nemo is the all-time DVD bestseller: $537 million—even more than its astonishing $340 million U.S. box office. Not that sales are either small or falling: Expectations are about 3.2% more sales this year, for about $24.6 billion. Studios also rip off the creative artists (gee, that’s new)—royalties are typically based on 20% of net income.
It’s a somewhat cynical story, saying many people have “rafts of the shiny jewel cases they’ve never even opened.” (Hmm. DVDs normally don’t come in shiny jewel cases; they come in longboxes that are typically not all that shiny. Never mind.) Maybe that’s true in LA; do most of you have tons of DVDs you have no expectation of ever watching?
Studio people are optimistic. One Fox executive expects a 10-20% household penetration (presumably for Blu-ray, which Fox is backing) “next Christmas” (2006 or 2007?) and 50% household penetration within four years. Given that you probably can’t tell the difference from regular DVD on anything smaller than a 42" screen, that seems unlikely.
Reuters had a breathless story on September 26, 2006, on how “New technology could nip DVD format war in the bud.” It’s a blurb for New Medium Enterprises (NME), an outfit that says it can reliably produce multilayer discs “containing one film in different, competing formats.” Actually, NME talks about the discs; the “competing formats” idea appears to come from the journalist. Since both HD DVD and Blu-ray already provide for multiple layers, it’s not at all clear that NME could legitimately produce a dual-format disc (other than as a two-sided disc, which is already theoretically possible). Maybe they could, but just having a high-yield multilayer process isn’t the only issue. One interesting note in the article: Apparent production costs for single-layer DVDs are around six cents. Six cents. Toward the end, it gets stranger: NME talks about discs with up to ten different layers—and it’s created its own player. Which means yet another incompatible format.
Don Labriola provides an excellent overview in “Battle of the New DVDs,” PC Magazine 25:17 (October 3, 2006). He provides some of the backstory (including how Hollywood’s increasingly paranoid DRM requirements delayed both launches), notes that both players and discs were rushed to market “and many of them look it,” and generally offers a crisp overview. Sidebars offer quick summaries of the five units PC has reviewed to date (the Toshiba player and Qosmio notebook for HD DVD, Pioneer’s Blu-ray burner, the Samsung Blu-ray player and Sony VAIO notebook) and a “bottom line” page saying “it’s way too soon now for most people to buy” and indicating when some missing features might show up. Two side-by-side comparisons are particularly interesting. A face-off provides similar format comparisons to ones I’ve seen before and notes which studios currently claim exclusive support for one format: Universal for HD DVD, Disney, Fox, Lionsgate, MGM, and Sony for Blu ray, with Warner and Paramount supporting both. Then they offer “our picks right now and in the future”—and if you read them carefully, you’ll see their take is basically mine. While HD DVD has advantages right now (picture quality, selection and cost), they anticipate that “when the smoke clears” everything will be tied—except picture quality and disc selection, where they expect Blu-ray to emerge as the winner.
The question above was “When will it matter?” Another version of that question drops the first word. Given the results of several years’ experience with hi-def audio (SACD and DVD-A), “will it matter?” is a reasonable question with no clear answer.
I’m not in the “heavenly jukebox” crowd; I believe millions of people like to own their movies and TV series and will continue to buy physical discs—particularly given the vagaries of DRM in the download market. Not that people won’t also download for a fee; there’s plenty of room for multiple preferences. I don’t believe downloading will be the doom of hi-def DVD.
Indifference is another matter. People love widescreen TVs (although most people still don’t have them). Most widescreen TVs are also HDTVs—but many buyers never actually watch HDTV, because they don’t realize that they need to tune to different over-the-air channels or buy a different tier of cable or satellite service. If people don’t care about true HDTV, they may not care about hi-def optical discs. But for now, it’s just too early to tell.
As to the format war, here’s my own take, as of early October. If there’s any life at all in this marketplace, Blu-ray is the likely winner—even though the initial players are absurdly overpriced. Why?
Marketing. Ad dollars. Visibility. Sony and partners (primarily Sony, I suspect) are running lots of multipage ads in lots of magazines pushing the wonders of Blu-ray. The magazines are well chosen: home theater, technology, lifestyle, affluent households. Meanwhile, there have been one or two HD DVD ads, but no big, ongoing campaign.
As for my other benchmark—what shows up in Sunday store flyers?—HD DVD’s early lead was wasted, with two tiny ads in two Sears flyers over three months. Blu-ray’s starting to show up now, and it’s showing up in more inserts, although still not enough to be meaningful. Then there’s the software. Overstock is already selling both formats, typically at around $20; Amazon has generally set a $20 price as well. Including all items marked “In stock” or “Typically ships in 1-2 days,” I see 46 Blu-ray releases and 36 odd HD-DVD releases as of October 17, 2006.
You can be certain of one thing. Unlike videocassettes, you can keep buying DVDs with no fear that they’ll be useless in any near future. I believe that high def players will either stall completely or enter the marketplace fairly slowly—but in any case, both formats will absolutely play regular DVDs, and make them look better in the process.
Unless you’re supporting a film studies department, can sit back and watch the drama unfold.
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