Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 8, Number 3: March 2008

Perspective: Tracking High-Def Discs

The first Cites & Insights mention of HD DVD or Blu-ray was in the Spring 2005 issue (C&I 5:5)—oddly, in a Following Up section that wasn’t following anything up. (It should have been a Quick Take.) By then, the two formats had been announced but neither had reached the U.S. market. I believe the precursors to Cites & Insights (Trailing Edge Notes, later Crawford’s Corner) did a good job of tracking DVD from the time it was suggested until the time it was a must-buy for libraries, so I thought it might be worth doing the same tracking for high-def discs. In Spring 2005, the news was that a January 2005 story on backwards compatibility was fundamentally erroneous, somehow managing to suggest both that HD DVD discs would be playable on DVD players (wrong) but that Blu-ray players might not be able to play regular DVDs (not impossible, but wildly implausible if Blu-ray’s proponents had any hope of success).

There’s been a fair amount of misinformation and peculiar speculation ever since, together with a format war that shouldn’t be necessary. As usual, the publicity machines get rolling long before commercial products reach the market in any number. I thought the high-def disc process would take long enough that libraries could (and should) wait and that I’d be able to predict the point at which most libraries should be interested. I still think that’s true—and I think that point may be approaching. [18]

Not as straightforward as DVD vs. VHS

The situation with high-density discs isn’t comparable to that of DVDs. DVDs are so clearly superior to VHS (with the possible exception of longevity under library circulating conditions), and are so much cheaper to produce that consumers and producers alike had strong reasons to move to DVD. The pictures are clearly superior on almost any TV (let’s say “any TV in proper working order”). DVDs began providing more than just the flick almost from the beginning. Studios learned rapidly that it made sense to sell loads of $20 DVDs from day one, instead of selling a few $99 videocassettes to rental stores and eventually bringing out $20-$25 versions. (Now, they bring out $15 and $10 and $6 DVD versions after a year or two.) The compact size, high capacity and direct-access capabilities of double-layer and double-sided DVDs, and the absurdly low manufacturing cost, opened a whole new retail market—full-season sets of old TV shows. It was not unreasonable to predict that DVDs would move rapidly into the mass market once they reached early adopters and that they would push VHS off the market after a few more years.

High-def discs don’t have those advantages. Yes, the picture’s better—on the right TV sets, if you care. You need an HDTV to gain anything from a high-def disc. While most people out to buy new TVs in 2008 will almost certainly buy HDTVs, that wasn’t true in 2005—and it still seems to be true that a very high percentage of HDTV owners don’t watch HDTV. They think the “Available in HD” logo at the bottom of the screen means they’re watching HDTV—but it doesn’t. It means that the program can be seen in HDTV, not necessarily on the channel you’re watching.

If you’re not watching HDTV and don’t see that you’re missing anything, you’re not a potential customer for high-def discs. If you are watching HDTV, you may or may not notice or care about the difference between upscaled DVD and high-def discs. After all, plain old DVD offers considerably better video quality than SDTV. There’s no difference in convenience. So far, a few hundred flicks and maybe one or two TV shows are on high-def discs as compared to tens of thousands of DVDs. People have purchased DVDs much more than they ever purchased videocassettes, and may be less inclined to replace those DVDs. And, of course, DVD players (even upsampling ones) are now commodity products, while high-def players started out brutally expensive ($500 to $1,000 and more) and are still pricey (typically $200 to $300 or more—sometimes a lot more). The discs are more expensive too, but that’s not a big deal—$25 to $30 for high-def discs as compared to $20 for new-release DVDs (but $5 to $10 for older flicks). Finally, let’s not forget the effects of format wars on some sensible people: They’d just as soon postpone a purchase until it’s straightened out.

All of which meant that my first prediction was the easiest: “It [high-def disc impact] won’t be as fast as DVD itself.” I also said “but it will come”—and I still believe that, although “an impact” may not ever mean replacing DVDs. [19]

Where we’ve been, where we are

I hope long-time readers have found my ongoing coverage useful. In June 2006 I said, “If I had to bet on one of the formats, I’d bet on Blu-ray” because it had the best technology and the broadest range of supporters—but also that, if I was a librarian, “I’d wait a year or two to see what develops.” I also said the 2007 holiday season might be crucial: “If players aren’t selling by the hundreds of thousands and there aren’t thousands of discs, both formats may be headed for niche status or failure.” Depending on your definition of “players” and “hundreds,” it’s hard to judge the first half of that statement—but the second half’s clear enough: As of the end of 2007, there were at most a few hundred films available in each format, and sales are apparently on the order of one or two percent of DVD sales. Headed for niche status? Maybe, unless movie studios eventually force the issue. Failure? Not for both formats, at least not in my opinion.

Toward the end of 2006 I said that, unless you were in a library supporting a film studies department (in which case you should have already been buying high-def discs in both formats, since they were cheap and extremely useful for film studies), you could sit back and wait. I think that was a reasonable statement for all but the most affluent public libraries.

In October 2007, I offered current guesses—and I think they were on the money. “At least one Blu-ray player at $400 or less” was available by Christmas (albeit just barely under $400). Five or six brands of Blu-ray did outsell the one (or two) brand(s) of HD DVD, and of course PlayStation 3 outsold HD DVD players many times over. Blu-ray discs continue to outsell HD DVD—apparently at an increasingly lopsided rate. I said the war would continue in 2008 with no clear winner. Since I said “in” rather than “through” 2008, I can waffle on that one. Finally, I said that if your users are asking for high-def, there’s no reason to hold off. True then. True now.

What has happened between then and now is that most retail chains that carry video players also carry high-def players, and most places that carry substantial quantities of DVDs also carry high-def discs. Sears regularly advertises two or three brands of Blu-ray player, occasionally one HD DVD. The big electronics chains typically advertise three or four Blu-ray, one HD DVD, and one or both of the brand-name combo players. Target, Wal-mart, you name it—they sell at least one high-def player and they’re probably selling both varieties of high-def discs. [20]

Bias and Perception

Is my ongoing coverage of high-def discs unbiased? I’d like to think so. I admire Sony as a technology innovator, but I detest Sony’s role in the DRM fiasco. I write at a Sony LCD display and we watch a 10-year-old Sony XBR TV set, but my wife uses a Toshiba notebook, so we’re supporting both prime players.

On the other hand, it seemed clear from the start that Blu-ray had two advantages over HD DVD, one small and one big, that made it an odds-on favorite if one format was to win out. The small advantage: Two-thirds more capacity per data layer. The big advantage: Sony learned from Betamax and got lots of manufacturers to support Blu-ray. At this point, I see five or six brands of Blu-ray players, two brands of dual-format players, and still just one brand of HD DVD player being advertised in stores.

Some people went out on the other limb—and once you’ve adopted a position, it’s tough to admit you might be wrong. Lance Ulanoff of PC Magazine says he declared Blu-ray a doomed technology way back in mid-2006. In a December 4, 2007 “First word” column, he admits that it’s still around and continues with an analysis that strongly suggests a bias. He refers to “Sony” and Toshiba, not mentioning the other major players behind Blu-ray. He says “you can burn 50GB discs with Blu-ray, while HD DVD has a 30GB limit,” but that overlooks the fact that Blu-ray burners are available in a number of different units, where as far as I can tell HD DVD burners are barely on the market. (Toshiba does offer an HD DVD burner—on a $3,200 laptop.) Ulanoff “officially” retracts his claim of doom for Blu-ray—but he sure comes off as an HD DVD partisan. [21]

The Format War

How many drives for either format have actually sold? That depends—on whether you include game consoles and whether you include just players or also burners within PCs. A late November 2007 claim from the HD DVD group is that 750,000 players (including Xbox 360 add-ons) had been sold in North America—but Sony sold 3.4 million PlayStation 3 consoles, all Blu-ray players, in North America. That’s more than a 4:1 ratio in Blu-ray’s favor even if no standalone Blu-ray players had sold.

Blockbuster says it will focus on Blu-ray when expanding high-def offerings in its stores, based on existing rental numbers. In the UK, Woolworth’s dropping HD DVD based on sales figures: Blu-ray discs were outselling HD DVD discs 10 to 1. Probably more significant than either of those: In early February 2008, Netflix—which has offered HD DVD and Blu-ray rentals since the formats became available—has announced that it only plans to offer Blu-ray in the future for those desiring high-def discs.

Warner Bros. had announced the Total Hi Def (THD) disc, with Blu-ray on one side and HD DVD on the other—but that was postponed from the 2007 holiday season until 2008. Here’s what I wrote in December 2007: “If I had to guess, I’d guess it will never appear as Warner Bros. seems likely to drop HD DVD entirely.” Good guess on my part. In January 2008 Warner announced it would drop HD DVD in spring 2008—a huge loss for HD DVD, since Warner was one of the biggest studios and was actively releasing in both high-def formats.

The supposed “big win” for HD DVD—Paramount and DreamWorks dropping Blu-ray releases—was expensive: $100 million to Paramount and $50 million to DreamWorks in the form of promotional support. Did it do HD DVD much good? Not so’s you’d notice. Toshiba’s also slashing prices on their players and ran a $2.7 million Super Bowl ad—but Gartner regards this as “useless resistance” in a somewhat hopeless quest. Wired’s online site includes a January 28, 2008 article concluding that HD DVD is toast. Perhaps more noteworthy: In the second week of January, only 15% of high-def disc sales were HD DVD, and not one of the top ten HD sellers was exclusively HD DVD. In 2007, Nielsen says HD DVD had about 35% of the (admittedly tiny) high-def market. (Ars Technica says that, the week after Warner announced it was going strictly Blu-ray, HD DVD player sales dropped from 14,558 to 1,758 while standalone Blu-ray player sales climbed from 15,257 to 21,770. That could be a meaningless curiosity. If it’s a trend, the writing is indeed on the wall.)

The December 2007 Perfect Vision includes a four-page article on the “war,” beginning with a somewhat questionable graphic—one that seems to show that studio support and released titles for the two formats are identical, that there are five “supporting disc-player brands” for HD DVD and ten for Blu-ray, that the cheapest Blu-ray player is $499 while there’s a $199 HD DVD player—and that HD DVD players have outsold Blu-ray by three to two. Which makes it really odd that Blu-ray discs outsell HD DVD discs so widely and you can only find one brand of HD DVD-only player in most stores, compared to five or six Blu-ray brands. Maybe you’ve seen ads for Onkyo or Venturer HD DVD brands; I haven’t. Those drive sales figures explicitly exclude game consoles and computers, areas where Blu-ray has an enormous lead over HD DVD. Other than the clear attempt to make the “war” more equal than it really is, the most interesting part of the story is research as to whether people care: When polled, only 8% of Americans were familiar with either HD DVD or Blu-ray—and only 3% planned to buy a high-def player. [22]

Players and Drives

Samsung released the BD-P1100 Combi Player. It’s the second player to handle both Blu-ray and HD DVD—with more complete support for HD DVD than LG’s first universal player. LG’s released a second-generation dual-format player with complete support. Both run about $800.

The September 2007 The Perfect Vision reviews Sony’s $499 BDP-S300 Blu-ray player, which does yield 1080p resolution, including 1080p/24 output for the growing numbers of TVs that can handle this. (1080p/24 yields ideal movie playback, since movies—not TV—are filmed at 24 frames per second). It offers a great feature set, great detail, gorgeous color, beautiful audio, support for the full range of writable CDs and DVDs (except, apparently, writable Blu-ray!). Deficiencies: The menu’s slow and the remote is ordinary. Sound and Vision for September 2007 also reviews the Sony BDP-S300 and finds it generally fine, with quick load times and a fine picture. The highlights box doesn’t mention slow menu response. It didn’t test well enough to earn S&V’s seal of approval.

The August 2007 PC World reviews two set-top players and an internal drive. The $700 Samsong BD-P1200 (Blu-ray) and $450 Toshiba HD-A20 both score well, although you have to wonder about a review that mentions “softer volume” (huh?) as one of the virtues of the HD-A20. The $1,200 LG GGW-H10NI Super Multi Blue BD/Drive/HD DVD Reader apparently performs well as a burner—but, as with other similar cases, it can only write to Blu-ray discs, not recordable HD DVD.

The October 2007 PC World gives a Very Good rating to the $299 Pioneer BDC-2202, a DVD burner that plays Blu-ray (making it temporarily the cheapest way to watch Blu-ray). It loses points for software compatibility issues and as a relatively slow DVD burner—although for most applications, 8X DVD, 4X dual-layer DVD and 24X CD-R/RW is fast enough.

An October 2007 group review of Blu-ray players in Home Theater is problematic because the reviewer has an obvious and open bias toward HD DVD (and a “cute” writing style, along with apparent editorial encouragement to abuse readers who disagree with him). That means you get “highlights” such as “1080p/24, for those who want it”—a snide aside suggesting most people don’t (early HD DVD players consistently lacked 1080p/24 support, leading this reviewer to dismiss it). Belittling features, praising Blu-ray drives only by comparison with his favored Toshiba—it’s an appalling demonstration of journalism gone bad. He reluctantly winds up with a “good” rating for the Samsung BD-P1200 and Panasonic DMP-BD10A—but adds a heading “Wait for Gen III?”

The October 2007 Perfect Vision includes a review of Toshiba’s HD-A20 (then $500), the first HD DVD player to provide 1080p playback. (Perfect Vision doesn’t dismiss that as “for those who want it,” and it appears that this player only does 1080p/60, not 1080p/24.) It’s $100 more expensive than another Toshiba model that sticks with 1080i. And, apparently, it doesn’t do a very good job with 1080p: The reviewer got a better picture by cutting back to 1080i and letting the TV do the heavy lifting. Conclusion? You’re better off with the cheaper HD-A2. (An earlier review in Home Theater came to similar conclusions.)

Here’s the first sign of an actual HD DVD burner: A December 25, 2007 PC Magazine review for the Toshiba Qosmio G45-AV680. The notebook costs $3,200, is heavy (9.9lb.), isn’t all that fast, and HD burning is much slower than Blu-ray burning, but if you really want to burn HD DVD, it’s now possible. As for recordable media, I looked at OfficeDepot and Fry’s/Outpost on January 31, 2008. OfficeDepot came up blank for HD DVD but had several Blu-ray writables. Outpost had one HD DVD recordable option, ten Blu-ray from five different producers.

Here’s a dual-format PC drive—writing Blu-ray, reading HD DVD: the $400 LG GGW-H20L Super Multi Blue BD Drive/HD DVD Reader. (Some model name!) The January 2008 PC World gives it a Very Good (87) overall review; it’s the second-generation “format agnostic” burner from LG, faster than its already-fast predecessor—and it’s full featured as a DVD/CD burner, including LightScribe labeling.

Overall? Dual-format standalone players have dropped below $1,000 and now offer full-featured playback for both formats. Dual-format computer drives are available—and at least one of them will burn Blu-ray to boot. Competition pretty much assures that Blu-ray players will keep getting cheaper and better no matter what happens to HD DVD: I don’t see Pioneer or Panasonic or Sharp or Samsung yielding the market to Sony. Although, in terms of overall sales, it’s going to take a lot for anyone else to catch up with those millions of Blu-ray drives in Sony PlayStation 3s. [23]

My Current Take

I’m no expert and I could still be wrong, but I think it’s reasonable to draw conclusions. I think there’s a chance the format war will end this year, but also a chance that it won’t (Toshiba is a stubborn and profitable company).

Ř      Most probable: Blu-ray becomes the sole commercially-viable format sometime in 2009 or possibly late 2008, but doesn’t become a true DVD replacement unless studios force the issue by abandoning DVDs (which I regard as unlikely but certainly not impossible).

Ř      Plausible: The two formats coexist indefinitely (with Blu-ray dominant), with very small shares of the market.

Ř      Implausible: HD DVD becomes dominant. Could happen, but I don’t see how.

Ř      Wild card: People don’t care about true high-def (probably true in too many cases), leaving degraded downloads and DVDs to make both Blu-ray and HD DVD irrelevant.

You think true high-def downloads will take over? With U.S. broadband capacities? I don’t see where the needed 10x-20x increase in broadband capacity to the average household is going to come from—but what do I know?

This is the year high-def discs, primarily Blu-ray, could reach 5% to 10% market penetration, with a larger minority of more affluent consumers using them. (On the other hand, Netflix reports that only 0.3% of subscribers viewed either high-def format in the June-August 2007 period, which suggests the formats have a long way to go to reach 5% to 10%.) That means many libraries in affluent communities might want to start stocking them. Apparently, quite a few of you already are (I heard 3% cited as a figure in late 2007), and probably sensibly. Otherwise—for most public libraries—I’d wait until your community reaction panels start indicating a desire for them.

As for durability? HD DVDs should be roughly as durable as regular DVDs, which could either be good or bad news—although I’m guessing that changes in DVD packaging may have reduced some causes of DVD failure (fewer packages use the push-to-release hub, a prime cause of overstressed hubs and cracked discs). Blu-ray is different in two ways:

Ř      The discs have special scratch-resistant surface coatings, coats that should resist casual damage considerably better than HD DVD, DVD or CD.

Ř      The information layer is much closer to that special surface—which means that you should not even consider using abrasive DVD/CD repair mechanisms for Blu-ray discs. There isn’t a thick enough layer to consider abrading it.

If you want to familiarize yourself with the technical details, Wikipedia’s “Comparison of high definition optical disc formats” is a good place to start. Wikipedia’s articles on the two formats are more difficult, depending on when you read them: A primary and very active editor for both articles (and the comparison) appears to favor HD DVD—and it shows, although overall editing seems to be tending toward something approaching neutrality. [24]

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 3, Whole Issue 100, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services,

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