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

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 8: June 2006


High-Definition Optical Discs: What You Need to Know Now

HD DVD. Blu-ray. They’re both 12cm. discs, the same size and thickness as CDs and DVDs. They’re both primarily designed for high-definition movies and other video, with three to five times the storage capacity and playback data rate of DVDs. They’re both either just on the U.S. market or just about to reach the U.S. market, after typical delays. Here’s what I believe you need to know now—as people and as librarians.

The Short Version

Unless your academic library supports a film studies department or your public library is extremely well funded and supports a high-income population of early adopters, you can and should ignore both high-def disc formats for at least a year and probably two years or more.

If your library started acquiring DVDs in the first half of 1997, you may be one of the rare exceptions. If you didn’t start until 2000 or later (and that delay served your patrons) then you need read no more: If you ever need high-def discs, it won’t be for at least a couple of years.

Film studies? You probably had a collection of 12" LaserVision discs until recently. If you already have HDTVs available, you’ll probably be acquiring both high-def discs fairly soon. The bad news is that there are two incompatible (for now) formats, and the early players are pricey. The good news is that the discs are priced closer to DVDs than to the old first-release videocassettes—and there won’t be enough of them this year to burden your budget.

A High-Def FAQ

For those who want more information or are considering early adoption at home, these notes may be useful. I’ve been tracking HD DVD and Blu-ray since they were first mentioned, but background for these questions and answers comes from four primary sources: James K. Willcox’ “The format war goes nuclear” in the April 2006 Sound & Vision, Gary Merson’s “HD DVD versus Blu-ray” in the May 2006 Home Theater,  a multiauthor special section on HD DVD & Blu-ray in the May 2006 Sound & Vision, and David Pogue’s overly-cynical “Why the world doesn’t need hi-def DVD’s” in the May 11, 2006 New York Times.

What do both formats have in common?

Ř    Both HD DVD and Blu-ray use blue-violet lasers (405 nanometer wavelength) to read 12cm (or 120mm) discs that are 1.2mm thick. Those physical dimensions are identical to DVDs and CDs (DualDiscs, which are CDs on one side and DVDs on the other, are slightly more than 1.2mm thick).

Ř    Both are designed for high-definition video, with up to six times the resolution of DVDs.

Ř    Both use heavier-duty DRM than DVDs: Advanced Access Content System in addition to other protections—but, unlike DVDs, both formats are supposed to provide a way to copy a movie to a hard disc or a portable player (“Mandatory Managed Copy”) while preventing further distribution. AACS can (but need not) include an “Image Constraint Token” that lowers component video output resolution to a maximum of 960x540, one-fourth the possible maximum resolution; that might partially cripple such discs for early adopters of HDTV (those whose sets don’t have HDMI or DVI/HDCP inputs). Studios have said they won’t use the token on initial releases.

Ř    Both will offer more advanced surround-sound options than DVDs with higher quality, more channels, and potentially many more alternate sound channels (for languages, commentary, etc.).

Ř    Discs should cost a few dollars more than new-release DVDs: Current projections are $35 to 40 suggested retail for new releases, $25 to $30 for older items. (Amazon already lists some discs in both formats, suggesting that discount prices will be $20 to $25+.)

Ř    HD DVD and Blu-ray players will also play DVDs and CDs. As with DVD players, there’s less assurance that any given player will handle all of the recordable variants.

Ř    Warner Brothers, Paramount, New Line, and HBO plan to release discs in both formats. Netflix plans to rent discs in both formats. HP, LG, and Samsung are backing both formats and plan to develop “universal” players that can handle both formats.

Ř    Discs that began as movies should be mastered as “1080p/24”—that is, 1920x1080 resolution, with a full frame at that resolution generated 24 times a second. (24 frames per second is the standard rate for movies, as opposed to 30 or 60 fps for video.)

Ř    Players for both formats will allow you to make menu selections while the picture is playing (or while pausing the selection). In practice, some DVD players already allow you to change options while a picture is playing but you have to make the changes using the player’s menu system rather than the disc’s menu system.

Ř    Recorders and burners (recording drives for PCs) will be available for both formats, probably within a year.

What’s different about HD DVD?

HD DVD was primarily developed by Toshiba, and its biggest strength is that it’s very similar to DVD—similar enough that the same production lines should be able to handle HD DVD with little adjustment. That should mean lower production costs for discs, at least initially. (The lowest information layer is 0.6mm from the surface. The laser spot size is 0.62 micrometers, as compared to 1.1 micrometers for DVD.)

Single-layer HD DVDs store 15GB of data, just over three times as much as single-layer DVDs. Dual-layer HD DVDs will store 30GB. HD DVD can transfer data at up to 36.55 mbps, as compared to 19.39 mbps for broadcast HDTV and 10 mbps for DVD. Note that these are all maxima—in the real world, most DVDs have much lower average data transfer rates, and the same will be true for high-def discs.

Most HD DVDs will use MPEG-4 or VC-1 (otherwise known as Windows Media 9) data compression, more aggressive compression schemes than the MPEG-2 used for DVDs. At least one Microsoft honcho claims that MPEG-2 “will not look as good” as VC-1 at the highest possible resolution (1920x1080 progressive). Notably, although HD DVD discs will supposedly be mastered at 1080p, the first generation of HD DVD players won’t output 1080p.

The royalty package for HD DVD players supposedly totals around $12 per player.

The first HD DVD players from Toshiba sell for $500 and $800 and are already on the market. (An RCA model that may be on the market is a Toshiba player with an RCA faceplate.) More will follow from other makers. Microsoft plans to offer an HD DVD drive for the Xbox 360 some time in 2006.

Interactivity on HD DVDs will be based on Microsoft’s iHD software, in turn based on XML.

Some studios will release dual discs, with a DVD on one side and an HD DVD on the other. In the future, three-layer HD DVDs might yield 45GB capacity.

Backers of HD DVD include Toshiba, Sanyo, Microsoft, NEC, and Universal.

What’s different about Blu-ray?

Sony is the primer mover behind Blu-ray—but it’s made every effort to build a strong coalition. The Blu-ray Disc Association includes more than 170 companies, including most of the consumer electronics companies that were on the “VHS side” in the first recorded video format war. While Blu-ray discs are the same size and thickness as DVDs, the primary information layer is a mere 0.1mm from the surface—and those discs have a new “scratchproof” coating to make such fine tolerances workable. The laser spot size is 0.48 micrometers.

Single-layer Blu-ray discs store 25GB of data, just over five times as much as single-layer DVDs. Dual-layer Blu-ray discs store 50GB of data. Blu-ray can transfer data at up to 48 mbps.

While Blu-ray discs could use MPEG-2, MPEG-4, or VC-1, most initial releases from core Blu-ray backers should use MPEG-2, including all of those from Sony-owned studios, which will aim for an 18mbps data rate. (Warner will use VC-1 for both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs.) Sony claims that MPEG-2 at the high data rates that Blu-ray’s capacity makes feasible will yield the best possible pictures. All Blu-ray players will support 1080p output.

The royalty package for Blu-ray supposedly totals around $30 per player.

The first Blu-ray players will list for $1,000 and $1,800. Samsung should have players out at the end of May or early June with Pioneer and Sony close behind. Sony’s PlayStation 3 includes a Blu-ray drive.

Interactivity on Blu-ray discs will be based on Blu-ray Disc Java (BD-J), itself based on Java.

While dual discs have been demonstrated using Blu-ray on one side, no studio has said it would release such discs. Multilayer Blu-ray discs holding 100GB have already been demonstrated.

Backers of Blu-ray include most PC and consumer electronics firms (Apple, Dell, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Sharp, TDK) and studios (Sony/Columbia/MGM, Fox, Disney/Miramax/ etc., Lions Gate). Almost every Hollywood studio belongs to the Blu-Ray Disc Association.

Why are there two formats?

Money, technology and ego. The primary developers on both sides covet the patent royalties. Sony and Blu-ray friends argue that the higher-capacity disc will be needed; Toshiba and HD DVD friends claim that HD DVD’s similarity to DVD will make the “transition” faster and easier.

Discussions toward a compromise took place over several months. Similar discussions (and a healthy shove from studios and computer makers) finally resulted in a single DVD format (two competing formats had been developed, but only one made it to market)—but this time, talks fell apart.

Who benefits from high-def discs?

The cynical answer is “studios and consumer entertainment companies”—but that’s only true if people decide high-def discs and players are worth buying.

The real answer is another question: When do high-def discs make a difference?

There’s a primary answer and a secondary answer. The secondary answer is so arcane at this point that it’s probably not worth worrying about.

Primarily, high-def discs matter if:

Ř    You have an HDTV with a large enough screen for the difference to be visible (At least 40" diagonal, although I’ve seen suggestions that 35" might be large enough). If you’re watching very close up, as you might (for example) on the forthcoming Toshiba Qosmio supernotebook with its 17" high-def screen and HD DVD player, you could also find the difference worthwhile.

Ř    You can see the difference between true high-definition TV (at least 720p) and regular DVDs (480i)/standard TV. Apparently, millions of people who own HDTVs don’t watch HDTV (they have an HDTV monitor and haven’t acquired an appropriate tuner or set-top box, or they have an HDTV but don’t know how to find HDTV stations) and aren’t aware that they’re missing anything.

Ř    You care about the difference. Nobody really knows how many people will find high-quality DVD, upscaled to HDTV resolution (although “upscaling” doesn’t add new picture information), “good enough” when compared to high-def discs.

Secondarily, the extra storage on high-def discs could matter in several special situations:

Ř    You don’t care much about the extra visual quality, but your golden ears are offended by the shortcomings in current DVD surround sound. High-def discs should have higher-quality sound and more channels.

Ř    You’re looking for language tracks that aren’t on current DVDs; with up to 32 channels, high-def discs could include a wide choice of dubbed or subtitled choices—although that requires that studios go to the expense of providing such choices.

Ř    You’re hot for interactivity. Increased data rates, more data space, and internet connectivity (which will be present in most players) could yield much more interesting interactions—but how many of you think much about DVD interactivity?

What happened in similar format wars?

Similarity can be hard to define, but here’s a quick take on several dual-format situations, offered chronologically:

Ř    Videocassettes: Betamax was first and better, but VHS had a longer recording time and more big companies behind it. Outcome: It took more than a decade for complete victory (actually 13 years, the period from Betamax’ introduction until Sony introduced a VHS recorder), but VHS won. (Betamax really wasn’t “first”—it was maybe fifth or sixth or tenth, but it was the first videocassette format to have any significant success in the home.)

Ř    High-definition audio: DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD) came out at roughly the same time, both using DVD capacity to store higher-resolution sound and surround sound. Outcome: In this case, nobody won: While DVD-A and SACD still exist, neither could be considered a success. Most SACDs were probably sold because they were compatible hybrids (dual-layer discs with one layer playing as a CD, the other as an SACD, e.g., some Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan releases), and it’s notable that Sony—originator of SACD—releases a few DVD-As and has basically scrapped SACD. A few high-end classical labels still release SACD. “DualDiscs” keep DVD-A in the market, but barely, particularly because some players can’t handle the slightly-out-of-spec CD side. The question that really can’t be answered is whether the dual failure is because there was a competition or because most listeners don’t care about surround sound and couldn’t hear the difference between CD and high-res audio. My guess is the latter. I would note that “universal players” became available within a year of the formats’ release, and eventually became affordable—but nobody much cared.

Ř    Recordable DVD: DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW emerged at roughly the same time (as did another format, DVD-RAM, which is primarily limited to specialized uses). Each format had certain advantages and a range of supporters. The advantages were subtle enough to be mysterious to most of us. Outcome: For most computer users, a draw: Virtually all modern DVD burners will handle all recordable and rewritable DVD formats except DVD-RAM.

Takeaways and Possibilities

This is my own conjecture. I’m not planning to invest in either format for some time, so I’m not actually betting on any of this.

People aren’t clamoring for high-def discs. When DVDs came out, they offered obvious advantages in picture quality, convenience, and extra features. The difference between high-def discs and DVD will, I suspect, be perceived by almost everyone as much less significant than the difference between DVD and VHS—and for most of us (everyone who doesn’t have a big HDTV), there is no useful difference.

That doesn’t mean (as David Pogue implies) that the only reason for high-def discs is because everyone has a DVD player and most everyone has most of the discs they want, and business wants to sell us all new players and resell the movies once more. There is a difference in picture quality almost everyone with good vision can see on good sets. Good high-def discs should yield significantly better pictures than broadcast and cable HDTV, just as DVDs yield much better pictures than standard-definition broadcast and cable TV. Despite his cynical lead Pogue admits, “The average person can see the difference in picture quality.”

I do not believe studios will try a muscle play, forcing people to buy high-def discs by dropping new DVD releases. The move to CD was in part a forced play by the record companies—but if you remember, studios didn’t stop releasing videocassettes until DVDs were already in most U.S. households (some videocassettes are still being released). Record companies would have loved to get us to buy all our CDs again in SACD or DVD-A form, but when we didn’t cooperate, the CDs just kept on coming.

My best guess is there will be a trickle of discs in both new formats for the next few months; optimistic predictions are that perhaps 200 in each format will be in stores by the end of the year.

A reasonably priced chipset is already available that can handle both high-def formats. I suspect we’ll see at least one “universal” player by this Fall, probably at no more than $600, and that we’ll see a steady stream of them next year—if there’s any real consumer interest in the high-def formats.

It’s quite possible that neither format will catch on with the public. This holiday season will tell part of the story, but the 2007 holiday season is probably critical: 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.

If I had to bet on one of the formats, I’d bet on Blu-ray. It has the best technology, the most studios, the broadest range of supporters—and although it’s theoretically more expensive, I note that Amazon’s prices for early Blu-ray (pre)releases are consistently as low or lower than HD DVD prices. But it’s a tough bet: You could make a good case for HD DVD as well.

For now—well, if I was a librarian, I’d wait a year or two to see what develops. Meanwhile, you know I’ll be following the story.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 8, Whole Issue 78, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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