Perspective: Tracking High-Def Discs
The Battle Continues
I’ve read that 3% of American public libraries are now buying high-def DVDs—Blu-Ray, HD DVD or both. If that’s what your community wants, more power to you. Blu-ray and HD DVD discs aren’t much more expensive than regular DVDs and Blu-ray discs are claimed to be more durable than regular DVDs (with a new scratch-resistant coating). I assume most of these libraries are in high-tech or media-oriented communities—or maybe they have requests and a few hundred dollars (or Friends commitment) to meet them.
Meanwhile, the battle of the formats continues with claims and counterclaims. A Reuters story by Thomas K. Arnold on April 23, 2007 quotes Home Media Magazine (a trade magazine) saying 70% of high-def discs purchased in the first quarter of 2007 were Blu-ray discs; in March, nearly three of four discs were Blu-ray. Maybe more telling: Warner released The Departed in both formats on February 13—and from then through March 31, 2007 actual purchases totaled 53,640 Blu-ray copies and 31,590 HD DVD. (Actually, it’s equally impressive that 85,000 high-def copies of a single movie sold in February and March—that’s not much compared to regular DVDs, but it’s not bad.) Total high-def disc sales in the quarter: nearly 1.2 million. It’s far from being a mass medium, but it’s beginning to be a significant niche.
A small Wired News item on April 18, 2007 was a “response” of sort from the HD DVD camp: More people have purchased dedicated HD DVD players than Blu-ray players. But the numbers are silly: 100,000 standalone HD DVD players in the U.S., plus another 150,000 Xbox360 drives—as compared to nearly 1.5 million Blu-ray drives, even if 1.4 million of those are in PlayStation 3s. And since Toshiba’s been on the market with HD DVD for more than a year, while the first dedicated Blu-ray players only appeared last fall…well, it’s a bit early to say “consumers prefer HD DVD.”
There’s a rather odd story in the May 28, 2007 Sydney Morning Herald, “Blu-ray versus HD DVD.” It seems to pitch the battle as being between Sony on one side and Toshiba backed by Microsoft and Intel—but that ignores Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, LG and others. The article makes much of Samsung “breaking ranks” with Blu-ray by announcing a dual-format player—but Samsung announced such a player before it ever produced a Blu-ray player (then backed off). And, sigh, the omnipresent Rob Enderle claims Wal-Mart will flood the market with cheap HD DVD players this Christmas. The story also says the “Blu-ray hard line has begun to crumble among Hollywood studios,” but there never was a hard line. Quoting C&I 6:8 (June 2006): “Warner Brothers, Paramount, New Line, and HBO plan to release discs in both formats… HP, LG, and Samsung are backing both formats and plan to develop ‘universal’ players that can handle both formats.” There are no “breaking ranks” here—but that makes a more exciting story.
“Blu-ray and HD DVD face off” in the June 2007 Home Theater (see later in “Player Reviews”) notes one oddity in comparing visual quality in the two formats: Most early Blu-ray releases were from Sony (Columbia et al) and were hurriedly done, with mediocre image quality—where Warner had dozens of well-mastered HD DVD releases available from the start. These days, by all accounts (including comparative reviews), current releases look equally good on both formats (most Blu-ray are apparently single-layer while most HD DVD are dual-layer, so storage capacity is similar).
In mid-July, Target announced it would sell Blu-ray drives but not HD DVD drives for the 2007 holiday season. That would appear to be a big competitive edge for Blu-ray. The HD DVD group pointed out that some Target stores (and Target online) do sell one HD DVD drive: The add-on to Microsoft’s Xbox 360.
PC World for May 2007 devoted eight editorial pages to a “High-def video superguide.” At this stage of the game, when a tease says “Which next generation movie format is better: Blu-ray or HD DVD? Who makes the best high-definition player? And how can you play high-def discs on your PC? We have the answers” my skepticism comes into play. I don’t believe that first question can be answered at this point, and the second can’t be answered without defining “best” arbitrarily. How does PC World answer these questions?
• While admitting that HD DVD players currently offer more interactivity (but movie titles may not support it and people may not care), the writer concludes that “Blu-ray for now appears to be a better gamble than HD DVD, if only for the greater number of movie studios supporting the format.”
• The comparison of players includes an astonishing nine units: Three HD DVD (two second-generation Toshibas and the Xbox 360 add-on) and six Blu-ray (from Samsung, Philips, Sony, Pioneer, Panasonic—and the Sony PlayStation 3). They give Best Buy honors to the $800 Samsung BD-P1000, but it’s clearly not the “best” player for every buyer or every purpose. In fact, the images judged best were from the Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 and Sony BDP-S1. Surprisingly, the $500 Toshiba HD-A2 was the only regular player in either format to score less than Very Good for Detail (the Xbox 360 drive scored only Fair because it can only output analog video: it’s rated as having “the worst picture and sound of the bunch by a wide margin”). For color quality, the HD-A2, Xbox 360, PlaySTation 3 and $1,300 Panasonic DMP-BD10 all scored Good rather than Very Good. The editorial advice is to wait another six months.
• A section on playing high-def discs on PCs says “it’s going to cost you—not only in cash but also…in frustration.” The writer was able to play Bu-ray movies but had trouble with HD DVD, mostly because of DRM. Notably, all of these attempts were with add-on players.
Some people don’t think it matters—for various reasons. Dan Costa opines that most people will download their HD movies (in a June 26, 2007 PC Magazine column); he’s one of those who believes consumers don’t want discs in any case.
PC Magazine had the story on April 10; so did lots of other outlets. Namely, in February, crackers posted code essentially breaking DRM on Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. This should have come as no surprise. Not that this means huge quantities of HD piracy—the movies run 15GB to 50GB, which is a pretty hefty upload or download. Will it convince studios to accept that DRM harms people and doesn’t help them? Not likely. It’s even possible that studios will choose to update the DRM in a manner that breaks older players. Oddly, the cracking seems to leave Blu-ray at an advantage: It has another DRM technology that might make it easier to trace the source of copied movies.
Sound & Vision (May 2007) gives high marks to Toshiba’s higher-priced second-generation HD DVD player, the $1,000 HD-XA2. It has better video processing (and distinctly better “upscaling” of DVDs), faster response, better stability and a smaller case. It’s the first high-def DVD player to reach the magazine’s “S&V’s Best” list—unless you count Sony’s PlayStation 3. You still don’t get 1080p/24fps output (the ideal for movies if your set can handle it properly), and it still won’t let you stop an HD DVD and pick up where you left off.
The April 2007 Sound & Vision includes a special report on the LG BH100 Super Multi Blue, a full-fledged Blu-ray player that can also play HD DVD discs—but without on-disc menus or special features. (It provides a generic navigation bar listing chapters and times.) It’s pricey ($1,200) and completely lacks CD support, but it does a fine job with high-def discs and upconverts regular DVDs fairly well.
That issue also reviews a high-end Blu-ray player, the $1,500 Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1. This player also leaves out CD support—and it’s on the slow side for startup and disc loading. It does a great job with Blu-ray video—maybe the best to date—and upconverts DVDs well. It does support 1080p/24fps output. Oddly enough, while the player won’t handle CDs, it will play a DVD full of MP3s or WMA files.
The April 2007 Home Theater has an odd comparison article of five high-def players, using Corpse Bride (available in both formats) to compare them. The $1,000 Philips BDP9000 “is essentially the Samsung BD-P1000” with a different case and better remote. Pioneer’s $1,500 BDP-HD1 takes the longest to boot up and play—“well over 90 seconds”—and yields a “pristine image.” Sony’s $500 PlayStation 3 only takes 25 seconds to go from Off to Play—but it doesn’t upconvert DVDs at all and its high-resolution output options are limited. A sidebar on the cheaper second-generation Toshiba HD DVD player (the $500 HD-A2) says there’s no visible difference between HD DVD and Blu-ray on the same movie—and while startup time has improved, it’s still more than a minute from Off to Play. Finally, Samsung’s BD-P1000 no longer has the “softness” issue it originally did—and now it seems that most of this apparent softness was from poor early Blu-ray source material.
A June 2007 Home Theater comparison discusses Toshiba’s second-generation high-end HD DVD unit, the $800 HD-XA2; the $1,300 Panasonic DMP-BD10 Blu-ray player; and the $1,300 LG BH100 Blu-ray unit that also plays HD DVDs. The Toshiba lacks 1080p/24fps output; it offers excellent picture quality and good DVD upconversion and is easier to use than the computer-disguised-as-a-player XA1—but it’s still noisy. (It plays DVD, DVD-R/W, and both prerecorded and recordable CD-R, but not DVD+R/RW.) The Panasonic also lacks 1080p/24fps but does offer Dolby Digital Plus and 7.1-channel analog output; it upconverts DVDs well. (It handles every flavor of DVD and CD, as well as DVD-Audio and various content formats such as MP3, WMA and SVCD.) The LG is a good Blu-ray player, peculiar HD DVD player and mediocre DVD player.
PC Magazine for May 22, 2007 offers side-by-side full-page reviews of two high-def set-top players, with mediocre ratings in both cases. The LG Super Blu Player falls down because of its limited HD DVD support and lack of 1080p/60 upconversion; it gets three dots out of five. Toshiba’s $800 HD-XA2 does a little better at 3.5 dots, with 1080p output and excellent performance—but startup time is still long and DVD video showed jaggies.
The June 26, 2007 PC Magazine reviews two Blu-ray drives. For $650, the external OWC Mercury Pro SW-5582 offers fast Blu-ray burns but relatively slow DVD burns. How fast? Just over 43 minutes to burn a 22.5GB directory structure into an ISO file. It comes without software and gets a 2.5-dot rating. For considerably more money ($1,050), the LaCie D2 Blu-ray Drive includes a good software bundle and offers comparable performance; it gets two dots. The comparable performance isn’t surprising: Both are external devices based on the Panasonic SW-5582 internal drive.
LG’s pricey dual-format player isn’t the only way to get around the war between HD DVD and Blu-ray. Some studios have been issuing dual-format discs with regular DVD on one side, either Blu-ray or HD DVD on the other. Now Warner plans a different dual-format option: “Total Hi Def” discs with a Blu-ray version on one side, HD DVD on the other. Supposedly, we’ll see such discs by the end of 2007; New Line and HBO also plan to release Total Hi Def discs.
This is my last high-def DVD commentary for calendar 2007—and products that will be significant for the holiday season should be on the shelves by the end of September. I don’t believe anyone expects to see huge sales of either format this year. Most estimates I’ve seen are in the low millions for players in the U.S. Here’s what I see and what I’m guessing for this year, noting that these are just guesses:
• Circuit City appears to be pushing HD DVD pretty hard, although not excluding Blu-ray. That’s interesting, given that Circuit City was the mastermind behind the miserable DivX (not the newer download format but the “cheap pay-per-play pseudo-DVD” disaster of a few years ago), and it’s the company that recently got such good publicity by firing its experienced salespeople because they actually made lousy wages instead of truly miserable ones. I’m not sure having Circuit City on your side is a big plus right now.
• Weekend ad supplements are all over the place, but Blu-ray with its several brands does show up more often than HD DVD. I’ve seen Blu-ray players in Sears flyers (but not yet in Target flyers). I’m seeing prices just below $500 for Blu-ray (including five flicks), which is still high for the holiday season. HD DVD’s down to $400, in some cases $300 on sale.
• I do expect to see at least one Blu-ray player at $400 or less before Christmas, but I could be wrong. I don’t expect to see either format selling like hotcakes except disguised as game consoles. I do expect that five or six brands of Blu-ray players will outsell one brand of HD DVD, and it seems probable that Blu-ray discs will continue to outsell HD DVD discs.
• The “war” will continue in 2008 with no clear winner. Personally, I’d still bet on Blu-ray for fairly obvious reasons—but I have very little faith in that guess.
• If your users are asking for high-def and you have the money, I see no reason to hold off—assuming you can deal with puzzled patrons who find that the discs won’t play on a regular DVD player. If your institution has a film studies course or department, you’re probably already buying what few Blu-ray and HD DVD discs have been released. Otherwise, take your time: The high-def formats could both fail (although I consider total failure of both unlikely), and if they succeed it’s going to take a while. Maybe next year…
• I don’t buy the idea that physical media are going away. Anyone who just wants to see something once can already rent their DVDs (we certainly do)—but people buy a lot of DVDs, and I don’t see why that would stop. The disc costs almost nothing to produce, you get extras that you can control on your own time and some of us suspect that pay-per-view will always winding up costing us more in the long run. Some people will prefer the “celestial jukebox.” Some is not all—not by a long shot.
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