The High-Def Disc Saga Continues
Most libraries still have no particular reason to invest in either HD-DVD or Blu-ray—except for film schools and other special cases, where you probably need both. Some of you will wind up with the occasional high-def disc in any case: Some studios are releasing two-sided discs with the movie in HD-DVD or Blu-ray on one side, DVD on the other. (One studio’s about to start releasing “universal hi-def” movies with HD-DVD on one side, Blu-ray on the other—but, presumably, will simultaneously release DVD versions as long as that’s where 95% of the business is.)
If I had to bet on either format, I’d still bet on Blu-ray for some of the same reasons that VHS beat out Betamax, even though Betamax was earlier (as was HD-DVD in the U.S.) and probably superior (which HD-DVD isn’t—it’s actually inferior, given lower capacity). To wit:
Ø One electronics company is carrying the torch for HD-DVD: Toshiba’s pretty much the whole picture. Meanwhile, there are already at least half a dozen companies producing Blu-ray players and drives, with more in the wings.
Ø Ads for HD-DVD show up once in a while. Ads for Blu-ray are all over the place. That’s specifically true at the local level. Most Sunday insert sections (at least around here) now include two or three brands of Blu-ray player and one HD-DVD.
Ø Blu-ray has already eliminated one disadvantage that Betamax shared, even though this disadvantage doesn’t affect most libraries: Sony, which had the first Blu-ray pressing facilities, doesn’t do porn. (Of course VHS was helped by early availability of porn, while Betamax suffered from Sony’s sensibilities.) By now, other Blu-ray plants are online with no such qualms.
Ø Not a part of the VHS-vs.-Betamax battle, but still: Blu-ray was a recordable technology from day one. There are still no consumer HD-DVD recorders on the market. PCs with HD-DVD can only play such discs, even though they can record regular DVD-R/DVD+R.
Ø HD-DVD’s initial pricing disadvantage is disappearing. The Samsung Blu-Ray player is readily available for $700, still higher than Toshiba’s $400-$500 entry-level model but a lot lower than $1,000—and the Sony PlayStation 3 turns out to be a sensational Blu-ray player for $500 or $600.
I could easily be wrong on this one. If Sony brings out an HD-DVD player, the game’s over: HD-DVD’s won. If Toshiba brings out a Blu-ray player, the game’s over: Blu-ray’s won. It’s equally possible that both will become as important as SACD and DVD-Audio, which is to say “not very.” I wouldn’t expect either format to become a clear winner for at least a year or two. (See the commentary section: Apparently Blu-ray is rapidly outdistancing HD-DVD even with HD-DVD’s big headstart, so my bet here may not be adventurous.)
Meanwhile, a recent Best Buy Sunday flyer lists the promised LG Blu-ray and HD-DVD player for $1,200 (OK, “$1,199.99”)—and Best Buy’s website shows it as currently available. This could be a sign that the feud will be as irrelevant as the DVD+R/DVD-R battle. But maybe not; apparently the device will play neither recordable Blu-ray nor any kind of CD.
Mostly, this is just a set of updates on progress in devices and commentary.
The November 2006 Sound & Vision reports on Toshiba’s second-generation HD DVD player, the HD-XA2, $1,000. The player finally delivers 1080p output and sends more color information over HDMI outputs. Still no second brand for HD DVD.
The January 2007 Sound & Vision has a three-player Blu-ray roundup, comparing the PlayStation 3 (as a Blu-ray player, not as a game system) with the $1,300 Panasonic DMP-BD10 and $1,000 Samsung BD-P1000 (updated to turn off the faulty noise reduction). Note that the PlayStation goes for $599 or less, which makes it the cheapest Blu-ray player on the market even if you never play a game. It’s also, apparently, a superior player: Excellent picture and sound, fast disc loading and control response, “future-ready” HDMI 1.3 connection. Three problems: The fan’s loud, it won’t upscale regular DVDs to high-def resolution—and it was hard to find a PlayStation 3 when the article appeared. It gets the Sound & Vision “Certified and Recommended” mark, their version of an Editors’ Choice.
The other two don’t fare quite so well, although both offer excellent Blu-ray playback. The Panasonic is very expensive and doesn’t load quickly (true of most high-def players: about three times the lag of the PlayStation). Picture quality is generally fine and it does play back DVD-Audio (a nice but niche feature), but there’s a visible defect on some discs (“chroma bug”). The Samsung finally delivers excellent picture quality but also has slow disc-load time. Neither the Panasonic nor the Samsung has an Ethernet port, which could limit future interactivity—if anyone ever adds that kind of interactivity.
The Perfect Vision for February 2007 declares a “World’s Best Blu-Ray Player!”—right on the cover. Once again, it’s the Sony PlayStation 3. It’s the cheapest Blu-ray player you can buy ($499 to $599) and much faster to load and play discs than higher-priced competitors. This review doesn’t mention noise as a problem but does mention the lack of upconversion (which doesn’t matter if your TV does a good job of scaling 480p video, as many do). Of course, you’re buying a very powerful game console rather than a dedicated set-top box, but nobody’s requiring you to play games.
A month later (March 2007), The Perfect Vision did its own three-player Blu-ray roundup, featuring the Panasonic DMP-BD10, the upgraded Samsung BD-P1000, and the $1,500 Pioneer Elite BDP-HD—the most expensive Blu-ray player on the market. The overview notes that there are now about as many Blu-ray movies as HD-DVD (125 in 2006 with another 300 expected this year). Scott Wilkinson says the format “is bound to have a bright future.” Wilkinson also compared HD-DVD and Blu-ray versions of the same movie, and unlike last fall’s Blu-ray problems, there’s no discernable difference. How do the players compare? The Panasonic is a near-universal player—it handles all discs except HD-DVD, including all Blu-ray recordables and DVD-Audio (it may not handle SACD: unclear). Excellent picture and sound, superb DVD upconversion, but sluggish and lacks 1080p/24fps output (relevant only for sets that can handle this “pure film” rate). The Pioneer can’t play CDs or recordable Blu-ray discs, unfortunately, although it does handle DVD and DVD-R/RW (but not DVD+R/RW). That’s a real drawback for a very expensive player—but it does offer “exquisite” detail, color and sound and has 1080p/24fps support. It also does good upconversion. Finally, the Samsung now behaves properly—but, unlike the flawed version, it won’t play Blu-ray recordables (BD-R/RE). It does play CDs (recordable and pressed), DVD and DVD-R/RW (not DVD+R/RW).
PC Magazine for September 19, 2006 reviews the Acer Aspire 9805WKHI, a $2,799 notebook with an HD DVD drive (HD DVD-ROM, not a burner). It gets a so-so three-dot rating for high weight (17.1 pounds!), continuing problems with the PowerDVD software, and mediocre graphics (nVidia GeForce Go 7600). On the other hand, it’s snazzy: a 20.1" display, 2GB RAM, and a 2.3 megapixel webcam built into the frame just above the display. At notebook viewing distances, 20.1" qualifies as big screen—but the beast weighs 17.1 pounds!
Much more plausible is the $2,530 HP Pavilion dv9000t, which gets Best Buy in PC World’s January 2007 laptop list: It weighs 8 pounds and the HD DVD-ROM drive will play HD DVD and burn every format of standard DVD.
The January 2007 PC World gives a Best Buy and very high 88 rating to Plextor’s $999 PX-B900A Blu-ray burner. It’s more expensive than some competitors but also quite versatile and includes an excellent InterVideo/Ulead software collection. As a Blu-ray recorder, it’s rated at 2X for single-layer (25GB) and double-layer (50GB) BD-R/RE discs. It writes DVD+R/W and DVD-R at 8X, DVD-RW at 6X, DVD-RAM at 5X (unclear whether it writes dual-layer DVD+R/DVD-R), and 24X CD-R, 16X CD-RW.
Scott Wilkinson makes an excellent point in his “color commentary” in the January 2007 Perfect Vision: Most early high-def movies are what he calls “high-def dreck.” Given how few movies are available in either format, it’s surprising that so many of them are (to be charitable) B movies. He doesn’t offer reasons, and I can’t imagine why The Devil’s Rejects would be one of the first high-def releases.
A March 15, 2007 Reuters story by Lucas van Grinsven reports a remarkable claim: The Blu-ray Disc Association says it aims “to replace the DVD storage format within three years.” Or maybe it was saying something different: the European chair is quoted as saying, “Within three years it will just be Blu-ray,” which could be claiming impending defeat of HD-DVD rather than plain DVD. I’d suggest that Blu-ray replacing standard DVD by 2010 is improbable.
More interesting: Apparently undisputed sales figures for both formats. HD DVD people admit that Blu-ray drives are outselling HD DVD at least five to one (largely because of the PlayStation 3, which had sold 1.84 million units by the end of 2006). The HD DVD people claim disc sales are comparable—but 20th Century Fox says Blu-ray sales are three times as high as HD DVD. Apparently more than five million Blu-ray discs have been sold, plus hundreds of thousands given away with PS3s. Five million discs worldwide is a real market (and, at $100-$150 million, not a tiny one), but still a niche one—and it seems to be fewer than three discs per player, which may say something about the format.
NetFlix began stocking HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs as soon as they were on the market. There’s no extra charge. According to the head of NetFlix, high-def rentals are less than one percent of all rentals.
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