An early skirmish in the HD DVD wars

An early skirmish in the HD DVD wars

Summary: The new Blu-Ray players are, as expected, about twice as expensive as comparable players for the HD-DVD format. Unfortunately, you don't get twice the quality, as Blu-Ray has a lot of catching up to do if it is to match to the quality of HD-DVD.

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TOPICS: Storage
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Nine months ago, Intel and Microsoft ended their HD DVD agnosticism and decided to officially support the HD-DVD format over Blu-Ray, a format backed by Sony that had garnered the support of most movie studios and hardware manufacturers. In a blog post on the subject, I called the choice between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray a choice between "gee-whiz and pragmatism." Blu-Ray's 25GB capacity for a single-layer disc is larger than HD-DVD's 15GB, a feat managed because Blu-Ray discs have a tighter track pitch and thinner coating (both use the same wavelength of blue laser). HD-DVD, however, used the same coating thickness as existing standard definition DVD's, which means manufacturing is a well understood process that could use existing production facilities.

Around that time, I received an email that predicted that the Blu-Ray disc manufacturing process would have serious difficulties, and that dual-layer Blu-Ray discs would be a virtual no-show. Well, that prediction seems to have been correct, at least if this review of the new Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-Ray player is any indication.

We've known for some time that the new Blu-Ray players would be more expensive, at least initially, than HD-DVD players (Samsung's new Blu-Ray player costs around $1000, while Toshiba's is around $500). HD-DVD's are built with more existing technology and thus benefit from economics of scale that Blu-Ray has to build on its own. However, the technical benefits of the Blu-Ray format were supposed to outweigh the cost difference, and that would help build the momentum that would create that scale. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case. As the author notes:

Sadly, and it really pains me as a High Definition fan to say this, but what we've got is a case of twice the price for less quality. If this first player and the initial wave of discs are any indication, Blu-ray has not only failed to surpass its less-expensive rival, it has quite a bit of catching up to do.

Manufacturing is turning out to be a HUGE problem, all but erasing the theoretical size advantage of the Blu-Ray format:

First of all, due to their complicated manufacturing needs, the production yield rates for single-layer 25 gb Blu-ray discs have been rather poor, and dual-layer 50 gb discs apparently have such a high failure rate that so far no titles have been released in that configuration. On the other hand, while HD DVD only offers 15 gb capacity per disc layer, the majority of that format's releases have been on dual-layer 30 gb discs. What this means is that, up to this point, HD DVD has in fact offered higher storage capacity.

Worsening capacity issues for Blu-Ray discs is a rather confusing decision on Sony's part to insist on MPEG-2 encoding of Blu-Ray titles:

Even more importantly than just the capacity itself, however, is the issue of how data is stored within that space. HD DVDs have been using Microsoft's VC-1 codec, an advanced compression format capable of squeezing huge amounts of high-resolution video into a limited storage space without visible artifacts. VC-1 doesn't need 50 gb for movie storage; it's proven that even longer movies can fit perfectly well within 30 gb and maintain excellent quality while still including numerous bonus features on the same disc. The Blu-ray discs released so far have (at Sony's insistence) been using the older and less efficient MPEG2 codec (the same format used on regular DVDs), which requires a lot more space to deliver comparable results. On top of this, many Blu-rays encode their movie soundtracks in uncompressed PCM format that eats up enormous amounts of space, leaving even fewer available bits for the video. The first Blu-ray releases have been mostly shorter movies and have dropped many of the bonus features from their comparable DVD editions to save space.

Ouch. As discussed elsewhere in the article, the encodes also have issues. Though the author isn't sure if this is due to bad masters, bad MPEG-2 encodes, or simple faulty discs, it doesn't do much to further the march of Blu-Ray into the home if disks in the format don't produce the clarity expected from HD DVDs. Though the author doesn't think the format wars are over (and neither do I), he does say something interesting at the end which indicates how fast things can turn. Regarding Blu-Ray support:

The format is still backed by a larger selection of manufacturers and movie studios, at least at this time. Support may change in the future if one side goes under (witness Fox and Disney's migration to DVD after the competing DIVX format from Circuit City floundered back in 1999), but I suspect that this format war will drag on for a while before a decisive victor is declared.

Microsoft obviously has some vested interest in the success of HD-DVD. They created the VC-1 encoding standard (which is now ratified by SMPTE, though Blu-Ray supports VC-1 as well), were heavily involved in the creation of iHD (the XML-based standard for menuing and interactive content on HD-DVDs), and wanted a system that guaranteed that HD content could be copied to a hard drive or a home server (say, a Media Center PC). However, they also backed a standard that is a combination of past stability and future technology. HD-DVD is a format that is easier to manufacture and has more than enough space for 1080p HD video and lots of content extras - particulary given the ease with which manufacturers have produced dual-layer discs.

The battle isn't over. But, it's an auspicious start...at least for those who back HD-DVD.

Topic: Storage

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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45 comments
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  • The real competition

    is DVD, though. Why spend major money to replace your television, player, and library for barely perceptible improvements (or, in many cases, actual degradations) in viewing quality?

    Especially when the announced roadmap will make all of them not only obsolete but useless in a few years?
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • If that's the case...

      ...then HD-DVD is a better bet, because it is possible to store both HD and SD content on an HD-DVD hybrid disk. The HD-DVD disc can be played on existing boxes, and when you buy an HD-DVD player, you can play the HD content from the same disc.

      That's not possible with Blu-Ray, because Blu-Ray is a different disc the format of which won't be recognized by existing players.

      Regarding obsoleting discs, I agree, which is why it is useful that HD-DVD mandates the ability to store content elsewhere on home movie servers.
      John Carroll
      • Does that mean my existy DVD can play Microsoft's VC-1 codec...

        or does the SD have to be encoded the same as the standard DVD Mpeg2 now?
        Being I thought one of the advantages was that HD-DVD was using Microsoft's VC-1 codec.
        el1jones
        • It has to be encoded...

          ...as MPEG-2. So, you could encode the HD content as VC-1, but encode the SD content as MPEG-2.

          Both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD support VC-1, H.264 and MPEG-2.
          John Carroll
          • Huh?

            Quoting from your quote:

            "The Blu-ray discs released so far have (at Sony's insistence) been using the older and less efficient MPEG2 codec (the same format used on regular DVDs), which requires a lot more space to deliver comparable results. On top of this, many Blu-rays encode their movie soundtracks in uncompressed PCM format that eats up enormous amounts of space, leaving even fewer available bits for the video."

            Supporting formats, but not permitting their use?

            I see why you called the discussion confusing...
            Anton Philidor
          • Yes...

            ...that's why it's so confusing. I can't for the life of me figure out why MPEG-2 was decided to be the right way to go. Blu-Ray DOES support H.264 and VC-1.
            John Carroll
          • If your going to sell ...

            ... your product based on larger capacity then you have to be sure the content doesn't fit the smaller.
            ShadeTree
  • Generally it is better to evolve technology than revolutionize it

    The above is a very important reason why MS tends to evolve technology, rather than revolutionize it ? depending on your perspective of things. Markets prefer evolved technologies rather revolutionary technologies, and companies mitigate risks by doing things this way.

    My main concern with HD technology, is movie companies? fixation on the use DRM schemes, which simply poison the enjoyment of the technology. I would really like to see a significant democratization of the movie and music media businesses (like what we are now seeing in print news media), so that we can enjoy improved technologies in video, along with freer media distribution models. The music and movie industries need a massive shakeup, and the fact that these industries make money despite their apprehension for their customers, is a very important indicator that there is a great deal of opportunity for enterprising companies who not only recognize the value of satisfied customers, but also see new technologies not as threats to their businesses, but rather as new opportunities to make lots and lots of money.
    P. Douglas
    • Well...

      ...HD-DVD at least supports portablity of the media beyond the confines of the discs. Likewise, the DRM is standardized in a way the world of music DRM isn't. That means that HD-DVDs will be portable, because that is a mandated part of the HD-DVD spec.

      They will have DRM protections, which means you can only get full res by plugging in to an appropriate content-protected device. However, this has moved into the consumer electronics realm, so I think the DRM experience will be less intrusive than it is in the music world.
      John Carroll
      • Do you think the studios...

        ... favored Blu-Ray because it does require different devices? A fresh start, with all content protected by DRM.

        How else could the only copies of old movies be DRMed?
        Anton Philidor
        • Yes, I do...

          ...I think that factored somewhat, though both support the same DRM. I also think, though, that it had something to do with visions of space on the Blu-Ray devices. That was a huge factor for Disney.
          John Carroll
      • Full picture anytime?

        "Well...
        ...HD-DVD at least supports portablity of the media beyond the
        confines of the discs."

        In case anyone should be mislead, Blu-ray mandates the
        Mandatory Managed Copy system which allows content to be
        transferred other devices.

        The coping provisions of HD DVD and Blu-ray are very similar,
        both reflecting heavily influence of HP.
        Richard Flude
        • Yes...

          [i]In case anyone should be mislead, Blu-ray mandates the Mandatory Managed Copy system which allows content to be transferred other devices.[/i]

          ...but the ability to do this is OPTIONAL, with the option to allow this going to content studios. Granted, I'm sure content studios would like to have one more control screw to tighten, but I don't see why consumers would like the idea...

          ...though seeing you defend content studios ability to do this would be interesting theater.
          John Carroll
    • DRM is a real problem...

      You can't even watch an HD DVD in Vista unless your Video Card AND Monitor fully support the HDCP copy protection standard. Otherwise you get a dumbed down, non-HD version onscreen.

      I believe it's Ditto for home TV's. If you were an early adopter of HDTV, which you probably spent more money than anyone on it, and your TV does not have HDCP compliant DVI or HDMI connectors, you're also screwed.

      A very large number of HDTV's in consumers homes will never be able to properly display an HD DVD.

      The government and the industry pushed people into buying these things, and now look at what they get for their trouble.
      BitTwiddler
      • You're right...

        ...the compatible hardware is out there, but it isn't free.

        There's a lot of barriers to HD DVD adoption, among them the fact that most still don't have HD tvs at all. On that note, HD-DVD can be configured in hyrid mode, allowing the same disc to have an HD and an SD version.
        John Carroll
        • However that doesn't address the problem that...

          "A very large number of HDTV's in consumers homes will never be able to properly display an HD DVD."

          I didn't know this before, and now I'm pretty apprehensive to buy a HDTV. I'll have to more research on both HD-DVD and Blu-ray to make sure they work with whatever equipment I get.
          What happened to the days of buying a TV, plugging it in, and getting the best picture your reception would provide. Now I have DVD players dumbing down the picture unless I have perfectly 'compatible' equipment.
          Forget that... someone better come up with a better solution, because now, I'm not buying JACK until some can guarantee that everything works well together.
          el1jones
          • It's not too difficult...

            [i] didn't know this before, and now I'm pretty apprehensive to buy a HDTV. I'll have to more research on both HD-DVD and Blu-ray to make sure they work with whatever equipment I get. [/i]

            Just make sure it supports HDMI and HDCP. If you have those two things, it will work with any HD DVD device on the market at full resolution.
            John Carroll
          • What about past purchasers?

            ---Just make sure it supports HDMI and HDCP---

            What about people who bought tvs last year or the year before and don't have that support? Pretty tough to lay out $5000 for a tv that won't play dvds.
            tic swayback
          • No doubt about that...

            ...people who bought "older" HD tvs may not have that support, which is going to be a rather harsh wake-up call. Anyone who buys a new TV set will have the required features. Early adopters, however, may have issues.

            Odd, but then again, most don't have HD tvs yet.
            John Carroll
          • Ouch!

            A tv that cost $5000 and is less than one year old is now obsolete. That's not gonna help word of mouth.
            tic swayback