HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray, round 2

HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray, round 2

Summary: Responses to comments made by Alan Parsons, senior vice president of Pioneer Electronics (USA) and proponent of Blu-Ray, in response to a recent post promoting the merits of the HD-DVD format.

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TOPICS: Toshiba
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The Friday before last, the day before my vacation on Lake Michigan had officially begun, I chatted over the phone with Andy Parsons, senior vice president of Pioneer Electronics (USA) and a clear proponent of the Blu-Ray standard. He had read my previous post on the subject of Blu-Ray, where I pointed out some advantages HD-DVD had over the current generation Blu-Ray ecosystem, and he thought it worth giving me the other side of the story.

Unfortunately, I don't own a phone recording device, and besides, I was on my cell phone. I did take notes, however. The following were some of the key points he made during the interview.

First, cost. I assigned a fair bit of importance to the cost diferences between current generation HD-DVD players and Blu-Ray players. Toshiba's lower-end offering comes in at around $500, and Samsung's offering comes in around $1,000. To a market accustomed to sub-$100 DVD players, I think that price difference matters.

Parsons pointed me to a breakdown conducted by iSuppli which shows that the Toshiba player costs far more to build than the sale price, with costs estimates ranging as high as $700. This is largely due to the use of more expensive components more typically found in PCs.

Fair enough. Perhaps Toshiba is making a tactical decision on hopes that it will help them to win the the HD-DVD / Blu-Ray wars and thus turn a loss into a gain down the road. Even so, this still doesn't explain why the Samsung player is still $300 above the Toshiba price even as it lacks features found in the lower-end Toshiba model. Likewise, two can play the cost cutting game. There isn't a comparable analysis of the actual price of the Samsung device, but I expect that it sports some of the same design inefficiencies as Toshiba's offering due to its status as a first generation player. Furthermore, Pioneer's own soon-to-be-released offering, the Elite BDP-HD1 targeted at high-end users, was recently lowered from $1800 to $1500. Is this sign of the willingness among companies to take losses in order to get their chosen standard over the top?

Regarding the decision to use MPEG-2 in early Blu-Ray titles versus newer compression standards such as H.264 or VC-1 (both of which are supported in Blu-Ray players), Parsons explained that this was to enable a real-time encode process. Most content studios are very familiar with MPEG-2, and had a pipeline oriented around the technology. Usage of MPEG-2 would, theoretically, accelerate the release of new titles, as MPEG-2 encoding is a well understood proces.

Interesting point, but as of today, there are more HD-DVD titles than Blu-Ray titles. Likewise, the early HD-DVD titles seem to have more mass appeal than the early Blu-Ray titles. Constantine and Bourne Identity (HD-DVD) vs. 5th Element and Basic Instinct 2 (Blu-Ray). Okay, I'm not being completely fair here, and besides, if Fox holds fast to its exclusive commitment to Blu-Ray, a few years down the road we're going to see a Blu-Ray Star Wars release.

Besides, I'm not sure how much value a real-time encode process has. Taking a bit of extra time to encode something that is going to get stamped on a disc about a million times seems like a decent trade-off. Furthermore, encode times will only accelerate as more experience is gained in these newer technologies. I don't think studios want to spend the next 10 years on bandwidth-hogging MPEG-2 (which also annuls the throughput advantages of Blu-Ray drives, as you get less quality at a given bitrate level). I think this is more of a legacy of a Sony that resisted inclusion of newer compression codecs until relatively late in the Blu-Ray standardization process. Basically, falling back on older technologies that erase many of the advantages of your format (capacity, throughput) seems a strange way to compete with a format that has a smaller nominal storage size per layer.

Other issues we discussed were dual-layer Blu-Ray discs and "hybrid" discs. Hybrid discs are discs that have a version playable in older DVD players, so you can buy your HD discs that works on your existing technology today and start using the HD version once you upgrade your home theater system. On the first point, Parsons assured me that the dual layer problems with Blu-Ray are resolved, and further, HD-DVD will have a hard time matching the new bar as triple-layer discs will be extremely hard for them to do. Second, Blu-Ray DOES have a hybrid answer, one that uses the fact that normal Blu-Ray discs are read through a much shallower coating layer to store the standard definition on a lower layer and "focus" through the top layer to it. This means the two formats could be stored on the same side of a DVD.

I can't confirm the veracity of either of these things. Andy invited me over to Pioneer labs in Los Angeles, so I hope to see instances of both technologies when I do that. These things DO, however, seem more technically complicated than would be the case in an HD-DVD world, particularly the hybrid solution. So, even if it's possible, would the hardware ever be as cheap to make as a system that deals with content at the same depth and pitch size at all times?

The last point I considered relatively important was content development simplicity. I noted that, as a programmer, there are reasons why the web is mostly HTML, XML and Javascript. That's an easier development technology than compiled languages such as Java. Though Java is certainly a powerful language, for 99.9% of web development tasks, it's like smashing an ant with a steamroller.

Parsons' response was that end users could care less about how something is done, just so that it is done well. Besides, easier to use content development tools would come that assemble pre-packaged Java components.

I concede all this, but that doesn't change the fact that ease of development often leads to MORE use of complex functionality simply because the environment makes it much easier to use that technology. It's like the difference between writing your own HTML parser versus using an existing component that does it for you. It's worth noting that BD-J has an estimated 8000 methods / interfaces, versus iHD's 400.

Furthermore, the iHD environment has secured for itself a lot more cross-player consistency than BD-J, a fact made apparent to me in an audio interview with Amir Majidimehr and Kevin Collins, two high-level people with Microsoft's Digital Media Division, that I discovered recently on the Internet (okay, I found it while ego-surfing on technorati).

First, persistent storage is mandatory on HD-DVD players. This is useful for the creation of bookmarks (custom markers that persist across DVD playback), but is obviously useful for much more. Second, a second video decoder is mandatory on HD-DVD players. This enables the playback of dual video streams, for instance, as part of an enhanced director's commentary that appears as a PIP (picture in picture) in the corner of a screen, or as a way to show how a particularly complicated stunt was performed alongside the playback of the main video.

Third, network connections are mandatory on HD-DVDs. Kevin Collins noted that this creates the ability to download custom previews for existing movies, a vast improvement over the current situation wherein one is forced to watch the same old previews over and over again. Such previews could even become time-specific, such as more horror-oriented previews around Halloween. One thing not mentioned, however, is the opportunity for context sensitive linking, or even online purchases. Marketers would have a field day if they could sell products found in a movie with the click of a button.

All of these things are POSSIBLE with Blu-Ray, but aren't MANDATORY...much as the ability to offload content from an HD-DVD disc to a media server is possible in Blu-Ray, but MANDATORY in HD-DVD. The advantage of mandatory is that content UI creators can assume the presence of these features, and take advantage of them. Creators of content in a Blu-Ray device may be less inclined to take advantage of features which may not exist across all players.

Just to reiterate a point I noted at the end of my last HD DVD post (and something I noted several times to Andy Parsons), the battle between the two formats is far from over.  I don't expect folks in the Blu-Ray camp just to sit still in response to early setbacks. Even so, I still lean towards the practical advantages of the HD-DVD format. Whether the market agrees with me is another question entirely.

Topic: Toshiba

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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52 comments
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  • Mandatory Network

    [i]Third, network connections are mandatory on HD-DVDs.[/i]

    Keep in mind that that was the final straw in killing Circuit City's DivX system: mandatory network access.

    Try that on an airplane.

    For that matter, try convincing home users that having mandatory phone-home (complete with advertising) on their DVD players is a Good Thing.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • You misunderstand.

      It is mandatory (by licnese) for the hardware to have it, not that it's mandatory that you provide a conection.
      No_Ax_to_Grind
      • Just taking John at his word

        [i]It is mandatory (by licnese) for the hardware to have it, not that it's mandatory that you provide a conection.[/i]

        If it's not live, John's argument that it's something that developers can count on is bogus.

        You two work it out.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
    • That's a deal breaker

      i spend from 9AM - 7PM every day in frontt of a computer
      monitor. My wife does something akin, although she also does
      a lot of telephone work.

      If we want to watch a stupid movie, all we want to do is stick in
      the disc and press PLAY - nothing else. I don't want to hear
      about "network access" or anything else. I just wnat to watch
      the freakin movie.

      I do the creative stuff at work. You'd think I'd be all agog about
      this stuff. Nope. I can't imagine my friends that are salesman,
      lawyers, etc haveing to worry about "network connections" just
      to watch a stupid movie,
      j.m.galvin
      • Not understanding

        The player needs to have a network access port. I doubt DVDs will require network access, though if present, you will get things like updatable previews and maybe more interactive features.

        All HD-DVDs can assume that the possibility of network access exists in EVERY HD-DVD player. That doesn't mean DVDs will require it....though the fact that it is present might make DVD vendors give you a reason to want to hook it up, such as more interactivity features, etc.
        John Carroll
        • Another great reason

          [i]All HD-DVDs can assume that the possibility of network access exists in EVERY HD-DVD player. That doesn't mean DVDs will require it....though the fact that it is present might make DVD vendors give you a reason to want to hook it up, such as more interactivity features, etc.[/i]

          Or, like Circuit City, the disk you just plonked down $35 for is a coaster without it.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
          • I'm surprised

            I would have assumed technology types such as yourself would have WELCOMED the inclusion of network connectivity to electronic components.
            John Carroll
          • It's like sex, John

            [i]I would have assumed technology types such as yourself would have WELCOMED the inclusion of network connectivity to electronic components.[/i]

            It can be really great -- but it's different if you can't say "no."
            Yagotta B. Kidding
          • But you can...

            ...it's called "not plugging in network cable." You seem to be saying that it's better that some devices "not be able to have sex at all." All HD-DVD has done is say that they can all engage in network coitus, if they so choose.

            Your analogy, not mine.
            John Carroll
        • What's the difference?

          So, let's see, I develop for HD-DVD and I can rest assured that I'll have potential network access that just might not be plugged in.

          On Blu-Ray I'm not sure that there will be a network port that isn't plugged in.

          Seems like I have to develop for testing for a network connection either way.
          Robert Crocker
          • Fair enough

            I guess it all comes down to whether both platforms has a consistent surface area / facade for network access. That's more likely when a system REQUIRES the ability to access a network, and not as likely if the service is optional.
            John Carroll
          • Market forces

            [i]Seems like I have to develop for testing for a network connection either way.[/i]

            Yeah, except with HD-DVD you can rest assured that when the same cartel that demanded an Ethernet port tells everyone that to play new disks they have to jack into the network (not mentioning that that comes with a firmware "upgrade" that keeps them from playing old disks unplugged, too) they aren't going to run into a large installed base that hasn't got the cable.
            Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Mandatory presence...

      ...granted, that doesn't mean it is used. But, every HD-DVD player MUST have an ethernet port. So, at least the possibility exists, whereas if it's optional, the possibility might not exist at all.

      Nobody uses this feature yet.
      John Carroll
      • Nobody uses this feature yet.

        So in other words a market that's heavily handicapped by excessive cost is throwing in a useless "feature" that does nothing but add cost, increase failure rates, and give consumers one more connection to get confused over.

        Yeah, great thing competition. Nice how the manufacturers can fine-tune their products to meet consumer needs.

        You [i]have[/i] lectured us on the wonders of the free market as I recall.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • Or...

          ...a feature that enables a lot more common functionality. I think it's crazy for any home electronics component NOT to have an ethernet port. All they did is set down a standard base, and we now can see what kind of creativity falls out from that.

          Besides, Microsoft != HD-DVD group. They were agnostic till 9 months ago, and worked behind the scenes with BOTH groups (hence VC-1s inclusion in both systems).

          I don't think that many consumers are confused over ethernet ports, but if there are any left in a few years, they won't be as ethernet ports become as common as phone jacks.
          John Carroll
          • Universal specifications

            [i]I think it's crazy for any home electronics component NOT to have an ethernet port.[/i]

            So use your market power and refuse to buy clocks that don't have them. After all, it worked for TV sets and video players, didn't it? After the overwhelming consumer demand drove all non-ethernet devices off the market it was clear what the consumer wanted.

            Oh, wait -- you're arguing that the consumer shouldn't be allowed a choice. My bad.
            Yagotta B. Kidding
          • You build a system...

            ...and you set strong base-level specs to support what direction you want it to head towards. Sounds reasonable - and normal - to me.
            John Carroll
          • Just because they have the right to do it

            that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right thing to do. To give an extreme example, Mel Gibson has every right to blame all the wars in the world on the Jews (that good old First Amendment), but was it the right thing to do? You be the judge.

            Circuit City's Divx did something similar (not to what Mel did, what HD-DVD is doing) and it failed, so it's not a stretch at all to think this could be an Achille's heal for HD-DVD. That's the point Yagotta is trying to drive home. Personally I think an ethernet port is a bad idea for the same reason Yagotta thinks it is; it's another complex connection the customer has to deal with and most of the added content the studios feel like giving you is something most people do not care for.

            Let's assume the studios wise up and figure out what kind of content people really want and actually decide to deliver it to them on their HD-DVD players via the internet. Why an ethernet port? Who's going to wire their homes with CAT 5e or better for every room that has an electronic device that's internet enabled? With wireless so cheap these days why not require that instead? Or do I misunderstand and wireless is considered a reasonable substitute for an ethernet port?

            Now let's assume the studios do not wise up to the what the customer wants and instead tries to force its will on the user via this internet connection (if there is something people fear about this connection, this is it). Can this internet connection be abused by the content owners? Can discs coded to require a "call home" before playing? Will movies need product activation the same way software does, preventing one from bringing the disc to a friends house, or worse yet not allowing it to be played in two different players in the same house? What safeguards are in place to prevent this?
            Michael Kelly
          • To Michael...

            [i]Now let's assume the studios do not wise up to the what the customer wants and instead tries to force its will on the user via this internet connection (if there is something people fear about this connection, this is it). Can this internet connection be abused by the content owners? Can discs coded to require a "call home" before playing? Will movies need product activation the same way software does, preventing one from bringing the disc to a friends house, or worse yet not allowing it to be played in two different players in the same house? What safeguards are in place to prevent this?[/i]

            Fine, and all valid concerns, but is REMOVING the ethernet port the right way to deal with that risk? That's like saying the best way to avoid damaging your new ferrari is not to drive it. Like I said, pretending that the network is not going to be a critical component of the future home seems rather backwards-thinking. The network IS going to be pervasive, and besides, if you want to support the mandatory capability to offload video content to a media server, given the protections that exist in BOTH HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, the only way to do that may be to do it from an officially licensed video player.

            On that note, Blu-Ray isn't saying you CAN'T have a network port, and Pioneer's new player has one. All HD-DVD has done is make that a standard part of the spec, so that content creators can always assume the network is something that is acessible. How they deal with that is a different question, and customers do have recourse (read: not buying the media on such discs if the usage of that network is not to their liking). The RIGHT solution, however, is not to avoid networks entirely, and I don't expect Blu-Ray to do that, either.
            John Carroll
          • ... And screw the customer

            I'm utterly fascinated by your ability to simultaneously wax righteous on the power of the open market and support [i]mandates[/i] where vendors are forced to ignore the customers' wishes in that same market.

            So here's the question, John: what happens if China Electric decides to ship an HD-DVD player without an Ethernet port because [i]their[/i] customers don't want one?
            Yagotta B. Kidding