An early skirmish in the HD DVD wars

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.

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 least for those who back HD-DVD.