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That Was Year That Was - in HD

Dec 31st, 2007
It’s time to look back and contemplate

We are in the midst of an emotional and divisive format war. Sides have been chosen. Strong feelings are being expressed. Spin and misinformation are common. Emotions are running so high that it's not unreasonable to assume that some misguided HD DVD proponent was responsible for hacking the official Blu-ray Disc Association; for a few hours on a Friday afternoon and evening, visitors to the BD site were redirected to the HD DVD Promotional Group website. On a more personal level, I’ve tried to assess the two formats fairly and offer you my findings based on my own observations and supported by external information. Having viewed hundreds of discs, roughly equally divided between the two formats, I developed a preference for BD based on perceived quality. Alas, when I expressed that preference, I was often accused of bias by HD DVD proponents.

Indulge me for one paragraph while I quickly get that out of the way. Dictionary.com defines bias as “a particular tendency or inclination, [especially] one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question; prejudice.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines bias as “a tendency to support or oppose a particular person or thing in an unfair way by allowing personal opinions to influence your judgment.” Merriam-Webster defines bias as “a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment: prejudice.” I can assure any who still harbor those feelings about my stated preference for Blu-ray Disc that I was not taught to think that way, either by education or decades of experience as an engineer. If I state a preference, it’s not based on predisposition or prejudice; it’s based on real-world observations. And as I’ve written before, no matter which format fails, I stand to lose a significant investment, either in my BD player or in my two HD DVD players. Bias has nothing to do with my preference. Let’s move on.

Both formats suffer from operational problems that annoy. HD DVD has a very stable feature set. The more mature format, it offered Internet access for updates from the start and, later, Web-based supplements. It offers picture-in-picture enhanced audio/video commentaries. The code to run the interactive features loads slowly, but not nearly as slowly as the exasperatingly sluggish loading of BD-J code from some advanced Blu-ray Discs.

From a feature set standpoint, BD is playing catch-up. The first desktop BD player to offer Profile 1.1 was introduced recently by Panasonic, and Sony is just getting around to issuing a firmware update for the PS3 that accommodates Profile 1.1. That Profile finally accommodates picture-in-picture enhanced audio/video commentaries on BD. The rest of us are out of luck, since other existing players don’t have the hardware to support the latest Profile.

My experience with HD DVD is generally positive, but I’ve encountered four or five discs that would not play on my HD-XA2 and had to be moved to my older HD-A1. On the other hand, BD-J tends to remain buggy, even with the most recent firmware. I updated my Sony BDP-S1 with level 3.2 for proper playback of the supplements on the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End BD. And yet, while watching the supplements on an Underdog BD screener, the menu text popped onto the screen, improperly superimposed on video featurettes. Really annoying. Once the film begins, however, my experience with Blu-ray Disc has been better than with HD DVD. The images are sharper and more refined. Textures are clearer. The experience is closer to a very fine motion picture theater experience.

HD DVD was available as dual-layer 30 GB discs from the start. But initially, there was a great deal of criticism concerning the dearth of BD-50 dual-layer disc releases; the culprit was said to be yield. However, things have steadily improved. I plotted the monthly percentage of 50 GB BDs since the format was introduced. The percentage grew with each passing month; it now stands at 92%. And it doesn’t matter if this simply represents improved production capacity as opposed to improved yield. As long as the disc prices don’t go up as a consequence of yield problems, I don’t care and neither should you.

HD DVD compression and authoring tools for the VC-1 advanced video CODEC were available from the start. Not so for Blu-ray Disc, initially. There was some considerable criticism concerning the release of early BDs with transfers compressed with the MPEG-2 video CODEC. With the very high bit rate that BD affords, I’ve enjoyed several exemplary releases that featured the legacy CODEC, but that situation, too, has turned around. MPEG-2 is rarely used anymore and AVC, which I find superior to VC-1, has come to dominate BD releases. The tools for compression and authoring are now in place and the look of a BD with an AVC transfer can be absolutely stunning.

HD DVD, on the other hand, has been dominated from the start by the VC-1 CODEC. This isn’t surprising considering Microsoft’s substantial support. VC-1 is a very good algorithm, but based on my observations and those of reviewers around the Web, AVC looks better on both formats. HD DVD proponents would be wise to apply AVC more often.

As I write this column, there are 384 HD DVD and 441 BD releases on the market. The studios that are dominating the HD DVD format are Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment. Warner Home Video contributes releases to both formats, and has stated that it will continue to do so, denying the strong rumor that it’s about to declare for BD exclusively. Paramount and DreamWorks’ defection from format agnostic to HD DVD-exclusive (in consideration of a reported $150 million financial incentive) did little to change the sales ratios. BD finished the year with a 2:1 disc sales advantage over HD DVD. And BD still has a 3.6:1 hardware installed base advantage over HD DVD. The much vaunted price advantage of HD DVD has eroded considerably. The costs of entry level players in both formats are within tens of dollars. And if one calculates the average price of all HD discs released in each format to date, BD would come in at $37.17 and HD DVD would be $35.83. At discount, the $1.34 average difference is actually closer to $0.94. Perhaps the counterproductive Combo disc drove up the average price of HD DVDs.

In a recent study by yet another market research firm, Understanding and Solutions, the firm believes that the erosion of the price differences may favor BD’s victory in 2008. The firm’s Jeremy Wills was quoted as saying, “Price reductions in the U.S. have continued into December, with Blu-ray players dropping below $300 for the first time and HD DVD players below $200. Crucially, Blu-ray benefits from stronger Hollywood studio support and represents a greater proportion of high-definition disc production volumes and disc sales. To date, Paramount’s move to sole support of HD DVD has failed to turn the market, despite the HD DVD exclusivity of key titles Transformers and Shrek the Third. Blu-ray still represented more than 70% of high-definition video sales in the U.S. during the week Transformers was released on HD DVD.” But due to the uncertainties of the marketplace, Understanding and Solutions’ director Jim Bottoms is more cautious, suggesting that the format war will last longer than previously thought.

Parting Thoughts

Everyone agrees that demand for HD content can only grow. Analog broadcasting will end in February of 2009. A third of all households are expected to have HD-capable displays by the end of 2008 and by 2011, the installed base of HD-ready sets will rise to 90%. That will only stimulate demand for high quality HD program material. I will once again state my hope that quality prevails and that this destructive format war ends in 2008.