Random Thoughts

There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there in regards to the high definition format war. Hopefully this will help clear up some of the misconceptions.

1. HD DVD uses more advanced codecs than Blu-Ray

FALSE: HD DVD and Blu-Ray are both capable of using the exact same video and audio codecs. Early Blu-Ray titles used MPEG2 compression rather than the more advanced MPEG4 and WMV based codecs, but all Blu-Ray players can play back the same formats as HD DVD.

2. Blu-Ray is a proprietary Sony format / HD DVD is a proprietary Toshiba format

FALSE: Both HD DVD and Blu-Ray have been developed by different consortiums.

The Blu-Ray group is comprised of (in alphabetical order):

  • Apple Computer, Inc.
  • Dell Inc.
  • Hewlett Packard Company
  • Hitachi, Ltd.
  • LG Electronics Inc.
  • Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd.
  • Mitsubishi Electric Corporation
  • Pioneer Corporation
  • Royal Philips Electronics
  • Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.
  • Sharp Corporation
  • Sony Corporation
  • Sun Microsystems, Inc.
  • TDK Corporation
  • Thomson Multimedia
  • Twentieth Century Fox
  • Walt Disney Pictures
  • Warner Bros. Entertainment

Of the companies involved with Blu-Ray, Sony probably has the largest investment, with their gaming, consumer electronics and movie divisions exclusively supporting the format.
The HD DVD spec was developed by the DVD Forum, the people who originally developed DVD. The original DVD Forum (at the time the DVD Consortium) members were:

  • Hitachi, Ltd.
  • Matsushita Electric Industrial Co, Ltd.
  • Mitsubishi Electric Corporation
  • Pioneer Corporation
  • Sony Corporation
  • Thomson
  • Time Warner Inc.
  • Toshiba Corporation
  • Victor Company of Japan, Ltd.

The DVD Forum now has more than 200 member companies, and you can see that there are a lot of companies represented on both boards (including Sony). The reality, though, is that the big push for HD DVD is coming from Toshiba and Microsoft. Toshiba owns many of the patents related to DVD and many of those patents carry over to HD DVD. Microsoft owns the WMV based VC-1 codec and will receive royalties from any films released using it (although VC-1 can be used on Blu-Ray as well, and Microsoft would receive royalties from Blu-Ray discs using the codec). Blu-Ray breaks away from many of the original DVD patents and threatens that revenue stream related to those patents. Very little is known about Blu-Ray royalties at this point, but one can bet on Sony owning several related patents and technologies.

Blu-Ray and HD DVD are not as dissimilar as their manufactures would have you believe. In fact, both camps were very close to a unified standard, but unfortunately some core differences at the last moment thrust us all into this HD format war.

3. Movie “x” is exclusive to HD DVD/Blu-Ray

TRUE: Many studios have thrown their support exclusively behind one format.

Studios releasing their content exclusively on HD DVD are:

  • Universal Studios (Jurassic Park, E.T., NBC content, etc.)
  • The Weinstein Company / Dimension Films (Clerks 2, Scary Movie 4, etc)
  • First Look Studios (various independent and foreign films)

Studios releasing their content exclusively on Blu-Ray are:

  • Columbia Pictures – which includes Sony Pictures and MGM (Die Hard, Alien, The Simpsons, James Bond)
  • Sony Pictures (Spider-Man, Ice Age)
  • Lion’s Gate Films (Saw, Dirty Dancing)
  • Disney (Pirates of the Carribean, Toy Story, The Little Mermaid)

Some studios currently support both formats:

  • Time Warner – including HBO, New Line and Warner Bros. (Batman, Harry Potter, The Sopranos, Nightmare on Elm Street)
  • Paramount Pictures (Mission: Impossible, The Godfather)
  • DreamWorks – technically part of Paramount now, though DreamWorks Animation is still separate – (Shrek, Saving Private Ryan)

4. Eventually players/discs will be universal

True – to a point: Warner Bros. has developed a disc they’ve dubbed “TotalHD”. These discs are supposed to be available in the fall of 2007, and will contain both a Blu-Ray and HD DVD version of the movie on one disc, playable in either format of player.

There are also a few universal players hitting the market, but there are some limitations with them; primarily, when playing HD DVDs they have limited interactive functionality when compared to a stand-alone HD DVD player. They’re also very expensive.

Early reports on TotalHD discs being played in universal players point to the Blu-Ray portion of the TotalHD disc being the “default” playback mode. Whether TotalHD will catch on in the long run is unknown, but it certainly reduces the risk for those studios that support both formats (and for consumers, who risk being stuck with “the next BetaMax”).

5. HD DVD/Blu-Ray has more movies

True: One format will always have more movies than the other. The real question is, which format has more of the movies you want to watch (both now and in future)?

6. HD DVD/Blu-Ray is outselling the competitor by a factor of x:1

True: One format is always outselling the other, and the format that is “winning” will be determined by the content at any given time. Currently, Blu-Ray is in the lead, with more software units being sold. Having said that, both formats’ sales numbers are so small that there is no clear victor at this point.

7. Blu-Ray/HD DVD Just Looks/Sounds Better

Mostly False: Both formats look phenomenally good; they both support 1080p video and uncompressed audio. They look and sound much better than 99% of the systems they will be played back on.

Differences in picture and sound quality between Blu-Ray and HD DVD are going to come down to individual discs, not the format the discs are released on. In cases where the discs are being released on both formats, you can bet on the studios using the same transfer. It doesn’t make sense to re-encode the video and sound for each format when they can simply be repurpose the work that has already been done.

Studios that are exclusively behind one format will likely take better advantage of special features (e.g. interactive menus, video commentaries, etc.) but if the same movie were to be released on the competing format, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

8. HD DVDs Should be Cheaper for Consumers

True. The key word here is “should”. HD DVDs are manufactured using a very similar process to regular DVDs, and therefore are cheaper and easier to manufacture than Blu-Ray discs. Having said that, those savings are currently not being passed to the consumer. Retail prices on HD DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are about the same.

9. HD DVD Players are Cheaper

True. Currently, stand alone HD DVD players are less expensive than Blu-Ray players. Still, the most popular high definition disc player currently on the market is the PlayStation 3 (which plays Blu-Ray discs), and it’s in the same price range as a decent HD DVD player.

This is where this format war gets into a “chicken and egg” scenario. People won’t buy expensive players with no software, but software manufacturers won’t release content until sufficient players are on the market. If Sony’s Blu-Ray gamble on the PS3 is going to pay off, this is likely where the biggest dividends will be reaped (quick penetration of Blu-Ray into consumer’s homes).

In response to the threat that the PS3 represents, the HD DVD group has licensed their technology to lower-cost Chinese manufacturers. These are the companies that sell the $29 no-name (or store branded) DVD players you see in stores like Wal-Mart. The quality and price of these players remains to be seen, but you can bet on them being cheap (probably $300) and plentiful.

Of course, nothing is stopping the Blu-Ray camp from licensing their technologies to the same Chinese manufacturers, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to turn the Blu-Ray market into a commodity exchange just yet – they’ll probably wait to see whether the cheap players help HD DVD penetration significantly.

10. Blu-Ray Discs Hold More

True: The capacity of a single layer HD DVD is about 15GB, about three times the capacity of a single layer DVD. A single layer Blu-Ray disc holds about 25GB. Most of the discs on the market (either Blu-Ray or HD DVD) are dual-layer, so hold about double the capacity (30GB for HD DVD and 50GB for Blu-Ray). The Blu-Ray group has also got discs coming with more layers, holding up to 200GB of data. It’s not known at this time if these multi-layer discs will work with existing stand-alone players, or if they’ll only be used for computer storage.

Because of the greater capacity of Blu-Ray discs, it’s technically true that they can hold better quality video and audio (less compression = higher quality picture and sound), but in most cases the extra capacity is being used for bonus content. Again, both HD DVD and Blu-Ray look and sound amazing, so the extra capacity at this point is a little redundant.

11. HD DVD Is the only format that supports combo discs that can play in regular DVD players

Currently True. Currently, if you want to purchase a single disc that will play in a regular DVD player and a high definition player, HD DVD is the only way to go. There’s no technical reason this can’t be done with Blu-Ray. The structure of Blu-Ray discs would allow a single disc (even single-sided, since the Blu-Ray and DVD layers are stored at different depths on the disc) with both a Blu-Ray and DVD version of a movie on it to be manufactured. They haven’t done this as of yet (that may be due to licensing issues with the DVD Forum, which officially backs HD DVD, obviously). Oddly, the HD DVD camp has chosen to charge a premium for their combo discs, negating what is currently one of their trump cards.

12. HD DVD Players can play regular DVDs while Blu-Ray players can’t.

False. Both Blu-Ray and HD DVD players can play regular DVDs. This common misconception likely comes from the differences between the names of the two formats.

Conclusions

So, after all is said and done, which format should consumers buy?

If I were a betting man, I would bet on Blu-Ray winning. They have the studio support and currently have the momentum in sales.

Having said that, the HD DVD camp still has a few aces up their sleeves, including the forthcoming “cheap” Chinese players and the ability to reduce prices on their HD DVD/DVD combo discs (they could potentially use a Trojan horse technique to get HD DVD discs into consumer’s homes, just by making only one DVD edition that includes the HD DVD – of course, they’d cut into their profit margins on higher priced HD DVD discs by doing so).

From a consumer perspective, Blu-Ray makes more sense. It’s technically superior, it has a higher storage capacity, and it has greater studio and hardware manufacturer support. The advantages of HD DVD are skewed more toward the manufacturers (easier to press the discs, lower cost of manufacturing), not the consumer. The advantages of HD DVD will come to Blu-Ray as capacity ramps up.

Still, this format war will likely end sooner, rather than later. Either Universal Studios will decide to support Blu-Ray as well as HD DVD (which would basically leave HD DVD as the only format with major titles “missing”), Warner’s TotalHD format will take off (which would make format choices more of a matter of player choices than disc choices) or combo HD DVD/Blu-Ray players (with full functionality for both formats) will become commonplace and consumers won’t have to decide.

Many people have taken to comparing the HD DVD/Blu-Ray format war to the Beta/VHS wars years ago. Keep in mind that Beta and VHS used completely different sized cassettes, and there was no easy way to make the formats interoperable. Blu-Ray and HD DVD both use the same size disc, and the same video and audio codecs. The two formats are more similar than they are different. No format will be left in the cold, because eventually all players will be compatible with both.

Here’s the reality: both HD DVD and Blu-Ray players are available now at prices that are significantly lower than DVD was at the same point in its life. Blu-Ray and HD DVD discs cost about the same as a night out at the movies for two. Take the plunge, pick a format (based on the titles you want to see), and enjoy a fantastic home theater experience. Don’t let the bickering of a bunch of multinational corporations hold you back, because the only person suffering is you. That, and the longer you hold out, the longer this war goes on.

Besides, in a few years’ time that combo HD DVD/Blu-Ray player will only be $29 at Wal-Mart.

One Response to “HD DVD vs. Blu-Ray – A 12 Step Program to Picking a Winner”

  1. Jason

    Thank you for this article. Assuming all the information is accurate, (those parts I was already familiar with are accurate so I assume all of this information is also accurate), this has been a good summary of the two formats for me. I am about to purchase a player and new plasma tv. This article has been very helpful.
    Thanks,
    Jason

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