Blu-ray vs. HD DVD: The Anti-Fanboy View
Chris Gould tries to take an unbiased look at the new high-definition formats
In the interests of fair play (and to minimise the inevitable accusations of bias) let’s start alphabetically, with Blu-ray Disc. I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the titles I’ve seen on Sony’s format, especially from relatively recent films such as Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The level of detail in films encoded at 1080p far surpasses that of standard-definition DVD, allowing you to pick out elements that would ordinarily pass you by. Audio is also impressive, with engaging soundtracks encoded in lossless formats like PCM or DTS-HD Master Audio. However, it’s not all rosy in the Blu-ray garden.
One of the biggest selling points of the new formats is their ability to handle high-def audio. For Blu-ray this means either PCM, DTS-HD Master Audio or, less commonly, Dolby TrueHD. While all of these sound great on paper, things are a little more complicated than the specs suggest. At the time of writing I don’t know of a single Blu-ray player that can internally decode DTS-HD (either ‘lossless’ Master Audio or the lossy High Resolution variant). Instead people will hear the legacy Core track, which should still sound great, but which isn’t high-def audio. Thankfully a large number of discs include uncompressed PCM soundtracks, which are identical to the studio master but eat up disc space that could be used for other things.
The audio issues are annoying, but my biggest criticism of the format is that it is not standardised. My BD player is what they call a ‘Profile 1.0’ machine, which means it is capable of playing back Blu-ray movies and standard features but it is incapable of handling the more advanced features that will be available on future releases. For this you will need a Profile 1.1 player, which will allow you to enjoy picture-in-picture commentaries and other advanced BD-J (Blu-ray Java) features. Another problem with Profile 1.0 machines is that the already long loading times of Blu-ray are exacerbated when players encounter discs with even the most basic of BD-J content.
For example, the average loading time for a film on my machine is around thirty seconds, but throw some BD-J features into the mix (discs such as Pirates of the Caribbean and FF2: Rise of the Silver Surfer) and the loading times rise to anywhere between two and three minutes! I don't know about you, but I find this situation totally unacceptable and can’t believe that the technology was launched with what amounts to built-in obsolescence. I’m not even going to discuss Profile 2.0, which has already been announced...
Another major issue I have with Blu-ray is the regional coding. Although simplified to three regions (from DVD’s six), it is unlikely to be cracked in the way that DVD regional protection was. I wouldn’t have such a big problem with regional coding if it was used to protect the theatrical release dates of new releases (after all, that’s what it’s supposed to be for), but many studios still insist on coding catalogue titles. I’m talking about twenty year old films here (sometimes older). The only reason for the coding of such titles can be to control the price in various markets, but it also means that some territories have access to a much wider selection of titles than others. I like to watch Asian cinema, but this could become very difficult for me in the future, at least on Blu-ray.
Other than that, I’m fairly happy with the format. There are some minor issues that I find bothersome, such as navigation speed and the lack of resume support when you press the stop button, but these problems are not exclusive to Blu-ray.
As we move on to HD DVD many of the positive points raised above still stand, but there are a whole new set of negatives. The most widely publicised of these is probably the disc capacity issue. Whereas Blu-ray has a dual-layer disc capacity of 50GB, HD DVD is currently restricted to 30GB. This means less room for content, be it the main feature or bonus material, which is usually presented in standard definition. More space may come in the future with triple-layer discs, but whether these will be compatible with existing hardware remains to be seen and the Blu-ray camp is already promising 200GB discs...
One of the most obvious side-effects of the relative lack of disc space is that many HD DVD titles lack lossless soundtracks (and I don’t know of any with uncompressed PCM). However, I’ve recently read a number of articles and listened to a number of podcasts that suggest the lack of TrueHD is not necessarily down to storage limitations, but rather conscious choice by the content designers. Indeed, in a recent interview a pair of Dolby engineers discussed the lack of TrueHD on the flagship Transformers HD DVD, proclaiming the Dolby Digital Plus track to be ‘audibly transparent’ to the studio master. Are they to be believed? Thankfully the interactive side of things is pretty much sorted, as HD DVD was launched with support for interactive features from the get-go.
HD DVD also has less studio support than Blu-ray, which translates to a smaller selection of available titles. At present only two of the major studios are exclusively supporting HD DVD (Paramount and Universal), with Warner opting to cover both formats. This is in stark contrast to Blu-ray, which has exclusive backing from Sony (of course), Fox, Disney (and its subsidiaries) and Lionsgate. Of course many smaller studios are also backing the formats, but it would seem that Blu-ray also has the edge there (at least in my experience).
Other, less obvious ‘deficiencies’ include a slightly less robust manufacturing process, which makes HD DVD discs more susceptible to dirt and scratches than Blu-ray discs, and a lower maximum bitrate for DVD video. Whether these are particularly big problems is debatable, but they are worth mentioning all the same. Other than that my experience was much the same as Blu-ray, with only slight annoyances like the lack of resume support and extended loading times and navigational delays (although HD DVD is quicker than Blu-ray in these respects).
At the moment both formats have compatibility issues, which usually manifest as the inability to play newer titles, but these can be addressed with firmware updates. Unfortunately it is impossible to get around the hardware restrictions of Profile 1.0 players, so all early-adopters will have to buy a new player if they want to enjoy the full Blu-ray experience. This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow considering the relatively high cost of Blu-ray hardware, and the main driving force behind my next statement.
If studio allegiances were not an issue and I was forced to choose between the formats at this moment in time, I would probably side with HD DVD. In my experience the hardware is more mature, the software offers more in the way of interactivity and, crucially, it does not enforce regional coding. As production costs fall storage will be less of an issue, either because of multi-layered discs or because we will start to see more multi-disc sets (as is the norm with DVD), which will close the gap even further.
Of course my opinion counts for very little in a battle that will be fought and won in the USA, a territory largely unconcerned with multi-region capability because of the size and diversity of the domestic market. With backing from so many of the major players, superior software sales and a larger installed user base courtesy of the PS3, the odds would seem to be stacked in Blu-ray’s favour. Certainly, given a level playing field Sony's format would seem to be the logical choice on paper, but I wouldn’t write off HD DVD just yet. I happen to think the formats are set to coexist for some time, for better or worse.
However, I personally feel that both formats are premature. The vast majority of people are simply not concerned about high-definition, be it Blu-ray, HD DVD or broadcast television. I know only a handful of people who can afford to own an HDTV and of those even fewer have them hooked up to a high-definition source. In fact, most people I've spoken to outside of the 'DVD community' don't have the first clue about either format, which is a trend that's repeated by store-workers and, yes, even the manufacturers if the conversations I've had with various technical help-desks are any indicator (they know who they are).
Sales would seem to reflect my opinion, with combined Blu-ray and HD DVD figures currently accounting for less than two percent of the total DVD market! At least some of the blame for the lacklustre sales figures must be attributed to the ongoing format war, which isn't helped by the two camps taking every opportunity to hurl insults or massage sales figures to 'prove' that the other is about to fail. Fanboys from both sides banging on about attach rates and the like seem to have forgotten what the formats are meant for—watching films. When it comes to that, Blu-ray and HD DVD offer a virtually identical experience; albeit one that is streets ahead of standard-definition in terms of quality. My advice to you is to hold off for a while longer until hardware is standardised and prices start to fall. If nothing else it will give you more time to save your pennies for that all-singing, all-dancing, dual-format player!
Editorial by Chris Gould
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