You buy yourself a big, beautiful high-definition TV, sign up for high-definition programming from your friendly cable or satellite TV provider, maybe connect an antenna to grab the free broadcast high-def versions of network TV shows, and hook up your trusty DVD player. And what do you get?
The HD programs over cable or satellite look gorgeous. Just spend a few minutes watching the opening credits for HBO's "Deadwood" series, or gaze entranced at some nasty, twitchy flesh-eating bugs captured in exquisite detail on "Discovery HD Theater" and you realize the enormous visual difference between regular TV and HDTV.
And with an adequate over-the-air antenna, the free broadcast HD programs look just as wonderful. Switch on an NFL game and you can practically count the blades of grass or the strands on the cheerleaders' pom-poms. Superb high-def production can even tip the scales—at our house at least—in favor of a borderline TV show like "CSI: Miami." Sure, we have to suffer through David Caruso chewing on his lines like stale beef jerky, but can you believe how sensational that South Beach sunset looks?
Finally, you pop a favorite movie into that DVD player and… well, it looks good. And since the wide-screen HDTV set is closer to movie format than a traditional square-ish TV picture tube, you get to see more movie and less of the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. But at the same time, you can't help noticing that a broadcast episode of "Dancing with the Stars" looks cleaner and sharper than your prized DVD boxed set of the Star Wars trilogy. Clearly there is a great disturbance in the Force.
The reason is simple. DVDs were created to make the most of TVs built to the hallowed NTSC (U.S.), PAL (Europe) or SECAM (Asia) broadcast standards. The NTSC standard, established back in 1953, calls for a picture made up of 525 horizontal lines (484 of which are actually visible on the screen). High-definition sets, though, adhere to a much more demanding standard, called ATSC. The high-def picture consists of either 720 or 1,080 lines and, in addition to bumping up the horizontal resolution, also provides a much wider display. Do the math and you find that a standard TV picture is made up of about 300,000 dots, where an HD picture, at the highest resolution, consists of over two million dots. With nearly seven times as many colored points painting the picture, it's no surprise that high-def programs leave DVDs in the dust.
Which brings us to the good news, bad news section of our program. The good news? They've figured out a way to squeeze all the richness of high-definition movies onto discs that look identical to standard DVDs.
The bad news? There are two separate, incompatible formats for these new high-definition discs, one called Blu-ray, the other HD DVD. Buy a Blu-ray player and slip in an HD DVD format disc—it's not going to play, and vice versa. What we have here, my friends, is a format war, an ugly little ritual wherein a sector of the consumer electronics industry creates wonderful new products with lots of consumer appeal, then gums up the works—potentially for years to come—by battling over compatability standards. The Blu-ray side is captained by Sony, lead developer of the format, with eight consumer electronics allies (including LG, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, Samsung and Sharp), along with Apple and Dell on the computer side. The forces of HD DVD are led by Toshiba, with LG (which would like to create a unit that would play both formats), Thomson/RCA and Microsoft in the ranks.
Why can't we all just get along? It's partly a matter of money (royalty fees for producing discs will be substantial), but when you consider how significantly this disagreement is likely to delay public adoption of the new technology, you can't help detecting a whiff of corporate testosterone in the air. Toshiba fired off the first volley in the U.S. retail conflict in April with the release of two HD DVD models. Samsung unleashed the first Blu-ray barrage two months later.
Some of my fellow scribes have likened this format war to the great VHS/Betamax debacle of the early '80s. Sony and JVC came up with incompatible videotape formats, built alliances with other manufacturers and squared off on the retail battlefield in a bloody fray that left consumers confused and disgruntled. I suspect, though, that the rumble between Blu-ray and HD DVD may be closer to a more recent conflict: the DVD-Audio/SACD music format war, which is still raging...kind of, sort of.
You see, when home videotape was introduced in the late 1970s, nothing like it was on the market. You couldn't rent a movie or time-shift a TV program. We all had TVs, we all saw the radical promise of a home videotape recorder. Despite differing formats, the VCR you bought let you make your own recordings (this was long before Blockbuster became a movie rental blockbuster). As long as you could buy blank tapes in your format, the VHS/Beta incompatibility didn't matter much.
Skip forward to the present day. While movies on DVD are in great abundance at minimal expense, the library of titles available in the new disc formats will remain a small fraction of that for at least the next year or two. (I'm ballparking 150 titles in each high-def format by the end of the year, versus tens of thousands of DVDs.) Furthermore the new formats' dramatically improved quality is reserved for those who own a high-def TV set, and that's only about 20 percent of American households today.
Which brings me back to DVD-Audio/SACD music discs. Their challenge was to sell a higher-quality experience to consumers who were already pretty happy with their music CDs. Faced with two separate, incompatible formats, even interested consumers were left with the concern that the disc they wanted wouldn't work in the player they owned. Bottom line: both DVD-Audio and SACD are pimples on the posterior of the music market, an opportunity squandered.
So why bother even considering Blu-ray and HD DVD?
Because watching in high-definition is a vastly superior experience to watching in standard definition on an HDTV, and both of the new disc formats do deliver the splendid picture and audio quality they promise.
Because many of us leafing through these pages are the kind of early adopters who might just fork over a wad of dough for a decidedly superior entertainment experience, particularly if our friends and neighbors don't have it yet, and even if it's not, strictly speaking, the most practical use of our funds.
And because I think I know who's going to win this thing in the end.
The Blues in the Light
Now, if companies are going to all the trouble of creating two incompatible disc formats, you'd think the technology involved in each would be substantially different. And you'd be wrong.
The underlying tech that makes both Blu-ray and HD DVD work is a blue laser, which projects a much finer beam of light than the red laser used in standard DVD players. A finer laser beam means the pits and grooves used to record information onto the disc can be packed more closely together, resulting in discs with much higher capacity. With enough capacity, you can fit an entire high-definition movie onto the same-size disc now used for the standard-definition version. An extra benefit: since the discs are the same size, it didn't take much effort for both Blu-ray and HD DVD developers to design players that handle both the new discs and standard-definition DVDs.
The warring formats use similar technology. They also bring the same enhanced Dolby and DTS surround sound audio standards to the party, and improve on DVDs by letting you overlay an on-screen menu while the movie keeps playing. How, then, do they differ?
Capacity: A single-layer Blu-ray disc can hold 25 gigabytes of information, versus 15 gigabytes on a single-layer HD DVD. Multiple-layer discs are possible (most commercial DVDs you buy today have two layers), but there's no reason to think that one format can handle more layers than another, so capacity remains a Blu-ray advantage.
Pricing: The HD DVD group seems to have priced players to make consumers happy, starting at $500. The Blu-ray group, on the other hand, is selling at prices meant to bring joy to the poor electronics retailers, who have to welcome the profit margin on a $1,000-to-$1,500 Blu-ray player after suffering through the nickel-and-dime return on DVD player sales. Higher profit margins could translate into greater support at retail, more shelf space, more salesperson training for Blu-ray—or consumer demand for lower-cost players could flip the coin in favor of HD DVD. One point is clear: player prices will come down as new models are introduced next year. Movie prices, by the way, are about the same for both formats.
Videogame System Support: Ordinarily, the ability to play discs on a videogame console wouldn't be a major selling point. Yes, your PlayStation 2 or Xbox console can play DVDs, but odds are you have a separate DVD player. Sony's decision to build a Blu-ray drive into every one of its PlayStation 3 game consoles changes that. While the game console is very expensive ($600 for a PlayStation 3 with the appropriate HDTV connector versus $250 for Nintendo Wii and $299 for Xbox 360), no Blu-ray player is more affordable. When rabid game players snatch hundred of thousands of PlayStation 3 consoles from store shelves in November, they'll also be acquiring the ability to play Blu-ray movies, even if all they had intended was to massacre alien hordes. Microsoft, in the meantime, promises an HD DVD player add-on to its Xbox 360 system. It has not announced a price or ship date, but the rumor mill reasonably expects that an updated Xbox 360 with an HD DVD drive pre-installed will arrive in 2007.
Computer Disc Recording: While movie watching is the most compelling reason to go Blu-ray or HD DVD, plenty is at stake in the computer world. Today's enormous computer-hard-drive capacities are a challenge to back up to CDs or other external storage—hence, the appeal of a single next-generation DVD that can store vast quantities of digital photos, music files, documents, e-mails and so on. Beyond that, the promise of high-definition home movies is now a reality. With HD camcorders selling for around $1,000 and video editing software readily available, anything from the kids' soccer final to your indie film exposè can be captured in glorious high definition. The trick is getting your movie masterpiece on a TV screen. Short of hooking the computer to the TV (which can work fine, by the way), you burn the movie to disc. Right now, you can only do that with Sony VAIO desktop and laptop computers that offer built-in Blu-ray-burning drives and software. Toshiba is shipping a laptop with a drive that plays back HD DVD movies, but it hasn't announced plans to offer HD DVD disc burning on a computer.
Also worth noting is that while DVD recorders that hook up to your TV system are now commonplace and relatively inexpensive, no comparable Blu-ray or HD DVD recorder is available. Even when they are, we can expect horrendous copy-protection restrictions to render them all but useless.
Backward Compatibility: Considering that your standard DVD player can't handle a next-generation HD disc, what if you want to buy a movie once and play it both on your HDTV and in your car's DVD system, or on a laptop on the plane? HD DVD addresses this problem with dual-format discs that incorporate both high-def and standard-def versions for maximum compatibility. So far only a handful of titles are available in this format, and they cost more than standard-issue HD DVDs, but at least they prove the concept works. Blu-ray supporters have discussed dual-format high-def/standard DVD discs, but plans aren't final.
Movie Studio Support: I saved the big kahuna of format differences for last. If all the movie studios chose to release their flicks in both high-def disc formats, the situation still wouldn't be ideal—HD DVD owners wouldn't be able to swap discs with their Blu-ray buddies, for example—but at least you'd be able to buy one player and watch any movie you chose. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. While Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. have agreed to support both the Blu-Ray and HD DVD formats (even then, nothing guarantees that every film will be available on both platforms), Universal Studios has an exclusive arrangement with the HD DVD side, which means King Kong lovers better have an HD DVD player ready if they want to see the big ape in high-def. Meanwhile, you'll find 20th Century Fox, Disney (with its Touchstone and Miramax branches) plus Sony Pictures Entertainment (including MGM and Columbia Tristar) releasing titles exclusively on Blu-ray. This may not come as an overwhelming shock—Sony is the Blu-ray standard-bearer, after all. Bottom line, though, it leaves HD DVD at a decided disadvantage—seven out of eight major Hollywood studios support Blu-ray, versus three for HD DVD. Furthermore, even if the lone HD DVD-only supporter, Universal, decides to embrace Blu-ray at some point, putting all the majors into one camp, you can bet that Sony isn't going to release Spiderman, The Da Vinci Code or any James Bond flicks on HD DVD for years to come.
Surveying the Store Shelves
I received samples of the first HD DVD and Blu-ray players to hit the market, along with a selection of movies from the ridiculous (was Rumor Has It really a great choice to show off an exciting new high-def film format?) to the sublime (House of Flying Daggers is nothing short of spectacular in HD). I watched them with a selection of fine gourmet popcorns (this reviewer prefers Oogie's White Cheddar) and an expert eye. My conclusion? Both formats deliver the stellar visual and audio experience they promise, though these first players have notable quirks.
On the Blu-ray side we have Samsung's BD-P1000, a $1,000 player that performs roughly as expected. On the plus side, that means beautiful high-def video output at up to 1080p resolution ("p" stands for progressive scan), the most rigorous of the HDTV standards, along with flawless sound. The player also improved the look of standard DVDs, "up-converting" them to high-definition resolution that, while nowhere as good as a true Blu-ray disc, was still noticeably better than unprocessed DVD output. On the other hand, one important feature is notably missing, not only from this player but from nearly all the other first-generation Blu-ray players as well. Blu-ray supporters promise we'll be able to connect our players to the Internet and stream additional content related to the movie we're watching—commentaries, behind-the-scenes features, and so on—right onto our TVs. The demos I've seen look very cool indeed, but only two of the announced Blu-ray players will have the Ethernet port required to make an Internet connection—the most expensive model of the bunch (Pioneer's $1,500 BDP-HD1) and the least expensive, the PlayStation 3. The other players (including the Samsung reviewed here and Sony's own BDP-S1) don't support this important feature of Blu-ray.
My HD DVD review unit was the Toshiba HD-XA1 ($799), the higher end of the two initial models. Again, there's no complaint about the AV experience; standard DVDs were up-converted effectively, and the surround sound was glorious. What's more, the Toshiba is Internet-ready, even if none of the current HD DVD movies supports this feature. But while Samsung's Blu-ray player was slow loading a movie, the Toshiba was positively lethargic—I started to think the unit was broken after spending more than a minute staring at a blank screen. The remote control is a strangely designed contraption, too, with poor button layout and a backlight that seemed to turn on and off based on messages from the spirit world. I'm honor-bound to mention that, statistically speaking, the Toshiba picture is inferior to that of the Samsung, outputting at 1080i ("i" for interlaced) instead of the superior 1080p. Watching both on an actual HDTV set, however, I couldn't detect any visible difference at all, and I've heard the same from other tech pros.
Additional buying options will arrive in time for the holidays. RCA just started shipping its own HD DVD player, and Sony and Pioneer both have Blu-ray players in the wings. What you won't see any time soon is a combination player that will handle both formats. Despite dual-format promises, plans have been cancelled or postponed. It will happen eventually, I'm sure, but don't hold your breath.
And if you'd like to improve the visual splendor of your current DVD collection, the same kind of video up-converting accomplished by the Blu-ray and HD DVD players reviewed above is available without switching formats. DVD players that incorporate video enhancement technologies are widely available—a small company called Oppo (oppodigital.com) sells a highly regarded model for $199. Or you can turbocharge all of your standard-def viewing with the DVDO iScan VP20 from Anchor Bay Technologies ($1,699), which sharpens, enhances and up-converts standard video to a pristine high-definition signal, squeezing the most pleasurable picture possible out of good old NTSC.
Disc, Drive or Download?
Potentially the most interesting question of all in considering the Blu-ray/HD DVD wars is whether the future of high-definition viewing will rely on discs at all. In my home, for example, there's never a shortage of high-def programs available for viewing on a slow Saturday night. We have DirecTV service with a TiVo hard-drive-recorder-equipped set-top box. That means we can scan the program listings, pick out a few movies and TV shows that sound promising and record them from the satellite service to watch at our leisure. The same digital video recorder capability is now common on most cable systems, and high-definition video-on-demand services are picking up steam.
Still on the technological fringes, but moving inevitably toward the mainstream, is something called IPTV. It stands for Internet Protocol TV, and gives viewers a two-way connection with a provider who can send scheduled programs as well as respond to viewers' input with requested programs. Sounds a lot like today's high-end digital cable systems, right? Except IPTV works over a broadband Internet connection, opening the possibility of thousands upon thousands of programming choices, while providing strong competition to cable and satellite TV providers. Verizon is already delivering both standard-definition and high-def television service in test markets. While IPTV, like on-demand cable, currently works as a pay-per-view system, there's no technological reason why you couldn't pay once for the privilege of "owning" your favorite film in high-def, but instead of having it physically reside in your home, have unlimited access to the bits and bytes stored on the IPTV system's computer servers, ready to watch on demand.
While plucking high-def content as needed from the great digital motherlode appeals to my technocentric proclivities, I'm betting that, for the near future (say till the end of the decade), people will still want to own movies on disc, paving the way for rapid growth in high-def DVD ownership. Unless we see major changes in alliances or technologies, Blu-ray seems poised to win the battle. Player prices will come down, but the deciding factor will be the availability of high-def movies and TV shows and concert videos and so forth, and Sony's role as both content publisher and technology promoter gives the company a unique advantage.
Still, I'm advising all but the most devil-may-care early adopter to wait until next year to make the leap. Player prices are unreasonably high, the number of available titles is distressingly low, and the lack of an Internet port on most of today's Blu-ray players just ticks me off. And I say that even though I'm planning to ignore the public relations folks as long as humanly possible before giving in and returning my high-def disc player review units.
Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor, who writes regularly on technology issues.