This is the first part of a series of high tech buyer’s guides we’re releasing here at Ask Dave Taylor to help address many of the questions that we receive about confusing new technologies and gadgets. This first article addresses a core HD question: HD-DVD or Blu-Ray. Both are amazing, but pick the wrong one, and you can pour thousands down a hole. I hope this is helpful, and encourage you to add comments at the end with your own experiences buying HD consumer electronics, whether they’re Playstation 3 / Nintendo Wii / Xbox 360 video systems, DVD players, or televisions.
The battle for your entertainment dollar took a big turn towards your living room in the early 1990s with the debut of the DVD. Replacing an obsolete analog tape format (VHS) with a crystal clear digital picture gave you a far better viewing experience and also allowed the movie studios another way to get your dollars in their pockets.
Today we are on the verge of another revolution in home movie viewing experience. High Definition is here and boy it sure looks good!
Of course, what would a new technology be without a format war, leaving us consumers confused and angry? The contenders in this battle are the two major High Definition DVD formats: Blu-ray and HD-DVD.
While both formats are very similar, there are a few subtle differences that are critically important to understand before you spend a dollar on your next consumer electronics device.
Blu-ray discs have a capacity of 50 GB, which equates to about 9 hours of high definition DVD video. HD-DVD discs have a capacity of 30 GB, quite a bit less, but are backwards compatible, allowing studios to produce disks that offer both HD-DVD and DVD data on the same disc. This offers an advantage to the customer as they can buy a single HD-DVD/DVD movie and play it in High Definition on a HD-DVD player and also play it in regular format on a normal DVD player.
Both HD formats can output at a photo-like resolution of 1080p (1920×1080), compared to 480p for current generation DVD. If you’re used to watching regular DVDs and TV at 480p (which is 480 horizontal lines of information on the screen, scanned “progressively” rather than the lower-bandwidth, lower resolution “interlace” of older TVs) then you’ll be blown away by the dramatic improvement that over 1000 lines of progressive signal offers.
Because of the extra data capacity and more complex mastering technology involved, Blu-ray movies are more expensive than their HD-DVD counterparts. I would expect this to even out over time as the movie studios settle in a maximized price point and consumers help set what we can call a “maximum pain threshold” for buying HD movies.
The most important part of this battle isn’t about the nuances of the technology, though, but about which movie studios support each format.
HD-DVD is currently supported by Warner Home Video/HBO Video/New Line Home Entertainment, Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, The Weinstein Company, BCI/Navarre, Goldhil Home Media International, Magnolia Home Entertainment, Concert Hot Spot, Toshiba Entertainment, GDH, Shochiku, Pony Canyon, Fuji Telecasting, Videoarts Music, and Kadokawa Pictures.
Blu-ray is currently supported by Lionsgate Home Entertainment, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Paramount Home Entertainment, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and MGM, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Walt Disney Company and Warner Brothers.
You’ll notice that unlike previous “us vs. them” battles, some studios have chosen to support both formats. A big surprise in this list is Warner Brothers, who are a primary founding partner of the HD-DVD group. It shows in the battle of the living room, the all-mighty dollar is what’s most important.
Thankfully for consumers, the hardware manufactures are taking a similar stance. While there are dedicated HD-DVD only (Toshiba) and Blu-ray only (Samsung) devices, there are a growing number of hybrid units that play both formats plus regular DVD.
NEC and Vidabox both currently have dual-format players, while NEC is developing a chip that will work with either standard. In an even more interesting twist, JVC is currently working on a Blu-ray/HD-DVD disc that can hold both formats. This would be very welcome to studios supporting both formats, allowing them to produce only one disc. This is something to keep an eye on.
The format battle extends into the gaming arena as well. The recent release of the Sony Playstation 3 made a big dent in the high def marketplace because every PS3 comes standard with a Blu-Ray DVD drive. That means that the hard-to-find Playstation3 also works just fine as a Blu-Ray DVD player! Microsoft, not to be outdone, showed their support for HD-DVD by releasing an add-on HD-DVD player for its popular Xbox 360 system.
What does the future hold for both formats? Personally I don’t see one format supplanting the other at this time, and both technologies are different enough that they can’t easily combine to be one unit. What I think we’ll continue to see is cross-over players, allowing the user to choose either format, and in the end it’ll be us consumers who win as movies are remastered and re-released in the amazing HD format for home viewing.