Burning Questions: Blu-ray vs. HD DVD--Which Has the Early Edge?

A funny thing happens in a format war: At some point, the theoretical spec one-upmanship gives way to tangible reality--what the rival products are delivering, today.

After looking at the initial wave of products from both fronts, I have a few thoughts about where the format war is heading. The first products deliver on their promises of outstanding high-definition video (Toshiba's HD-A1 and HD-XA1 HD DVD players and its Qosmio G35-AV650 laptop, plus more than 25 HD DVD movies from Warner Brothers and Universal) and high-capacity, rewritable disc storage (Pioneer's BDR-101A, Sony's AR Premium VGN-AR19G notebook equipped with a Blu-ray player/burner). I'm less intrigued by the actual products than I am by what they say beneath the surface about the two warring formats.

High-Def Video: A Capacity Question?

After debuting in fits and starts, and after both formats' encountering delays due to issues surrounding the AACS (Advanced Access Content System) copy controls, HD DVD is still enjoying a slight lead to market on its rival. HD DVD came out in late April, and even though player supplies continue to be tight, new titles are steadily streaming out every week.

Meanwhile, Blu-ray has faced a few additional post-AACS setbacks--although not quite as many as I've seen inaccurately reported around the Web. Sony Pictures pushed its content launch to June 20 after Samsung announced a change in release date for its $1000 BD-P1000 player, from late May to June 25. However, both of those launches remain on schedule, the vendors claim. Jim Sanduski, Samsung's senior vice president of marketing, says, "We'll be in more than 2000 storefronts at launch, and we will have multiple units available at each of these locations. Will we sell out? I hope so. We are launching with more storefronts and more quantity than Toshiba."

Meanwhile, Pioneer shifted its planned Blu-ray player from an early summer launch to September--when the product does launch, though, it will be at $1500, $300 less than the price the company announced back in January at CES. And Sony Electronics has adjusted the expected July release of its $1000 BD-SP1 player by a few weeks. According to a company spokesperson, the move is a strategic one, to coincide with the company's August launch of 1080p televisions and its push to educate consumers about Blu-ray Disc at retail outlets nationwide.

I don't expect that we'll see dramatic, overwhelming differences in image quality between HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc movie content. I do expect it to be tough to isolate which format is superior for delivering video, given the number of variables that come into play--including choices in the video codec, bit rate, and encoder used, not to mention whether you're viewing the output over analog or HDMI, on a display capable of 1080i or 1080p.

We'll probably see subtle differences. Sony plans to encode its first generation of discs in MPEG-2, while Warner and Universal's HD DVDs are using the VC-1 or MPEG-4 AVC codec. RCA's and Toshiba's HD DVD players output at 1080i (even though the movie discs are 1080p), while the first Blu-ray players from Pioneer, Samsung, and Sony all output at 1080p.

I hope to see the same film released on both HD DVD and Blu-ray, at different bit rates and using different codecs. Only then will it be clear, visually, whether Blu-ray's greater maximum capacity of 50GB for dual-layer discs provides a tangible advantage. (HD DVD currently tops out at 30GB for a dual-layer disc; Toshiba raised the possibility of a 45GB triple-layer disc last summer, but according to the DVD Forum it has not been discussed, let alone formally added to the HD DVD spec.)

The rival media's physical storage constraints have the potential to be a greater issue in this struggle than many observers have considered up until now. Before HD DVD's launch, I had privately heard rumblings of studio concerns about HD DVD's lower capacity.

Now that I've taken a closer look at the first eight HD DVD movies I received from Warner Brothers and Universal, I can understand why. None of the eight titles could fit on a 15GB single-layer HD DVD, and half came within a mere 5GB of maxing out a 30GB dual-layer disc--even though all relied on the latest, more efficient video codecs (VC-1 and MPEG-4 AVC). The movies were The Last Samurai (which topped out at 27.3GB), Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles (25.4GB), The Phantom of the Opera (24.8GB), Jarhead (24.7GB), The Bourne Identity (22.7GB), Serenity (19.6GB), The Fugitive (18.2GB), and Doom (16.5GB).

Granted, this is a small, random sampling, but the results nonetheless surprised me, considering that I had for so long heard HD DVD supporters say that even 15GB would be roomy for high-def content. Instead, it seems that HD DVD content is, in many cases, barely squeezing onto 30GB discs today--and the tight space leaves little breathing room for the interactive-video future that Hollywood's creative minds will dream up down the road. All of the titles I saw are first-generation; not surprisingly, their menus and level of interactivity are basic and do not reflect the complexity I expect to see from both formats in the near future. Plus, the existing extras don't take full advantage of the formats, nor were they created natively in high-definition, with high-def, wide-screen presentation in mind. And the soundtracks are more limited, typically only today's 5.1-channel sound, with just one audio commentary instead of multiple commentaries and elaborate features.

Imagine what an innovative director like Peter Jackson might have done with the on-set documentaries and featurettes for his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, had everything been filmed with HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc in mind. Something tells me that a 30GB disc wouldn't come close to being enough, and that a 45GB disc (assuming one does come to market) might get a bit snug--even if one accounts for future improvements and efficiencies in compression and disc authoring techniques.

How much space Blu-ray content will consume remains to be seen; the first titles from Sony are beginning to ship this week, and although none of them will be on 50GB dual-layer discs, other titles will ship on 50GB discs later this summer, according to Sony. But I can't help but think that this format's greater capacity will serve it well over time. That said, I'm not convinced the PlayStation 3 will be Blu-ray's trump card. Sony said nothing at the E3 Expo in May that makes me think it is truly positioning the PS3 for home-theater buffs who want a Blu-ray Disc player that's cheaper than a stand-alone box. And for those consumers who do invest $599 in the premium PlayStation 3 with HDMI output, the machine's primary purpose will likely be for playing Gran Turismo HD and other launch game titles, not for watching Hitch in high-def.

Recording

The advantage in recording is, for now, clearly with Blu-ray: Vendors in this camp are first to market with disc burners for PCs, as well as first to release mobile burners for notebooks--and the format has the higher maximum capacity. PC Blu-ray burners are shipping from Pioneer and I-O Data, with others soon to come; this month Sony is shipping its aforementioned AR Premium Blu-ray laptop, as well as its VAIO RC series of burner-equipped desktops starting at just $2150--not overly outrageous considering that a stand-alone PC burner is priced at $1000.

Officially, the HD DVD camp remains mum on the status of PC burners. Since media was introduced at Computex in Taiwan last week, and since RiData just announced that its HD DVD-R media will ship in July, one might think a burner isn't far behind. The only news from the show, however, consisted of Toshiba's display of a slimline burner for notebooks, the SD-L902A; the company offered little there in the way of specs, pricing, or timing, let alone a demonstration of the drive's readiness (and it hasn't revealed anything since). From the get-go, the HD DVD camp's stated focus has been on the home theater playback experience (with PC movie playback coming in second, and recording not even on the road map). The lack of recording capabilities restricts HD DVD to prepackaged Hollywood content; no aspiring Spielbergs can edit their own high-def films and burn them to disc. It also limits HD DVD's viability as a data storage medium.

Price

No question: HD DVD has the edge in price. RCA's and Toshiba's players start at a highly accessible $499--if you can find them.

The cheapest stand-alone Blu-ray Disc player will be Samsung's $1000 BD-P1000, due out this month. Sony's BDP-S1 will also be $1000 when it ships in August, and Pioneer's Elite BDP-HD1 will be $1500 when it debuts in September. Sony's $499 Sony PlayStation 3, due in November, will be the least expensive player of them all; however, that model won't have an HDMI output, so you won't be able to display all-digital 1080p content. The $599 version will have HDMI, at least. Nonetheless, PlayStation 3's impact as a Blu-ray Disc player may not be as far-reaching as some observers might think; I found it curious that at E3 Sony made no mention of what kind of remote control it will offer with the PS3, and I'm not fully sold on how well the PS3 will serve as a multipurpose entertainment device.

Of course, in this nascent market, one might argue that the early adopters shopping for high-def players won't be dissuaded by a $1000 price tag. But I think that Blu-ray Disc's higher cost could hurt it, unless Blu-ray player manufacturers can adequately convey to consumers that their devices deliver enough value to justify being at least twice as much as HD DVD players.

The AACS Wild Card

Forget that Blu-ray has PlayStation 3 on its side, and that Intel and Microsoft have thrown their collective weight behind HD DVD. Forget that high-definition televisions are still gaining traction, albeit with increasing speed, among consumers. Forget that HD DVD and Blu-ray are both, really, formats in their infancy, both trying to claw their way to dominance to succeed DVD--and to avoid the sad fate of their digital audio format cousins, SACD and DVD-Audio.

For now, both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD are hampered by the fact that AACS has yet to finalize its managed copy component, the most critical aspect of the spec that remains unfinished. Without a final AACS spec, living-room high-def recorders can't proceed to market, and neither can devices that are designed to take advantage of legally copying and moving content from one disc to another--or to another device, for that matter. Original estimates put AACS's final spec as coming out in May; we're already well into June, and still there are no updates.

Until players can be manufactured to take advantage of everything from media servers to copying content, the first high-def video players from either camp should have limited appeal. I have no doubt that these players, be they Blu-ray or HD DVD, will deliver enticing high-def images. If all they do is play back content, however, they're missing a core part of the innovation that Blu-ray and HD DVD have the potential to deliver.

Melissa J. Perenson continues to wait before taking the high-def plunge herself. Drop her a line with your high-def upgrade plans at burningquestions@pcworld.com.

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