A High Definition Choice

I am an early adopter, when I can afford it. As such, I have experienced my own personal disappointments when a format or platform I selected under-performs in the market and is judged a failure by every measurement except quality, because I think I usually judge these things rationally and after a good deal of research about which is the better option.
Those of us with big digital monitors for our home entertainment centers, AKA the living room TV, know that there are two competing platforms to replace DVDs for high-def video on a little silver disk. They both offer similar audio and video quality, and use exactly the same read/write method to pull the copious amounts of data off the platters for delivery to your screen and speakers.
Until recently, the major differentiations have been “We’re bigger!” and “We’re cheaper!”, and historically the “We’re cheaper!” camp usually wins the contest, because the general public can’t be bothered about the details and what it comes down to, in the end, looking at a side-by-side comparison is “If I can get the same picture and the same sound for less, why would I buy the other box?” The good tech-heads at c|net have assembled an excellent table that accurately demonstrates the similarities between the competing standards, and the differences are minor.
The battle between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray has been going on now for more than two years. Attempts to rectify the differences in the two camps and provide a single, undisputed, optimized standard fell apart in 2005 and since then we’ve been faced with making a decision.

I didn’t make one. First off, I own about 300 DVD disks and the idea of replacing even half of those with a new format that might not last wasn’t very attractive. Secondly, I was in no hurry to do so because it seemed to me that the cost of the players was prohibitive, and there were reports of problems — particularly with Blu-Ray — getting movies to just show up, let alone getting all the new special interactive features functioning. Thirdly, I have a DVD jukebox that holds all my DVDs, so I can just scan through an on-screen menu and select a movie to watch without bothering with boxes and disk changing, and a single-disk player didn’t fill the convenience factor. Sony has since come out with a not-inconspiculous multi-disk tower, but it currently retails for $3,500 and I’m not in the financial position to spend more on a video player than I did on all my other A/V eqipment combined.
Lastly, and most importantly, I wasn’t content to make a judgment for either platform while the other existed. It’s weird to me that there are camps on both sides with religious convictions about their format of choice. I can almost understand the PS3 vs. Xbox churches, since the companies behind those consoles are both capable of eliciting strong emotional responses both positive and negative. And in a way, the hi-def video platforms are similarly divided, since Microsoft is backing Toshiba’s HD-DVD format, while Blu-Ray was developed by Sony. And there are certainly extended circumstances surrounding a preference for either that goes beyond mere titles, however I must admit that I prefer HD-DVD as a format name more than Blu-Ray, which sounds like it was cooked up by a marketing department bent on selling some sci-fi inspired laser pistol or a way for Dr. Evil to destroy the moon.
One big sticking point between the two is the use of Digital Rights Management software, or DRM. In particular, Blu-Ray discs institute a layer of content protection over and above what’s currently on an HD-DVD disc called BD+. I won’t bore you with the details (available here) but suffice it to say that the anti-Blu-Ray fanboys feel that Sony has gone overboard in their use of copy protection, which is hardly surprising since they’re a major content provider, and in some cases the DRM has caused players to refuse to play discs — that’s how good it is at protecting itself.
Another lessor consideration is how much data a disc will hold when used on your home computer. A standard single-layer DVD-R disc will hold 4.7 GB, and a dual-layer holds 8.5 GB. Blank HD-DVDs will hold 15 GB or 30 GB (or up to 45 GB on prototype triple-layer discs) and a Blu-Ray disc can manage 25 GB or 50 GB, with a proposed 100 GB quad-layer disc in prototype stages. Not only does that mean you can squeeze more onto a Blu-Ray disc, it means that the content is likely to be 100% hi-def, including all that useless additional content you watch once and never watch again.
The last mitigating circumstances concerns what you can get for each competing platform, because motion picture studios have been picking sides on their own about which format to release for. Until recently, the balance was about 50-50, with Paramount, Universal and Dreamworks on the HD-DVD side, and Sony (MGM/Columbia Tri-Star), Disney (Touchstone/Miramax), 20th Century Fox and Lions Gate in Blu-Ray’s church. Warner Bros had decided to ride the fence until a clear winner emerged. That was an important decision since Warners commands 18%-20% of DVD sales in the U.S. all by itself.
On Friday, Warners announced it would cease releasing content on HD-DVD in favor of Blu-Ray beginning in May — a decision that shifts the content balance to 70% Blu-Ray.
In word: Ouch.
The other option that’s going to be rising from the depths is the same one that is, with gathering speed, killing off the Compact Disc as a method of housing digital music. Downloadable content is the dark cousin in the corner that the studios would rather have put away than deal with at all, but it’s an unavoidable eventuality. Grabbing a movie is a much larger proposition than ripping an album off a CD, or downloading a group of MP3s from a friend. We’re talking Gigs of data rather than Megs, plus the multiple soundtracks and embedded subtitles and all manner of other complimentary data that a DVD or hi-def disc allows. There are several unanswered questions regarding this option, and most are unanswered simply because no one is really doing it right, yet.
I’ve just started using Handbreak on my Mac Mini to rip movies off my collection of DVDs to a concatenated disc array. It’s kind of like a RAID, which is combining two or more hard drives into one big one with striped or mirrored data, though in the case of concatenated drives it’s merely a software solution that makes multiple drives look like a single one rather than act like one, the advantage being that you can add more drives to the array whenever you want to without losing the data that’s already written to the other ones. The quality of the movies is about equal to what my up-converting DVD player can achieve on its own, and I use Front Row along with iTunes to manage my movies just like it manages my music. It’s actually a more elegant and simpler method than the DVD jukebox’s rather limited menuing system, but it’s not without its drawbacks. For one thing, my poor little Mac Mini struggles to encode the movies with its slow Intel single-core processor in less than about 12 hours per title, and a 2+ hour .MP4 film ends up occupying about 1.8 GB. I figure downloading a similarly sized file would take much less time, unless one were to attempt to grab a Torrent of someone else’s ripped DVD in which case it would likely take days or weeks to get one file downloaded what with Comcast’s torrent throttling, not to mention the innate illegality of such an option.
The Xbox 360 can accomodate video rentals, including 720p HD versions, but it’s impractical. For one thing, obviously, you download to the 360’s hard drive and need to use the 360 to view them. As a game console, it’s fabulous. As a movie player, it’s a bit, well, awkward. For one thing, using a 360 controller as a remote isn’t exactly ergonomic.
Amazon Unbox allows me to download movies to my TiVo, but again I run into more than a few downsides, chiefly that I want to use my precious hard drive space (which has only limited expandability) to record hi-def television, and not as a storage method for standard definition movies.
What I’m really longing for (still) is The MBEN I detailed back in 2004 and which I prognosticated that we would not see until 2014. Here we are a third of the way into that period and I don’t think we’re too much closer to the event. Standing in the way, I thought, was technology. But the real challenge to simple, fast, easy access to all digital media via one smart box is more likely to be copyright management and digital handshaking. The High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) was supposed to resolve that problem, but my personal experience with it is that it’s only exacerbating it.
It seems to me that while trying to protect their own content, studios and record labels are managing to destroy it.
But getting back to my hi-def meanderings, and after way too much ditch-digging I’m finally getting to the bedrock of this post, which is to say that given the current environment and realities concerning available content and support, I’m going to say that Blu-Ray wins, much to my surprise. Sony’s track record for creating new “standards” isn’t exactly stellar, and they fail mostly for the same reasons: Priced too high, media too closed, outside support lacking or non-existent.
I’m still not ready to put my money where my mouth is. The Blu-Ray spec is still in the process of evolving and one player may not be able to do what another player can, not to mention that the best player out there is the PS3 and I am unconvinced that it’s worth my money to purchase one when I wouldn’t be likely to actually use it enough to account for the amount of space it takes up on my equipemnt shelves. Perhaps when LittleBigPlanet appears, or when New Line decides to release the Lord of the Rings Extended Edition trilogy in 1080p I’ll take the plunge, but at least I can now be reasonably confident that my high definition platform of choice is the one that’s going to be VHS, rather than Beta.

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