A third contender has been introduced into the format war, Paramount has dropped support for Blu-ray and irrelevant statistics are being thrown around to confuse and manipulate consumers. The world of HD is getting complex, so what better time to weigh in with some analysis and opinion?
I’m not going to call the format war (yet), but I will say that I want to see HD DVD win. It’s not that I’m emotionally attached to one form of data storage over another. It’s just that if you examine the fundamentals, HD DVD’s only real weakness is studio support; a weakness that is fading away.
Essentially, the two formats are identical except for Blu-ray’s marginally-higher burst throughput and capacity, which makes little-appreciable difference once you step away from the marketing hype. To understand why, it’s worth looking into the technology and science that goes into the art of film.
Readers of last month’s High-Def Corner will recall my recent exploits at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers’ conference, and the equipment of desire that was on display. In RAW mode, cinematography cameras can push ludicrous volumes of data to tape or RAID thanks to their colour depth, but the digital cinema standard requires video to be losslessly compressed to either a 2048 x 1080 or 4096 x 2160 resolution at a maximum bitrate of 250Mb/s for distribution.
Scale this back to home theatre’s 1920 x 1080 resolution and this translates to a lossless theoretical maximum of roughly 58.5Mb/s. Once you encode the video with the highly efficient VC-1 or H.264 codecs used in all HD formats, Blu-ray’s burst rate advantage becomes nearly insignificant: the resulting images virtually never need the extra bandwidth that Blu-ray provides. On top of this, our minds do a lot of subconscious image smoothing which means that hardly anyone can discern any differences in quality anyway.
Worse still are recent statistics that highlight a worrying increase of pseudo-HD 720p displays in Australia, which for their owners negate the resolution and quality arguments used to promote full HD. I’ll bet that less than 25% of them are correctly calibrated and that people are still mutilating their 4:3 programmes so they can get rid of those black bars on the side of the screen.
Display size in most households is generally limited to 42" thanks to display prices, and for many people, that’s all they’ll ever need or be able to justify. As far as I’m concerned, all these points make the difference in the competing formats’ bitrates negligible.
After quality the next issue that emerges is cost. Unlike the region-locked Blu-ray, HD DVD is cheap to manufacture because it’s based on the DVD standard and requires only slight modifications to DVD fabrication plants. Better yet, the old standard is versatile: there are a number of hybrid HD DVDs appearing which include both HD DVD and DVD versions of the film on the one disc. That gives a potential upgrade path to those who want to buy a movie now and an HD player later. Plus, the discs will work in both the SD setup in the bedroom and the HD home theatre rig in the living room.
Studios aren’t passing the savings on to consumers yet, but this may change. Even if it doesn’t, HD DVD gives indie film makers a cheaper HD distribution path than with Blu-ray. When CH DVD takes off, manufacturing costs should fall even further, and we can hope studios drop prices accordingly.
Some of the arguments for Blu-ray relate to HD DVD being little more than an evolution of an old standard, with Blu-ray being more of a revolution (well, as much of a revolution you can get in a circular plastic substrate) that will make data backup easier. But what’s 20GB between friends, especially when playing field levelling 51GB triple-layer HD DVDs are on the horizon? Shouldn’t we be waiting for holographic discs for true high density optical media backups?
The storage argument doesn’t really hold up in the face of video quality. Most Blu-ray films are only being authored onto a single layer – 25GB. Most HD DVDs are encoded to use the full 30GB of double layer discs. The efficiency of the identical codecs used on all HD discs makes this point even more moot, as does this month’s announcement that 51GB HD DVDs are on the way.
I’m not saying Blu-ray is a bad format. It has a lot going for it, such as more comprehensive studio support and retailer presence... for now. The Blu-ray camp declared they were outselling HD DVD by a factor of 2:1 some months ago, a lead based on initial sales figures from a laughably small market sample. Whether they maintain that lead remains to be seen – especially now that Paramount is helping the HD DVD cause.
This Feature appeared in the October 2007 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine