Friday, August 17, 2007

Blu-ray Disc vs HD DVD: End the format war now!

I really like watching movies, especially in the comfort of my own home, so I received the arrival of DVD with open arms. Although the picture and audio quality (PQ and AQ respectively) is much better than those available on VHS, DVDs are still a low-res format (here in North America, they have 480 lines of resolution). Add to that the fact that the DVD market is pretty much saturated, and it seems clear that a new generation of home video is called for.

Enter and , the two competing next-gen formats. Blu-ray is driven by the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA), and HD DVD is driven by Toshiba. Given that on the surface both seem to be the same (both offer up to 1080p resolution and 7.1 channels of high def sound), why would one choose one of the other? (N.B., in this article I'm only considering playing movies; other stuff like data archival is out of scope.)

This blog article explains my rationale for picking one, in what is intended to be an objective manner. To that end, I'll get my biases out of the way: I am not a gamer (though I will admit to owning a PSP), and I have no feelings either way towards Sony, Toshiba, or any other consummer electronics (CE) company out there. The only company I despise is Microsoft. At the time of writing, I have neither a Blu-ray nor an HD DVD player: I have invested $0 in either format.

In the interests of fairness here are links to the Wikipedia articles about Blu-ray and HD DVD.

Right, with that out of the way, let's take a look at the pros and cons of each format. I'll start with the technical stuff because it's the least disputable objective stuff, and because I'm a techie. :-)

We've already dealt with the resolution and audio availablity (despite all Blu-ray players being 1080p and some entry-level HD DVD players being only 1080i, I think we can pretty well call this one a tie), so what else is there?

The most obvious criteria is storage capacity: Blu-ray has a 25GB/layer capacity whereas HD DVDs is 15GB/layer. Dual-layer machines are universal, so we have a practical limit of 50GB for Blu-ray and 30GB for HD DVD. More space means that there's more room for extras, and, from a videophiles point of view, that lower compression ratios can be used for better PQ. IF you think compression ratios don't matter, take two big pictures with your digital camera: one at the lowest compression and one at the highest. Now compare them; the picture with the most compression will be noticably worse than the other one. So, advantage Blu-ray.

Not so obvious to the non-techie, but just as important as capacity, is the available bandwidth. Put simply, bandwidth is a measure of how much data the format handle per second. The higher the bandwidth, the better the potential PQ and AQ is. Audio and video information must be presented at a certain rate, otherwise it wouldn't be TV! Given the finite amount of time available to show each frame, it follows that a format with higher bandwidth can use a smaller amount of lossy compression, resulting in better quality.

Compared to DVD (which has a peak audio+video bandwidth of 10.08 Mb/s), both HD DVD and Blu-ray offer much better bandwidth: 30.24 Mb/s for HD DVD and 48.0 Mb/s for Blu-ray (dedicated video bandwidth is 29.4 Mb/s and 40.0 Mb/s respectively). So, Blu-ray handily has the upper hand here, too.

Arguably less important technical features include support for Picture in Picture (PIP), and Internet connectivity. Support for these features has been mandatory for HD DVD since day one, but only option for Blu-ray. That said, PIP support will be mandatory for all Blu-ray players launched after October 31 2007. Internet connectivity will still be optional for these so-called Profile 1.1 players, but is mandatory for players claiming to be Profile 2.0 compliant. So, advantage to HD DVD, although that advantage will be much reduced starting in November. Note that although HD DVD players must have an Ethernet port, nothing requires that these players are actually connected to the Internet. (I don't have network connectivity in my TV rack; do you?)

Blu-ray also mandates the use of a hard, anti-scratch coating on discs, making them very durable. Advantage Blu-ray.

Blu-ray unfortunately carries the idea of "Regions" over from DVD; all HD DVD platers are Region free. Advantage HD DVD, although it should be noted that several studios demanded support for Region encoding which is why it is part of the Blu-ray feature set. Also, the BDA has stipulated that only the first pressing of a movie can be region coded. Subsequent runs must be region free; many older titles are also region free, so (much as I hate region encoding) the situation on Blu-ray doesn't seem as dire as it could be.

Summarising the above: each format has its pros and cons, but purely from a technical point of view, Blu-ray is indisputebly the superior format. I don't think anyone who compares the technical specs with an open mind can think otherwise.

Of course, home movie viewing requires two things: a player and a disc to play. In other words, a format needs support from CEs for the players, and studios for the discs (movies) themselves. A player without movies is as useless as a disc without a player. This is where it starts getting interesting.

At the time of writing, HD DVD players are available from Toshiba and Microsoft (the latter being an add-on for the Xbox360). Onkyo has announced an HD DVD player due out in the next couple of months, but that is reportedly a rebadged Toshiba... Blu-ray players are available from Sony, Samsung, Pioneer, Philips, and Panasonic. Models from Denon and Sharp have been announced. So, consumers have much more choice when it comes to Blu-ray players than they do HD DVD players. I'm always a fan of competition, so advantage Blu-ray.

But what about the movies? HD DVD is supported by Warner Bros., Paramount, and Universal (the latter is an HD DVD exclusive). Blu-ray is supported by Warner Bros., Paramount, Disney, Fox, and Sony Pictures, of which Disney, Fox, and Sony (and their subsidiaries) are Blu-ray exclusive. So advantage Blu-ray, which arguably has more content availablity.

Blu-ray is technically superiror, has a greater choice of players, and has the support of more studios. So why is there a format war (at least in North America)?

HD DVD players were available months before the first Blu-ray player, which was also plagued with problems. Some of the early Blu-ray releases (most notably The Fifth Element) were also less than ideal, so Blu-ray got off to a shakey start while HD DVD justifiably started out well. (Sony have since redemed themselves by issuing a much-improved remastered version of The Fifth Element, and will replace all earlier versions for free.)

Early Blu-ray players were also very much more expensive than HD DVD players (even today, HD DVD players are cheaper than their Blu-ray counterparts), the cheapest one being $1000 US. Then, in November 2006, the shit hit the fan. Sony released their much-anticipated PS3, which used Blu-ray as its software medium. The PS3 also had the distinction of being hundreds of dollars less than other Blu-ray players, so it quickly became the biggest selling Blu-ray player. By February 2007, total Blu-ray movie sales passed HD DVD's, and so far this year, Blu-ray has outsold HD DVD every single week.

This is where I start getting speculative. People only have so much disposable income, so early adopters who bought into HD DVD don't want to see that investment go to waste. Hence they continue to support HD DVD (though many have also acquired Blu-ray players, senseing the end for HD DVD is nigh). Other factions, mostly gamers it seems, support HD DVD because they detest Sony. Fair enough, but if they like movies, why don't they buy a Blu-ray player from one of the other CEs? Admittedly, Sony still get some royalties on those players, but I'm pretty sure that those Sony bashers listen to CDs. Are they even aware that Sony co-developed CD, and therefore gets royalties on every CD player and disc sold?

So, Sony hatred is one reason that the format war drags on. Some people have suggested that the format war is a good thing, because it encourages competition and gets prices down. I agree: the format war was useful. But the time of its utility has passed: many potential high def player buyers are waiting for the war to end before they purchase, for fear of buying into the losing format. IMO, the format war is now harming the market by keeping it artificially small.

Some people advocate that both formats can survive side by side. I think this is wrong. There has recently been a (lower profile) high def audio format war, with SACD on one side and DVD-A on the other. The situation was much the same as it is now (although the split was nearer 50:50 for software and hardware, and universal players became quite prevalent): neither side wanted to give up, and most people sat on the sidelines until a winner was declared.

The result was that neither format gained mass-market acceptance, and both have essentially been relegated to niche status. In other words, neither format won, they're both dead, and consequently we're still listening to low res 16/42 CDs when we could be enjoying a high def 24/192 format. I really don't want the same thing to happen to high def video, so the sooner the war is declared over, the better. With the onslaught of titles coming up between now and Christmas, Blu-ray has a very good chance of winning. If you're considering getting into high def movies, I strongly recommend you buy into Blu-ray. Yes, HD DVD is much better than DVD, but why settle for second best? It's rare than the best technology wins, but in this case, the best technology (Blu-ray) has a real chance of winning!

If you bought into HD DVD in the past, you have my condolances. You probably bought them when the outcome of the war was truely up in the air, so you made your best bet. But I can't for the life of me understand why anyone would buy into HD DVD now. Blu-ray is outselling HD DVD by more than 2:1 (and that ratio is increasing), and I'd say the former has a 99% chance of winning the war, so why buy into the losing side? Buy into Blu-ray, and lets get this stupid war over and done with! (Incidentally, Blu-ray sales are even further ahead of HD DVD's elsewhere in the world, almost to the point that as far as their concerned there is no format war (Blu-ray has already won), or if there is, it's a State-side phenomenom only.)

Some pro-HD DVD people point to the cheaper players, claiming that HD DVD is the cheaper format. Bit of a shame the average HD DVD movie price is more than the Blu-ray one, isn't it? Over time, HD DVD is the more expensive format!

Well, FWIW, I've said my piece. I've no doubt that this article will get ripped to shreds by HD DVD FUD spreaders. In case it isn't obvious, when funds permit, I'll be buying a Blu-ray player.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Second PAM article published

The second article in my series about PAM has been published on SDN. In it, I introduce PAM and some of the API functions.

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Why I hate watching movies on TV

I love watching movies, but I (as a rule) hate watching them on TV. Why? There are three reasons (in no particular order):

  • They're not shown in their original aspect ration (OAR), which means that I miss almost half the movie. To add insult to injury, many channels put up the disclaimer "This film has been reformatted to fit this TV". Well, the last time I checked, I had a widescreen TV, so reformatting the picture to 4:3 does nothing for me. I want to see the movie as the director originally intended. If that means I get some black bars, so be it.
  • Adult language is altered, or just dubbed out. If I'm watching an adult-orientated movie, I want to hear everything, OK? Hearing Samual L. Jackson calling people "Melon Farmers" just doesn't cut it for me! Worse, many channels put up warnings "This show contains scenes of violence and course language. Viewer discretion is advised", and still delete the swearing. Now, I think those warnings are great, because they let viewers know that they might not like the content. But having issued the warnings, the least the networks can do is show the movie sans dubs.
  • Adverts really get on my nerves. Not only do they interrupt the flow of the movie, the also mean that most films are edited for time. Fortunately, I watch most stuff in "time slip" mode (think Tivo), so the commercials are easily skipped.

    The above are the main reasons why I tend not to watch movies on TV, and have a reasonably large DVD collection. But I've more or less stopped buying DVDs now because I see a high definition player in my (hopefully not-too-distant) future. I'll expand on my reasons in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that I'll be getting a player.