I’d like to elaborate on my first post of the year, which is now relegated to a placeholder for my first lie of the year. My purpose here is to put forth some facts, perspective, opinion, and some predictions. This was probably going to be that first post, but I was still suffering from the New Year hangover. No, not from alcohol, but from the same hangover that any parents have after surviving a Christmas season with a 5 year-old and driving almost 1500 miles. So here are my thoughts on this "format war".
I’ll first disclose that I went with HD-DVD, and I also wrote about this before and proclaimed that HD-DVD will triumph. Well, I’m now ready to switch my vote, at least to the extent that Blu-ray can win this war. Obviously something or things have swayed me to see the blue camp emerge as victor. Was it the announcement that Warner (and with it, New Line Cinema) has decided to go Blu-ray exclusive? Partly. However, there are other writings on various walls that help the decision along.
Here’s the real news. It’s really no big deal, at least not for average consumers, who are NOT caring in droves! Obviously they will care at some point though, and that point is getting nearer with HDTV’s going into more and more homes. But, to their credit most consumers have been waiting, and Blu-ray or HD-DVD players have not been coming home along with the HDTV’s. Now that I’ve called the consumers smart, let me say that they have come to this smart decision to wait, with faulty logic. They are looking to that all too familiar historical format war, VHS vs. Betamax and saying "I’m not getting stuck with a loser." Well that’s wrong when it comes to this war. The losers will be the companies, and not the consumers, that back the losing format, or rather the one that gets absorbed.
Absorbed? Que? What I mean is, unlike the VHS vs. Beta situation, the losing format’s discs will just move to another player that is compatible, and it’s already happening. The LG company is leading the way in this aspect of the battle. They were one of the first to come out with a dual-format player that played both discs. You see this format war is much more akin to the DVD+R vs. DVD-R war. You remember that one right? It was in all the papers. OK, maybe not. It was resolved rather early on. In case you missed the distinction, DVD "plus R" and DVD "minus R" are two incompatible formats of writable DVD media. Both camps touted their strengths and abilities. But somewhere along the way somebody built one of those drives, and eventually a writable drive, that supported both. War over.
Now originally I went with HD-DVD because I was betting against Sony, who has proven that they can screw up, a lot (read my post from July 2006 for the list of abandoned Sony formats). What I didn’t weigh as much were the other backers of the Blu-ray format, Panasonic (who beat out Sony in the VHS/Beta war), Apple, Dell, Samsung and Pioneer. All of them are going up against, essentially, Toshiba and Microsoft. Intel and HP are in there too, but HP is hedging by including Blu-ray drives in their PCs. HD-DVD support also includes movie studios such as Paramount, Dreamworks, and Universal. Now, one of them, Warner/New Line, has defected to Blu-ray, and that is big. Paramount did support both, but they made an announcement of HD-DVD exclusivity (that’s when people thought the war was won by HD-DVD. Silly isn’t it?). That’s not as big news as a defection.
I also went with HD-DVD specifically because of the Stanley Kubrick films, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, were all coming out in HD-DVD only (they are Warner movies). Many others that are desirable to me, like Blade Runner, are available on both formats. Another of my desired films is The Fifth Element, and that is Blu-ray only. I was waiting for either Blu-ray to fail miserably as this is a Sony Pictures release, or wait for it to come out on HD-DVD after Sony ran away with its tail between its legs. Not a very likely scenario from the outset, and even less likely now.
What’s the history behind the war? Well I won’t go into details, but in many respects it was a mini-war between Sun, who wanted Java-based code included for interactive features, and Microsoft, who wanted their code to be used. To get more info on the war and the specs take a look at the Wikipedia articles on HD-DVD and Blu-ray. I’ll have lots more to say about high definition video (including what exactly it is), and the formats that are being used to bring it to us, in future posts.
I’ll leave you all with a few facts, opinions, suggestions, and general wisdom(?).
- Blu-ray has always done the better job of acting like the superior technology. There is no perceptible difference between HD-DVD and Blu-ray. They both look the same – which can be described as great. A current Blu-ray ad has a man making a statement something like this – "I have friends who have HD-DVD players, and it’s nice and all, but Blu-ray knocks it out of the box". BS. There are technical differences with both formats, but again, to the average consumer there is no difference. You should also be aware that there are differences within the formats between the movies themselves. Take the movie Blazing Saddles for instance. The movie was made in 1974, before digital was even a word, at least to Hollywood. The HD-DVD version is sharper than the DVD version (I have both), but the film grain keeps it from looking as high-def as other movies out there like Serenity, which had the advantage of doing a direct digital transfer. Having said that, even with the highest quality transfers to the new formats, some people don’t really see much of a difference between DVD and the high-def versions of movies, or at least not enough to get excited about it.
- Which leads to this next point, both HD-DVD and Blu-ray players play regular DVDs. OK, that statement may have been obvious to some, but it’s another reason why the comparison to the VHS/Beta war is inaccurate. Even if you get stuck with the "losing" format, the player will still play DVDs. Maybe not much consolation, but it’s something. Also these next-gen players are the best up-scaling DVD players available. That means they make your current DVD collection look great.
- Oh and do I need to say that the quality of your display device needs to be adequate to really see the difference. You don’t need to run out and buy a display with 1080p. What’s that? Well, suffice is to say that 1080p is the most overrated specification in the industry right now. It’s kind of like the megapixels in digital cameras. The more you have the better right? Well not necessarily. It’s the quality of the optics, the size and quality of the chip capturing the digital signal, etc. Same goes for displays. Plasma and LCD panels do not have to support 1080p to give you a great picture. For all intents and purposes, there is no difference between 1080i and 1080p.
- HD-DVD inexplicably hasn’t yet released (as of January 2008) a burner that you can add to an existing computer system. They’ve announced ones, but after a year still haven’t shipped in any real quantities. You can order Toshiba laptops with them, but that’s it right now. Blu-ray is on their second and third generations of burners. Remember, these new formats aren’t just about video. They are also about storage. People want storage in the ranges of 25-30GB, and Blu-ray is kicking HD-DVD’s butt on this one.
- When an inexpensive dual format player exists all this hullabaloo will die. People will buy into high def DVD’s when the price point hits each individual’s sweet spot, and when they get an HDTV. Once consumers realize that a disc from either camp will play on a single player, the high-def disc cruise ship will leave the harbor.
- Finally, consumers are going to get smarter about HD content. Much of it will come from other sources namely the Internet in the form of independent, alternative content (and free?), and online rentals. Also, I watch a lot of content on my cable system. It’s only going to get better and more plentiful and varied and wonderfully higher definition. Until the next higher definition format comes along. You think I’m kidding look at SED, OLED and 4K.
Photo by Samanathon