My Opinions on HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray

I have been watching developments in the High Definition arena for a while, and thought I’d write about my thoughts regarding the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray topic.  I can’t help thinking back to the Betamax vs. VHS war of the eighties, which reminds us all the best technical option doesn’t always win.  Betamax was clearly the better technology, with better picture and sound quality, and smaller more elegant tapes, but that meant little when you went to video store and there were only 20 or so Betamax movies, and shelves and shelves of VHS copies.  My family used to have a Betamax top loader when I was a kid, but we eventually bought a VHS just so we could rent videos.  Sad, but true.

Sony’s Betamax format was eventually abandoned entirely, as the market decided which format would win.  I have read articles that say there is room in the world for two HD formats, but I’m not so sure.  I dread the day when I walk into my local video store and have to go to the Blu-ray or HD-DVD shelves and make sure I get the correct format.  It will be much worse for my mother or someone not as in-the-know about this technology who will get home with the wrong disc format, and will feel very frustrated.  I think one will emerge as dominant, but which one?

Here in South Africa, there is no issue as yet, since neither format is available, and very few people even have displays capable of true high definition, so we may be spared the initial fighting and eventually only have one format available locally.  I hope we don’t have to wait that long though, since the HD content I have seen so far, is awesome.

I’m not a big Sony fan, but I do admit that they do make good quality products.  I think that years of great success have gone to their heads, and now they think they can dictate standards and push consumers (most who know no better) in directions that aren’t in the consumers’ best interest.  This article ISN’T a Sony bash, so please don’t think it is.  Sony is the chief driving force behind the Blu-Ray format at the moment, but they are not the only ones responsible for it, and it is a great technology.  It has huge promise, but I don’t believe it will work in the film delivery market, which is where they are currently fighting.  Sony (and the rest of the Blu-Ray consortium) has made some strange decisions with regard to Blu-Ray, many of which I cannot fathom.  I will go into more detail on this a bit later.

I’m going to start with the technical specs of the actual disc format.  From a purely technical standpoint, I believe Blu-Ray is the better technology for the following reasons:

Capacity:

The capacity of the BD discs will be greater than that of HD-DVD.  BD supports 25GB per layer whereas HD-DVD only supports 15GB per layer.  Blu-Ray still has some technical difficulty getting reliable dual-layer discs, and none have been released yet.  The single layer discs seem to be working well though, although they only have 25GB versus HD-DVD’s 30GB dual layer format which is available now.  I’m sure they’ll sort these issues out soon though.

Speed:

Read speed (and I would assume write speed) of a 1x BD drive is faster than 1x HD-DVD drive.  It is fairly marginal, but with capacities of over 30GB, every extra MB/sec helps.

For the two reasons stated above, I believe BD is an excellent high volume data distribution medium.  Once 50GB per disc is available, and is reliable, there will be no cheaper and easier way to ship such large volumes.

The current controversy is not, however, about data distribution.  It’s about Movie and entertainment distribution.  In this arena, I firmly believe HD-DVD is the better option, by far.  I will explain why below:

Reliability:

Blu-Ray has the data layers of the disc much closer to the outer layer than is the case with HD-DVD.  This makes is very susceptible to scratching and being rendered unusable by careless handling.  Early BD discs were shipped in a cartridge, which nobody likes, but at least they were better protected. Herewith comes up the first of Sony’s unfathomable decisions.  Why oh why, put a Blu-Ray drive in the PS3 and insist that all PS3 games be distributed only on BD discs.  Kids are going to annihilate these fragile discs.  They better have a very good disc replacement policy when PS3 launches.  HD-DVD on the other hand, is about as fragile as a standard DVD today, since it is manufactured in much the same way.  Still not very hardy, but way more resilient than BD.  TDK developed a polymer coating called Durabis, which they claim toughens the discs substantially.  I’m sceptical; we’ll have to see how well this works.

Cost:

Blue-Ray is a completely different technology to current generation DVD.  While I fully support leaving legacy behind to pursue better solutions, I also can’t ignore that new technology is expensive.  HD-DVD is more of an evolution of DVD than a completely new technology.  DVD manufacturing plants can be upgraded to support HD-DVD production, which is relatively cheap, compared to the complete change of process and systems Blu-Ray is going to require.  This cost will have to be recovered somehow, and unfortunately for BD, it will be recovered from the individual disc cost.  Unfathomable decision number two.  Why increase the cost of PS3 games by putting them on much expensive media?  If any game coming out in the next 3 to 4 years needs more than 8GB of storage, then maybe the programmers should go on a “How to avoid Bloatware” course.  The only reason I can see is if they have actual filmed HD cut scenes that last an hour or two.

The other major cost factor is the devices that will read these discs.  In the USA, you can walk into a store and pick up an HD-DVD player for $500.  A similar Blue-ray device will cost $1000.  Whoa!  That is a lot.  Unfathomable question number three.  Why push the price of the PS3 way up by including a component very few people will actually use?  I bet most people buying a PS3 will do so so their children can play games.  Why force them to spend a lot of extra money on such a high end (and unproven) technology.  I personally think this is unfair of Sony.  It should be an optional extra.  Sony has admitted that the PS3 has been delayed due to Blu-ray problems.  Duh.  Drop it and give the Playstation fans a new console that just works and won’t cost the earth!

Backward Compatibility:

HD-DVD players can all read standard DVD’s as well.  As far as I know, Blu-ray isn’t compatible with standard DVD, but this may change as players get better.  However, HD-DVD has one more trump card up its sleeve.  Hybrid Discs.  Hybrid discs are dual sided HD-DVDs that have a standard DVD on one side, and HD-DVD on the other.  This is brilliant!  Now movies can be released and sold and consumers who have yet to take the HD plunge can know that these discs are 100% future proof.  This is brilliant, and a solution I am very impressed with.

MPEG-2 Encoding:

Both BD and HD-DVD players support 3 types of compression.  Uncompressed HD content at 1080p comes in at around 1 Gb/sec, which is a lot.  Advanced compression is obviously needed to fit this onto a 30GB disk.  Microsoft has developed the VC-1 encoding system, which is a brand new and highly advanced compression system which gives awesome quality with very high compression ratios.  HD-DVD content can also be compressed in H.264/AVC or the old familiar MPEG-2. HD-DVD uses VC-1 almost exclusively since it gives the best picture quality by far.  Blu-Ray, although the players must support all three codecs, went ahead and chose to use the 10 year old MPEG-2 codec.  Unfathomable question number four.  Why?  VC-1 is roughly twice (sometimes more) efficient than MPEG-2.

Perception:

Everybody knows about DVD.  It is a household word which nobody is confused about.  “HD-DVD is just like DVD but better right?  Never heard of Blu-ray.”  I predict this will be Joe Public’s standard thought pattern when faced with a format choice.  Things may work out differently, but I suspect the DVD name will hold a lot of weight with consumers.

iHD vs. Java:

This is more a personal dislike of all things Java based on my own experiences.  The interactive components of HD-DVD are based on a set of technologies called iHD.  Blu-Ray uses a Java based system called BD-J, meaning a Java VM is included in each Blu-Ray player.  I’m no fan of Java, but as I said, this is more personal than anything else.

I think the basic answer to all the unfathomable questions I posed above is money.  Sony wants Blu-Ray to succeed badly.  Very badly.  After losing the Betamax battle, maybe they are still a bit bruised.  By including Blu-Ray with the PS3 they are taking a big gamble that could push customers away due to the high price, but at the same time, they are guaranteeing good market penetration, which could be the blow BD needs to win.

The MPEG-2 question is also easily answered with money.  Since Microsoft own the patents for VC-1, they are getting licensing fees for every disc produced.  Similarly, Sony own over 170 patents on MPEG-2, effectively negating the effect of royalties.  BD will need the extra capacity to ensure competitive picture quality with MPEG-2 over VC-1, although early releases using only a single layer will be worse than the equivalent HD-DVD.

I have not seen HD-DVD or Blu-Ray movies on a true 1080p HD screen as yet, so these comments are based on my own research on this topic and personal opinions.  I would be very interested to hear any opinions and comments on this.

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