I’ve written here before about the format war that is slowly heating up between Blu-Ray and HD DVD. Briefly these are two competing formats of next generation DVD, which both use blue laser technology to enable far higher storage capacity on a single disc, allowing them to contain high definition content. Each can hold a full movie in high def, which is 6 times the resolution of a regular DVD and takes advantage of that shiny new HDTV so many people now have. While each player also plays regular DVDs, neither works with the other flavor of HD format. Blu-ray is backed principally by Sony, while HD DVD is largely backed by Toshiba, although each has it’s other corporate backers.
This ‘format war’ is just getting started, and is not likely to be decided anytime soon. Each format has it’s supporters among gadget geeks and HD enthusiasts… often at shouting levels (or ALL CAPS in the various HD forums out in cyberland). What is it about human nature that causes us to takes sides on everything? Regardless, there is a lot of misinformation out there spread by either the misinformed, ignorant or those seeking to undermine the ‘enemy’ for some twisted reason. One of the biggest offenders are the ‘experts’ at your local big box electronic stores like Best Buy. These people are told to push their product, and if they have a big stack of unsold Blu-Ray layers, then that day Blu-Ray is the better choice. You get the idea.
So, in the spirit of truth, justice and the protection of the Great American Pastime of sitting on our asses watching TV, here are some common myths and misinformation floating around that need debunking or clarification:
1. One format’s picture looks better than the other
FALSE. The differences between the two formats lie in the wavelength of the blue laser they use, the depth at which the information is stored on the disk and a few other technological specs. The information stored on the disk is the same. A movie in high definition is a movie in high definition. Properly hooked up and calibrated, there is zero difference between a Blu-Ray and HD DVD movie in terms of picture. Some movies have better transfers to hi def than others, but that is the studio’s responsibility. All things being equal, the pictures are exactly the same.
2. Only 1080p resolution players deliver true HD picture, so you need a 1080p TV and player.
FALSE. Television is measured by horizontal lines of resolution. A standard DVD has 480 lines of resolution, while high definition DVDs have either 720 or 1080 lines. Either are considered a high definition picture. TVs also accept signals in either interlaced or progressive format. An interlaced signal means the lines on your TV screen appear in alternation. First the even lines are shown (2,4,6 etc), then the odd lines. They are displayed so fast that your eye cannot see the flicker of them alternating, and you have the illusion of a full picture. This is the way TV has been shown since it’s invention. Progressive signals show all the lines in order, with no skipping or flickering. HD signals are in both flavors and resolutions, 720i, 720p, 1080i and 1080p. A lot of people want to make a big deal out of “true” 1080p signals, but the truth is that your HDTV has a built in “deinterlacer”, which takes an interlaced signal and interpolates it using various methods to create a progressive picture. The result is that the human eye cannot distinguish between a 1080i or 1080p picture when properly deinterlaced.
Most people will be quite happy with a 720p HDTV. In fact it’s difficult to tell the difference between a 1080p and 720p picture on all but a very large TV. If you are planning on buying a 46″ or less HDTV, 720 would be perfect for you. If you are getting over 50″ or especially if you are getting a projector, then 1080p would make a difference.
3. One format’s audio quality is better than the other
TRUE BUT FALSE. Sound in films also take up room on the disk, and as such compression technology has been used for years to make the sound fit with the video on a disk (the video is also compressed, for that matter). Compressed sound is called LOSSY sound, and uncompressed sound is called LOSSLESS. The higher capacity of HD disks mean that less compression and therefore better sound formats are able to be used. New sound formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD provide incredible sound to go with the incredible picture.
Because Blu-Ray has a higher capacity for storage than HD DVD (on a dual layer, BR has 50 GB to HD DVD’s 30 GB), Blu-Ray has enough room to put more lossless soundtracks on their disks, while HD DVD needs to still use some kind of compression for it’s sound. Technically lossless is better sound than lossy, but in the real world there is no difference. The human ear can only discern so much, and the kind of audio equipment you’d need to realize the almost indistinguishable difference is so expensive very few people even have the opportunity to compare the two. Anybody who brags that they can tell the difference between a lossy HD soundtrack and a lossless one is either lying or has ears that make Superman look like Marlee Matlin.
All HD DVD players and some Blu-Ray players have decoders built in to decode the different HD sound formats and output them to your receiver as multitrack PCM sound, so you don’t need to by a new receiver in most cases… a bonus.
4. Hi Def disk players are expensive
FALSE. Not compared to what regular DVD players cost at the same time in their development. Today you can get a DVD player for less than $100, but back when they were only two years into the technology they were well over $500. Blu-Ray players are still around that price, but HD DVD players are under $300 right now. This holiday season expect to see Blu-Ray players at under $400 and HD DVD players under $200. Prices will only continue to drop.
5. Hi Def disks are expensive
TRUE. Most Blu-Ray and HD DVD disks retail for over $30, while you can get standard new release DVDs for under $25.
6. This holiday season will decide the format war
FALSE. Very unlikely, at least. This format war is just getting started. Consider this: the HD DVD camp was crowing last week about the release of “Transformers” being the biggest success for a single high def format film yet, selling almost 200,000 HD DVDs in the first week. On standard DVD, “Transformers” sold over 8 million copies in the same week. Hi def is still a small niche market. The availability of cheaper HD players and the sale of more HDTVs driven in part by the increase in hi def programming on both cable and satellite TV will make some progress on the war this holiday season, but I suspect it will be at a minimum next holiday season, and more likely 2009 before we see the winner emerge.
7. There will be a clear winner to this format war
DEBATABLE. I personally believe there will be one dominant format eventually. Which one is totally up in the air, despite the clams of both sides. I do not think this will go the way of the SACD vs. DVD-Audio, a format war to be the next gen CD where both failed and ended up being small, niche formats. These formats were incompatible as well, and each offered much superior sound to regular CDs. However consumers never really cared and refused to buy the players or disks to replace their standard CDs.
That will not happen to the hi def format wars for several reasons. First, consumers proved that better sound is not a important to them with music as convenient portability. MP3 sound is not as good as CD, but the iPod became a smash success even though it offered a poorer sound than CDs, let alone the next gen format. Second, never underestimate the power of the couch potato… at least in this country it’s a sport to stare at your TV screen for hours a day, so picture quality (and neighborhood bragging rights) are more important to consumers than how good their Alan Jackson CDs sound. Third, cable and satellite TV are offering more and more HD content, and as their customers by HDTVs to take advantage of it they will naturally want to get disk players to take advantage of them… radio did not provide the same incentive for music lovers. No, there is no comparison there.
Eventually there will be a single dominant HD disk format. Which it will be is anyone’s guess. Personally I believe it will be HD DVD, but it’s way too early to say for sure. Time will tell, and the wallets of Joe Six Pack, of course.
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